Riot grrrl meets the media: recuperation and resistance

In his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, published in 1979, Dick Hebdige provides an influential account of how the mainstream media deal with youth subcultures. According to this narrative, youth cultures emerge seemingly spontaneously ‘from the streets’, from outside the capitalist economy; and they are then inevitably recuperated by the mainstream, as their challenge is diluted and commodified. Radical bands are seen to lose their edge as they are signed to major record labels; entrepreneurs soften street fashions as they package them for mainstream high-street consumers; leaders of the style are nominated, and often endowed with additional glamour and charisma. Media play a key role here, albeit veering erratically from prurient fascination with taboo behaviour to melodramatic ‘moral panic’. The seemingly wild and inexplicable antics of youthful ‘folk devils’ are held up both for voyeuristic contemplation and for moral condemnation – and in the process, their harmful and anti-social effects are often highly exaggerated. Yet, in Hebdige’s account, diffusion via the media inevitably results in the defusion of the challenging dimensions of subcultural style.

This argument reinforces an easy, self-glorifying distinction between the ‘underground’ and the ‘mainstream’ that is very familiar within youth cultures themselves. As Hebdige points out, the moral opprobrium that subcultures typically attract often increases their appeal for would-be participants: if these adults are so outraged by us, we must be doing something right. Yet there’s a kind of political romanticism about this account, which belies the complex hierarchies that operate within youth cultures, and the often symbiotic relationships between them and mainstream media and commercial culture. In reality, the distinction between the underground and the mainstream is constantly shifting: the mainstream needs the underground as a source of new ideas, while the underground needs the mainstream in order to define itself by what it is not.

Hebdige’s book was written in the founding moment of punk, in late 1970s Britain. Subsequent scholars of youth culture have qualified this account in several ways. Writing in the mid-1990s, Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argued that this narrative of recuperation was no longer relevant in a much more complex and fragmented media environment. Subcultures, aided and abetted by the media and cultural industries, actively encourage ‘moral panics’ as an attractive publicity strategy (as indeed did the original punks). Disapproving media coverage may actually help to legitimate youth subcultures, and even bestow a political edge that they might not otherwise have possessed. Meanwhile, these ‘folk devils’ are much more capable of speaking for themselves, in their own specialist media outlets, and to some extent of speaking back to the mainstream. McRobbie and Thornton also draw attention to the operations of the music press, whose location on the cusp between the mainstream and the various subcultures allows them to play a crucial role in this respect: once again, the music press needs musical subcultures, just as much as those subcultures need the music press. While some of these observations no longer apply today (the music press has declined, not least with the advent of online media), they are especially relevant to understanding the fate of riot grrrl.

In this changing context, as McRobbie and Thornton imply, the relationships between reality and representation are inevitably much more complex: it’s not easy to determine who should ‘speak for’ a given social movement, to assess the accuracy of reliability of any story that is told about it, or to evaluate claims about its significance. At the same time, audiences can no longer be regarded merely as dupes of media manipulation: what some might see as a misrepresentation or trivialisation of a subculture might nevertheless be read as an incitement to join it. Furthermore, as Alison Jacques suggests, it is mistaken to see this narrative in terms of a simple ‘before and after’: it is not as if subcultures enjoy a pure, oppositional or resistant identity, which is then corrupted by media and commodification. There is often no single moment of recuperation, but rather a dynamic and continuously shifting relationship between the underground and the mainstream.

These issues became a particular concern for riot grrrl almost as soon as it began to attract attention outside the small local venues of Olympia. Mainstream media coverage was simultaneously a risk and an opportunity, whose consequences were difficult to foresee. On the one hand, the media were clearly excited by the prospect of an army of angry girls. Despite their deliberate rejection of conventional expectations about female beauty, teenage girls in various states of wild abandon and undress were bound to prove titillating for the readers of middle America. On the other hand, riot grrrl had many of the ingredients for moral panic. There was sex and violence, at least of a certain kind; although admittedly there was little mention of drugs or crime. There was a good deal of revolutionary rhetoric, and much discussion of hot topics such as rape, incest and child abuse that were beginning to appear on the media radar. It was hard to see why media editors would want to ignore such an attractive opportunity – especially if they wished to reach elusive younger readers.

Inevitably, there was a fair amount of inaccuracy and misrepresentation to be found in such coverage. Quotations were taken out of context, nuances were ignored, and much of the analysis was superficial. Journalists were inclined to speak to participants who were ready and willing to speak to them; and in the process, they tended to portray the wrong people as typical or representative. They conflated riot grrrl with overlapping but distinct musical scenes, such as grunge. They oversimplified – and sometimes gently mocked – the revolutionary feminist politics. They exaggerated and trivialized and sensationalized. They got some important details very wrong. Yet most of this was surely to be expected.

Reading through some of the early media coverage, I was struck by how even-handed – and in some cases, even sympathetic – much of it was. One of the first major articles was a substantial piece entitled ‘Girl Trouble’, written by Elizabeth Wurtzel for the New Yorker in June 1992. The article looks at riot grrrl in the context of other contemporary developments, including the role of women in grunge bands such as Hole, L7 and Babes in Toyland, who were beginning to be signed by major labels. Kathleen Hanna – who was increasingly singled out as the spokesperson for the movement – was quoted at some length, talking about how she was wary of ‘assimilation’, and was seeking to promote ‘revolution and radicalism and changing the whole structure’.

Numerous shorter articles followed in national publications like USA Today, key local newspapers such as the New York and LA Times, music papers like Spin, and the teenage girls’ magazine Sassy. Several were accompanied by ‘sexy’ images of riot grrrl performers, many of them deliberately posed. For a nascent movement, which was still relatively small, this was a high level of attention – and perhaps some of it was a kind of overspill from the enormous success of the grunge bands, some of which had also started out in Olympia. For example, Hanna was frequently credited with inventing the title of Nirvana’s album ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’; and fellow band member Tobi Vail’s boyfriend was Ian Svenonius of the band Nation of Ulysses – ‘the sassiest boy in America’, according to Sassy magazine. This kind of fame-by-association (especially with men) was certainly unwelcome; and some riot grrrl participants were uncomfortable with the feeling that they were being placed ‘under the microscope’ of a mainstream national audience.

However, it was a piece called ‘Revolution, Girl Style’ by Newsweek reporter Farai Chideya and others, published in November of that year, which became notorious. Chideya had encountered difficulties in contacting the best-known riot grrrl spokespersons, but she was also interested in looking beyond the usual suspects to more everyday participants. Her article quotes Kathleen Hanna at some length, describing her as ‘a former stripper who sings and writes about being a victim of rape and child abuse’; and there are also quotations from the ‘What is Riot Grrrl?’ piece that effectively functioned as an evolving ‘manifesto’. Riot grrrl is described as ‘feminist’, and as ‘sexy, assertive and loud’; it is defined as being more ‘pro-sex’ than older generation feminism; and the story explains how riot grrrl performers exaggerate negative stereotypes of women in order to force others to ‘confront their own bigotry’. None of this seems especially inaccurate.

However, as the article proceeds, Hanna is also identified as ‘the extreme edge of the grrrls’ rage’, and contrasted with a girl called Jessica Hopper, who seems to have been contacted quite by chance. Hopper is described as ‘more typical’: ‘young, white, urban and middle-class… like most teenage girls, she’s a bundle of contradictions’. And in its final paragraphs, the article appears to neutralise any potential threat its readers may have perceived: riot grrrl (mis-named ‘riot girl’) is described as ‘feminism with a loud happy face dotting the “i”’, and the conclusion speculates about whether Chelsea Clinton might become a riot grrrl when she moves to Washington DC.

The Newsweek article might be read as a telling instance of media recuperation: in part, it appears to reduce riot grrrl to something cute and unthreatening. However, it also gives a good deal of space to Kathleen Hanna and to the movement’s more forthright feminist rhetoric; and this, along with the unwary Jessica Hopper, provides a point of access for girls outside the scene who might potentially want to get involved.

To some extent, it was the very ambivalence of riot grrrl – its ‘girlish’ version of radical feminism – that proved so fascinating, at least for some media commentators. ‘From hundreds of once pink, frilly bedrooms comes the young feminist revolution,’ exclaimed USA Today. ‘And it’s not pretty. But it doesn’t wanna be. So there!’ Certainly, much of the appeal of riot grrrl for the mainstream media derived from the girls’ physical appearance, and their self-conscious play with ideas about femininity and sexuality. In some instances, it was the illustrations in the articles that proved more problematic than the writing. It was easy for the press to misread the parody of ‘sexiness’ that was intended by the riot grrrls themselves as just a new, slightly titillating version. Some recall a 1992 article in the leading national music magazine Spin as a particularly critical example. Although the report itself was reasonably supportive, Spin had hired a topless model to pose with the words ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ marked on her body.

Retrospectively, as Alison Jacques suggests, angry white teenage girls might have appeared more palatable – and even positively charming – to white journalists as compared with the angry black men who were dominating some of the rap music of the time. Yet the riot grrrls also took the opportunity to raise uncomfortable issues such as sexual violence and abuse, and to place a forthright version of feminism back on the agenda of public debate.

By contrast, the music itself was relatively neglected, except within the specialist music press. Maximum Rock and Roll, for example, drew attention to riot grrrl’s DIY ethos, arguing that its rejection of ‘professionalism’ could prove inspiring, especially for other girls: ‘if girls are ever going to start being in bands as the norm rather than the exception, they need to see people up there who have just started playing’. Here again, Kathleen Hanna (along with fellow band member Tobi Vail) was regularly identified as a leader or spokesperson for the scene; and her writing from riot grrrl zines was frequently quoted. Spin described her as ‘the angriest girl of all’ and a focus for ‘young, impressionable girls’: ‘she’s a 23-year-old woman who sees everything she does as part of a movement, as a sign, and everything that thwarts her as part of a conspiracy’. The Village Voice, addressing an older readership, was predictably dismissive; but the alternative music magazine Option set riot grrrl bands in a longer history of female rock performers, and voiced their complaints against journalists’ tendency to label and pigeonhole them into pre-defined categories.

Meanwhile, Sassy brought riot grrrl to a rather different audience of teenage girls. With an estimated readership of around three million, this was in many respects a typical glossy consumer product, akin to Seventeen or a junior version of Cosmopolitan: its pages were dominated by advertising and stories on fashion, beauty products, health and celebrities. Sassy was a target of some feminist criticism, but it sought to prioritise notions of self-esteem, and its editors clearly had some sympathy with the younger feminism of riot grrrl. The magazine frequently included brief band interviews and reviews of riot grrrl records and zines (with addresses on where they could be obtained), and featured a ‘zine of the month’. At one stage, it even organized all-ages gigs and marketed a compilation of riot-grrrl related music on Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label.

In the UK, where riot grrrl enjoyed a brief flurry of interest a year or so after its foundation in Olympia and Washington DC, the media coverage was similarly double-edged. As Marion Leonard describes, the national press displayed a familiar mixture of moral outrage and confused fascination. However, the music press (especially the Melody Maker) was generally much more supportive, reflecting its more symbiotic relationship with subcultures: an enthusiastic early cover feature by Sally Margaret Joy documented the US scene in a way that seems to have inspired active local groups such as the one in Leeds and Bradford, as well as conferring some credibility on home-grown British bands like Huggy Bear.

While a certain amount of this media coverage might well be accused of distorting or sensationalizing riot grrrl, and while some of it was undoubtedly condescending, much of it appears reasonably fair and accurate when seen in retrospect. Indeed, many of these stories were written by female journalists who were by no means unsympathetic to the movement’s aims, even if their editors might have obeyed other imperatives. Even so, the intense media interest posed a dilemma that is very familiar within many youth cultural movements. (I’ve also written about this in my Growing Up Modern essay on the ‘soul scenes’ of the 1970s.)

On the one hand, the riot grrrls were keen to proselytize. They did not want to preach only to the converted: they wanted more young women to hear their message, to learn about what they were doing, and to get involved in the movement. In the process, they knew that they themselves might need to exaggerate or sensationalise what was happening, just as much as they accused the media of doing. For example, in one early interview for LA Times, Kathleen Hanna apparently lied to the reporter about the reach of riot grrrl, suggesting that there were ‘chapters’ in many US cities, and thereby hoping to incite girls to form such groups. This need was perhaps accentuated by the geographical spread of the United States (as compared, for example, with the UK): getting the message out to girls in more obscure or less populated locations would take a long time, especially if one relied only on live appearances and informal networks.

Yet on the other hand, the riot grrrls obviously feared recuperation: they felt that publicity and commodification would undermine their authenticity, dilute their political message and defuse their impact. It was this that ultimately led some leading figures in the movement – notably those around the Washington DC-based Riot Grrrl Press – to initiate a ‘media blackout’ late in 1992. All mainstream media outlets were to be boycotted, journalists’ enquiries were to be ignored, and interviews were not to be given.

Certain key participants took an especially militant stance on this. Kathleen Hanna was particularly angered by the suggestion that she had been abused by her father (although to be fair, this is not what the Newsweek article directly claims). In a video interview recorded at the time by the documentary-maker Lucy Thane, Hanna accuses the media of a form of abuse: on the one hand, they were ‘giving us candy’, while on the other they were ‘fucking us over’. She condemns the women journalists as ‘careerist feminist bitches’ who had ‘internalised the system of domination’. Personally, Hanna also claimed to uncomfortable with being constructed as the ‘leader’ of the movement; although she (and others) were equally uncomfortable when girls outside the original core group of bands and zine writers were quoted or seen as authorities. Indeed, it was some of these ‘leaders’ who sought to impose the blackout, although inevitably it proved difficult to police – not least because, as riot grrrl grew, it was bound to become less homogeneous.

As we’ll see, the zines offered what Hanna called an ‘underground network’, which would bypass ‘His media’ in order to reach girls who wouldn’t otherwise have heard about feminism. However, others argued that riot grrrls could and should use the mainstream media. Sassy, for example, was a key means to take the message of riot grrrl beyond the immediate in-crowd to readers outside college towns and major urban centres. Isolated girls ‘trapped in high school’ might read past the condescending tone of USA Today or the corporate music papers, and be inspired to seek out riot grrrl music or zines – and there is plenty of evidence from memoirs and oral histories that this is precisely what they did. Even negative coverage reflected some kind of recognition of the importance of the movement: some riot grrrls took mainstream media attention simply as an indication that the movement was making a difference. On the other hand, wider coverage might well also attract the attention of detractors who would not otherwise have bothered to express a view – as well as those who were only too keen to pounce on instances of ‘selling out’. This is a game where there are rarely outright winners.

One might dismiss such coverage as ‘exploitation’, but any exploitation was at least mutual. Riot grrrls were not simply seeking to ‘express themselves’: they were also deliberately drawing attention to themselves, in the hope of communicating their political message and drawing other girls to their side. Putting particular individuals forward as ‘leaders’ or even ‘role models’ might have undermined the egalitarian feminist ethos, but it might have been necessary in order to make the movement palatable enough to attract mainstream media coverage. By contrast, a media blackout risked reinforcing the insularity and isolation of the scene, and it might well prove counter-productive, as media reports would continue in any case. Remaining politically pure behind the screen of a media blackout could even be construed as a form of elitism.

I’ve focused here on the issue of media coverage, but some in riot grrrl were equally wary of what they saw as other forms of recuperation. Bikini Kill, for example, were courted by several major record labels, but decided that this was not what they wanted: their music is still only available on their own label, although it is easily accessible online. There’s an interesting contrast here with the strategy of some of the earliest punk bands (most obviously the Sex Pistols, who were keen to attract attention from major labels). This principled independence was also very different from the stance of other female-led bands from the grunge scene such as Hole and Babes in Toyland, who were signed to major labels in the wake of Nirvana’s success. Indeed, for some in Olympia, the very popularity of grunge was a kind of betrayal of its authentic punk origins.

By mid-1993, Rolling Stone was already announcing that the riot grrrls were ‘at war’ with other female performers – perhaps attempting to create the spectacle of a ‘cat fight’. Courtney Love (leader of Hole, and the partner of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain) and veteran Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth were both quoted criticizing Hanna and Bikini Kill for being ‘sanctimonious’, and ‘setting a new yardstick’ by which female performers were to be measured. The rivalry culminated when Love assaulted Hanna at a rock festival in 1995: she was convicted and sent to anger management classes. The differences here were not just personal, but explicitly political. Hanna resented being aligned with other female bands outside the immediate riot grrrl scene. She described Love as ‘assimilationist’ (in Option magazine, 1992), and clearly saw herself as more militantly feminist. Yet even Hanna could not entirely evade the lure of celebrity feminism: in 1994, for example, she was profiled in Ms. Magazine in a feature on ‘Fifty Ways to be a Feminist’, complete with a picture showing the word SLUT on her bare midriff.

Retrospectively, it seems surprising that many of the key figures in riot grrrl were unable or unwilling to play the media at their own game. The fear of recuperation – of being packaged and commodified, and thereby incorporated within the ‘system of domination’ – was real enough. But many of these young women had read academic texts in Cultural Studies, and were aware of the possibilities of ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’, at least in principle. Simply blocking out the media was not a viable option, and might well have led to further misrepresentations. Creating an alternative means of expression and communication was perhaps a stronger possibility – although, as we’ll see in the following section, it was not without its limitations either.


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