Riot Grrrl, a group mainly comprised of white females that identified as “punk-feminists,” emerged in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C.and Olympia, Washington (Downes 2012).The term Riot Grrrl stems from Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman, members of the feminist punk band Bratmobile, who coined the phrase “girl riot.” Jen Smith then created the term “grrrl” and later “Riot Grrrl” through the expression “angry grrrl zines” devised by Tobi Vail (Downes 2012). Early participants deliberately used “grrrl” instead of “girl” to remove the passive association with the word “girl” as well as to display the anger behind the movement, reminiscent of a growl (Rosenburg 1998 and Schilt 2003). Due to the founding women’s punk roots and use of shock protest, the public viewed Riot Grrrl in a more radical light than other feminist groups (Schilt 2003). The Riot Grrrl movement encouraged females to become more involved in the male-dominated punk scene. In the 1970’s, women were generally only considered “punk” through the association of being a girlfriend of one of the male members of the group. While punk is primarily male-dominated, many women took part in the early punk scene. However, with the advent of “hardcore punk” in the early 1980s, hypermasculinity became the norm and women’s influences declined (Rosenburg 1998). Women began creating their own magazines, fanzines or “zines”, to share ideas that eventually led to spreading the movement nationwide. The increasing awareness led to the creation of local Riot Grrrl weekly meeting that eventually turned into national conventions.
Although Riot Grrrl emerged in Washington, D.C., it became mostly popular in Washington, specifically Olympia through the use of “zines,” which are short for “fanzines.” Zines are homemade publications with limited circulation (Schilt 2003). Zines became an important part of the punk scene in the early 1970s because it was a way to produce a publication “unhampered by corporate structure” (Schilt 2003). However, zines served as a place to discuss issues that were considered taboo in mainstream culture such as rape, incest, and eating disorders. Zines allowed women to form connections with other women that shared similar ideas and experiences and ultimately created a community (Schilt 2003). In Washington D.C., some of the band members from Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, held weekly meetings for women to attend, express their frustrations, and show support for one another. The first major Riot Grrrl event occurred in August 1991 at the International Pop Underground Convention in Washington, D.C., which boasted an all-female line-up including Bikini Kill, L7, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy (Wald and Gottlieb 1993). Approximately two years after the introduction of Riot Grrrl zines, a small Riot Grrrl network formed which spread to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Richmond. These were groups of high school to college aged girl that met often to discuss ideas, plan Riot Grrrl festivals, and support each other’s music (Wald and Gottlieb 1993).
As more and more people discovered Riot Grrrl through zines, it eventually reached the level of mainstream press, which ranged from Sassy to Newsweek (Rosenburg 1998). The increased publicity of the Riot Grrrl movement led to much confusion amongst the public. Tabloids began to play to the name of the movement by illustrating the Riot Grrrl members as a “violent, man-hating, and dangerous feminist youth subculture” (Downes 2012). This justification led to associating Riot Grrrl as a violent girl gang that terrorized men through their man-hating confessions. These false accusations then led to the media questioning the integrity of Riot Grrrl and the type of culture they were creating for young women. Further questioning the motivations behind the movement relates to the idea of moral panic. Countless people became concerned with the Riot Grrrl movement and assumed members promoted messages that would affect the well-being of society. Mass media induces this type of fear around ideas against hegemonic society into public opinion by reporting false information that perpetuates fear.
Along with this increase in popularity, came critiques from the public. An English music journal, Melody Maker stated, “The best thing that any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading, and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine” (Schilt 2003). This was just one of many critiques Riot Grrrl faced; however, one of the most common digs at the movement focused around their image at concerts. Kim France, founding editor of Lucky, wrote in 1993, “They do things like scrawl SLUT and RAPE across their torsos before gigs, produce fanzines with names like Girl Germs and hate the media’s guts” (Schilt 2003). Riot Grrrl founders then contested her writing in several interviews explaining the importance of creating awareness for subjects that are not commonly discussed in mass media. For example, band members of Bikini Kill would often pass the microphone to audience members at concerts, so they could share their stories about sexual abuse (Schilt 2003).
In addition to the criticism Riot Grrrl endured, reporters often questioned their credibility. More often than not, reporters rendered Riot Grrrl in an “antagonistic” light (Schilt 2003). One key example of this type of discrimination against Riot Grrrl is through a story ran by Washington Post about Bikini Kill. Reporters wrote that Kathleen Hanna had been raped by her dad, a false accusation, without interviewing Hanna or any members of the band (Schilt 2003).
Music was a key foundation to the movement that amalgamated its members. A variety of bands used music to express their hate toward the patriarchy and antiracist viewpoints. Many of the songs centered on topics that were considered taboo in mainstream society such as rape, incest, and eating disorders (Schilt 2003). Through these songs, girls were able to see how their own personal problems fit into larger political issues (Schilt 2003). Because of the close-knit communities formed via music and zines, girls would often write to band members about how the lyrics affected their lives. Some examples of song lyrics discussing eating disorders, heterosexual relationships, and the characteristics of what society deems as the “perfect” woman are shown below in songs by Bikini Kill and Bratmobile (Schilt 2003):
“Feels Blind” by Bikini Kill (referencing eating disorders)
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,”
“Don’t Need You” by Bikini Kill (rejecting heterosexual relationships dynamics)
don’t need you to say we’re cute
don’t need you to say we’re alright
don’t need your protection
don’t need your kiss goodnight
“Teenager” by Bratmobile (critiquing the expectations girls face)
I’m not jaded to the bone
I’m not little Miss Knowledge
I’m not hooked up to the phone
I’m not just a piece of college
I’m a teenager
An interview with Sini Anderson, who directed The Punk Singer a documentary about Riot Grrrl musician Kathleen Hanna, gives a brief history of Riot Grrrl and fanzines.
Documentary on the Riot Grrrl movement that discusses the origins, music, and fanzines. Glimpses of interviews with key Riot Grrrl figures along with pieces of fanzines occur throughout the documentary.
The Punk Singer. This is a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, a musician and activist who has been attributed as one of the key figures of the riot grrrl movement.
Bratmobile focuses on the implications of dating and how women should become their own dream rather than focusing on a man to make them happy.
Rebel Girl-Bikini Kill
After Bikini Kill released this song, it soon became the anthem for the Riot Grrrl movement that elaborates how women should have confidence in themselves no matter that the public labels them.
Cool Schmool- Bratmobile
A major theme in Riot Grrrl was rejecting the way women were “supposed” to dress in mainstream society.
Terrorist-Heavens to Betsy
Corin Tucker describes her anger toward the way men treat women with intensity throughout the course of the song.
Standing in the Way of Control- The Gossip
An emotional account of the band’s response to the restrictive laws on same-sex marriage.
Driver- Perfect Pussy
Another example of a band using ethos to promote the challenges women face with double-standards, authenticity, and not being taken seriously.
Bock, Jannika. Riot Grrrl: A Feminist Re-interpretation of the Punk Narrative. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008.
- A narrative that discusses the history of the Riot Grrrl movement specifically focusing on feminism and the entrance of women into the male-dominated punk scene.
Monem, Nadine. Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!. 2007. Black Dog Publishing
- A personal account told from the perspective of the dominant women involved in start the riot grrrl as well as members that helped spread and perpetuate the movement.
Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. 2010. New York: HarperPerennial.
- A historical anecdote of the Riot Grrrl movement in the 1990s.
D’Angelica, Christa. 2009. “Beyond Bikini Kill: A History of Riot Grrl, from Grrls to Ladies. Ann Arbor.” ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: Social Sciences.
- A master’s thesis centered around the influence of Bikini Kill on the Riot Grrrl movement.
Klein, M. 1993. Interview grrrl style: Kathleen Hanna of bikini kill. Off our Backs, 23(7).
- An interview with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna discussing her influence in the Riot Grrrl movement.
Shive, S. 1996. Interview with Sara McCool. Off our Backs, 26(9).
- Interview with organizer of the Riot Grrrl convention discussing her motives and involvement in the convention
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