This is the first of a series of blogs on the alternative girlhood identities offered by Riot Grrrl zines and activities. A sneak peek into our upcoming 2017 exhibition, Alternative Girl, this blog series includes extracts from an interview with Megan Sormus, a Ph.D. researcher at Northumbria University, whose research focuses on visualising femininities in DIY and music subcultures.

Girl Museum’s 2017 exhibition Alternative Girl will consider the impact that women have had on current and past music scenes, and the alternative ways of viewing girl- and womanhood that their work has provided. Rather than focusing on just the front-woman of the music stage, the work of women and girls behind the scenes will also be explored through profiles, exhibitions, interviews, videos and essays. It’s so exciting we couldn’t keep it to ourselves any longer!

A bit of background info:

Megan Sormus

Megan Sormus

Megan Sormus is a Ph.D. candidate at Northumbria University, engaging in research within the field of contemporary women’s writing and popular culture. Her other scholarly interests include visualising femininities in film and television, feminist theory and activism, studies on girls and girlhood, and DIY and music subcultures. She has published music journalism for Pop Matters and she co-founded the academic conference ‘Girls on Film’: Visualising femininities in Contemporary Culture’ at Northumbria University.

What is riot grrrl, anyway?

“In short, riot grrrl was a community of young women that emerged from the punk scenes of Olympia [the captial Washington State] and Washington D.C. in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Sara Marcus gives a concise definition of riot grrrl I feel is very applicable to the following exploration of girls and girlhood. She describes it as ‘a noisy message of female self-empowerment voiced by several punk musicians and a few of their friends’. The riot grrrl community combined various feminist ideologies in order to promote an era of DIY feminism, produced alternative music, and utilised the juxtaposing aesthesis and do-it-yourself ethos of punk. Additionally, riot grrrl inhabited a subcultural space and spread its message primarily through punk music and custom-made zines. Importantly, riot grrrls’ promoted the concept of alternative self-definition against traditional images of femininity.”

How can literature, like zines and novels, influence society and the girl reader?

“As girlhood can be such a confusing and frustrating time for young women as they move toward adulthood, I feel it is important for girls to have something solid to grasp that will aid them through this process and that they can relate to. I think this is made available through the increasing amounts of YA fiction targeted at young girls. More than this, YA fiction is moving beyond the usual popularised YA literature and its cringey accounts of growing up – such as in Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries or Louise Rennison’s Angus, thongs, and Full- Frontal Snogging. Rather, there is now an increase to a specific genre of literature that builds a more realistic, and for some more relatable, narrative of the processes of what it is to be an ‘alternative’ girl, such as the recent re-release of Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls.”

What role do you think Punk zines like Riot Grrrl have played in the creation of alternative ways of girl identity?

“The punk zine is a do-it-yourself (DIY) style booklet created by hand and was intended for members of riot grrrl to articulate their messages and feelings against the popular images of mass culture, for example, the images from teen magazines at the time that placed unrealistic or unattainable expectations onto femininity. The zine provided a space for young women to collate various, and perhaps more representative, identities that worked against those of idealised girlhood–thin, beautiful, perfect skin–perpetuated by mainstream culture. Much like a diary, the role of the zine in exploring girl identity is an integral one. They allow for a more visual consideration of issues relating to confronting what popular society would deem as ‘correct’ female behaviour, or the correct way to look. In contrast to this, the zine set out a space where visible boundaries around femininity that restrict the experience of young women in contemporary culture are rejected and broken down.”

How have they provided a reality, rather than a space for experimentation and play?

“I like to think the zine provides a more realistic outlet than just a space for experiment and play in three ways. Firstly, the zine is more visually noisy than a diary and part of this effect is created by using images that actually exist in popular culture and that many young women are familiar with seeing. As a result, manipulating these familiar images with images that contrast strongly with them pushes an element of reality, through familiarity, to the forefront.

“Secondly, there is a stronger emphasis placed on visibility in that the zine blends both public and private elements, unlike the very personal and often unexposed space of a diary. Rather, zines are intimate and personal projections (in that they focus on behavioural issues or bodily concerns) yet are forced into the public domain as they are disseminated in subcultures for everyone to view. As the zine is pushed into a communal space, I would argue that they also become public knowledge, which adds a very real texture to them.

“Thirdly, there needs to be an element of ‘do-it-yourself’ when constructing a zine, as they are created and passed on by hand, rather than the impersonal manufacturing processes of the glossy pages of mass-produced magazines. As such, the imperfect and often crude construction and aesthetic of the pages of a zine emphasise its attempts as projecting a genuine space and realistic experience of young women in contemporary culture.”

-Sarah Raine
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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