By Marissa Lorusso
In many societies, the power of the written word is unequally distributed: access to literacy and literature, along with editing, publishing, and distribution don’t always fall into the hands of marginalized communities.
In punk and feminist circles, one thing that helps flip this inequity on its head is zines. For the uninitiated, zines can be understood as “any self-published, self-printed body of textual or visual work,” as Suzy Exposito, a writer, artist, and zine-maker living in Brooklyn, explains (2015). In the 2001 article “Grrrl Zine Networks: Re-Composing Spaces of Authority, Gender, and Culture,” Michelle Comstack describes zines as containing a mix of genres, including personal stories, poetry, essays, and rants (385). They also usually include a visual element: photos, illustrations, collages, and the like. Most zines are printed black-and-white and hand-assembled; this do-it-yourself aspect is a core part of the zine aesthetic. Comstack explains it as reappropriation of “mainstream marketing structures” (395), almost a manner of satirizing the classic capitalist strategies that often serve to oppress marginalized communities and using them for the communities’ own gain. Zines allow anyone with something to say — and access to some paper and a printer — to put their words out there in the world.
As Elke Zobl explains in her 2009 article, “Cultural Production, Transnational Networking, and Critical Reflection in Feminist Zines,” zines have a history of being counter-cultural, and of trying to give voice to the otherwise unheard. They also have a distinctly geeky past: In the 1930s, the first proto-zines started to spring up, mostly related to science fiction fandom. Then, in the 1970s, the twin births of punk rock and photocopiers gave zines new life (Zobl 2009:2-3).
It was the in 1990s, however, when zines really started to take off in connection with the riot grrrl movement (Zobl 3). Riot grrrl attempted to center the experiences and expressions of women through brash, loud, punk rock music, as women had been marginalized from the punk scene since it started in the 1970s in the US and UK. Riot grrrl zines were explicitly feminist, and stood in marked contrast to traditional print media and magazines that often replicated patriarchal structures (5). Riot grrrls — like the famed Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill, who published a zine of the same name— used zines to express their frustration with the overwhelmingly patriarchal, sex-negative, classist punk scene (and general society) in which they found themselves.
Zines may have emerged out of punk and riot grrrl, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve stayed there. “People have a habit of tying zines to punk culture,” Exposito says, “which just isn’t accurate. Do you know how utterly boring that would be?!” (2015). Cynthia Anne Schemmer, a writer living in Philadelphia, agrees, saying that she has “always felt that zines are for outcasts. They aren’t exclusively tied to punk, but they are definitely punk by nature” (2015). Plus, she explains, zines “are a way to spread ideas outside of the mainstream, to create an underground media, to elevate voices that often go unheard” (2015).
Punk rock has the reputation of being an incredibly white, male, straight space; and, even when riot grrrl made room for women in the punk community, it didn’t necessarily open up space for women of color or queer women. While zines are considered to be part of this mostly-straight, mostly-white space, that does not mean that women of color and queer women have not contributed impressively to this movement. Zines like Mimi Nguyen’s “Evolution of a Race Riot” (1997) and the later “Race Riot 2” (2002) featured collections of politically-charged writing from communities of color that challenged perceptions of zines as a white medium. Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan’s “Bamboo Girl” zine in the 1990s also prominently featured — and was created specifically for — women of color within the punk and alternative communities.
Exposito says this perceived whiteness gave her an initial distrust for zines. “I was pretty turned off by how few zines I saw written by Latinas or people of color,” she said, joking that she instead found “too many zines by conventionally attractive white women who brag about not shaving, stuff like that” (2015). After reaching out to zinesters (a common word for people who make zines) of color, however, she became more interested in making them herself. Exposito is now the author of five zines, including her “Malcriada” series about being a second generation Latina in the US, and “The Mallgoth Chronicles,” which archive her middle school diaries.
For second-wave feminists, the idea that “the personal is political” was central, Schemmer explains, and this is “really applicable in terms of zines” Having evolved out of the punk and riot grrrl movement, zines offer a space for those without access to traditional sources of publication to make themselves heard. “People of color and the disenfranchised need alternative outlets,” says Schemmer. She acknowledges that zines are not the only answer to this problem, “because in reality these are the voices that need to be inserted into the mainstream and they need to be the loudest.” But, she argues, zines “offer a safe and uncensored space” for these voices, which is part of what makes them a powerful medium (2015).
The rise of the Internet helped self-published work hit the mainstream at an exponential pace. But rather than diminish the relevance of handmade, DIY outlets like zines, the Internet has broaden the reach of zines even further. Zine makers are able to reach new audiences, and zine readers are able to seek out publications that affirm their feelings or broaden their horizons. Exposito was able to publish her “Mallgoth Chronicles” as a combination of digital and physical work by hosting some of the content on tumblr while also publishing a physical version of the book. Exposito also cites the work of Nia King — who runs an online podcast called We Want The Airwaves that focuses on queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) who are artists, and has recently published a book of interviews with QTPOC — with helping connect her to the larger QTPOC artist culture.
Furthermore, most zines are inherently tactile and handmade products, which helps them stand in a powerful contrast to the Internet. Schemmer explains that “zines are more than just a click on a link. You have to do the work with yours hands to create them.” Holding a zine means acknowledging the personal, physical work of creation, which can be a precious commodity in a time of digital media. Likewise, their analog nature means they are inherently communal: “the reader has to find them, order them online, or go to a zine fest to experience them,” Schemmer says. She says this “tangibility of the medium and the connection with the creator” are part of what drew her — and many others — to zine-making. In contrast to the Internet, she explains, “Zines have always been, by nature, about community. You can make lasting pen pals through zine trading. You can go to a zine fest and meet your favorite zinester and give them your own zine. It’s amazing to come together with people, and trade writing, and start conversations” (2015).
Schemmer says she has made these kinds of connections through making and collecting zines. She currently publishes a zine series called “Secret Bully,” which is a collection of her personal essays. Schemmer’s work is a testament to the wide range of topics zines cover; while they did emerge out of a political space, Schemmer’s literary nonfiction demonstrates the creative and literary potential of zines, a topic on she wrote about for The Media. In the past, she also created a zine that collected the oral histories of women from the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home Womyn’s Land Trust called “Habits of Being.”
Zines are thus an important cultural artifact because they allow access to the power of print and publication for those outside the mainstream. Jenna Freedman’s 2009 article “Grrrl Zines in the Library,” argues for the preservation of zines in easily-accessible spaces, like libraries, because of this uniqueness. She argues for several things that make zines stand out: that they are meant to be shared; they are distributed in a somewhat controlled way within certain communities; they have a specifically Do It Yourself-aesthetic; and, they don’t try to mimic corporate publications (53). Zobl explains that within zine creation, “emphasis is put on DIY, process-oriented, nonhierarchical action and on the plurality of feminist expressions” (2009, 4), echoing larger conversations about intersectionality within the feminist discourse. Cosmstack goes so far as to call zines a post-feminist artifact, as they move past the idea of “woman” as one singular category for what is actually a diverse set of lived experiences.
As a space for free, political, and counter-cultural– as well as literary, creative, and personal – expression, zines represent a cultural practice that is wide-ranging and democratic, both tied to a political history and constantly emerging into new spaces. Straddling the boundaries between DIY ethics of punk and the feminist ethics of highlighting marginalized voices, they offer insight into voices and perspectives that are not always heard in mainstream media outlets.
Marissa Lorusso got her BA in Anthropology from Vassar College in 2013. She is currently getting her MA in International Communication of American University School of International Service, where she tries to work a focus on culture, gender, and language into everything she does. She is most interested in studying global articulations of feminism, intercultural relations, and the power of narrative. She currently works as a radio production intern at PRI’s The World, and co-hosts Witching Hour, a podcast about feminism and pop culture, with her three witchiest friends. She loves road trips, strong coffee, and good conversations (sometimes all at the same time), and will sing you any song you’d like. She tweets @marissalorusso, writes at www.marissalorusso.com, and reads emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alcantara-Tan, Sabrina Margarita (1995). “Bamboo Girl” zine.
Comstack, Michelle (2001). “Grrrl Zine Networks: Re-Composing Spaces of Authority, Gender, and Culture.” JAC 21(2): 383-409.
Exposito, Suzy (May 9, 2015). Email.
Freedman, Jenna (2009). “Grrrl Zines in the Library.” Signs 35(1): 52-59.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi (1997). “Evolution of a Race Riot” zine.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi (2002). “Race Riot 2” zine.
Schemmer, Cynthia Anne (April 9, 2015). Email.
Zobl, Elke (2009). “Cultural Production, Transnational Networking, and Critical Reflection in Feminist Zines.” Signs 35(1): 1-12.