College of Charleston Assistant Professor Alison Piepmeier's students are under pressure. They're assailed on all sides by print media packed with images of perfectly formed, unblemished models with the power to make them feel unattractive or underrepresented. Piepmeier, who directs the Women and Gender Studies Program, has seen the serious effect this pressure can have on some of her undergrads.
"They're facing some really serious body issues," she says. "The college is recognized as having beautiful women. They feel there's a certain way they need to look. That affects their quality of life in debilitating ways."
But what if there were alternatives to those glossy perfect-world periodicals? What if women could create their own publications that reflected their own individual points of view? Piepmeier learned that a surprising number of females have fought back with zines, homemade magazines covering topics that are relevant to them and giving their lives a powerful punk twist.
Bringing these zines into her classroom, Piepmeier recognized their continuing popularity even in a time of blogs and social networking. When a New York University Press editor asked her if anyone had written a book on the subject, she found that nobody had. Her new book Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism unearths the phenomenon, analyzing titles like Fragments of Friendship, Grit & Glitter, and I'm So Fucking Beautiful.
Although the current crop of photocopied or self-printed zines have their direct roots in the Riot Grrrl music scene of the early '90s (Piepmeier often refers to them as grrrl zines), she traces their ancestry through the scrapbooks of the 19th century, mimeographed pamphlets in the '70s, and the ornate handmade packaging that some zines have been shipped in over the years to give her academic subject extra validity. "I too had fallen into the mindset that these weren't important enough to study on their own," she says. By placing them in a greater historical context she was able to take them seriously in their own right. "Many zines I read are incredibly thoughtful and complex," she adds. "They're documents of feminist and female legacy."
And what a legacy. These are reflections of life seen through an uncompromising prism of gender politics, a text riot of reportage, personal observations, stream-of-consciousness rants, pocket-sized poems, and collages, all presented in a do-it-your-damn-self anti-mainstream manner. East Village Inky is crammed with Ayun Halliday's tales of life as a parent of young children. Jigsaw's manifesto calls for girls to assert their own identities. Figure 8, Shameless, and (our favorite title) Fat!So? are an antidote to our stick-thin-is-beautiful social mores. But the majority of zines are each a mixture of different writing/art styles, subjects, and approaches in a black-and-white package.
Local LGBT campaigner Jenna Lyles prefers to publish one-off zines rather than numbered series. Her latest is Queer(ing) Activism, reporting on a queer flash mob on the CofC campus right before the Thanksgiving break. Hailing from Greenville, S.C., Lyles first encountered a zine in her freshman year when Piepmeier assigned one for her to read. Three years later she's a zine veteran, distributing her work by hand or word of mouth.
"People my age and activists feel disempowered, as if we can't affect what's going on," says Lyles, "When you give someone a zine, they have something in their hand, and they're not so removed from the issue. It makes me feel like I can do something."
Lyles' zine is just one of the 20 or so Piepmeier has been given in Charleston alone.
Although the zine heyday is in the past thanks to the internet, these DIY magazines will always have a place in participatory culture. According to Lyles, a zine has to be something you can physically hold. She says, "Digitizing it takes a lot of its power away."
Piepmeier has heard similar reasoning from other zinemakers, recounting something she had previously heard. "A zine could be shoved in a box and 100 years from now it could be found in an attic," she says. "It has a longevity that blogs may not have."
While it's really intended for scholars, Piepmeier hopes that her book will introduce casual readers to zines as well. The book is short and readable enough for non-academics to follow, and the sheer number and scope of the zines she covers just might encourage readers to start their own.