The Bust anthology reads like the literary equivalent of Girls Night Out: With no boys around we’ll talk about them and sex, TV and sex, politics and sex, nail polish and sex, work and sex, music and sex. Altogether a very pleasant hang-out session where kvetching about the crick in your neck from blowjobs flows effortlessly into a discussion of Time magazine’s “Is Feminism Dead?” cover story and then wends its way to a riff on motherhood, Judy Blume, and abortions.
Launched in 1993 as an antidote to Cosmo and its ilk, Bust is a biannual zine celebrating the f-words (feminism, fucking, fashion). The Bust Guide
is a best-of collection featuring cultural criticism, celebrity interviews, and quirky, personal essays—all written in the finest gal-pal style.
The numerous writers are also big on making lists—do’s and don’ts, fashion tips for boys, seven things to expect when your best friend is expecting, etc. I’ll add my own. Do read Bust because:
1. Bust is educational. The vocabulary-building words and phrases I encountered were plater (slang for hard-on), moistie (what girls get downthere), and shebonics (the gum-snapping, wise-cracking language of girl).
2. Bust is prosex. (Decrying the “orgasm gap”—75 percent of men report having orgasms during sex while only 29 percent of women do—the Bust editors urge readers to banish the “insidious sexual double standard that keeps men hard, and women hard up.” They do their best to counter its effects with intimate consumer reports on the Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator and a treatise on why the term cocksucker should be a badge of honor—with the caveat, for those who are squeamish about cum, “that if you’ve got the business end of a penis in your face, into your life a little rain must fall.”)
3. Bust is a call to arms. “Wake up and smell the lip gloss, ladies: The New Girl Order has arrived.”
A brief history: Bust was conceived in 1992 by a couple of self-described “overeducated, underpaid, late-twenty-something cubicle slaves, working side-by-side at a Giant Media Conglomerate.” Annoyed that the Giant Media Conglomerates ignored real girl culture—”that shared set of female experiences that includes Barbies and blowjobs, sexism and shoplifting, Vogue and vaginas,” they pined for a magazine that would speak to the new-wave feminists who had “stomped their way through the eighties in lipstick and combat boots and thrift store dresses.” The editors recall, “This was not going to be Ms. magazine for juniors, but rather Sassy for grown-ups.”
Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller put out the first Bust on a budget of
zero, personally xeroxing and stapling the 29 pages of articles contributed by Bust-y girls (who wrote for free, under pseudonyms). In five years they went from a distribution of 1000 to 32,000, “a small step for magazines, but a giant leap for zinekind.”
While Bust is marketed to the “young, hip, urban girl,” young may be a bit of a stretch. My detective work—carefully analyzing, for example, a
minimemoir on hairstyles where the eight-year-old in a Carol Brady shag graduates to a Toni Tennille cut before turning, in high school, to Cher (braids) and Stevie Nicks (bandannas) as patron saints of the Bad Hair Day—made it clear that many of these writers are pushing thirtyfivesomething.
Which brings me to my only critique of The Bust Guide. If the writers are thirtyfivesomething, hip, urban girls in the know, how come some of the chapter intros read like Feminism 101? Maybe it’s a sisterly attempt to clue in slightly younger, less-knowledgeable-about-history readers? Or maybe it’s a book editor’s insistence on a tidy and conventional format? But the folks at Bust should have resisted the pressure by saying, “Read my lips. It’s an anthology, stupid. Accept the sometimes contradictory voices as part of women’s complexity.”
Even more problematic, in an attempt to simplify the history of feminism into catchy sound bites, the editors occasionally espouse a shallow interpretation of the movement (buying into the mainstream media’s portrayal of ’70s feminists as monolithic, antisex, and anti child, for example), without acknowledging their Bust-y foremothers who stood on the margins shouting at the mainstream media, “That ain’t us.”
Still, rising out of the generalizations in the intros are enough trenchant insights to keep you intrigued. If not quite persuaded. For example, editor Debbie Stoller speculates that this generation of feminists has adopted a new mantra—the popular is political—
by eagerly signing up for college courses like “Feminist Film Theory” and “Madonna 101” and eschewing time-honored activism. Recognizing that “man can create man in his own image, but he’ll create women in whatever form his fantasies take,” Stoller says we feminists must be vigilant monitors of pop culture. “Besides, it’s much more fun to be an activist when it involves sitting on your couch, munching popcorn, and watching the boob tube instead of marching for hours on the hot concrete sidewalks of Washington, D.C.,” she quips. But the armchair feminist is not a substitute for the activist. After all, media criticism is a form of consciousness raising; it’s where you start, not stop.
I recognize the appeal in the argument, however—”I’m reading Cosmo, because ya hafta know your enemy, dontcha?” The beauty of Bust is that you’ve been there.
Or your best friend has been there. Or you’ve both been there. Literally. Like in my very favorite Bust
story called “Watching Him Fuck Her,” where Girlbomb sits in a bar one Friday night and watches as her ex-boyfriend, Katz, makes the moves on her best girlfriend, Claudia.
“Katz wants to have sex with you,“ I told her. We‘re candid like that. “What are you kidding?“ Her tinny, cordless voice pitched a little high at the end. So she already knew. “No way. You think?“ Of course she knew.
Girlbomb sees the attraction—Katz “gives great banter”—but still seethes over their breakup, when she got that tired line about just wanting to be friends:
“I still thought we should see each
other,“ he tells me, which means: He thought he should still be able to come by my house and have sex with me, or call me up late when he was feeling neurotic, yet simultaneously remain free to nakedly scope other women, even while sitting across the table from me at brunch, without me pitching a fit. A likely story. The long, drawn-out, likely story of my life.
In these stories and essays about being female in America, most contributors strike just the right note. The writing is witty and ironic, full of pointed barbs and references that mock our passions but also honor them. There is “Falling From Grace,” the story of a 13-year-old girl whose gang of friends formally reject her with a six-point note titled “The reason no one likes you is because” and decorated on the outside of the tight folds with the words “U ASKED 4 IT. SORRY, BUT. FROM EVERY-ONE. SORRY.” There is “Waste,” a story by a woman whose boyfriend begs her for six years to pee on him during sex: “If I peed on him, I say, I wouldn’t be able to look at myself, talk to my mother on the phone, or pee the same way again.” There is “More Than a Blow Job,” which opens with a little intellectual and moral exercise called The White Room: “Say you’re in a small white cubicle with no windows and only a mattress on the floor. Being realistic, how much money would it take to give a blow job to (insert repulsive celebrity)?” From fashion to puberty to bar games, the essays are short, snappy, and full of recognizable moments.
Bust reads—in my vengeful
fantasy—like the editors scoured the cubicles of America and collected small gems from all the disaffected, disenchanted, and discounted administrative assistant types whose bad attitude has kept them out of power (and print) until now. “Ours is the magazine for women with something to get off their chests,” the editors said. And in a gush of venom, the delightful Bust was born.