Backgrounder: Debbie Stoller

In 1992, a couple of “overeducated, underpaid, late-20-something cubicle slaves began bonding over Sassy magazine and obscure records.” At least that’s how Debbie Stoller and fellow Bust magazine founder Marcelle Karp told it, in their introduction to the 1999 essay collection The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order. Spurred by the out-spoken sensibility of the riot grrrl movement, which adapted feminist principles to fit the punk scene of the early ’90s, Stoller and Karp decided to start a ‘zine aimed at a new wave of feminists. They ran off the first 500 copies of BUST at Nickelodeon’s offices, where they worked.

Stoller, who grew up in Brooklyn, had recently graduated with a Ph.D. in Women’s Psychology from Yale University and headed back home with the idea of starting a new kind of magazine, one that embraced a positive, permissive idea of womanhood and explored the connection between the popular and political. “Our cultural values that we’re surrounded by really make up the political sphere,” Stoller explained in a telephone interview with this reporter in February 2006. With Bust, she and Karp wanted to address the evolution of feminism in all its complexity.

“We’ve captured the voice of the brave new girl,” wrote Stoller and Karp in The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, “One that’s raw and real, straightforward and sarcastic, smart and silly, and liberally sprinkled with references to our own Girl Culture.”

Bust’s uncensored politics, its brazen attitude toward sex, and its unabashed coverage of all things girlie quickly found an audience. The ‘zine, which premiered in 1993, grew from a side project into a full-time enterprise in the summer of 2001. Circulation went from 1,000 to 100,000 in just eight years, according to Stoller. After Karp left the magazine in 2001, Stoller took the helm as editor-in-chief and continued to build on the magazine’s previous success. In 2005, said, “Bust [proves] that feminists [want] their humor, style, and sex, in addition to equal pay and political gains.”

Although Bust continues to battle for advertising dollars, Stoller says it has “carved out a cultural space.” “I feel like we’ve had an influence on young women in the past 10 years,” Stoller told Zoe Williams of The Guardian in 2005, “People define themselves by this magazine… And I’m really, really proud of that.”

Nitasha Tiku is a graduate student at NYU’s Department of Journalism.


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