Representation of Bisexual Women in Romance Zines in the 1990’s
By Emma Smith (2022)
One of the most prominent outlets for bisexual representation in the romance fiction industry in the 1990’s were zines. Zines were self-published forums “for off-beat and amateur communication” (Herrada, 1). They became wildly popular with the rise of the cheap and accessible photo copying technology as authors were able to self-publish their work on minimal budgets (Herrada, 1). While easy to produce, getting one’s zine into the hands of readers was difficult. Herrada explains, “the dedication it takes to publish a zine is matched only by the desire to communicate about topics as diverse as art, science, politics, DIY (do it yourself) activities, poetry, sex, or UFOs” (Herrada, 1). Zines also provided an ideal outlet for bisexual authors, artists, and readers as “this method of publishing circumvent[ed] one of the greatest risks controversial or nonconformist writers face: censorship. Articles, artwork, photos, poetry, stories, and news are printed as is, without fear of editor’s pen or advertiser’s opinion” (Herrada, 1). Overall, zines allowed for bisexual women to have representation within the romance fiction industry that mostly excluded them throughout the 1990’s. In this paper, I am arguing that zines created representation and an outlet for bisexual women in the 1990’s through recommended reading and viewing lists, satirical publications, and erotica. I will be exploring the content of the Bi-Girl World! romance zine series that was popular in the 1990’s to further understand the ways in which bisexual women utilized zines as an outlet for representation in a romance fiction industry that mostly excluded them.
History of Bisexual Erasure in Romance
The 1990’s represented a turning point in the history of LGBTQ rights and representation in American media, literature, and society as a whole. As explained by Ana Carolina de Barros in her analysis of bisexual representation in American romance media, “representation of gay and lesbian people has largely improved over the past 60 years as it has expanded to include more diverse and positive characters.” (de Barros, 113). However, the same cannot be said of bisexual representation in American media and literature in the 1990’s. de Barros argues, “despite the growing push for LGBTQ acceptance and recognition during the 1980s and 1990s, clear and positive mainstream bisexual representation did not evolve during this time” (de Barros, 107). Instead, de Barros highlights a trend of ‘female bisexual erasure’ in the media she studies. Female bisexual erasure can take three forms: “downplaying sexual attraction to men (e.g., ignoring or even killing off previous male lovers), describing erotic scenes between two women as “lesbian”, and constructing bisexuality as an invisible identity (e.g., implying bisexuality is a phase through which one passes while moving toward lesbianism)” (de Barros, 107). While representation of gay men and lesbian women improved in American romance media throughout the 1990’s, representation of bisexual women remained stagnant. Many even considered the limited representation of bisexual characters that did exist to be counterproductive and harmful. In her analysis of early 2000’s young adult novels containing romantic plots involving bisexual characters, Bonnie Kneen found many of these novels to be disempowering for potential young, bisexual readers. She explains, “ideologically speaking… published bisexual narratives for teenagers is distinguishable only by degree from its disempowering margin. That is, in being neither very bi nor particularly sexual, novels in both these categories are alike in evading the plurality and sexuality of bisexuality” (Kneen, 375). By erasing either the sexual or pluralistic elements of bisexual characters’ romantic relationships, she argues that these novels do not benefit the representation of bisexuality in American literature (Kneen, 363). Ultimately, B. J. Epstein concludes that in many books between the 1980’s and early 2000’s “bisexuality is either invisible or else negatively portrayed.” (Epstein, 1). While representation of bisexual characters and relationships in romance lagged far behind the progress made by gay and lesbian representation, many members of the bisexual community turned to other means of accessing the romance fiction industry. As explained by Julie Herrada, “even though excluded from the mainstream for having messages too obscure, extreme, or unmarketable, people through the ages have produced an unsilenced stream of publications reflecting the personal, the illegal, or the bizarre” (Herrada, 1).
Bi-Girl World!, the romance zine series this paper will study, was published in the United States between 1985 and 1999. All editions were self-published by women and girls and included submissions from readers. Most submissions were sent in and published anonymously; few were attributed to their original authors. Bi-Girl World! frequently covered topic such as feminism, body image and consciousness, music, film, poetry, rock and punk music, comics, sexual identity, homosexuality and bisexuality, and erotica.
Recommended Reading and Viewing Lists
The first way that bisexual women utilized romance zines like Bi-Girl World! as an outlet for representation was by curating and publishing recommended reading and viewing lists of more inclusive romance literature and movies. The Fall 1992 edition of Bi-Girl World! Polymorphously Perverse includes a feature entitled “Women Make Movies.” The article highlights the writer’s pick of her favorite movies recently created and directed by women (Bi-Girl World! Poly Perverse, 6). The intro to the article states “YES… Women make movies! And they have been making movies with vengeance for the past two years or so” (Bi-Girl World! Poly Perverse, 6). The editor suggests eight different movies that are either made by women or feature powerful, progressive female characters and provides a brief commentary on each, explaining why they believe that the specific audience of Bi-Girl World! would appreciate the films (Bi-Girl World! Poly Perverse, 6). In the Summer 1993 edition, Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, the editor includes a brief list of other zines intended for bisexual women. The editor titles the review “ZINE ALERT! 3 Bi-type Zines You Really Gotta Have” and lists three zines for bisexual women including Lardass, Veracuzine, and William Wants a Doll (Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, 6). At the bottom of the same page, the editor also includes recommendations and reviews for three bisexual romance fiction novels (Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, 6). They list Love, Love and Love by Sandra Berhnard, Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw, and Like Life by Lorrie Moore (Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, 6). The editor provides a brief synopsis of each storyline, a general review of the novel, and an explanation of why she recommends each book for bisexual readers. They even use phrases like “plus—extremely bi” when explaining the reasoning behind each recommendation (Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, 6). The Winter 1993 edition, Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, includes a recommended movie list for bisexual romance fiction films. In the piece entitled, “Some Way Groovy Recommended Independent/Multi-Cultural International Viewing,” the author highlights eight films that center around characters in bisexual romantic relationships (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 7). They use descriptions like “brings a bi-girl’s fantasy to life” (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 7) and “a true bi film” (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 7) to explain why they recommend each film to Bi-Girl World!’s audience. The recommended media lists included in these three editions of Bi-Girl World! illustrate the way in which bisexual women utilized romance zines to promote inclusivity within the romance fiction industry and point bisexual women in the direction of romance fiction media with representative storylines they would likely enjoy.
Satirical Depictions of Bisexual Romance
The second way that bisexual women utilized romance zines like Bi-Girl World! as an outlet for representation was by publishing satirical comics and short stories about the romantic experiences of bisexual women. In the Winter 1994 edition, Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe, the editor includes a comic depicting a woman on a date with a man entitled “An Illicit Peek at “Liliane”” (Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe, 3). In the comic, the woman tells the man she is bisexual, and they jokingly call each other names considered to be homophobic slurs as an “identity affirmation exercise” (Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe, 3). On the next page of the same edition, the editor includes a satirical short story submitted by a reader, Joyce Slaton, about a bisexual high school girl who goes to a gay bar trying to find a woman to date (Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe, 4). The young girl describes her comedic attempts to go home with a woman that night in a way that makes her seem relatable and speaks in the second person to bring the reader into the story. For example, the story reads, “once inside with your fake ID, immediately down three beers… alienate the cutest punk rock girl in the bar by sliding up to her and saying, I like Morrissey a real whole lot, don’t you? Get brushed off and spend the next 20 minutes in the ladies room crying on a toilet” (Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe, 4). Slaton uses humor to address the difficulties that young bisexual women can face when pursing romantic relationships. Slaton, and many of the other contributing authors also use the second-person language to make their stories accessible and show other bisexual readers that many in their position go through similar struggles. Evgenia Iliopoulou explains that second-person language is traditionally used in literature when the author seeks to create a “dialogue between texts and authors,” enrich the reader’s engagement with the text, and make them feel included in the story (Iliopoulou, 6). On the last page of the same edition, the editor includes a short section of jokes called Happy Maxims to accomplish the same goal as the previous comic and short satirical story. One of the jokes included reads, “why do so many dykes own cats? Because we like to have something warm and soft, called a pussy to pet” (Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe, 16). Bi-Girl World! provided an outlet for bisexual women to embrace their sexuality while also utilizing romantic fiction and comedy to try and show bisexual readers they are not alone in the romantic struggles they can face. The Winter 1993 edition, Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, includes a satirical comic that compares dating men and women from the perspective of a bisexual woman. The comic explains what it means when a man asks you out on different dates in comparison to what it means when women ask you out on the same dates (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 10). For example, according to the comic, when a man asks you out for lunch, it means he “might want to sleep with you” (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 10). On the other hand, if a woman asks you out for lunch, it means that she “might consider having dinner with you” (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 10). If a man asks you out for drinks, it means “I want to sleep with you but with no strings attached” (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 10). If a woman asks you out for drinks, it means “I’m game” (Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade, 10). This satirical comic highlights the nuances and differences in dating both women and men for bisexual women in a casual and accessible way. Overall, the use of satire within Bi-Girl World allowed for bisexual women to speak openly about and relate to the struggles unique to bisexual romantic relationships that the broader romance fiction industry mostly ignored in the 1990’s.
The third way that bisexual women utilized romance zines like Bi-Girl World! as an outlet for representation was by including bisexual erotica literature that was rare within the broader romance fiction industry at the time. Erotica is a major sub-genre within romance fiction. However, as previously explained by de Barros, bisexuality was mostly absent from the romance fiction genre in the 1990’s due to female bisexual erasure. As a result, very little bisexual erotica existed in the romance fiction market of the 1990’s. Zines like Bi-Girl World! sought to change that by publishing bisexual erotica. For example, the Summer 1993 edition, Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, includes an erotic short story submitted by a reader named Lulu to the editor. Lulu alludes to the character in the story previously having sex with men while the story depicts two women having sex. The opening line of the story reads, “I hadn’t known two women could fuck so fast and furiously” (Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader, 5). Lulu places an emphasis on the character engaging in sex with both men and women, not shying away from or erasing the character’s bisexuality. In the Fall 1992 edition of Bi-Girl World!, the editor includes erotica depicting the character having sex with both a man and a woman, separately, but on the same page (Bi-Girl World! Poly Perverse, 4). At the top of the page, there is a brief erotic story and a picture depicting a woman having sex with a woman entitled “Gay Girls Make Me Wet” (Bi-Girl World! Poly Perverse, 6). On the bottom half of the same page, the same woman is pictured and described having sex with a man with the title “Gay Boys Make Me Hard” (Bi-Girl World! Poly Perverse, 6). By actively showing the same woman having sex with both a man and a woman on the same page, the author utilizes Bi-Girl World! to publish the bisexual erotica that the romance fiction industry of the 1990’s had erased and promote inclusion and representation of bisexual women.
Overall, the romance zine, Bi-Girl World!, was used as a means for bisexual women to create their own representation and include themselves in the romance fiction industry of the 1990’s that had mostly excluded them. Because zines were easily published independently, zines like Bi-Girl World! were able to incorporate contributions from bisexual women and promote the few other works of literature and media at the time that were inclusive of bisexual women. This paper ultimately outlined the way that zines created an outlet for bisexual women in the 1990’s romance fiction industry by publishing recommended reading and viewing lists of other bisexual-inclusive literature and movies, satirical stories and comics of common struggles of bisexual women, and bisexual erotica.
de Barros, Ana Carolina. “‘Gay Now’: Bisexual Erasure in Supernatural Media from 1983 to 2003.” Journal of Bisexuality 20, no. 1 (March 2, 2020): 104–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2020.1732258.
Epstein, B. J. “‘The Case of the Missing Bisexuals’: Bisexuality in Books for Young Readers.” Journal of Bisexuality 14, no. 1 (February 20, 2014): 110–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2014.872483.
Herrada, Julie. “Zines in Libraries: A Culture Preserved.” Serials Review 21, no. 2 (1995): 79–88. https://doi.org/10.1080/00987913.1995.10764253.
Iliopoulou, Evgenia. Because of You: Understanding Second-Person Storytelling. Transcript, 2019. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/fec4812b-d00a-4b22-9b30-2b5ead1ca2ae/9783839445372.pdf.
Kneen, Bonnie. “Neither Very Bi nor Particularly Sexual: The Essence of the Bisexual in Young Adult Literature.” Children’s Literature in Education 46, no. 4 (October 28, 2014): 359–77. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-014-9237-8.
1992. Bi-Girl World! Polymorphously Perverse. Fall, 1992. Sarah Dyer Zine Collection. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
1993. Bi-Girl World! Fabu Reader. Summer, 1993. Sarah Dyer Zine Collection. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
1993. Bi-Girl World! Wet Parade. Winter, 1993. Sarah Dyer Zine Collection. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
1994. Bi-Girl World! Bi-Atribe. Winter, 1994. Sarah Dyer Zine Collection. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.