Introduction

It’s now a quarter of a century since the media began announcing the death of riot grrrl. The movement did not last very long – although as is often the case, some people maintain that it has never died, while others claim to detect periodic signs of revival. Certainly, there are few under the age of forty who are likely to have heard of it. Yet arguably, riot grrrl continues to exercise an influence that has been much more lasting than its relatively short life-span would suggest.

The thumbnail history would run something like this. Riot grrrl was an explicitly feminist youth movement that emerged from the US post-punk and hardcore scenes. It was born in early 1991 in the small college town of Olympia in Washington State, USA; although it wasn’t named until later that year, when members of two key bands, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, were staying on a summer break in Washington DC. The movement was consolidated back in Olympia in August of that year when these and other female-only (or female-led) bands played at a ‘girl night’, which opened the International Pop Underground Convention. From these origins, riot grrrl became a national movement, spread both by coverage in the mainstream media and by a proliferation of ‘zines’ published and distributed in informal networks right across the United States, and eventually elsewhere. For reasons I’ll explore, the moment of riot grrrl was fairly brief: most of its leading participants had moved on within three years or so, although echoes of the movement could still be felt in the later 1990s.

The history of youth culture is always contested, as has been evident from previous essays in this series. Yet in recent years, a considerable amount of documentation about riot grrrl has been appearing. Some of this is fairly nostalgic and celebratory, and some of it tends to overstate the reach and impact of the movement: riot grrrl was by no means on a par with the first wave of punk, for example, or the hippy counter-culture. Nevertheless, a good deal of this writing is more thoughtful and critical. There are now several books and films about riot grrrl; and while the music is easily accessible, extracts from the zines can also be found online and in edited collections. There is an extensive riot grrrl archive at New York University, which I was able to consult during my research for this piece: it appears to be extensively used. This renewed interest suggests that riot grrrl may have something important to say to our contemporary situation.

My aim here is not to write a definitive history, even if such a thing were possible or desirable; and as a male, British academic of an earlier generation, I make no claim whatsoever to personal experience. On the contrary, as with my earlier essays, I want to explore what we can learn from riot grrrl, in the context of broader debates about youth culture and media – and in this instance, about feminism and identity politics as well. At present, there is renewed interest in feminist politics, for example in the wake of the #metoo movement; yet there is also growing resistance to those who are described as ‘feminazis’. Meanwhile, the notion of ‘intersectionality’ points to the need to address gender alongside, and in interaction with, other aspects of social identity. None of these are, in my view, new or unprecedented developments; but in our currently polarized situation, riot grrrl may provide a useful historical lens through which they might be seen more clearly.

Following an initial overview, I focus on two key issues. The first is to do with representation: I consider debates about how the movement was portrayed in the mainstream media, and how the participants sought to represent themselves, especially via the zines, which were in many respects more distinctive and original than the music. I then move on to consider the internal politics of riot grrrl as a ‘movement’ or a ‘scene’ (or a network of scenes): I look at debates about inclusiveness and leadership, and particularly about identity politics. Each of these areas was a focus of tension and conflict for the participants; and it was the combination of both that arguably led to riot grrrl’s fairly rapid demise.

 

Riot grrrl in context

Riot grrrl can be understood as a double reaction – both against the misogyny of post-punk musical subcultures, and against the style of feminist politics practiced by an older generation of women. There was an undeniable intensity and anger in the music and the zines; but riot grrrl was not (or not only) a spontaneous expression of pent-up emotion. On the contrary, the participants in riot grrrl were also very deliberate and self-aware about their response to what had gone before, and about their aims and methods.

Most of the key riot grrrl performers – and those who quickly took up instruments in attempting to emulate them – were aware of the long history of women’s involvement in rock music. (And it’s important to emphasise that the focus here is on rock, rather than soul or rhythm and blues or hip-hop, or even mainstream pop, where rather different arguments would apply.) Prior to the advent of punk, ‘women in rock’ were often little more than eye-candy for male consumers: they functioned as decorative or sexy singers (and much less frequently as instrumentalists), or occasionally as ‘girls with balls’, who would mimic traditional masculine styles of performance. There are numerous notable exceptions to this; but even where rock appeared to move beyond established gender stereotypes (as for example in ‘glam rock’, which I considered in a previous essay), this was largely a matter of male ‘gender-bending’ rather than females coming to the fore.

Similar arguments have been made about the involvement of young women in youth subcultures more broadly. Writing in 1975, Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber described the marginalization of girls in the iconic British post-war subcultural groupings like teddy boys, mods, hippies and skinheads. In each case, these groups included a few ‘honorary’ or token girls, but in most cases girls were invisible or subordinate. Girls, McRobbie and Garber argued, were largely confined to a domestic ‘bedroom culture’ – although in retrospect, their account of the 1970s ‘teenybopper’ phenomenon seems to present girls largely as victims of patriarchal manipulation.

To some degree, punk offered different possibilities in this respect. The anarchist ‘DIY’ (do-it-yourself) ethic of punk encouraged the idea that anybody could become a performer or an artist – girls included. It wasn’t necessary to have years of music training before you could form a band; or indeed to have a literature or design degree before you could create and publish a zine. DIY seemed to provide a guarantee of honesty and authenticity, although it could also become an artfully constructed pose.

The roots of riot grrrl can be traced to some of the all-female bands that emerged in the early days of (British) punk, such as the Slits and the Raincoats, and performers such as Poly Styrene (of X-Ray Spex) and Siouxie Sioux (of Siouxie and the Banshees). These artists were typically strident and assertive – an approach carried forward in the wake of punk, albeit in sometimes muted and contradictory ways, by performers like Debbie Harry (of Blondie), Madonna and Patti Smith. Yet punk was arguably always ambivalent in this respect: the scene was heavily male-dominated, and it’s hard to think of many examples where female performers were not (once again) required to emphasise their sex appeal or alternatively their ‘tomboyish’ masculinity.

The evolution of punk – especially in the United States – towards ‘hardcore’ had led to a reassertion of masculine domination, both of the music itself, and of performance spaces. Some hardcore and grunge bands were blatantly misogynistic, although again there were notable exceptions, some of whom (like the bands Nation of Ulysses, and to some extent Nirvana) were associates of the riot grrrl bands. However, riot grrrls were generally frustrated by the violence that often surfaced at gigs, and by the boys’ dominance of the mosh pit just in front of the stage. ‘Girls to the front’ was a frequent call at early riot grrrl performances; some venues ran female-only gigs, or all-ages gigs, while some charged higher entry fees for men (unless they turned up wearing women’s clothes); and bands would sometimes stop playing mid-set in order to call out aggressive male behaviour (such as slam-dancing or thrashing) among the audience. Julia Downes has argued that, in line with the DIY ethos of punk, riot grrrl bands sought to challenge the dichotomy between the performers and the audience, in order to provide more opportunities for girls to collaborate.

However, riot grrrl was not simply a reaction against the contemporary musical scene: it was also much more broadly and explicitly political. As we’ll see, it was suffused with a powerful, angry rhetoric about ‘revolution girl-style’ that was much more than superficial radical chic. Here again, the movement needs to be understood in relation to a longer history (or herstory). Many of the original participants in riot grrrl were the daughters of ‘second wave’ feminists, whose politics had developed during the 1970s. This was apparent in some of the methods they used – most obviously, the fact that groups of young women were encouraged to come together, not just at gigs, but also for discussion meetings and workshops, and to share personal experiences in ways that sound very similar to seventies-style ‘consciousness raising’.

Riot grrrl emerged at a time when many feminists perceived there to be a counter-reaction against the advances of the second wave – an argument most famously articulated in Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. In this context, riot grrrl appeared to represent a new kind of feminist politics, which was aligned by some with the emergence of a ‘third wave’ – a term coined in 1992 by the writer Rebecca Walker in response to the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, despite persuasive accusations against him of sexual harassment. These recurrent announcements of ‘waves’ should be regarded with caution; but it’s possible to see in riot grrrl a coming together of the ethos and aesthetics of punk with a potentially new and distinctive form of feminist politics among younger women. As Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill later put it (in the film The Punk Singer), riot grrrl aimed to ‘take the feminist stuff we read in books and filter it through a punk rock lens’.

While riot grrrl was generally more ‘sex positive’ than some second wave feminism, and more inclined to play with the trappings of feminine girlhood, it’s important not to underestimate its political militancy. The early riot grrrl bands were activists, who played at feminist benefits and abortion rights rallies; as well as gigs, there were support groups and conferences; and many zines contained passionate feminist ‘agit prop’, which also drew attention to the connections between sexism, racism and homophobia. Among countless expressions of this explicit political motivation, perhaps the most widely circulated example appeared on an early flyer for Bikini Kill: sometimes headed ‘What is Riot Grrrl?’, and subsequently extended and adapted in numerous zines, it may have been written by Hanna and her band mates, including drummer Tobi Vail. Riot grrrl was needed, it proposed,

BECAUSE in every form of media I see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked, and killed…

BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit…

BECAUSE we need to acknowledge that our blood is being spilt; that right now a girl is being raped or battered and it might be me or you or your mom or the girl you sat next to on the bus last Tuesday, and she might be dead by the time you are reading this…

BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy…

BECAUSE I am tired of these things happening to me; I’m not a fuck toy. I’m not a punching bag. I’m not a joke…

The fury is evident in the language (not least the repetition and the accumulating lists), but this wasn’t merely an accidental development, or a spontaneous outburst of frustration. There was a strongly experiential, personal dimension to the music and the zines – as indeed had been the case in second wave feminism – but there was also an intellectual engagement with theory. Many of the key participants in the early days of riot grrrl – such as the members of bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy – were students following women’s studies courses at Olympia’s liberal Evergreen College. The zines and personal papers included in the New York University archive contain a great many references to radical feminist and cultural theory – and some even contain reading lists. There is also an acknowledged influence of various avant-garde artistic and political practices, from Dadaism to situationism.

Kathleen Hanna, for example, had originally hoped to become a writer, until she was encouraged to form a band by the radical feminist author Kathy Acker. Hanna’s papers in the archive include annotated articles by cultural theorists like John Berger and Susan Griffin, as well as writings about anti-censorship feminism, post-structuralist theories of identity, and socialist-feminist work on representation. However, as Marion Leonard notes, riot grrrl had an ambivalent relationship with academic feminism: some participants challenged views of the movement as a kind of ‘academic curiosity’, and resisted what they saw as scholarly attempts to impose a singular interpretation of it. Despite the prevalence of manifestos and mission statements, many in riot grrrl also resisted the idea that it should have a ‘line’ or a ‘programme’, insisting instead on the importance of acknowledging contradiction. Indeed, for Hanna at least, contradiction itself ‘might be the most powerful feminist tool yet, creating a kind of paralysis, or night-blindness, in the man/boy imagination’ (interview in LA Weekly, 1992).

It is this combination of punk and feminism – and the reaction against dominant trends in both areas – that accounts for some of the key motivations of riot grrrl. If we confine our attention just to the music, it’s actually quite hard to identify many distinctive characteristics. Bikini Kill, who are often taken as the emblematic band, display all the trademarks of first generation punk: short songs, fast tempos, simple chord sequences and riffs, abrasive and distorted guitars, shouted vocal lines, thrashing drums, repeated anthem-like choruses. More in line with the later US hardcore style, extreme dynamics are important, with abrupt and brutal shifts between quiet or silence and high-volume intensity. There is no self-conscious display of virtuosity or lyrical cleverness here: subtlety is not what it’s about. However, other riot grrl bands reflect a range of stylistic influences: to my ears, Heavens to Betsy sound more like a downbeat emo band, while Bratmobile are more poppy, in the tradition of sixties girl groups. Aside from the lyrics and the high-pitched vocal screams, it’s hard to identify much that is musically distinctive here: ‘riot grrrl’ is not really a defined musical genre.

The visual dimension, however, was another matter. Here again, the riot grrrls owed a certain amount to their punk precursors such as the Slits and Poly Styrene. In some cases, performers chose not to emphasise their gender, but in many instances there was an overt challenge to traditional notions of femininity. The term ‘grrrl’ was an attempt to reclaim a positive, playful notion of pre-teen girlhood, combining an element of nostalgia, but inflecting it with an angry growl or snarl. This approach extended to the naming of bands: aside from those I’ve mentioned, others in or around the scene directly parodied sexist names for female body parts, like Snatch, Hole and Burning Bush; while zines carried titles like Girl Germs, Satan Wears a Bra, Discharge, Cupsize and Intimate Wipe; and Riot Grrrl NYC once organized a festival they named ‘Pussystock’.

Many riot grrrls combined the fashions and paraphernalia of traditional girlhood with those of punk, in a kind of parody reminiscent of the original St. Trinian’s films: short school uniform skirts, pigtails and hair barrettes could be worn with combat boots, ripped stockings and punk jewellery. There was sometimes an element of ‘dorkiness’ or deliberate awkwardness about the style. However, this was by no means a demure version of girlish femininity (these were not ‘Lolitas’), but a form of aggressive resistance to it. In a direct challenge to the objectification and abuse of women, grrrls would write words like SLUT, WHORE and BITCH in marker pens across their bare midriffs and limbs; bands sometimes performed in their underwear, and would occasionally bare their breasts, not in any kind of seductive display but rather in a brazen affront to sexist ideas of decency (one of Bikini Kill’s more notable early songs was ‘Suck My Left One’). As with first generation punk, there was a definite influence here of avant-garde performance styles, and of the confrontational approach of situationism. (Such influences are also apparent in the visual style of the zines, which I’ll discuss in a later section.) However, these aesthetic choices are pressed into explicit political service: riot grrrl was very clearly informed by a socialist-feminist politics of representation, and of self-representation.

If the music of riot grrrl was fairly unremarkable, the lyrics were something else. Riot grrrl songs are typically about anger and dissent, but also about self-assertion and empowerment. Like the zines, they seek to confront male power, by talking about abuse, rape and incest, and by parodying and pouring scorn on conventional sexist expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour. Many – such as Bikini Kill’s most famous anthem ‘Rebel Girl’ – express feelings of female solidarity and ‘girl love’ that are based in friendship, and directly challenge the sexual competitiveness that is seen to arise once boys and men become a focus of attention.

Another early Bikini Kill song, ‘Double Dare Ya’, presents this form of political defiance very clearly. The recording is prefaced with the famous slogan ‘we want revolution girl-style now!’, and the song begins with the call ‘hey girlfriend!’ (sung in a kind of parody/homage to Debbie Harry, perhaps). It continues:

Dare ya to do what you want
Dare ya to be who you will
Dare ya to cry right out loud

It then switches to a parental voice:

Don’t you talk out of line
Don’t go speaking out of your turn
Gotta listen to what the Man says
Time to make his stomach burn

The concluding verse is a kind of call to arms:

You’re a big girl now
You’ve got no reason not to fight
You’ve got to know what they are
‘Fore you can stand up for your rights
Rights, rights?
You do have rights!

As this implies, the riot grrrls injected a new sense of anger and urgency that was far removed from what they saw as the increasingly bland ‘liberal feminist’ approach of the second wave – although this receives much more elaborate expression in the writing of the zines, to be considered later.

As with earlier youth subcultures, it’s possible to define riot grrrl in terms of what Dick Hebdige called a stylistic ‘homology’ – an assembly of semiotic elements (fashion, music, visual design, and so on) that resonate with each other, and combine together to form distinctive cultural meanings. However, this approach tends to underplay the direct and explicit politics of some subcultures, and the quite deliberate, even calculated, ways in which particular forms of expression are taken up. The riot grrrls knew very well what they were doing. This was not an incoherent expression of rage, let alone of adolescent hormonal imbalance, but an explicit political strategy.

Attempting to define any youth cultural style – let alone to recover the history of a movement – raises awkward questions about representation. Who claims to speak for a particular movement or style – and who has the right to do so? Any such account (especially a brief one such as this) is bound to iron out diversity and inconsistency. There is perhaps an inevitable tendency to concentrate on specific ‘scenes’, events or locations, and on particular individuals – in this case, on the handful of bands coming out of Olympia, and specifically on Bikini Kill and Kathleen Hanna (although, as we’ll see, Hanna herself was uncomfortable with being seen as a ‘leader’). There is no ‘official version’ of riot grrrl, and probably this is as it should be. Emphasising the distinctiveness of the movement can also lead one to ignore its influences and its relationship to longer traditions. As Mary Celeste Kearney has argued, there is a danger that riot grrrl can be pulled into a rather patronizing ‘women in rock’ or ‘angry punk’ narrative that serves to marginalize its political dimensions – and thereby makes it easier for it to be commodified for mass consumption. These difficulties particularly apply to the ways in which any such movement is represented in the mainstream commercial media; and as we’ll see in the following section, this was a particular focus of concern and debate within riot grrrl itself.

 

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