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October 2, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Retracing Riot Grrrl

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CW: Sexual violence

 

I’ve spent a fairly large chunk of my youth steeping myself in the music and culture of Riot Grrrl, which represented a vital beacon for me in a world of commercialised boredom. So when the suggestion came to write about it, I of course jumped. I then found myself in this paradoxical situation where I truly wanted to research and accurately document the phenomenon, but it also felt like an invasion into the sacred spaces of feminine youth. If there’s anything a Riot Grrrl knows, it’s that attempting to write in a public forum about experiences and events that you didn’t directly participate in can skew and distort meaning to the point that it becomes alienated and, often, in opposition to its initial intention. Essentially, trying to represent Riot Grrrl was what brought about its death, as a movement which cannot be confined by language and pseudo-reminiscence.

With this in mind, I have tried to come at this article in the most thoughtful and respectful way possible, and only use the words of those who were directly involved. But this will not be a rose-tinted twist of history; I’m still engaged with the issues, such as lack of racial diversity, within the movement and how these helped to hasten its dissolution. Although Riot Grrrl’s original incarnation went down in a blaze of in-fighting, misogyny and ill-fortune, the D.I.Y. and strongly women-centric approach it promoted is very much alive and kicking today. Riot Grrrl is something non-concrete, and its spirit can be felt in so many things subsequent to it that it’s hard to come up with a tight definition, but I’m going to give it a red hot go.

 

History/Ethos

Riot Grrrl was started in 1991 when a group of girls in Olympia, Washington, inspired by the anti-racist riots in Washington D.C., set up a meeting about sexism in the music industry. They decided to start their own “girl riot” to carve out a space in the D.I.Y. and punk scene that hadn’t previously existed. The use of the word “girl” was intentional, referential to childhood, a time when self-belief is at its highest and inhibitions at their lowest — a state these women aspired to reach in their creative work. It is also a reclamation of a term so often used to belittle.

The context in which Riot Grrrl materialised is integral to understanding the nature of the movement. Sexual abuse and casual misogyny were rampant in the early ’90s, where it was routine to hear stories daily of women like Mia Zapata (the inspiration for 7 Year Bitch’s kickass album Viva Zapata!) being brutally raped and murdered. There were very few women in the music industry and present in local scenes, and those who were had their creative output filtered through a male-centric lens. It was unsafe for women to be in mosh pits at gigs, so they would stand in a ring at a safe distance, holding their boyfriends’ jackets while the men jumped and writhed, carefree. Women felt (and still feel) as if they had to prove themselves — to participate in creative scenes they had to demonstrate superior technical knowledge and skill, simply to prove they were worthy of inhabiting a space that men would walk into without thought. There was simply an expectation that women were incapable.

Riot Grrrl took off most dramatically in Olympia because it was a college town focused around Evergreen University, which didn’t have a grade system and instead encouraged small, self-directed projects. This meant that a very liberal and artistic community was attracted there, the perfect breeding ground for a counter-cultural D.I.Y. movement. The riots in D.C. and the liberal political culture contributed to it kicking off there too. But the fundamental issue in both cities was that women were sidelined in music and art scenes and made to watch from afar, while the men moshed to hardcore, man-centric bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat who could not speak to women’s experiences and perpetuated the exclusion of women from their spaces.

 

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Understandably, there were a number of women highly frustrated by this situation, without an outlet for their anger. Riot Grrrl provided this necessary space. It was a place in which feminism was no longer this abstracted university-level, economic-focused concept that dealt with sexism in the corporate world, the gender pay gap, and maternity leave, but something that spoke directly to young women through a language of anger. This language was communicated through the ear-splitting punk music of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and countless others, as well as zines that these and other women created to hand out at shows and send cross-country to one another. Zines were crucial to the movement, and they have always been a way of amplifying counter-cultural voices, from science fiction in the ’30s to punk in the ’70s.

Riot Grrrl was begun and initially defined by a few girls: Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, and Alison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile, who collaboratively came up with the phrase “Revolution Girl Style Now!” — standing for active subversion of the stagnant masculine scene by encouraging women to pick up instruments and pens and create their own art that was reflective of their experiences as women.

Kathleen had also done a lot of work with survivors of physical and sexual abuse, and a lot of Riot Grrrl focused around spaces in which girls would meet to discuss their trauma and support one another. This was important, because there were very few forums in which women could comfortably discuss their own sexual abuse, being an issue often shrouded in shame and guilt. Kathleen was a key voice, outspoken about all kinds of trauma that are inflicted upon women. In the Bikini Kill song “Feels Blind” she addresses how society teaches women to hate themselves: “As a woman I was taught to always be hungry / yeah women are well acquainted with thirst / we could eat just about anything / we could even eat your hate up like love.” Mics were often passed around at Bikini Kill shows so that any woman could share her experience of sexual abuse or other kinds of trauma or oppression.

Riot Grrrls were also very vocally inclusive of sex workers, as many of these women worked in the sex industry and understood the pragmatism of this, and the importance of not alienating women sitting at the margins of society who were just as in need of support as any others.

The radical and public banding together of women was crucial in a society that thrives off of women pitting themselves against each other, and where girlhood is generally kept so private — in diaries and bedrooms and silent suffering. The rest of the world dismissed angry, loud, young girls as ridiculous and hysterical, so they had to get validation from one another.

 

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Riot Grrrls wrote constant letters of love and support to one another. Their music and zines unabashedly proclaimed their love for themselves and their friends and their experiences, and through this managed to create a safe space in which to examine the cultural devaluation of women. They had a forum in which they could discuss trauma, critique popular culture, talk about having to give men a basic anatomy lesson every time they had sex with them, discuss being queer and coming out to their families, and start publications and bands and rallies and marches. More than just a musical genre, Riot Grrrl was a radical political, philosophical, and socio-cultural movement.

It was very much about self-creation — Riot Grrrls were brought into existence by nothing but their own willpower and their dissatisfaction with the status quo. A lot of the lyrical material from Riot Grrrl bands deal with the multitude of issues in the patriarchal society that surrounded them. For instance, Bikini Kill’s “White Boy” loudly proclaims: “White boy, don’t laugh, don’t cry, just die! / I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you / Your whole fucking culture alienates me.” The spirit of Riot Grrrl was highly participatory and DIY, completely uncaring about whether something was good or bad, but simply supportive of any woman willing to put themselves out there and create or perform. From its humble beginnings in D.C. and Olympia, as word and zines began to spread, chapters began in multiple different cities across the US, and Riot Grrrl began to take on a multiplicity of different forms as it was adopted by an array of different women. It was quite communist in its aims — seizing the means of production for themselves and giving voice to the traditionally voiceless. Zines were a great way of doing this, to project voices on a wider scale and connect various communities.

For all its merits, Riot Grrrl was certainly not without its issues, chief among them a lack of inclusion of women of colour. It was predominantly a white girl’s thing, and wealthy white girls at that. It can be seen as a fairly basic form of brash feminism that didn’t take the complexity of identity properly into account. Being welcoming and inclusive of people of colour is a typically fraught issue that is still plaguing a lot of movements today; white people are often not good at being overtly welcoming and inclusive without being tokenistic. But Riot Grrrl, although some members were committed to writing about and discussing issues of race, barely made an active effort at all.

 

Dissolution

In the end, Riot Grrrl fell prey to the age-old story of becoming cool and sought after by the press, who then sanitised or sensationalised their stories and attempted to sell these overblown, but watered down, versions of Riot Grrrl back to the community.  Feminist movements can often tie themselves up in knots trying to answer every possible question, but holding people like Kathleen Hanna up as universal spokespeople for all women involved, as the media did in its coverage of Riot Grrrl, doesn’t allow for the communication of ideological nuance, which is ever-present.

The phenomenon of Riot Grrrl was covered by Spin, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Washington Post, among others, and the tone of these pieces was generally patronising and ridiculing. They emphasised Riot Grrrl as aggressively anti-men, attempted to make out that the movement and its music was simply objectively “bad”, or trivialised it as a fashion statement. They overtly sexualised the bodies of women such as Kathleen and Tobi by discussing their figures and what they were wearing, rather than the content of their songs, as if they were fundamentally unable to make statements on sexual abuse and misogyny because they were wearing short skirts.

As a result of this, the Grrrls decided on a movement-wide media blackout in 1992 as an attempt to reclaim the disproportionate amount of power the media held over them, and to mitigate the fact that these journalists were making money out of selling the distorted images and stories of Riot Grrls while the girls themselves were barely making rent.

The movement was also divided by differing views on how it should be run, especially with regards to how they related to men and how these relationships should look — some wanted to settle down, and others were highly critical of fitting into the societal mould and making any compromises for men.

As a result of these various conflicts, the media declared the pseudo-death of Riot Grrrl and what was left of the movement dropped back underground. Meanwhile women who expressed a societally acceptable level of anger, such as Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, took up the “women in rock” mantle.

This commercialised and diluted form of Riot Grrrl culture is seen most potently in groups such as the Spice Girls. Don’t get me wrong, I get down as hard as the next gal when “Wannabe” drops at a party, but their loose and empty concept of “Girl Power!” was simply capitalising on the trend of feminine empowerment without actually adding anything to the movement. Rather than encouraging women to be creative on their own, the Spice Girls and their ilk encouraged their fans to endlessly consume their products in the form of CDs, concert tickets, posters, and figurines.

 

Lasting Impressions

Despite being fragmented by these many issues, Riot Grrrl created a great precedent for girls across the world to air their frustrations with misogyny through art, writing, and music. Arguably the most important and lasting impact the movement has had is the sense of permission it gives to a new generation of women to be able to pick up a guitar or a pen and create, without care for whether it will be considered objectively good. We have Riot Grrrl to thank for the music of Annie Clark, Frankie Cosmos, Screaming Females, Perfect Pussy, and countless other artists and bands who may not identify themselves as Riot Grrrls, but would nonetheless be unable to unreservedly make the kind of music they currently do without the space carved out by Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and all the other bands and women that made this movement so vital.

The urgency and raw anger of Riot Grrrl is something that still can’t be touched, and is something I don’t think we really get to see at shows today. Because misogyny has since taken a quietly corrosive, more shadow-like form, the anger it instils in women is more of a slow-boiling one that pops out in moments of frustration, but isn’t potent enough to form the foundations of such a vibrant movement. Today’s women-friendly movements are built on quiet thought, care for one another, and the motivation to make spaces able to be enjoyed by all people, but they are responding to similar issues that existed in Riot Grrrl’s time, such as men taking up too much space, physical and sexual violence, and a pitiful amount of women on gig line-ups.

Part of the reason we have to thank for sexism and misogyny largely falling out of style is that Riot Grrrl provided a very cool and exciting antidote to the awful lad culture in existence at the time, and helped feminism become not something just for the academics and the activists, but for the punk girl sitting alone in her bedroom at night wondering when she’d find her place in the world. Riot Grrrl’s magic, and the reason it is so beloved and looked back upon with a nostalgia that doesn’t even belong to those doing the looking, is because it encapsulates that exact kind of rage we feel when we have those quick but monumental realisations of just how fucked up the world is and how much dudes and the dominant culture can suck.

The accessibility of feminism, like-minded people, and the local scene through the internet and social media, though it theoretically makes linking up with one another and creating a movement significantly easier, has dampened the thrill and vitality of the emotion that went into the beginning of Riot Grrrl. It’s almost as if it has become too easy to connect, while the movement was about chance and fortuity and unexpected things coming together, which is hard to fathom in the very calculated age of the internet. Riot Grrrl cannot be resurrected, but the anger and creative fuel it was borne out of has taken a newer, softer form — the torch of which young feminists and musicians continue to carry. As Tobi Vail said, “Riot Grrrl started something. Riot Grrrl started something, but it isn’t finished yet.”

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