The Riot Grrrl Collection Edited by Lisa Darms
Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture Edited by Amos Mac and Rocco Kayiatos
Reviewed by Jolie Braun
Whenever I teach a special collections session about the history of selfpublished American literature, I begin by asking students what comes to mind when they think of self-publishing. Undergraduates, like many of us, often see it as the domain of obscure writers who aren’t good enough to get a book deal. They are surprised when I tell them about Walt Whitman self-publishing Leaves of Grass, one of the most important and innovative works in American literature. They are intrigued to learn about Charlotte Perkins Gilman (of The Yellow Wall Paper fame) producing and distributing her own feminist journal, The Forerunner, to counter traditional women’s magazines of the era. They are moved by the self-published slave narratives of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly given the obstacles these writers had to overcome and the risk involved in writing and disseminating their works. Self-publishing has a long and distinguished history as a means of getting works into print considered too radical, transgressive, or otherwise unmarketable by commercial publishers. It has been a way for marginalized writers to tell their stories, reach likeminded readers, and inspire change even when mainstream audiences weren’t ready or the writer had no interest in working within the system.
Zines—small-circulation magazines made for passion rather than profit—are part of the tradition of self-publishing and were integral to Riot Grrrl during early 1990s. Riot Grrrl was an underground, feminist movement sparked by anger about the misogyny in the punk scenes in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. It sought to create safe spaces for women and encourage them to make their voices heard, particularly through artistic and creative outlets. The music of a handful of Riot Grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile received the most attention in the press, but it was the many zines that fueled the movement. They relayed information and resources (such as self-defense strategies or how to record an album), fostered friendships, and built networks. They were DIY (do-it-yourself): hand-lettered or typed, illustrated via collage, printed and bound via xerox and staple, and distribution was by handwritten “subscription” notes exhorting a reader to send $1 and an SASE to the writer to receive the next issue. They were proof to both the writers and readers that they were not alone in their experiences, frustrations, and hopes. In her opening essay to The Riot Grrrl Collection, writer and musician (and zine-maker) Johanna Fateman declares that, “Whatever Riot Grrrl became … it began as a zine.”
Nearly thirty years after the Riot Grrrl movement began, interest in it has only continued to grow. This spring, tickets sold out immediately to Bikini Kill’s first shows since 1997. Nostalgia for the 1990s may have played a part, but there is something more substantial here, too. Once derided and dismissed, Riot Grrrl has become recognized as a vital movement critical to understanding not only feminist history, but turn of the century American culture. Over the past ten years, archival collections documenting the movement have been established at academic institutions; a donation from Bikini Kill’s singer Kathleen Hanna began NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection in 2010. Increasingly, Riot Grrrl has been the subject of documentaries, popular books, and scholarly articles. While the movement is important for understanding the past, its message continues to be disappointingly relevant. In the era of MeToo, Riot Grrrl’s condemnation of sexism, sexual violence, and gender power imbalance remains crucial and necessary.
The Riot Grrrl Collection, which features zines and other materials from NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections, is a recognition of both the movement’s legacy and the need for a better understanding of it. The volume’s editor, Lisa Darms, says that the impetus for the book was “to make the content of these smart, radical texts more broadly available, because so much coverage of Riot Grrrl has been focused on its image instead of its message.” Photocopied and stapled booklets produced in small numbers, Riot Grrrl zines were made to document the moment and communicate with others rather than stand the test of time. The copies that survive today are in special collections, private collections, and zine libraries, meaning that they are not easily obtained by the general public. Yet they are some of the movement’s most thought-provoking and affecting creative works. The Riot Grrrl Collection provides direct access to these rare publications, making it unique and essential among the growing number of publications on the subject.
The anthology contains excerpts and full reprints of nearly two dozen zines created between 1989 and 1996. The writings focus on subjects that became synonymous with Riot Grrrl, such as feminism, sexuality, racism, homophobia, sexism, and sexual harassment. Band interviews and zine and show reviews—standard fare for punk zines— are a reminder of Riot Grrrl’s roots and the specific scene in which these works were produced. Mainstream media depicted the movement as one propelled exclusively by anger, but the personal essays in the anthology are also just as often funny, sarcastic, and optimistic, and frequently make explicit the link between the personal and the collective, feminist politics and daily life.
How to define Riot Grrrl and why the movement is important are central questions that appear across several zines. A quote included in Riot Grrrl NYC 5’s “What Riot Grrrl Means to Me” states that “Riot Grrrl is about how cool it is to be a girl and about how hard it is to be one sometimes.” In the zine, What Is a Riot Grrrl, Anyway? a writer named Angelique describes “how beautiful and alive and free I can feel in a girl environment that is non-competitive and supportive and engaging.” Bikini Kill 2 argues that’s “BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politicsreal lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how what we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.” These moments show Riot Grrrl zines at their most exciting, as sites of exploration, self-actualization, and critical engagement.
Comprising large, full-color reprints, The Riot Grrrl Collection is a visually arresting book. Unconventional layouts and design show the medium’s capacity for experimentation and innovation. Some pieces are handwritten, others typed, some are a combination of the two. There are drawings, collages, grainy photos, and repurposed content from newspapers and magazines. Pages with typos, mistakes, or scratched out words evoke zine scholar Stephen Duncombe’s sentiment that zines “with all their seams showing” invite readers to examine how they are made and realize how easy it would be to create their own.
The collection is also a reminder that Riot Grrrl was more than just one band or a spokesperson, but a multiplicity of people, voices, and experiences. Certainly, zines by some of the best-known figures are represented, such as Girl Germs, by members of Bratmobile, and the eponymous zine by Bikini Kill, two of the earliest publications that helped activate the movement. Yet these make up just a portion of the more than 350-page book. Also included are Nomy Lamm’s I’m So Fucking Beautiful, which examines fatphobia, body image, and selfacceptance; queer zines such as Matt Wobensmith’s music-centric Outpunk and Tammy Rae Carland’s lesbian and pop culture-focused I (heart) Amy Carter; and zines by writers of color such as Ramdasha Bikceem’s Gunk and Mimi Thi Ngyuen’s Slant, which critique Riot Grrrl’s prioritization of the experiences and perspectives of white, straight, middle-class women.
While photocopied zines are still ubiquitous today, the internet, affordable design software, and cheaper, high-quality printing options have made it increasingly possible to produce a self-published zine that looks sleek and polished. Although many mainstream magazines are struggling to stay in business, their independent counterparts, particularly those that have gained a devoted following by addressing a previously unmet need, such as gal-dem, an online and print publication sharing perspectives from women and nonbinary people of color and She Shreds, the only print magazine about women guitarists and bassists, have thrived. Such magazines suggest that print is not only still relevant, but also still has the ability to do exciting, significant work.
In 2009, photographer Amos Mac and writer and artist Rocco Kayiatos saw a need for a publication about trans men by trans men. As they planned, their initial idea of making a color-xerox zine grew to a serialized quarterly. Mac learned InDesign, the pair drew on their personal networks to line up individuals to feature in the first issue, and after much searching, they located a print shop willing to print a trans magazine. Amidst the beginning of the recession and growing rumblings that print was dead, they launched Original Plumbing (OP). Enthusiastic but unsure of the project’s viability, they decided to give it a year. OP, however, was an immediate success, with its first issue selling out before it left the printer. Mac and Kayiatos’s new anthology, Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture, features their favorite moments from the publication, which celebrated its twentieth and final issue earlier this year.
As the first-ever publication dedicated to trans male culture, OP was more than just a magazine: it provided visibility, personal stories, and information to a historically marginalized, largely invisible community. In their introduction to the collection, Mac and Kayiatos describe the quarterly as a “snapshot of the community made from within the community” intended to “share other trans people’s stories without making it ‘Trans 101’ or exploitative.” OP’s tone, too, was part of its appeal: alternately playful and serious, consistently hopeful, always direct. (This is perhaps most immediately apparent in the publication’s name, a term used in Craigslist personal ads by trans men who haven’t had genital reconstruction surgery.)
The compilation contains selections from each of the magazine’s thematic issues, which covered a wide range of topics over the years, from family, to art, jocks, heroes, hair, and bathrooms. There are first-person essays—such as ruminations on the fraught space of the locker room and an account about being the “transgender guest” on a daytime talk show—articles like “A Holistic Approach to Trans Health” and “Trans on Film, 1919–1999,” as well as pieces that fall outside of easy categorization, including a series of letters between the editors’ moms that reflects on parenting a transgender child. Interviews, however, are the anthology’s focus. Profiles of trans and queer icons such as activist Lou Sullivan, writer and director Silas Howard, and writer, host, and activist Janet Mock are featured alongside equally compelling ones of individuals in the trans community such as a skateboarder, an ACLU lawyer, and leather club members.
The collection also shows that the magazine’s photography was as vital to its mission as the writing. Mac and Kayiatos have said that OP’s look and feel was “influenced by teen magazine aesthetics and vintage physique pictorials.” That it depicted trans people as desirable was significant, but OP’s visuals did more than this. Like the interviews, the photospreads reveal a wide variety of ages, sexualities, races, and states of transition, emphasizing that there’s not one way to be transgender. Yet flipping through The Best Ten Years a common theme quickly emerges: many of the portraits shows their subjects relaxed, confident, and smiling. OP’s imagery was a deliberate and powerful rebuttal to representations of transgender people in mainstream media. Within the packaging of pithy profiles and glossy images, OP insisted not only on the humanity and complexity of trans individuals, but their happiness and fulfillment.
While OP had a clear perspective and aesthetic from the start, the compilation, which is arranged chronologically, allows readers to see the magazine’s evolution as well. Mac and Kayiatos state in their introduction to the volume that, “as language and identities shifted over the years, the pages of OP featured work not only by those who identify as FTM, trans male, or men of trans experiences but also many who are nonbinary, genderqueer, and transmasculine of center.” Mac also has noted that while he initially was primarily interested in creating a sexy magazine—most evident in the publication’s first issue—OP’s focus later broadened and became more expansive. Such adjustments show the editors’ commitment to creating a publication responsive to the priorities and interests of the community it served.
Much has changed for the transgender community since the publication of OP’s first issue ten years ago. The efforts of the transgender civil rights movement, increased visibility in mainstream media, and the proliferation of websites, social media, and platforms such as YouTube enabling transgender people to access information and connect with others have altered the landscape. OP played a pivotal role in this transformation, documenting and championing the lives and experiences of trans men. Yet the community it strove to nurture also went beyond the page. As the magazine grew, Mac and Kiaytos organized release parties and events for readers across the US. These occasions served the dual purpose of providing occasions for building community, relationships, and friendships as well as supporting the magazine and ensuring its longevity.
The Riot Grrrl Collection and Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture are essential, inspiring collections. They provide valuable contributions to our understanding of the communities they grew out of as well as an opportunity to reflect on how they helped shape our world today. In her introduction, Lisa Darms notes that her training as an archivist fostered her understanding that what is considered “historically important is about what is saved.” Because of their unruly, ephemeral nature, zines and other selfpublished works haven’t always been easy to save. Both The Riot Grrrl Collection and Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture are in keeping with the mission of the Feminist Press— doing the important work of preserving these groundbreaking publications and making them more accessible to a wider audience.
Jolie Braun is the Curator of Modern Literature & Manuscripts in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Ohio State University, where she teaches with self-published materials and is building a zine collection.