How Feminist Zine Culture Has Evolved
From Riot Grrrl to a more inclusive and high aesthetic present, a new exhibition shows the changing faces of a century of independent print.
All images courtesy of Somerset House
To the untrained eye, it would appear the golden age of magazines is over. With Nylon, Teen Vogue, Glamour and most recently Interview Magazine just a few of the high profile names to call time on their physical output in last year, you’d think newsstands will soon be all but empty.
Scrolling through social media tells a different story. Zine culture has been swelling for near half a decade to this turning point in independent print – hundreds of new titles, spanning all genres, appearing worldwide. And no, with the start of "Print! Tearing It Up" – an exhibition showcasing 100 years of independent magazines at London's Somerset House all summer – it sincerely feels that the underground is having its breakout moment.
Part of me is amazed any of us care so much about some bits of bound paper – surely it's not the medium that matters, but the messages that medium carries? I've never been fanatical about paper stocks or puritanical about authentic zine layouts. On another level, I’m completely obsessed with print, and after spending my teenage years obsessively collecting every independent title I could find in the newsagent, I’ve spent the last four years making my own feminist art and culture zine.
Pre-internet, zines and independent publishing served an altogether different purpose than entertainment. While, in 2018, the opportunity to spend more than five minutes skim-reading the paper seems like a rare luxury, up until the the 2000s, print was the only way to disseminate vital information and organise socio-politically on a scale large than your town or city. Comparable to Facebook groups or early-era Tumblr, the pages of Riot Grrrl zines essentially operated as blogs. Pages of Kathleen Hanna's personal zine see her urge Bikini Kill fans to back off asking her for personal advice after shows, due to the emotional toll it took on her. The Bikini Kill fanzine – and similar title, Girl Germs – included manifestos for fat liberation, rants from readers about being groped at shows and insular essays on how the Riot Grrrl movement could be more inclusive.
Twenty-first century female-led independent publishing has taken these personal musings, discussions and debates championed in early feminist publications, and mined them into coherent, curated content.
Since Riot Grrrl, via early-2000s alternative style manual Cheap Date and Tumblr-feminist bible Girls Get Busy, the lines between politicised fanzine and quality production, high cost magazine have blurred. While the aesthetic of 90s feminist zines is now an iconic set of visual codes all of its own, flicking through their pages – many of which you can see at the Somerset House exhibition – there's a sense that visual appeal wasn’t of top priority. Hand stapled, and assembled using found imagery, typewriters and direct photocopying of academic journals, the pages of these publications rarely feature any original illustration, let alone a full-on photo shoot.
The last five years have seen a new era of female and queer-led publishing being ushered in, with my own publication Polyester just one of the many, many new zines blending high production value with feminist ideologies, with an aim to fill the vapid void women's publishing had become.
Most editors weren’t old enough to experience Riot Grrrl firsthand, instead growing up with style titles such as i-D and Dazed, while using social media to research past feminist movements and ethos. "Growing up, magazines always seemed so far away to me, it was a different world in which only the most elite were allowed into," says Chloe Sheppard, a photographer who both produces and contributes to zines in the UK and overseas. "When I found out about zines, via Tumblr, I knew it was a place where I would be able to indulge and relate, and almost envision myself in. Now, I feel like zines are more like what magazines used to be, because zines seem like a more accessible platform. People who may have wanted to create a glossy magazine have found a more affordable way to do that within a zine."
Open the pages of Mushpit, the satirical title best described as Mizz Magazine meets Private Eye, or Leste, a new erotica publication, and the first thing you'll likely see is imagery – both produced in house and submitted. Similarly, Typical Girls, OOMK, Sister or near about any other contemporary, independently-produced publication are the same, with this new era valuing image production and digital layout over the original cut-and-paste zine aesthetic.
It also makes sense that a generation obsessed with near-constantly scrolling through our Instagram feeds find imagery the most relatable format for creative work. Of course, relatively easy access to InDesign and digital photography makes the leap forward into a more visual form of communication easier. The inclusion of aesthetics and visual representation is, in my opinion, an important step forward in zine culture. Gina Tonic, who works with me as an editor for Polyester, agrees, saying "visual culture is an important aspect of our generation whether we like it or not".
"The idea that it's frivolous diminishes the different ways that people gain information and celebrate culture, and themselves – the written word is canonically superior, but the new wave of zine culture is giving power back to the picture," she says. "After all, 'a photo tells a thousand words'."
The most widely discussed criticism of the Riot Grrrl movement was its white, middle class-centric nature. Pointedly, one of the biggest gripes with modern women’s media is its similar obsession with beauty standards abiding white women. Zines obviously create alternative visual viewpoints to mainstream representation, and put marginalised bodies front and centre.
Where Riot Grrrl publishing served the purpose of a stopgap between shows or meetings, a way to ensure discussion continued beyond the confines of small groups, this new era of zine-making has cultivated a whole community of its own. Beccy Hill, who runs Sister, values the importance of the events she runs concurrently alongside her zine as just as vital as the publication itself.
"When I think about what I do, the zine couldn’t exist without the event. Existing online is great, but nothing compares to meeting up IRL," she says. "Meeting people within the community can inspire you to collaborate or start your own zine, more so than a quick DM. It's not anti-online, as obviously we use the internet so much, but people still really want a physical connection so we strive to do that."
You’d be hard-pressed to go a week in London without stumbling across a zine fair or new launch, with many editors cross-contributing to different publications and fostering a non-competitive environment to support each other. We no longer require the printed page to express our opinions or organise politically (millennials have social media for that). Instead, it can seem IRL connection is scarce, and finding a physical community off the back of a shared love of print is one way to combat the Insta-exhaustion we all feel.
If you aren't a Riot Grrrl fan you'll probably not think of the printed matter they were producing, rather the individual figures or bands: Babes in Toyland, Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. Zines were a byproduct, not the end game. They were important, but only insomuch as being a vehicle. In 2018, femme editors and their published counterparts are turning their once non-profit publications into careers. Feminism is neo-liberal, corporate and commodified now, and this idea presents us with a whole new host of issues.
To ensure print isn’t just a plaything for the wealthiest among us, working class feminist editors have to find a way to capitalise on their publication. Take on advertising and you risk isolating your readership with the vapid product placement that made us all so pissed off with women’s mags in the first place. Raise your cover price too high and your core audience can no longer afford to buy the zine in the first place. Now, many zines are operating on the same level as larger, fully-funded independent titles, but with none of the investment or profit.
To ensure feminist print – political print, LGBTQ+ print, print for everyone and anyone – doesn’t die we have to stop mourning our beloved lost titles. Instead, start putting some faith in the young magazines working to change the face of media, because there are plenty of us.