Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, by Sara Marcus
I went to the release party for this book last week, and devoured it that night and over the following few days. I stayed up late and put off doing schoolwork so that I could keep reading it. This post is going to be less like my regular reviews and more like an ode, or a declaration of renewed love. It will be long, and somewhat personal. And probably a little cheesy, because I always get this fuzzy feeling when I think about riot grrl or try to articulate anything about it. So, that said…
I was an incredibly unhappy pre-teen/early teenager (who wasn’t?) and I latched onto punk rock as the thing that would get me through high school. And, largely, though not singularly, it did. Instead of taking notes in class, I scribbled lyrics to my favorite punk songs in my notebooks and on the soles of my shoes, and for a while cared about nothing else. Embracing punk worked when nothing else did, and helped me to develop a strong sense of self from which to locate and resist the things in my life that made me feel helpless. And though I always felt like punk was mine and it worked for me on an individual level, the scene at large was not my home. I skirted its perimeter, but never quite penetrated it.
I switched schools in tenth grade, made wonderful new friends, and with them, developed a political consciousness. I realized that not only would I make it through high school, but I might actually enjoy it. I don’t remember where I was when I first learned about riot grrl or heard Bikini Kill, who I was with, or any of that–because at the time, I think, it was not a “click” moment–it was something I noted as punk, as political, and incorporated it into my personal canon as such. I was ten years too late to have participated in the heyday of the riot grrl movement. I was not there and I have to remind myself not to romanticize it. But slowly, over time, it only became more important to me, as something specific, unsubsumed by politics and punk at large, and it has only become more important to me throughout the years. The idea of it has remained and strengthened its hold on me while so much else from that era has lost, well…not importance to me…but spark.
So, okay. Riot grrl. The book.
Riot grrl was a U.S. feminist punk youth movement which took hold in and around the northwest in the early ’90’s. A generation of young women had been told that feminism had happened, that it had succeeded, that the backlash had already run its course, and that there was nothing left to “complain” about. Their parents’ generation had achieved gender equality and feminism could be laid to rest. But, of course, reality told them otherwise. In 1989, a man entered an engineering classroom in a Canada college, ordered the men out of the room, yelled “I hate feminists”, and shot and killed 14 women. In the next few years, Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual assault by Clarence Thomas once more forced the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in the workplace, in schools, and in the home into the public eye, and U.S. conservative terrorism had claimed the lives of many an abortion provider. This was not the feminist-egalitarian paradise their parents had promised them, and many girls felt this a particularly scary time to be themselves. Many of them were attracted to punk’s anti-authoritarianism and counter-culture, only to find that the punk scene actually replicated many of mainstream society’s prohibitive hierarchies and they faced the same discrimination there that they did everywhere else.
Though they have always publicly denied any leadership role, the “start” of riot grrl is often attributed to the formation of the band Bikini Kill, which used its platform to proclaim girl love and positivity while bashing sexist oppression over its ugly head with power chords and noise. Bikini Kill’s founders Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail were disgusted by the treatment of girls in their Olympia, WA punk scene. They were pushed to the sidelines of the audience at all the shows or groped in the mosh pit, denied real participation and relegated to the role of fandom, as if they were just there to support the boys. They were not satisfied. Though they didn’t have the same experience playing instruments that was so often offered the guys in their scene, they utilized the D.I.Y. punk ethos and taught themselves and each other. And then they got organized. Kind of.
They invited their girl friends to meetings to discuss the state of the scene and to strategize the REVOLUTION GIRL STYLE NOW. These meetings were simultaneously activist brain storming sessions, slumber parties, and ’70’s-style consciousness-raising support groups where girls could pick up guitars, confide in each other about experiences of sexual abuse or rape, plan marches on Washington, deconstruct harmful mass media messaging, and gush about their latest crushes. It was a place where they could get together and DO things with other girls who would help and encourage them. Girl bands began to multiply and sing–nay, scream–about the things that were important to them, and a reformation of the punk scene and, hopefully, society at large, was underway. At least, that’s how it must have felt in those early years, as more and more girls in their teens and early twenties got involved and radicalized.
This movement was pre-blog and online social networking and all that, so riot grrls would communicate primarily through zines, a cut-and-paste collaging/booking project, the distribution of which was pretty indispensable to the whole operation. They also identified themselves by writing on themselves with marker. Sometimes this would mean big stars on the back of their hands, sometimes the words “riot” and “girl” on their knuckles. Sometimes their messaging was more overtly political, and they would write “rape” or “property” on their arms and stomachs to confront the viewer with the effects of their judgements upon their literal bodies. Though riot grrl was most active in Olympia and Washington, girls around the U.S. started to get wind of it and were intrigued, especially as bands like Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy started touring through their hometowns.
The riot grrls had male allies who would sometimes show their support by wearing plastic barrettes in their hair or coming to their shows in skirts. There were boys in riot grrl bands. But, overwhelmingly, the response of the male-dominated punk scene was negative. Kathleen Hanna was laughed at behind her back by guys she had thought were her friends. The girls in Bikini Kill were heckled and threatened while onstage, criticized for being divisive, and challenged because of their “girls to the front of the stage” policy. All this was bad enough, but the girls were prepared for opposition from the outside. What they weren’t prepared for was destruction that would come from within the movement itself.
After Kathleen’s and Tobi’s friends in Nirvana went platinum almost overnight, their scene suddenly looked like a goldmine to certain corporate music entities and mass media outlets. After a few unsettling magazine interviews which had reduced the complex and still emerging movement to a de-politicized fashion trend and patronizing lifestyle piece about angry girls in combat boots and lipstick (how cute, this angsty teen girl rebellion, they seemed to say), the original riot grrls were horrified at how easily their ideas were commodified, non-radicalized, and sold back to the very girls they had wanted to reach, organically and truly. They asked that everyone associated with the movement deny interviews and called for a media blackout. They wanted to get word about riot grrl to the masses, but not through the efforts of capitalism. But riot grrl was a non-authoritative, non-hierarchical structure–there’s debate about whether or not it can even be truly referred to as a movement, both in and outside of riot grrl–and individual interests came into conflict. Riot grrl was loosely defined as whatever girls needed it to be, since it was by and for them and any girl who needed it could define it for herself. But without official leadership, certain rifts could not be healed, and the group splintered in many directions. At the same time that girls far from riot grrl’s hotspots were learning about it through magazine articles and trying to get involved, many of the original riot girls were already starting to see that riot grrl was becoming something they didn’t intend. It was out of control, prey to co-optation, and they were disassociating from it.
Riot grrl had grown from a small group of like-minded friends who knew each other personally, to a relatively large network of girls from all over. Some girls got involved because they were interested in feminism, some were drawn to the music/aesthetic, and others because they saw it as a factor for coolness and a certain kind of underground popularity. Others felt excluded from it because it was clique-ish, they didn’t feel punk enough, or because it was seemingly dominated by middle class white girls who wanted to bond over GIRL<3LOVE but were unwilling to examine their race and class privilege. These criticisms were entirely valid and all too true, and the author, a middle class white girl–now woman–with a personal connection to riot grrl which she states upfront, thankfully takes them seriously and does not let her critical eye rest in discussions of the movement’s internecine struggles. She also consistently points out that the title of the book is misleading, for of course there is not one true story of the riot grrl revolution at all; there are many of them and, I will add, she did excellent research in attempting to uncover as many possible tellings she could and compiling them into something cohesive and, hopefully, accurate for as many people as possible.
By ’95, the movement would be declared dead by pretty much everyone who’d been plugged in enough to know about it. The use of the phrase “girl power” to describe the Spice Girls phenomena was a capitalist dance on riot grrl’s grave.
I play multiple instruments. I play out in one band on a regular basis and might start a second, too. There is still plenty of sexism in music, in both mainstream and non-mainstream spheres, let me tell you (another time, though, because I could just rant about that forever)!
But there are also TONS of awesome women making all kinds of music right now (I’m talking non-mainstream specifically). Like, more than there have been in a long time, and noticeably so. I’ve read more than a few articles about the recent resurgence of indie “girl groups” in the last few weeks (though I would say the “resurgence” is not all that recent) and have heard plenty of (male) complaints about the girl-band “schtick” and blah blah blah I just don’t like female vocals blah bullshit in the past few years.
Maybe riot grrl never was what it was “supposed” to be. Without a doubt, it let down a lot of the girls it purported to be for and by, and grassroots activists need heed this reminder of what happens when privilege is left unexamined. And surely a movement that so many of today’s young musicians are too young to have really participated in at the time is not solely responsible for the proliferation of young women in music now. But it sure meant a lot to me, just to know that at some point, not too long ago, a group of young girls had gotten together and made this POWERFUL THING that took on a life of its own and ROCKED and SCREAMED and DID things and MADE things and CHALLENGED the things that made them feel helpless, and when I see the phrase “riot grrl is in you!” written large on the walls and in the bathrooms of the venues I frequent today, I’m assured that it meant–and means–a lot to others, too.
It was hard to read about the implosion of riot grrl. Honestly, I felt close to tears toward the last third or so of the book. I felt the girls’ frustrations so very strongly. But the stories of what happened raise questions that make me feel better at least to ask. Did the splintering of riot grrl really dilute it’s message, or was its radical essence just transformed and spread? Can the utilization of riot grrl by increasingly diverse groups of girls, for more diverse purposes, really herald it’s death, or might it signal necessary re-imaginings? I like to think the latter. That social justice movements everywhere are an ever-changing, flowing, struggling process and that riot grrl was one time bound, Western incarnation of feminist youth movement that will surge and struggle for reinvention, again and again, in many places and through multiple actors, for as long as girls need it to.
In conclusion, here’s a video of the UK band Huggy Bear performing on some TV show in ’94 (I think). I’ve been obsessed with it all week. As Sara Marcus said when she wrote in my copy of the book for me last Saturday, “keep rioting”.