This Gift for You
A Selection from the Fales Library’s Riot Grrrl Collection
by Lisa Darms
When news of the Riot Grrrl Collection I was starting at New York University’s Fales Library hit the press, in 2009, I was unprepared for the amount of attention it would receive. Since then, I’ve done interviews, taught classes, written articles, worked with researchers, and edited a forthcoming book of ephemera from the collection. Throughout, I’ve tried to maintain the objectivity of a historian, the preservationist fervor of an old-school archivist, and the boosterism of a seasoned PR hack. I earnestly defend all of these attitudes as correct: I want this collection to convey the game-changing importance of this early-’90s teen-girl revolution as accurately as possible. But when the Believer asked me to choose items for reproduction and publication, my first though was: Yes! Finally! I can do whatever I want! And thus these selections are subjective. They aren’t representative of the bulk of the collection in any particular way. And my choices are partly motivated by aesthetics, despite the fact that I’m known for my endless exhortations that the content of Riot Grrrl zines, music, and fashion was indivisible from its subversive beauty.
Riot Grrrl emerged to provide an alternative to an ossified punk scene that increasingly supported the free expression of jaded straight white males at the expense of everyone else. Fostered in punk houses and dorm rooms in Oregon, Washington State, and Washington, D.C., this radical, anticapitalist, feminist movement’s primary forms of expression were zines, punk shows, and meetings. Zines were circulated at shows, shared with friends, or sent through the mail. Even when you mailed your zine to a girl three thousand miles away, there was usually an exchange of sorts—the gift was returned, whether in the form of another zine, a dollar bill, a stamp, or a new pen pal. I think this sharing-within-limits is what fostered the confessional style of many Riot Grrrl zines, which were like public/private journals where it was safe to confess your fears or think through your oppression in real time. Other Riot Grrrl zines were filled with fervent rants calling for total revolution—but this, too, required the context of shared terms and common goals. When the mainstream press discovered Riot Grrrl—enticed by pictures of women in thrift-store dresses with Sharpie-marker messages repudiating sexism scrawled on their bodies—everything changed. Articles like Newsweek’s 1992 “Revolution, Girl Style” introduced a new cadre of teen girls to Riot Grrrl’s ideology and style, while the inner circle declared a media blackout.
It’s hard to remember a time when we thought we could control our message, and even harder to imagine an army of teenagers saying no! to free publicity. Now the things we create always have that small potential to (intentionally or accidentally) reach millions of strangers. The materials here are from a moment right before email, texting, and Twitter transformed everything.
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All images courtesy of the Fales Library and Special Collections.