Inclusion and identity politics

As I’ve implied, the riot grrrls’ debate about media was to some extent about the issue of inclusion. On the one hand, they wanted to reach out to a wider audience, and to generate a larger movement; and the mainstream media provided a potential means of enabling this. Yet on the other hand, they feared that in doing so, their message would be diluted and their political impact would be defused. Although this debate took an explicitly political form in this instance, it reflects a wider tension between individual self-expression and identification with the group that is typical of many youth subcultures.

On one level, the issue is to do with membership. Who is, or is not, a ‘member’ of a given subculture (or scene, or movement)? How do we distinguish between the authentic members, and those who are merely fakes or ‘wannabees’? How are the boundaries between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ established and maintained? This leads on to questions about leadership and hierarchy. Who has the right to define or determine who will be included or excluded? How is their authority established and sustained, and how can it be challenged? Who represents, or speaks for, the group, both internally and within the wider public arena? Finally, how do these issues relate to broader questions about identity politics? Are there particular social groups (defined, for example, in terms of gender, race, class or sexuality) who appear to be excluded? How does this occur, what consequences does it have, and how might it be remedied?

These issues were particularly fraught for those involved in riot grrrl, partly because of its explicit political aims, but also because of its insistence on individual autonomy. Riot grrrl was about girls’ right to self-expression, but it was also about group solidarity. These tensions were apparent from a very early stage, but they increasingly came to focus on the issue of identity politics; and it was partly as a result of this that the movement began to falter, and ultimately to implode, after a comparatively brief life-span.

Like most such movements, riot grrrl began with a small group – and as such, it inevitably provoked the charge that it was ‘cliqueish’. Despite claims of inclusiveness (‘Every girl’s a riot grrrl’ was a common slogan), many of those who tentatively approached the group at gigs and meetings found it intimidating. Were they wearing the right clothes, was their hairstyle appropriate, would they say the wrong things? As time went on, divisions between established members and ‘newbies’ were bound to emerge – and some outside the group were keen to point to differences between ‘militants’ and those who were less inclined to fully identify. It was easy for outsiders to sneer at riot grrrl as ‘insular’ or as a ‘coffee house clique’.

Riot grrrls themselves were aware of these issues. The zine Riot Grrrl Huh?, published in Olympia in 1991 or 1992, addressed questions that were clearly troubling the early participants: who is a ‘scenester’ and who isn’t, whose band gets to play and whose doesn’t, who is cool or a snob, and who isn’t? As we’ll see, this zine also laid out some difficult questions about identity politics that were already being raised. However, riot grrrls also pushed back at such charges, pointing to double standards at work. In the widely-circulated zine What is Riot Grrrl Anyway? (probably published in 1993), Anjelique writes:

I have heard a lot of people say a lot about Riot Grrrl being exclusive. Here are some things I have NOT heard those same people say: the way we speak is excusive (‘hey guys’, ‘yeah man’ etc.) – the way I/we write is exclusive – straight edge is exclusive – punk rock is exclusive – my cool club friends & I are exclusive… I never heard a word about exclusion until there was some thing going on that is not about rich straight white males.

These problems were compounded by the problem of leadership. The anti-hierarchical strain of feminist politics, combined with the anarchism of punk, meant that leadership of any kind was very likely to be resisted – as indeed it frequently was. Yet many would argue that political movements need leaders, both in order to organize and develop strategy, and in order to attract and manage outsiders. As I’ve noted, Kathleen Hanna was often singled out by the media as a charismatic representative of riot grrrl, who would ‘speak for’ the movement in general. In recollections of the period, authors like Marisa Meltzer have described the ‘hero-worship’ she and her friends bestowed on Hanna in particular. Yet Hanna herself consistently claimed to feel uneasy about this; and her exhaustion with this role partly accounts for her eventual withdrawal from the scene. Hanna also blames the media for generating disputes among riot grrrls and their sympathizers – although once again, this was surely to be expected.

However, these issues were increasingly implicated with forms of identity politics. To some extent, this was to do with gender. Riot grrrls were accused of excluding males, and of a kind of ‘reverse sexism’, and sometimes became targets of male abuse as a result. Bands were heckled by men in the audience while onstage, and they sometimes intervened to shout back. Several zines contain articles rejecting such accusations; and several riot grrrl bands included male members in any case (albeit not as an issue of ‘policy’). They argued that young women had been excluded for so long from the punk scene that they needed to organize separately if they were ever to participate fully within it. Female-only events and spaces in which to learn and perform were thus a necessary political strategy. Yet in some respects, it was easy to push back at such claims about gendered exclusiveness: for riot grrrls at least, ‘straight white boys’ were an easy target – even in the politically correct form of hardcore punk and straight edge (‘living righteously and being a “good guy” is not enough any more, dude’, as one zine writer put it).

Divisions over sexuality were sometimes apparent within riot grrrl, although they were rarely addressed explicitly. As Sara Marcus suggests, the model for riot grrrls was ‘the bisexual-with-a-boyfriend’, and most were essentially heterosexual. Riot grrrl drew on aspects of lesbian cultural style and politics, although in some instances (most notably in Riot Grrrl NYC) it sat a little awkwardly alongside the much longer-established lesbian scene.

However, other forms of exclusion proved more difficult to address. Riot grrrl’s limitations here partly reflect its history and its geographical origins. Olympia was (and is) a college town, and many of the original riot grrrls were undergraduate students. They were mostly middle-class and almost exclusively white (although in these respects they were arguably not untypical of the wider punk/hardcore scene). As the movement began to spread from Olympia to Washington DC and then beyond, the representativeness of the membership inevitably began to be called into question. While class inequalities were considered from time to time, they were not addressed with anything like the intensity that attached to race and racism.

It’s not as though race was an unexpected omission: on the contrary, as I’ve noted, the issue was on the agenda from the start. For example, Riot Grrrl Huh? lays out in some detail the advantages of ‘white privilege’, which it suggests are often taken for granted. It also describes a nexus of interlocking oppressions (to do with gender, race, class, nationality, religion and sexuality), which would now be called ‘intersectionality’; and it describes the author’s continuing difficulty in ‘seeing myself as an oppressor’. Arguments about the limitations of ‘white girl feminism’ were not new – indeed, they had had a far-reaching impact on second wave feminism, especially in the 1980s.

Riot grrrls were also called out in this respect by the few young women of colour who became involved in the movement. Ramdasha Bikcheem (author of the zine Gunk) and Mimi Nguyen (author of Slant and other zines) were two powerful voices here. Both wrote of their experiences of frequently being the only person of colour in the ‘white bread scene’ of punk, and of riot grrrl too. However, they also resisted the idea that they should somehow be responsible for educating their white sisters. Nguyen in particular has been fairly excoriating in her criticisms of white liberal anti-racism, which she sees as self-regarding, competitive and hypocritical: the ‘girl love’ or solidarity of riot grrrl, she argues, was merely a charade, a manifestation of white privilege.

However, it hard to see how the riot grrrls might have moved forward in a situation where any attempt to address the problem could be seen as a further manifestation of white guilt. It seems that practical attempts to reach out in these terms were ineffective. For example, Theo Cateforis and Elena Humphreys describe several attempts to diversify the line-up of gigs organized by Riot Grrrl NYC, but this didn’t seem to have had much effect on the composition of the crowd. The fact remained that the forms of music favoured by riot grrrls were not those preferred by most African-American girls, who were able to look to the burgeoning hip hop and R&B scenes of the period. It’s not impossible that the exclusion worked in both (or several) directions at once.

Despite its egalitarian feminism, and the anarchism it inherited from punk, riot grrrl was also prone to the forms of ideological policing and sectarianism that frequently inhibit progressive social movements. Intersectionality can degenerate into a futile competition over a hierarchy of oppressions: the call for ‘coalition work’ is hard to sustain in a situation where race is believed to override gender, or gender trumps class. An atmosphere of guilt, shame and self-accusation can prove politically debilitating, particularly if there is not much one can do to move beyond it. As Sara Marcus suggests, the ‘willingness to be wrong’ that was important at the outset of riot grrrl eventually became a rare quality: politics increasingly appeared to become a matter of individual self-righteousness, of purifying the self from any taint of incorrectness – a position that can itself be accused of a kind of complacency. Marcus’s thoughtful and comprehensive history ends with a powerful sense of disillusionment: like other recent commentators, she is keen to keep the legacy alive, but she cannot avoid the fragmentation and recriminations with which the movement ended.

It’s likely that the initial energy of riot grrrl would have dissipated in any event. This was partly a matter of generational shifts, which are bound to occur in youth subcultures. Older participants, many now in their mid-twenties, were wary of younger enthusiasts seeking out the scene, fearing that they just didn’t ‘get it’; while some younger participants were alienated by the dominance of established authorities, and quickly drifted off elsewhere. As some participants later suggested, it was restricting to remain fixed in a ‘moment of anger’: the original riot grrrls simply grew up and out of the scene, and those who came up behind them had other concerns and motivations. The movement was still active in the mid-1990s, although the label ‘riot grrrl’ was no longer always claimed or applied; but by 1997-8, most of the early activists had long since moved on. Again, one might well make similar observations about other such phenomena: the history of youth subcultures could to some extent be told as a history of summer ‘moments’ – the hippy summer of love (1968), the summer of punk (1977), and the ‘second summer of love’ induced by rave and acid house (1988) – although such moments might also be regarded as mere media inventions. Even so, perhaps it is wrong to attempt to sustain such moments; and perhaps sometimes a moment is all that is needed.


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