After school, 17-year-old Em Odesser, the editor-in-chief of Teen Eye Magazine, plops down on her bed to video chat with her three teenage girl editors for their weekly meeting. Above Odesser’s left shoulder hangs a hand-scrawled note in red marker that reminds her to “Stay Angry!” with a crude doodle of a mad face. It’s one of dozens of flyers, sketches, mantras and Post-its pasted helter-skelter on her walls like a dorm room bulletin board. The straps on her overalls double as backpack buckles, and her false pointed nails from Duane Reade are painted a blood red, because she once read in a magazine that if one wants to feel confident, one should pick out a “good outfit” and rock red polish. Now she owns seven shades of red.
On the agenda today is zines, the alternative self-published pamphlets popularized during the 1990s. The flimsy D.I.Y. booklets, often assembled and stapled at the kitchen table, would be a shift for Teen Eye, a quarterly magazine with an international readership of 810,000. It started in 2014 as a place for teenagers to publish works about art, culture, and fashion, as well as feminism, politics and social justice. Teen Eye’s latest Autumn ‘Icon’ issue, the cover of which features a girl looking fierce in dark shades, a lavender fur, and azure wig, has 166 pages of Fashion Week coverage, photos of striking purses, musical interviews; essays on street style, black models and Barbie, and poems by people of color.
After almost dying out in the early 2000s, zines are back and now “super hot” in the library world as a way to engage teenagers, according to Julissa Ayala, an information assistant at the New York Public Library. They exist in abundance online, covering topics from Armenian transgender people and cross-country friendships to queer foodies. Even a Brooklyn laundromat now houses a zine pop-up, harkening back to their roots before the days of the internet. Because zines are self-published, it’s difficult to track how many exist, but Ayala estimates millions worldwide.
Since the 1990s, teenage girls have written zines as a way to solidify their stance in society. Today’s publications might look like playful art projects, but behind the scenes the work is laborious, germane, and in part, a response to social pressures. Remi Riordan, the 18-year-old founder and editor of Crybaby zine, says seeing others’ perfectly curated Instagram feeds often results in anxiety, stress and self-doubt. “There’s a lot of pressure to be Instagram famous,” she says.
Some veteran zinesters, like Cindy Crabb, the author of the well-known Doris zine from the ’90s, scrutinize today’s zines for being platforms for self-success, a function at variance with their original objective, which was to renounce mainstream culture.
“Nobody I knew in the ’90s that were writing zines were using it as a stepping stone,” says Crabb, who began Doris when she was 23. “Now I see some of that, people trying to sell them for a lot of money, especially the art zines as a way to showcase their art for greater recognition. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s kind of against the zine ethic of the ’90s, which was more, ‘We don’t have to live by mass cultures.’”
Odesser sees nothing wrong with using zines as a launching pad, and in fact, her main goal is to propel her writers toward recognition.
“I definitely think it’s attractive to get your voice out to a lot of people,” she says. “It helps with the weird confusion about growing up in the world.”
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Fanzines, as they were originally called, first appeared as a standalone genre in 1930 for science fiction devotees. The little handouts created a kinship among oddballs. Later, in the 1960s, zines became an outlet for nerdy comic book lovers to connect and feel less ‘other.’ Early zines like these are typically associated with male-dominant groups, but Alison Piepmeier points out in her book Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism that the suffragist Mary Ware Dennett created a sex education pamphlet for her sons in 1915 which possessed zine-like qualities and was circulated among friends. At its root, her booklet defied the norm, the intention of many girl zines to come.
Girl zines exploded in the ’90s in conjunction with third-wave feminism and the underground Riot Grrrl movement, made up of young feminists who confronted sexism, sexual harassment and the patriarchy head on through meet-ups, marches, punk fashion, zines, and music. Kathleen Hanna, a pioneer of the movement and a member of the famous band Bikini Kill, explained in a 2015 T Magazine article that second-wave feminism had excluded girls from the women’s movement, and “grrrls” was their fight for inclusion. Content aside, the very act of putting together a zine – a scrappy, eccentric work – was like giving a middle finger to the status quo and mainstream media.
“Mass media was co-opting everything people did to try to change the world. They would turn it into a marketing device,” says Crabb. “‘Girl Power’ that was trying to challenge patriarchy and create communities of strong women got subverted into little ‘Cute Girl Power.’ Zines were a way to reclaim our own media.”
Even the hasty manner in which they were assembled was celebrated as part of the D.I.Y. punk dogma embraced at the time, which declared it arbitrary to adhere to society’s expectations.
“They were extremely urgent,” says Lisa Darms, who developed an archive about the Riot Grrrl movement for New York University’s Fales Library. “They’re filled with spelling errors. They’re hand-written. They’re type-written. There are pieces that are crossed out. There’s no autocorrect, no spell check. It’s about getting your message out quickly.”
Zines peaked in 1997 in the early years of the dot com boom, and declined soon after in part thanks to the internet, where chat rooms and forums gave misfits a new place to convene. For years, zines ebbed, but the 2007 launch of Tumblr, a customizable online platform, became a breeding ground for zine-like content. The unstructured blog site, which has a tagline of “Go wherever Tumblr takes you,” coaxed users to embrace free form journaling.
“When blogs came out, which is exactly what zines were, they were these idiosyncratic pieces of info that were personal. Blogs were able to do the same things [as zines],” says Ayala, the information assistant at the New York Public Library. With Tumblr, “teenagers can manipulate exactly what they want to see.”
In 2011, 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson set the stage for the current wave of teenage girl empowerment. She launched Rookie Magazine, the first major site specifically by and for teenage girls, which still showcases a huge variety of art and writing accompanied by sketches of hearts, rainbows and swirls, making the content not just relatable and fun, but also ambitious. One monthly issue, each of which has a theme type-faced in silly fonts, might publish 70 pieces. In the archives, there are articles headlined, “Literally the Best Thing Ever: Stickers” and stories about humanizing bullies, the fear of death, a girl’s Texas road trip, and how to make a glitter poster. In her first “Letter from the Editor,” Gevinson wrote, “Rookie is a place to make the best of the beautiful pain and cringe-worthy awkwardness of being an adolescent girl.”
“She was very quirky and different and cool and she did her own thing,” says Riordan, who has contributed to Rookie. “The articles were always really honest and they didn’t sugar coat, but they didn’t make things sound scary, like growing up.”
Generation Z – which includes individuals born around 2000 – is often derided for being consumed by their cell phones, the internet and social media, particularly Snapchat and Instagram, which encourage selfies. Yet they are also known for working harder than their supposedly lazy, narcissistic predecessors, the Millennials. In a 2015 New York Times article, Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, compared the typical Gen Z to Alex Dunphy from Modern Family. “Alex is a true Gen Z: conscientious, hard-working, somewhat anxious and mindful of the future,” she said.
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Riordan started Crybaby a little over two years ago, never imagining it would accumulate over 11,000 Instagram followers or that the actress Emma Roberts would tweet “Love this!” about one of its articles. The first issue, released as more an experiment than fully hatched plan, looks like an old-school zine, constructed of folded printer paper stapled haphazardly. Now, Crybaby has a ‘perfect’ bind and the poems about heartbreak run on thick, glossy paper.
“A lot of the girl zines, like Crybaby, are really kind of fancy and more art and literary focused than zines by teenagers in the ‘90s,” says Jenna Freedman, the zine librarian at Barnard College. “I feel like there was a lot of talk in the ‘90s about rape and sexual violence that I’m not seeing as much by girls now. Some zines are more about representing teen-dome in a way. ‘This is who I am. This is who we are.’”
In Kin of Queens Vol. 2, a collective zine by teenagers in a Queens youth program, an entry written on notebook paper and photocopied on a page titled “Who Am I?” details the fear of “losing my parents, losing my brother + failure.” Jo Rosenthal, who is 22, but has been creating zines since she was 16 and felt alien at art school, has zines about the men she’s kissed, the story of her birth, and an ode to the uni-browed outcast Helga G. Pataki from Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold!” for the “heart wrenching” scene when Pataki arrives at a slumber party in over-the-top makeup in an attempt to fit in with the girly girls. Twenty-year-old Sophie Day never fit in with the girly girls. A self-proclaimed “unapologetic sexual woman,” Day created Wet Dream Zine as a teenager to help young girls embrace their bodies. The work is a collection of selfies documenting erect penises (one oozing sperm), close-up butt shots, topless women, and various other expressions of sexuality like one woman flaunting her armpit hair. Interspersed among the photos are short snippets detailing anonymous sexual fantasies. The pink cover features Day’s partially-naked body reclining on a bed, her hand snaking beneath her lace panties on one side and the other side exposing her bare breasts (her father was initially wary about the picture).
“I didn’t see a body I could relate to,” explains Day about why she began the project. She wants readers to be influenced by body types other than the idealized “hot, skinny woman.”
The same core sentiment is echoed in teen girls of color who contribute to and create zines.
“As a black girl growing up, I didn’t really see images of myself in magazines,” says Catherine Morton-Abuah, an illustrator for Sula Collective, a zine by and for people of color. “If you’re going to write about a certain demographic then it should be written by that demographic because it’s more organic. It just feels more real, rather than an old white man who says, ‘This is really cool and hip. Let’s push it out.’”
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Several days after the Teen Eye meeting, Odesser is back on her bed wearing a t-shirt that says, “Disgusteen.” Odesser idolizes, and in many ways embodies, the ’90s feminist ideology that it’s okay to be loud and relentless. She takes cue from the slogan on the subway platforms warning riders about suspicious behavior: “If you see something, say something.” When one of the teachers taped up the five stages of grief in the hallway following Donald Trump’s win, she ignored the advice and instead launched a club called Herstory to discuss five women a week not mentioned in the textbooks. Later after the immigration ban, she staged a protest at school where a boy ripped up her poster.
“Even with ‘Nasty Woman,’ I think feminine rage is seen as a bad thing and then Riot Grrl saying it’s not a bad thing…” she says, referring to how the movement seized on anger and inspired her to navigate a peer environment that can appear blasé about feminism.
She points to the “Stay Angry!” note above her bed to steer her thoughts.
“I am kind of an angry person,” she says. “There’s a way to channel that into art.”