The Chainletter Tapes by Mary Billyou


The Chainletter Tapes

Mary Billyou

The slot in our front door rattled, and my sister received a letter. I read it, looking over her shoulder. Quickly, she folded it up and put it away, dismissing it: “It’s just a chain letter.” I was concerned—it looked important. It listed a number of handwritten signatures, including some of her friends. It was the year of the Bicentennial; to my child’s eyes, it looked like a version of the United States Constitution. It read, “If the pattern is not broken, there is no way it can not work. Be sure to copy this letter entirely. OMIT NONE OF IT!” The envelope was addressed to my sister, but its message suggested the unknown power of an organized group. Filled with casual threats, but also the vague possibility of change, its language was strange and foreboding. It thrilled me. Like a stone dropped into a pool, its effect seemed to circle around our house in ever-widening echoes: its promise could only be fulfilled if the rules were followed. That is, if she was a good girl and did it correctly. I was not yet ten years old, and the directives of this kind of magical thinking appealed to me.

Years later, long after my sister had left for good, I remember Bill placing headphones on my ears during study hall. I felt like I was under a waterfall—it was the Minutemen. Their sound signaled something beyond my orderly, isolated, and circumscribed world. Punk as a sound, an idea, a style, a band of outsiders, helped focus my chaotic inner life. I liked its brainy, edgy, intricate apocalyptic vision.

In 1992, I crash-landed in Washington, DC; I was in freefall. Trained in assiduous self-presentation, my life was about surviving, which meant hiding and muffling my emotions. But what had been my false front finally began falling apart. Too much had happened to me for my body’s surface to contain, and I was spinning out of control. With no words, no context, and no dialogue in which to express my experience, I had no way of finding an alternate path. I desperately needed something or somebody onto which I could hold, like a life preserver.

In August, as if following a trail of breadcrumbs, I attended the Riot Grrrl Convention. I went to Dupont Circle to see the free performances. Juliana Luecking, the spoken-word artist, opened the set. In drag, she presented a sophisticated man of the world, wearing a smoking jacket, slippers, and smoking a pipe. He made me smile reminding me of several familiar male figures combined: my father, Hugh Hefner, and Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island. Accompanying him was a tall, lanky bassist with long scraggly hair named Bernie, also in drag, as a Playboy bunny. In fishnet stockings, her hairy legs looked gangly. Their first story was about spray-painting the word “F-U-C-K”—slowly, letter by letter—on a wall in capital letters. After they performed, the Shrieking Violets played, and then Cheesecake.

Around me was a crowd of people, mostly young women. On the edges of the group were curious passersby, mostly men, uncomprehending. Looking like camp counselors, organizers held clipboards and had tied their T-shirts underneath their breasts. On their stomachs they had scrawled “RAPE” and “SLUT” in black marker.

I was invited to go to a party the next afternoon at the Positive Force House. Taking the metro to the Clarendon stop, I walked the rest of the way. The girls were rowdy, and there were no boys. I had never experienced an environment like this before. Laughing in the doorway, Mary looked like a gangsta rapper, shoving her hand in her jeans and grabbing her crotch. For five bucks, I got a Shrinky Dinks necklace that said “Riot Grrrl DC.” I wore the chain around my neck.

After that, I went to meetings, which were closed to boys. Huddled in our hard-won territory, we were like Darla and her friends from The Little Rascals (1922–44) with a sign on the door, askew: No Boys Allowed. Importantly, this space gave us time to speak and be heard. Unknowingly, I found myself participating in “the creation of safe havens for females to gather and express [our]selves in personal, political, and sexual ways.”1 At the time, I didn’t actually speak. I didn’t know how to yet: I merely began to breathe.

Different from earlier iterations of feminism, Riot Grrrl explicitly intended to reclaim what it meant to be a girl. Sitting on the floor in face-to-face meetings, most of us had grown up too quickly to know what that meant. Most of us, like myself, had fled childhood. On those quiet afternoons in Arlington, healing began, and future plans took place. Sometimes one of us would arrive, having something urgent to talk about that made the outside threat real again. Other times we just talked about what interested us, what bothered us, and what we wanted to do. We planned fundraisers for battered women’s shelters in which all-girl bands played: Lois, Slant Six, and Bikini Kill. We organized art shows. We spray-painted, dressed up, and had sleepovers. We responded to a fraction of the heart-filled letters pouring into the Riot Grrrl P.O. Box. We debated working in strip clubs, talked about the social status and healthcare of sex workers. We discussed the conservative feminist dialogues of Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. We wanted to be united in our positions, but we were becoming many.

One organized activity was slipping DIY fliers into fashion magazines found in grocery checkout lines and in shops. Targeted as a site for direct communication with women and girls outside our group, we saw this messaging as a potentially liberating activity, in which our handmade material would become the rupturing conflict the glossy images never seemed to convey. Our actions set out tosabotage the rational production of ideologies we perceived as harmful lies. We were sick of being condescended to and not having our issues addressed by the media we consumed.

Our missives hailed a gendered consumer identity, both overproduced and overlooked by the media. Mary’s flier appropriated a familiar advertisement of a docile, bikini-clad girl, which said in bold lettering, “Get the look that boys notice,” and went on to sell a weight-loss program. Modification came about through a Sharpie’s rant railing against anorexia, the everyday objectification of girls’ bodies, and the furthering of repressive messages about body size and “attractiveness.” Another flier addressed a predator, calling him out: “I just wanted to let you know that I am not going to *smile *act dumb *hide my body *pretend *lie *be silent for you…” Others relayed statistical information about rape in our society, detailed the emotional effects of slutshaming, and promoted crying in public.

Disconnected from our mothers, it seemed to us as if the Women’s Liberation Movement had never occurred. At least, we never experienced the jubilance that liberation suggests. We never witnessed anybody burning bras, making demands, or had the expectation of being paid equal wages. Further, we didn’t define ourselves as positivist heroes leading the world to a progressive future. We never expected to be granted access to representative government. We weren’t interested in gaining permission; we circumnavigated it. To us, discretion was no longer a viable response to the daily tragedy of consent and the reality of rape.2

Understanding that our bodies were contested territory,3 not just in our parents’ houses but also on Capitol Hill, we believed in the anarchist assertion of autonomy and self-determination. Labels and categories were suspect, as were the paternal concerns of whether or not pornographic imagery was a positive or negative influence upon innocent minds. We knew all too well that censorship and the moralist, patriarchal leadership it supports can easily create environments in which experience becomes unspeakable. When hate crimes and hate speech go unrecognized, communication shuts down. Sexual identity, if denied, plays itself out in contradictory ways, on the punk stage, in the strip bar, on the street, and elsewhere. Hardcore, the DC style, combines “jazz-like precision with rock showmanship.”4 Oppositional music, punk’s terrain, is shock and senselessness, responding to an inner disconnect with an overwhelming sensational reality. Good performers can convey and lead audiences to altered states of intense physical and emotional experience. Dancing, if collective, can become more like fighting— if solo, it is more like an epileptic fit.

Straight edge, another hallmark of DC punk, developed as an attempt at self-care and sustainable social relations within a marginal existence. (The DC punk scene was not free from predators.) Like the two X’s marked on the backs of hands of underage kids at shows, straight edge describes not only someone underage (e.g., a person who could not legally be served alcohol), but is also a sign of solidarity with youth in a world in which adults are missing or out of control. As mainstream society’s strident “No” repeats through electronic feedback, the possibility of another world appears: “Yes.” A distinctly negative subject position turns through consciousness, experience,and self-definition into one of relevant and valuable prescience. Under these conditions, limitations are viewed as helpful, ultimately revealing what is important.


We found expression in our voices, aided by microphones and amplifiers. At shows, performers would relate stories of harassment while they had been on tour. Mia Zapata, the lead singer of the Gits, had recently been sexually assaulted and murdered in a parking lot after her band had performed. Our awkward, innocent girlhoods, delayed and unnatural, were displayed in performances of anger. This way, we released suppressed traumas from rape culture, like steam from a teakettle.

Creating a carnival-like cacophony of shared expression across a space, live shows are intense and exhilarating experiences. The distinctions between listeners and performers can become blurred, especially in “the moat,” the area between the stage and audience. Engaging this notoriously macho arena, sometimes riot grrrls would entwine elbows, facing outward, forming a circle, shouting and challenging those they faced. Inside, other grrrls were protected, able to be present front and center. In this situation, space-making took place in public, not behind closed doors. A series of orchestrated group actions, these performances shifted territory within the scene. The action drew attention to the scene’s interior complexity. It also pointed to its structural similarity to the dominant outside world. What remained was the problem of difference and of being multiple. What could make girls want to fight?

Part of an underground scene, alternative spaces like punk houses provide both a haven and a network for escapees from the “real” world. Because of the inflexible top-down structures of dominant society, punk houses create utopian imaginaries in relief, while providing forms of self-care through agency. Collective moves toward separatism recognize that sometimes attention is not wanted. Informing our activities were other self-organized groups like the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), the Women’s Health Action Mobilization (WHAM), and the Guerrilla Girls. We were conscious participants in complex counterpublics that “[continue] to be theorized as [places] of active resistance to patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia.”5 Under certain circumstances, separatism is necessary; not only does it create a safer world, it can create rich worlds in the midst of poverty.

In this environment, in the spring of 1994, Women’s Punk Art Making Party came about. Hosted at the Beehive Collective at 925 U Street NW, the party was like any other party. Workshopped at riot grrrl meetings, the event was to be more “open” than closed meetings, explicitly inviting “women,” not just self-identified grrrls. Participants were asked to bring art supplies. Interested in filmmaking and photography, I had recently begun working as a camera assistant on commercial productions. Although I was treading a fine line, I brought my video camera. A year previously, in response to articles appearing in Newsweek, Spin, USA Today, the Washington Post, etc., Riot Grrrl had called for a national “media blackout.” A public refusal, a media blackout disrupts the flow of information and interrupts business as usual. In this case, it was employed as a signal flare to those within the counterculture. The blackout indicated an enemy: mass media.

As Raymond Williams points out, “Anything can be said, provided that you can afford to say it and that you can say it profitably.”6. Those who can afford the large corporate media systems are those with big wallets, calling their ideological regime the “majority.” Addressing a generalized audience, mass media doesn’t distinguish unique characteristics among its listeners, readers, or viewers. The culture industry positions its audience similarly, as a mass: in this system, we are just a heap of raw material.

In Lucy Thane’s documentary It Changed My Life: Bikini Kill in the UK (1993), Bikini Kill drummer and singer Tobi Vail casually remarks: “Everybody’s talking about what kind of girl. Nobody’s starting a riot.”7 Living in late capitalism, we were well aware of the accepted symbolic paradigm that employs women as commodities, trading images of female bodies like dollar bills. Self-conscious performers, we understood we were political subjects in a world in which rampant commercialism pushed our concerns to the periphery, i.e., that we were “nobody.” Something polished or appealing was not the point. That was for pop culture. We needed something difficult to translate.

Communication is a two-way street that requires cooperation. Listening, and asking “What does she want me to know?” are integral to the exchange of information. Meaning, produced through a chain of signifiers, cannot shape reality unless it is interpreted by a community of speakers.8 At the party, Sherry said, “Ugh. I don’t like the camera. It’s bugging me. It’s making me feel uncomfortable.” I turned it off. Cameras change atmospheres, are phallic signifiers, and are invasive. Part of a larger apparatus, their presence always suggests other unknown, possibly hostile contexts in which captured material will be reviewed and played back. Still, when things got interesting again, I turned the camera back on. I thought things might be different for me, maybe. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, my mother’s casually cruel remark haunted me: “Why do you think you’re so special?”

Later, in order to make the video I wanted to make, I realized I needed more footage. Frustrated, I called Sherry, hoping she might help me. I asked her if she would be interested in making a separate video with parameters she set. Sounding surprised, she declined. A few days later she telephoned, telling me that Angela might be into it. Encouraged, I quickly made a list of all the people I knew at the party and their phone numbers. Calling each one directly, I proposed the same plan. If they hesitated, I suggested they show the artwork they had made at the party. If they were still unsure, I said they could talk about someone or a song they loved.

My first meeting, with Angela, was short and direct. She described her mixed feelings about the party, and how the presence of other people affected her sense of self and her ability to create. The presence of the camera seemed to transform her activity into something “other” than what she had planned. My ignorance of how her energy was appropriated made her feel out of control. Looking directly into the lens, she said, “and that’s why I didn’t want to be filmed either.” Still, she presented the work she made that day: a lampshade painted black and blue with the faces of the blonde sisters from The Brady Bunch (1969–74) emerging from the darkness. After that, I met with five other young women. Some of these collaborations were done in an afternoon, like Angela’s. Others took weeks to produce, after elaborate and detailed preparation.

Around this time, Cynthia handed me a flier saying, “You might be interested in this.” It announced Big Miss Moviola. Conceived by independent filmmaker Miranda July, the distribution project was structured like the punk scene, by word of mouth and fliers passed from hand to hand. This flier had been brought to DC from Portland, Oregon, by way of a touring band. Xeroxed, the Big Miss Moviola flier signaled the punk style. It promised unheard-of magic for five dollars, reminding me of the hard sell in the final pages of comic books. Like punk’s embodied gesture of the pogo—shoulder patches emblazoned with paired arrows pointing up and down—and riot grrrl’s use of the number “69,” this message directly addressed me. Once I finished editing the video, I duly sent in a VHS tape, a statement, and five dollars. Before the internet, YouTube, and Vimeo, this exchange between audience and producers was generated through another overlooked infrastructure: USPS media mail. I waited. What would happen?

This new “network for women filmmakers”9 seemed to answer my developing concern that there might be some control over where and how my video would be received. The risk of being vulnerable in public is a frightening prospect, especially when “the public” has always already been marked as male.10 I understood the possibility that Big Miss Moviola presented: by generating an audience, a feminist counter-cinema could be created. Ideally this audience would develop alongside imagemakers “so that the filmmakers and spectators [would] share a common framework of concerns and the audience [could] thus immediately relate to the film’s intervention in a specific area.”11 Engaging directly with a group’s process, media in this sense could be a tool, supporting a community and expanding it further.

Contextualizing submissions into groups of ten, the compilations were organized in the order they were received. Far flung, there were filmmakers from Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington, and elsewhere. They also hailed from Germany and the United Kingdom. Comprising a virtual nation,12 most filmmakers were and still are unknown to each other. A zine accompanied each Chainletter Tape, comprised of the individual statements and contact information of the filmmakers. By its completion in 2007, the project had gathered over two hundred short films by women filmmakers.

Pleasure is found in play, somewhere beyond the rational, the accepted, the norm. Expanding group identity and process, imagining an alternate audience, can be like conjuring. In gestures of luxurious defiance, Girl Culture and Girl Power said, This is not for you, it’s for us. Creating the back-and-forth needed for exchange and development, a generative scene recognizes the value of connections and interactions. When it comes to relationships, word of mouth is still the most reliable. Otherwise, how are we able to trust each other?

If modes of production correspond to social reproduction, the Chainletter filmmakers’ lo-fi existence relied upon the domesticated media of the home VCR. With no editing capabilities, there was only STOP and RECORD. The replicating signal of bootlegs and its deteriorated imagery became the glue between cultural subjects. It didn’t really matter what was playing, or how skilled the performers were. What was more important was the “horizontal comradeship”13 signaled by the transgressive techniques of weird developments within consumer culture—fan and pirate culture.

When does passivity turn into aggression? Further, how do we embody and experience being objects of desire in a culture that rationalizes and trivializes violence against women? Where and how does consent to hegemony occur? A topography emerges, mapping intersections and dynamic nodes, revealing reflexive ins and outs. Within systems of structural oppression, definition is always a compromise. Easy, binary thinking becomes brittle if lingering questions and subtleties are not addressed. Shuffling the order of things, we merely played on the edges of complicity and resistance.

MARY BILLYOU is a filmmaker whose work combines the amateur, punk, and feminism, consciously engaging film as a readerly text.

NOTES 1. Val C. Phoenix, “From Womyn to Grrrls: Finding Sisterhood in Girl Style Revolution,” Deneuve (January/February 1994), 40–43. 2. Leah Perry, “I Can Sell My Body If I Wanna: Riot Grrrl Body Writing and Performing Shameless Feminist Resistance,” Lateral 4 (2015), 3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 147. 4. Matthew Trammel, “The Don of Hardcore Steps Up Again,” New Yorker, January 2, 2017, hardcore-steps-up-again. 5. Mary Celeste Kearney, “Riot Grrrl: It’s Not Just Music, It’s Not Just Punk,” Spectator 16, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 1995), 82–95. 6. Raymond Williams, Communications (London, UK: Penguin Random House, 2016), 81. 7. Tobi Vail, in It Changed My Life: Bikini Kill in the UK (1993, directed by Lucy Thane). 8. See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966). 9. Big Miss Moviola flier, Miranda July, c. 1993. 10. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 30. 11. E. Ann Kaplan, Women & Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Methuen, 1983), 199. 12. Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 310. 13. Ibid.

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