Is This a Golden
Era for Female-Focused Zines?
It’s pissing rain as I make my way to London’s Ditto Press for the Mushpit’s eighth issue launch, though the inclement weather hasn’t deterred most of London’s magheads from turning up. Familiar faces from magazines, culture sites, artists and photographers stream in, and the unofficial dress code seems to be streetwear for the boys, and red eyeshadow, space buns, and the odd bared nipple for the girls.
Inside, I find Bertie Brandes and Charlotte Roberts – the 26-year-old joint founders of Mushpit – and we head to the back room for a chat. Listening back to the recording, it’s near-impossible to distinguish who’s speaking when.
Mushpit is funny, bawdy and raw. It’s also #relatable, although I do wonder whether the knowing in-jokes and specific cultural references translate as well outside of the London creative scene. The humour lies somewhere between the muff jokes of The Wife of Bath combined with knowing references to millennial Insta-culture – a fact amply illustrated when I ask the girls to name one of their favourite pieces. “Maybe the quiz…” Roberts muses. “Are you arty, Insta, or arty-Insta?”
Mushpit is at the forefront of the UK’s burgeoning zine scene, competing with publications such as OOMK, Chapess, Polyester and Cuntry Living, to name but a few. You’ll find them stocked at magCulture or sold at specialist zine fairs across the country and abroad. Their editors are bright, young, and precocious. The aforementioned all have female founders. Many will secure jobs off the success of their publications – consulting for brands, as staff writers, or contributing editors for online youth culture, music or arts sites.
Today’s zine revival consciously models itself on the self-published punk zines of the 1970s and the riot grrrl movement of the early 1990s. Back then zines were informed by an anarchic anti-establishment attitude and a DIY ethos, with print runs of less than a thousand and black and white sheets stapled together by hand and distributed at gigs and record shops. Things have got considerably more professional since then – most zines now have art directors and often hire established photographers to shoot their covers (Mushpit issue 6 was shot with Tyrone Lebon). Even the cover stars are getting bigger (Polyester recently secured Chanel muse and Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson).
Some of the most interesting and innovative zines coming out of the UK are emerging from outside London, which is refreshing, given how much our capital tends to dominate the creative scene. Chapess is edited by 29-year-old Cherry Styles from her Manchester home, while Cuntry Living is currently helmed by a rotating group of Oxford University students. Styles explains she and Chapess founder Zara Gardner were “strongly” motivated to start the zine “because we wanted to make feminism relevant to younger girls, particularly those in rural areas with limited resources, as we had been.”
Lu Williams from Cuntry Living explains the zine’s eye-catching name. “We are directly subverting literature and media aimed towards women, like Country Living. They uphold a heteronormative male gaze-based representation of cis gender women that is very white and middle-class. We’re also reclaiming ‘cunt’ in order to build a new feminine that’s powerful, radical, self-assured and not afraid to be angry. It’s interesting that a word that derives from cis female anatomy still provokes so much reaction and disgust. Culture has essentially removed us from our own bodies, sold it back to us in either a super-sexualised way, or in a ridiculously repressed, delicate form – and we’re taking it back.”
By its very nature, self-publishing gives young creators an opportunity to disrupt established publishing models. Though, now that feminism has been co-opted by mainstream brands, the danger is that even zines will get sucked into their clammy, corporate embrace. Styles agrees that “self-publishing is, by its nature political, whether that’s explicit in its content or not. Many artists and writers throughout history have self-published through both choice and necessity. Zines give people an alternative, and inform culture from the ground up”.
The challenge faced by many zine publishers is how to scale up without losing their DIY, anti-corporate ethos. Brandes articulates this dilemma. “We need to grow in every sense because otherwise we’ll have to stop, and that will be sad. We’re toying with the idea of how we could use adverts in either a way that’s so patronising that it’s like the joke is on the advertisers, or in a really non-patronising way for our readers.”
Scaling up a zine also raises another concern: how to raise your profile by using bigger, well-known names while still retaining a sense of loyalty to your earlier contributors. Ione Gamble, the 22-year-old founder of Polyester, identifies this as a “difficult issue”: “You don’t want to be nepotistic, and only feature my friends issue after issue because Polyester isn’t an elite club that only a select few can be part of. On the other hand, if you do want to grow as a publication – not all zine publishers do – you have to start pulling in bigger names to raise your profile, sell more copies, and get more stockists. A healthy mix of both I hope is the answer. If you pull in someone with a huge name, get a smaller photographer who could do with the exposure to shoot it, or one of your mates on makeup who’s still studying.”
There’s also a danger of zine publishers being co-opted by the mainstream, mirroring what has happened to punk. Angeli Bhose from Cuntry Living articulates this worry. “We’ve worked hard to be an explicitly anti-capitalist zine, fundraising for the money to print and distribute zines, and never selling them.” And as feminism continues to become steadily commodified by brands seeking to target a millennial, socially-aware audience, zine publishers risk being sucked into the slipstream of major companies – and in doing so, losing their integrity. “When companies take advantage of the growing interest around feminism in popular culture and try to sell it back to us, re-packaged, it is really frustrating. Although feminist adverts may seem like progress, they primarily aid the interest of women who have a lot of privileges already, and do little for the cause of poor, queer, non-professionalised women or women of colour.”
Gamble is optimistic that zine culture will withstand the onslaught of PR-backed, major-brand-sponsored all-female “collectives” seeking to capitalise on the feminist zeitgeist. “Zine culture has been around for over twenty-five years, and at the end of the day as long as people are still dissatisfied with what they see in the mainstream they’ll seek out something that pushes against these ideals and presents an alternative. Maybe big brands will stop paying consultation agencies to make half-baked zines, but I don’t think that’ll be any detriment to the actual zine community.”
A (valid) criticism of contemporary zine culture is that, to outsiders at least, it can appear representative of so-called ‘white feminism’, representing the views of women from privileged backgrounds with above- average levels of education. To be fair, this is something all the women I interviewed for this piece were conscious of and engaged with articulately.
28-year-old Rose Nordin from OOMK zine explains how they seek to disrupt this narrative: “[OOMK Editor/Co-founder] Sofia Niazi and I met at London Zine symposium and got talking about the nature of the feminist zines we were reading at the time. We shared the opinion that the dominant narrative for theses zines was often reflective of feminism in mainstream culture, which is representative of the white experience and often addressed in isolation from other forms of oppression. We enjoy these zines, but felt like we wanted to make something that explored the activism of women outside the dominant white narrative.”
Nordin singles out Deep Roots, a piece in OOMK issue two, about the New Beacon book shop as a favourite. “It tells the story of the first black publishers in the UK. We hold their story in high esteem and strive to be as active, committed and radical.” For the OOMK editors and contributors, zines “allow people to speak for themselves, rather than being spoken about. They are very direct channels for voices and a friend to the marginalised.”
It’s impossible to be a legitimate zine publisher and not to be tapped into politics or broader cultural trends in a meaningful way. But, as Roberts points out, humour can be a sharp-edged political weapon. “The funniest bits of Mushpit are always the realest, and humour is important to us and often not done well by mainstream publications. But we’re definitely worthy in that everything we do has a kernel of politics to it. We don’t just spout bullshit because it’s funny.”
“Culture has essentially removed us from our own bodies, sold it back to us in either a super-sexualised way, or in a repressed, delicate form. We’re taking it back”
Lu Williams, Cuntry Living
As I leave the Mushpit launch and step out into a drizzly March evening, I’m struck by the abundance of creative, interesting people in the room. Later, when talking to Styles over email, I ask her whether she thinks now is a good time to be a creative given all we hear about the squeeze on millennials from an inescapable triumvirate of rising rents, wage pressures and an austerity-driven, conservative ideological agenda.
“The internet has definitely made it easier to connect,” she argues. “People are still making zines because it’s still a relatively cheap and easy way of disseminating ideas. But the most creative and interesting people I know are making art because it’s the only way they know of doing things, to keep going. I love what John Waters says about people calling themselves artists: History will decide if you are an artist.”
While not all of the people in today’s zine world will withstand the onslaught of history to create something that really endures, one thing is certain: despite many forces trying to stand in their way, there’s an inspired generation of young female creators out there – and they’re absolutely killing it.
Mushpit Issue 8 is out now. To order a copy, visit dittopress.co.uk