Conclusion: selling ‘girl power’

Riot grrrl was not a homogenous phenomenon. Indeed, in this essay, I’ve hesitated between different ways of referring to it. To some extent, it was a ‘movement’ – a political campaign with explicit and broadly shared aims. It might equally be seen as a ‘subculture’ – a term which implicitly defines it more in terms of cultural expression and style (fashion, music, zines). It was also a ‘scene’, or a looser network of scenes – a set of locations and publications where people temporarily came together. Riot grrrl was all of these, rather than just one of them; and different people engaged with it at different levels and in different ways.

Even so, it’s important to distinguish between riot grrrl and some of the developments that followed it. As I’ve noted, the first riot grrrl bands emerged from some of the same locations as the early grunge scene. The media often blurred the distinctions between them and all-female (or female-led) grunge bands like Hole, Babes in Toyland and L7, seeking to identify a wider movement of ‘angry women in rock’ (in some cases, pejoratively termed ‘foxcore’). There were similarities here, albeit perhaps less in terms of music than fashion: many of these bands displayed the subversive mix of girlishness and sleazy adult sexuality that came to be called the ‘kinderwhore’ look. However, the music of the grunge bands was more polished, and most were eventually signed to major labels; many of them were more media-friendly, not to say attention-seeking; and their apparent ‘feminism’ (for instance, in the case of Hole’s Courtney Love) has certainly been open to question. Perhaps the only exception here is Sleater-Kinney, who remain by far the most lasting (and most commercially successful) band to have arisen from the early riot grrrl scene in Olympia.

However, the more pertinent contrast here is with the more willing commodification of some of the female bands and artists who followed in their wake. Singers like Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, who emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s, as well as later stars such as Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears, all occasionally displayed anger towards men, and promoted messages of empowerment and independent sexuality, which may have been influenced by riot grrrl. However, their music was much slicker and poppier, and they were all presented and packaged as more feminine and conventionally ‘attractive’. One might also trace a continuity from these performers through to the even more commercial girl groups that followed, most obviously the Spice Girls. A group pre-fabricated by a music industry mogul, the Spice Girls brought the slogan ‘girl power’ into the mainstream, along with feel-good messages about girls’ friendship, empowerment and independence.

For some, this is a straightforward story of recuperation. Kristen Schilt, for example, argues that performers like Morissette and the ‘angry women in rock’ phenomenon ‘appropriated key concepts from the riot grrrl movement and turned them into a million-dollar enterprise’. In packaging and commodifying feminism for mainstream consumption, Schilt argues, these artists neutralized its threat to male power and eviscerated its politics. As with Dick Hebdige’s original analysis, discussed above, there’s a sense here that dissemination to a wider audience necessarily entails a dilution (and often a complete betrayal) of the movement’s political challenge. In this account, the original riot grrrls are commended for resisting recuperation, through strategies like the attempted media blackout, even if they were not successful.

However, there is a more optimistic version of the story. In her book Girl Power, published in 2010, Marisa Meltzer begins by describing her own early teenage identification with riot grrrl. However, she also accuses the movement of becoming increasingly ‘dogmatic’ and ‘militant’; and she suggests that it effectively ensured its own demise by failing to engage with the media and commercial culture. Meltzer then goes on to outline the varieties of ‘girl power’ music that followed, arguing that (to different degrees) feminist messages were gradually diffused within the culture at large. While her judgments are careful and even-handed, in my view she gives undue credence to claims about the ‘empowering’ feminist potential of performers like the Spice Girls.

If the narrative of ‘recuperation’ is unduly simplistic, therefore, there are problems with this more optimistic argument as well. As I’ve emphasized, riot grrrl was a form of feminist activism: it was not just a matter of music or fashion, but of explicit politics. Although it reacted against some elements of second wave feminism, it should not be confused in any way with ‘post-feminism’, which at least in some versions appears to assume that the feminist struggle has achieved its aims, and is no longer necessary. Riot grrrl was also anti-consumerist, and resisted commodification in ways that later performers have not. As Alison Jacques suggests, there is a line that can be traced from the riot grrrls’ scrawling ‘BITCH’ and ‘WHORE’ on their midriffs to the similarly-adorned slogan t-shirts of the mid-2000s; but there are some very significant differences as well.

There are some complex debates here, which go beyond my scope in this essay. The diverse critical views of Madonna would be one obvious index of this: right from the time of her ascent to pop super-stardom in the early 1990s – coincident with the ‘moment’ of riot grrrl – critics have argued at length as to whether Madonna should be seen as a feminist, and indeed what that might mean. However, I find it hard to imagine a world in which the Spice Girls could meaningfully be described as feminist. Comparing the Spice Girls and Bikini Kill is like comparing apples and oranges, or Westlife and Radiohead: it doesn’t get us very far, not least because they address such different audiences. Taking account of the wider implications of all this also raises much broader questions, for example about the changing relationships between politics and consumer culture, the growing importance of celebrity and social media, and the ambivalent consequences for girls in particular.

Although it was a short-lived phenomenon, riot grrrl undoubtedly had a lasting, life-changing impact on many of these who were involved in it: that much is clear from the continuing interest it has sustained. Questions about its wider influence, beyond the brief moment of its first appearance, are more difficult to address: one would need to look much more closely, not just at the artists themselves, but at how their work was understood and used by audiences of different kinds. However, as I hope to have shown, the fate of riot grrrl still has a good deal to teach today, not just for feminism but for progressive political and cultural movements more broadly.


See sources and references…