A thorough new history by a former Vanderbilt professor gives grrrl zines their due 

In 1912, suffragist Ida Harper kept a scrapbook where she affixed articles of the day about the women's movement and scrawled her own critiques in the margins. In 1914, Margaret Sanger published educational pamphlets about birth control considered so scandalous for the time that they got her arrested. In the '70s, second-wave feminists used mimeograph machines to circulate fliers about consciousness-raising meetings that would permanently alter political and economic history for women. And in the '90s, riot grrrl ringleader and Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail began distributing her zine Jigsaw at shows, a publication that asked its readers to picture gangs of teenage girls all across America, "girls so strong together that no one dares to fuck with them when they are walking down the street."

Those fighting words may not sound like the building blocks of modern feminist theory, but important third-wave feminist root-planting was being done with every flash of the photocopier, according to a smartly written new book, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. Authored by former Vanderbilt women's studies prof Alison Piepmeier, this first book-length study of its kind finally positions girl zines in their rightful place within a long line of politically charged female activism. With their trademark "scrappy messiness" and lack of typical scholastic rigor or the publishing world's blessing, they've long been viewed by the academic community, she says, as "so intentionally lowbrow as to be able to be mistaken for trash."

Looking back, it's easy to see why: The sheer spectacle of the riot grrrl movement unwittingly distracted from its message of female empowerment: Though there were consciousness-raising meetings, there wasn't exactly an organized agenda. Girl bands with names like Bratmobile and Jack Off Jill began springing up in the Pacific Northwest, armed more with an attitude and a sneer than with a manifesto. These punk provocateurs didn't exactly march in the streets banning beauty pageants, either—they smeared their lipstick, donned babydoll dresses and Hello Kitty barrettes and called it kinderwhore. Their way of arguing for political correctness meant scrawling words such as "property" or "slut" across their bare midriffs in black magic marker, forcing their adversaries to find new ways to diminish them. That in-your-face reclaiming and subverting of femininity—all practice and no theory—would remain woefully misunderstood and ignored, and that perception would trickle down to the zines they spawned.

"I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear," said Sleater-Kinney singer and guitarist Corin Tucker in the online documentary Riot Grrrl Retrospective. "They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say. They took our articles and fanzines and essays out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and assault for young women. Those were really important concepts that the media never addressed."

But the cut-and-paste zine factory that churned in riot grrrl's shadow—in Nashville, you could buy zines like former Hillsboro High School student Christine Doza's UpSlut at Lucy's Record Shop—did address them. Funny, angry, thoughtful, self-deprecating and often deeply confessional, the girl zines from the era were filled with doodles, rants and outbursts on subjects ranging from body image to racism to vegetarianism, co-opting images from fashion mags and cutesy girlhood icons alike, sometimes tied together with a big pink ribbon. To many, they looked more like silly-girl, apolitical diary ramblings than the seminal documents of a third-wave feminist movement.

But Piepmeier compellingly argues that girl zines and "their sometimes messy careening between the local and the global, the personal and the political" are indeed its groundwork. They were legit "resistant media," these modern women's way of carving out space and staking their own ground.

Where many scholars merely saw a directionless, confessional mishmash in these haphazard outpourings, Piepmeier instead sees intersectionality, or rather, the complex set of identities—race, gender, religion, sexual orientation—that can intersect to frame the female response. Sexism for a bi-queer Asian girl is experienced differently by a woman who's black or Jewish, a mom, handicapped or transgendered—and the room made for all of these voices within an activist framework are proof of feminism's inclusiveness and strength, not weakness.

And the zines Piepmeier explores—from earlier specimens like Jigsaw, Action Girl Newsletter, I'm So Fucking Beautiful and East Village Inky to current zines on everything from motherhood to the Iraq war to the female Asian experience—show evidence of a vast, expansive set of identities and lenses through which to view the female experience.

If there's any word of warning before delving into Piepmeier's book, it's that proving theoretical worth requires theoretical language, and Girl Zines gets a little bogged down with academic jargon. Piepmeier is good about defining her terms, though, and her devotion to the subject ultimately saves the book from becoming an exercise in dry academia. In the end, Girl Zines becomes a kind of love letter to a marginalized form, like letter writing or vinyl. Even though Piepmeier doesn't prove that girl zines urged more women to vote or get a master's degree, she shows that they're just as legitimate a political effort anyway, even—and maybe, especially—when their messages sounded and looked anything but.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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