Riot Grrrl

Riot grrrl

Riot grrrl is an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in Washington, D.C.  and the Pacific Northwest in the early to mid-1990s. It is often associated with third-wave feminism which is sometimes seen as its starting point. Riot grrrl bands often address issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, racism, patriarchy, and female empowerment.

Bands associated with the movement include Bikini Kill, Jack Off Jill (and later Scarling), Bratmobile, Fifth Column, Sleater-Kinney, L7, and also queercore like Team Dresch. In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture: zines, the DIY ethic, art, political action, and activism are part of the movement.

During the late 1970s and early and mid-1980s there were a number of female punk and rock musicians that later influenced the riot grrrl ethos. These included Siouxsie Sioux, The Raincoats, Patti Smith, The Runaways/Joan Jett, The B-52’s, Kim Gordon, and Anti-Scrunti Faction. The 1980s also featured a number of female folk singers from New York whose lyrics were realistic and socio-political, but also personally intimate. During the mid-1980s in Vancouver the influential Mecca Normal fronted by poet Jean Smith formed, followed by Sugar Baby Doll in San Francisco whose members would all wind up in hardcore female bands. In 1987, the magazine ‘Sassy’ premiered and dealt with tough subjects that conventional magazines aimed at teenage girls did not. An article ‘Women, sex and rock and roll’ published by ‘Puncture’ in 1989 became the first manifesto of the movement. In 1991, a radio program hosted by Lois Maffeo entitled ‘Your Dream Girl’ aimed at angry young women debuted on Olympia, Washington radio.

During the early 1990s the Seattle/Olympia Washington area had a sophisticated DIY infrastructure. Young women involved in underground music scenes took advantage of this to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines and forming garage bands. The political model of collage-based, photocopied handbills and booklets was already used by the punk movement as a way to activate underground music, leftist politics and alternative (to mainstream) sub-cultures. Many women found that while they identified with a larger, music-oriented subculture, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes, so they took it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own fanzines, music and art.

In 1991, in what many believe to be an unorganized collective response to the Christian Coalition’s ‘Right to Life’ attack on legal abortion and the Senate Judiciary Hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—in which Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment and was mocked by the media—young feminist voices were heard through multiple protests, actions and events (L7’s ‘Rock for Choice’) that would later become part of a larger organized consciousness. This consciousness coalesced in late 1991 under the movement known as ‘riot grrrl.’ Uses and meanings of the term developed slowly, but its etymological origins can be traced to the actual Mount Pleasant race riots in spring 1991. Writing in ‘Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital,’ Mark Andersen reports that early Bratmobile member Jen Smith (later of Rastro! and The Quails), reacted to the violence by prophetically writing in a letter to Bratmobile co-member Allison Wolfe: ‘This summer’s going to be a girl riot.’ Other reports say she wrote, ‘We need to start a girl riot.’ Soon afterwards, Wolfe and Molly Neuman collaborated with Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail to create a new zine and called it ‘Riot Grrrl,’ combining the ‘riot’ with an oft-used phrase that first appeared in Vail’s fanzine ‘Jigsaw’: ‘Revolution Grrrl Style Now.’ Riot grrrls took a growling double or triple r, placing it in the word girl, as a way to take back the derogatory use of the term.

Although they’re known for frequently denying exclusive credit for the movement, two bands in particular remain inextricably linked to its early formation: Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Kathleen Hanna had been working as a stripper to support herself, volunteering at a women’s shelter, and studying photography at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where she participated in a small collective art gallery called ‘Reko Muse,’ which would frequently have bands like The Go Team and Some Velvet Sidewalk play in between art exhibitions (partially just to keep the gallery running). She started a band herself called Amy Carter with fellow gallery-founders Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland. After touring with some other projects like Viva Knievel, she hooked up with The Go Team drummer and zinester Tobi Vail, who had been writing of her own experiences: ‘I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys mostly and partly because punk rock of this generation is coming of age in a time of mindless career-goal bands.’ They started working together on another fanzine called ‘Bikini Kill,’ which, after recruiting friends Kathi Wilcox and Billy ‘Boredom’ Karren, would eventually become a band.

Allison Wolfe met Molly Neuman at the University of Oregon, and while Wolfe was turning Neuman onto bands like Beat Happening and The Melvins, Neuman was introducing Wolfe to sociology classes and Public Enemy. They began working on zines called ‘Girl Germs,’ and later ‘riot grrrl’ with Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna and Jen Smith. Wolfe and Neuman started frequenting shows by bands like Fugazi and Nirvana, bragging every chance they got about their band Bratmobile (which at the time did not really exist yet). In 1990 though, Calvin Johnson called them up and asked them to play a show on Valentine’s Day with Some Velvet Sidewalk and Bikini Kill, which had just started. Terrified at first, insisting they were not really a band and having only played a few garage jam sessions at each others’ houses, they finally accepted it as a dare and played the show at Olympia’s North Shore Surf club. After eventually hooking up with guitarist Erin Smith in March 1991, they finally started playing together as a trio just in time for the International Pop Underground Convention (a six day concert in Olympia) in August of that year.

Riot grrrl culture is often associated with third wave feminism, which also grew rapidly during the same early nineties timeframe, even though riot grrrl’s emphasis on universal female identity and separatism often seems more closely allied with second wave feminism. Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second wave’s ‘essentialist’ definitions of femininity, which often assumed a universal female identity and over-emphasized the experiences of upper-middle-class white women. Like third wave feminism, riot grrls attempted to foster an acceptance of the diversity of feminist expression. Riot grrrl arose after the queercore movement, although the distinction between the two movements is at times blurred, given bands such as Team Dresch and Fifth Column who embraced both genres. For the Riot Grrrl movement, a large part of their relation to feminism can be seen through taking back the meaning of derogatory terms.

The riot grrrl movement allowed women to be able to make their own place in a male-dominated punk scene. ‘Women could make their way to the front of the crowd into the mosh pit, but had to ‘fight ten times harder’ because they were female, according to one concert-goer. Women were also sexually attacked; groping by men was common and several women have reported rapes at shows.’ Many of the riot grrrl bands used their concerts as an opportunity to change the dynamics of punk concerts and create a place where women would feel safe. Although many riot grrrl bands included male band members, such as Billy Karren of Bikini Kill or Jon Slade and Chris Rowley of Huggy Bear, the bands weren’t always so enthusiastically received at shows by male audience members. Bands would often actively invite members of the audience to talk about their personal experiences with sensitive issues such as sexual abuse, pass out lyric sheets to everyone in the audience girl and boy, and almost always demand that the mosh boys move to the back or side to allow space in front for the girls in the audience, a controversial decision which sometimes led to booing and once caused ‘Melody Maker’ to accuse them and riot grrrl in general of misandry, a common criticism.

To address the subject Kathi Wilcox said in a fanzine interview: ‘I’ve been in a state of surprise for several years about this very thing. I don’t know why so-called punk rockers are so threatened by a little shake-up of the truly boring dynamic of the standard show atmosphere. How fresh is the idea of fifty sweaty hardcore boys slamming into each other or jumping on each others’ heads? Granted, it’s kind of cool to be on stage and have action in the front, much more inspiring than to look out at a crowd of zombies, but so often the survival-of-the-fittest principle is in operation in the pit, and what girl wants to go up against a pack of Rollins boys who usually only want to be extra mean to her anyway just to make her ‘prove’ her place in the pit. This was the case when I was first going to shows, and it’s sad that things haven’t changed at all since. And I usually took the attitude of ‘Fuck them, I don’t care if I DIE in there cuz I can be in front for this band I want to see,’ and I was kind of into the violent aspect of it anyway. But it would have been so cool if at one of these shows someone onstage would have said, hey let’s have more girls up in the front, just so I could have had more company and girls over to side could have seen better/been in the action. So yeah, we do encourage girls to the front, and sometimes when shows have gotten really violent (like when we were in England) we had to ask the boys to move to the side or the back because it was just too fucking scary for us, after several attacks and threats, to face another sea of hostile boy-faces right in the front. Especially when it was at the expense of girls who really wanted to see us and liked us anyway, who stayed in the back. And it’s also for the safety of the boys, because a few times the girls have gotten a little out of control, like when we played with the rocking Tribe 8, if I was a boy I would stay far away from the wild chicks in the pit, FOR REAL. As far as why people are scared, well cool boys and the real punk rockers know that shaking up the scene can be a good thing and aren’t necessarily as reactionary as the poseurs who get all their ideas and fashion tips from MTV. It’s just like real life.’

Kathleen Hanna would later write: ‘It was also super schizo to play shows where guys threw stuff at us, called us cunts and yelled ‘take it off’ during our set, and then the next night perform for throngs of amazing girls singing along to every lyric and cheering after every song.’ However, members of riot grrrl culture, fans, or members of bands, include men too. Calvin Johnson and Slim Moon have been instrumental in publishing a great many of the bands on the labels they founded, K Records and Kill Rock Stars respectively. Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot said, ‘I was totally into the riot grrrl music, I see it as a very important form of expression. I learned a lot from that, way more maybe than from ‘male’ punk rock.’ Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain dated Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail (also respectively), and often played with Bikini Kill even after splitting with them; Kurt was a big fan of The Slits and even convinced The Raincoats to reform. He once said, ‘The future of rock belongs to women.’

Even as the Seattle-area rock scene came to international mainstream media attention, riot grrrl remained a willfully underground phenomenon. Most musicians shunned the major record labels. The movement also figured fairly prominently in cassette culture, with artists often starting their own DIY cassette labels by as basic and spartan a means as recording their music onto cheap off-the-shelf boom-boxes and passing the cassettes out to friends, seldom charging anything beyond the cost of the actual tapes themselves. Riot grrrl’s momentum was also hugely supported by an explosion of creativity in defiantly homemade cut-and-paste, xeroxed, collagey zines that covered a variety of feminist topics, frequently attempting to draw out the political implications of intensely personal experiences with sexism, mental illness, body image and eating disorders, sexual abuse, racism, rape, discrimination, stalking, domestic violence, incest, homophobia, and sometimes vegetarianism. These zines were archived by zinewiki.com, and Riot Grrrl Press, started in 1992. Others can be found anthologized in ‘A Girl’s Guide to Taking over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution,’ for which actress/singer/musician/writer/performance artist Ann Magnuson of Bongwater fame wrote as a foreword: ‘When I think of how much benefit my teenage self could have gained from the multitude of zines that have proliferated over the past decade, I weep for all the lost potential. Except for Joan of Arc and Anne Frank, the thoughts of teenage girls have rarely been taken seriously.’

The zines were not only was a way for women to see that they were not alone, but it allowed them to address and change the connotation of some of the derogatory terms used against them. ‘Punk Planet’ editor Daniel Sinker wrote in ‘We Owe You Nothing’: ‘The vehemence fanzines large and small reserved for riot grrrl – and Bikini Kill in particular – was shocking. The punk zine editors’ use of ‘bitches,’ ‘cunts,’ ‘man-haters,’ and ‘dykes’ was proof-positive that sexism was still strong in the punk scene.’ Bands would often attempt to reappropriate derogatory phrases by writing them proudly on their skin with lipstick or fat markers. Riot grrrls making political statements to reclaim phrases is a common theme among third-wave feminists.

In the summer of 1991, K Records held an indie music festival called the International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia. A promotional poster for the event read: ‘As the corporate ogre expands its creeping influence on the minds of industrialized youth, the time has come for the International Rockers of the World to convene in celebration of our grand independence. Hangman hipsters, new mod rockers, sidestreet walkers, scooter-mounted dream girls, punks, teds, the instigators of the Love Rock Explosion, the editors of every angry grrrl zine, the plotters of youth rebellion in every form, the midwestern librarians and Scottish ski instructors who live by night, all are setting aside August 20–25, 1991 as the time.’ It was here that so many zinester people who’d only known each other from networking, mail, or talking on the phone, finally met and were brought together by an entire night of music dedicated to, for, and by women.

Influenced heavily by DIY culture, most bands’ presentation subverted traditional or classically trained ‘musicianship’ in favor of raw, primitive, avant-lo-fi passion and fiercely deliberate amateurism: an idea growing rapidly in popularity, especially in the Olympia music scene, with bands like Beat Happening coining the slogans: ‘Learn how to NOT play your instrument’ and ‘hey, you don’t have to sound like the flavor of the month, all you have to do is sound like yourselves,’ arguing that traditional musical skill doesn’t ultimately matter and should always be subservient to the passion, the fun and ideas in their music. This argument is similar to the ideological origins of punk rock itself, which started partially as an attempt to dissolve the growing division between audience and performer. These indie-punk bands (and riot grrrl bands in particular) were often ridiculed for ‘not being able to play their instruments,’ but fans are quick to counter that identical criticisms were often faced by the first-wave of punk rock bands in the 70s, and that this DIY garage amateurism ‘play just ’cause you wanna, no matter what’ attitude was one of the most appealing and liberating aspects of both movements.

Quickly amassing a devoted cult audience, the riot grrrl bands worked to ensure their shows were safe spaces in which women could find solidarity and create their own subculture, thus setting the tone for much of the movement. However, this only applied to cis women- trans women have been excluded from events such as ‘The Michigan’s Woman’s Music Festival,’ which have a woman-born-woman policy, which has included Le Tigre in its line up. Consciousness-raising activist-punk group meetings began taking place in international chapters, held in any available space from dorm rooms to community centers to studio apartments, soon becoming much bigger things like conventions and conferences.

As media attention increasingly focused on Grunge and Alternative Rock in the early nineties, the term ‘Riot Grrrl’ was often applied to less political female alternative rock acts such as 7 Year Bitch, The Breeders, Hole, PJ Harvey, Veruca Salt, and even No Doubt. To their chagrin, riot grrrls found themselves in the media spotlight during 1992, accused of dragging feminism into the mosh pit in magazines from ‘Seventeen’ to ‘Newsweek.’ Fallout from the media coverage led to resignations of people like Jessica Hopper, who was at the center of the ‘Newsweek’ article. Kathleen Hanna called that year for ‘a press block.’ In an essay from 1994, included in the CD version of Bikini Kill’s first two records, Tobi Vail responded to media simplifications and mis-characterization of Riot Grrrl: ‘one huge misconception for instance that has been repeated over and over again in magazines we have never spoken to and also by those who believe these sources without checking things out themselves is that Bikini Kill is the definitive ‘riot girl band’ … We are not in anyway ‘leaders of’ or authorities on the ‘Riot Girl’ movement. In fact, as individuals we have each had different experiences with, feelings on, opinions of and varying degrees of involvement with ‘Riot Girl’ and though we totally respect those who still feel that label is important and meaningful to them, we have never used that term to describe ourselves AS A BAND. As individuals we respect and utilize and subscribe to a variety of different aesthetics, strategies, and beliefs, both political and punk-wise, some of which are probably considered ‘riot girl.”

Writer/musician/historian/artist Sharon Cheslow said in EMP’s Riot Grrrl Retrospective documentary: ‘There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn’t handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing ‘slut’ on their stomach.’ Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney said: ‘I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear. They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say, they would take our articles, and our fanzines, and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.’

By the mid-nineties, riot grrrl had severely splintered. Many within the movement felt that the mainstream media had completely misrepresented their message, and that the politically radical aspects of riot grrrl had been subverted by the likes of the Spice Girls and their ‘girl power’ message, or co-opted by ostensibly women-centered bands (though sometimes with only one female performer per band) and festivals like ‘Lilith Fair.’ However, the influence of riot grrrl can still be felt in many aspects of indie and punk rock culture. Kaia Wilson of Team Dresch and multimedia artist Tammy Rae Carland went on to form the now-defunct Mr. Lady Records which released albums by The Butchies, The Need, Kiki and Herb, and Tracy + the Plastics.

Many of the women involved in riot grrrl are still active in creating politically charged music. Kathleen Hanna went on to found the electro-feminist post-punk ‘protest pop’ group Le Tigre; Kathi Wilcox joined the Casual Dots with Christina Billotte of Slant 6; and Tobi Vail formed Spider and the Webs. Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17 co-founded Sleater-Kinney at the tail end of the movement, and Bratmobile reunited in 2000 to release two albums, before Allison Wolfe began singing with other all-women bands, Cold Cold Hearts, and currently Partyline. Molly Neuman now plays with New York punk band Love Or Perish and runs her own indie label called Simple Social Graces Discos, as well as co-owning Lookout! Records and managing The Donnas, Ted Leo, Some Girls, and The Locust.

Riot Grrrl has sometimes been criticized for not being inclusive enough, and for focusing on mostly middle-class white women. Courtney Love, a contemporary of the Riot Grrrl movement, criticized it for being too doctrinaire and censorious. She is on record saying: ‘Look, you’ve got these highly intelligent imperious girls, but who told them it was their undeniable American right not to be offended? Being offended is part of being in the real world. I’m offended every time I see George Bush on TV! And, frankly, it wasn’t very good music.’

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