Riot on Campus

An analysis of two books on girl culture

By Janine Amin

Girl Zines: making media doing feminism
by Alison Piepmeier, New York University Press, 2009, 249 pages

The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America
by Michelle Tea, Semiotext(e), 2007, 191 pages


The most fervid pushes for equality are often the most alienating. Take the riot grrrl movement, the American-led charge that reclaimed cuteness by lining it with ferocity. Like the suffragettes in the 1860s and the second-wave feminists a century on, riot grrrls weren’t taken seriously in their time. And it wasn’t until very recently that they were recognized by academia at all. In Girl Zines: making media doing feminism, author Alison Piepmeier defends the grrrl ethos with a scholarly take that points to the movement as a key part of feminist history; one that enabled women to gain more presence in a male-dominated world, albeit through flimsy, phantasmagorical photocopies passed around in the 1990s. Here Piepmeier brings forth a local study that, whether you agree with it or not, steadfastly lodges zine culture into the feminist archive.

Riot grrrl theorizing was slow to emerge from its early inception in Olympia, Washington due to what Piepmeier considers a limited scope that only acknowledged two types of feminists: the “at-risk girl” who is a victim of oppressive culture, and the “can-do girl” who is an agent of success in late capitalism. She says this two-dimensional way of thinking, “constructs a distorted picture of girls and women and their relationship to culture.” Piepmeier argues women experience both agency and victimization simultaneously, so the polarizing “fuck-me” feminists and radicals missed out on the diversity of a contemporary feminist dialectic.

Looking at the limitations of print versus online, Piepmeier notes that the highly personal nature of zines characterized not just by content but also by physicality, make them more emotionally resonant with their readership than blogs. And unlike blogs that are open to attacks from anonymous comment sections, readers exercise more sensitivity toward handcrafted zines due to what zine-maker Ayun Halliday says is, “a kind of corporeal connection, one that brings together the body of the zine creator and the body of the reader.” This also speaks to the formation of community, another action which Piepmeier believes benefited from the physical exchange of writing. She states: “Identities are not merely internal but are locational, shaped by connections, and as such, they depend on the public world and some kind of community in order to be formed.”

Could grrrl zines have come up with a new framework for social activism? Piepmeier thinks so. Unlike previous feminist movements, they used the enemy tactics of capitalism in their work. Since zines are as disposable as consumer culture, they are also as insidiously available. Bikini Kill echoed the potential in screwing with Ronald Reagan’s promotion of gluttonous consumerism in their first zine: “…we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.”

Piepmeier suggests zines need a new origin story. She counters the concept that they descended from Dada and prefers the view that they developed out of feminist lit. China Martens elevates the welfare mom to pinup girl status in her zine The Future Generation while Sara McCarry’s Glossolalia explores capitalism’s acquiescence to neoliberalism. Piepmeier also examines narrative, probing Halliday’s East Village Inky in which “the reader’s eyes are forced to move around in different ways than the normal linear print narrative demands.” She also weaves numerous ties between weighty literary works and zinesters’ photocopied rants. She mentions William Glass’ fondness for the detritus shaken out of his copy of Treasure Island, and Audre Lorde’s praise for difference — also central to girl zine culture — as something that can unite girls of very different stripes in a single fortified movement.

“Fuck You World, I am Femme”
– Neely Bat Chestnut

Given the tangential relationships Piepmeier develops between high literature and the disposable zine, it’s interesting to then look at Michelle Tea’s debut novel The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America. Tea emerged out of a long history of queer zine production with works like Alien Probe and Bitch Queen. In this new autobiographical narrative she recounts a youth similar to her own spent initially in Boston and later in Tucson, Arizona. Her pared-down dialogue imbued with refined insight sets this book in league with great lesbian writer Eileen Myles, with whom Tea has collaborated.

Tea’s retelling of zine culture, replete with cool, quiet goths and terrorizing skinheads with their uncared for babies, spirals toward an emotionally draining core: the transition from heterosexuality to lesbianism. After breaking up with her boyfriend, the narrator introduces her new girlfriend to her desperately traditional mom who is glad to see her girlfriend has long hair. She is quick to recover from dealing with her family’s awkward gender role adjustment. Speaking of her coming-out era the narrator states: “I felt indescribably perfect.” And later, “I was enjoying myself too much to attend to the more complicated aspects of being a sexual minority.”

Tea attacks the day-to-day with zealous detail: walking through parking lots drunk on vodka; getting photographed by the tourists impressed by freaks and loitering on the library steps with punks and pre-fame New Kids on the Block. The point of all this is the inevitable radicalizing that prompts statements such as one in which the narrator reflects on a relationship with Tania, a woman interested in marketing: “I am an enemy of advertising, of corporations, I am an enemy of the entire notion of careers and as Tania continued to speak I realized I was probably an enemy of Tania.”

Scholastic attention to girl zines is relatively new. For many, the grrrl aesthetic is a turn-off. While researching this subject I spoke with a man who believes the term grrrl is an admission of a handicap. In the afterword to Tea’s book, Eileen Myles offers a good rebuke for this kind of sentiment: “The point of sex here is not to excite but to exert one’s power over shame.” This seems analogous to zine production, which provides a forum to those who otherwise might not have one. The riot grrrl movement would have little concrete history without zines. With books like those of Piepmeier and Tea, the grrrl mentality is accessible to future feminists who deserve a full picture of their lineage that reveals the gaps they need to fill.