About Riot Grrrl
The punk subculture, characterized by its loud, fast, and abrasive music, originated as a response to rock music and capitalism in the 1970s. Instead of idolizing rock stars, early punks supported less popular bands and embraced the idea that anyone could create good music. Punks demonstrated their “Do It Yourself” (D.I.Y.) ethics not only by creating their own music, but by making their own homemade magazines, which they called “zines.” As with many subcultures, punks followed unofficial social rules that placed some participants above others. Although subcultures are often spaces of refuge from the social inequalities of dominant society, such as sexism, the punk scene developed into a toxic space for women; they were held to a sexual double standard, faced the threat of sexual assault at punk music shows, and endured misogynistic music lyrics (Downes 2012).
Out of the sexism of punk emerged riot grrrl, a feminist punk scene that originated in 1991 in the United States and England. In particular, women in Washington D.C. and Washington State took a cue from antiracist movements across the country and framed riot grrrl music as a means of forming an anti-sexist revolution (Schilt 2003). In America, riot grrrl originated as a collaboration between prominent women in the scene: Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman (members of the band Bratmobile) began the production of a zine entitled “Riot Grrrl.” Soon after, Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail (members of the band Bikini Kill) began to help produce the zine because it reflected their own values. This collaboration soon developed into a habitual meeting group for women to discuss social issues, such as sexism and racism. Similar meetings, zines, and music began to circulate and spread the ideas of riot grrrl across America and Europe. The start of riot grrrl in the United States developed in parallel with feminist indie-pop music from artists like Huggy Bear in England. Eventually, British riot grrrls began to incorporate influences of punk music into their own subculture.
Women, Zines, and Punk Music
Riot grrrl adopted many of the anti-capitalist values of punk while focusing on ways for women to retaliate against the sexism of both punk and dominant society. Riot grrrls embodied the D.I.Y. mentality of punk by creating their own art in the form of loud, aggressive, and emotional punk music. Popular bands within the subculture, such as Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy, focused more on empowering women than gaining fame and popularity. These artists expressed their support of women by offering female audience members the opportunity to perform and share their own art or stories at shows (Downes 2012). Other popular riot grrrl bands include 7 Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland, Sleater-Kinney and L7 (Haenfler 2016). Beyond music, riot grrrl culture included meetings, conventions, and workshops that helped women form lasting connections with each other (Rosenberg and Garofalo 1998).
Riot grrrls also expressed themselves by creating zines, which are short, homemade, artistic magazines. Zines were a form of self-expression and a method of communication between women who shared similar values and frustrations. Although stylistically similar to punk zines, riot grrrl zines often contained stories and artwork challenging the patriarchy. This form of communication allowed women to discuss their experiences with sexism and identify their traumas not just as isolated feelings, but as manifestations of a larger, systemic sexism. Research by Schilt (2003) shows the positive impact of female produced zines on young women: through validating each other’s experiences and creating a space for self-expression, young women were able to maintain their confidence and practice speaking up for themselves. Because zines often granted contributors a certain level of anonymity, adolescent women were free share stories of sex, harassment, self-harm, and puberty with each other, which helped women form connections with each other and feel less isolated. Making zines also empowered women because it gave them a chance to create something rather than simply consume (Schilt 2003). On a stylistic level, authors used techniques like cutting and pasting art into their zines to create a homey and D.I.Y. aesthetic. This image reinforced the underlying notion that women should love and support each other because the style of the zines suggested that the authors put a lot of time, effort, and love into producing a zine for their fellow riot grrrls (Nguyen 2012).
Furthermore, riot grrrl focused heavily on providing women with ways to take more agency in the punk music world. Bands in the subculture planned shows and events during the daytime and aggressively called out men for providing unwanted attention at events (Downes 2012). Riot grrrl music focused on addressing issues like sexual assault, eating disorders, and the impossible double standard of sexualization of women both in and out of the punk scene. Many riot grrrl lyrics demonstrate frustration with one dimensional views and expectations of women while encouraging women to overcome these sexist stereotypes.
“I got a proposition goes something like this:
Dare ya to do what you want
Dare ya to be who you will
Dare ya to cry, cry outloud”
-Bikini Kill – Double Dare Ya (1991)
Grrrl Power: Gender & Feminism
Riot grrrl effectively empowered and supported women, but did not always align with the feminist movement. Although feminists at the time objected to the use of the word “girl” to describe women, riot grrrls combined their angry punk attitude with traditional feminine looks and symbols in an effort to reclaim their femininity from the patriarchy (Haenfler 2016). Riot grrrls wrote disparaging, sexist words, like “slut,” on their bodies in lipstick to call attention to the oversexualization of women and symbolize their desire to reclaim their sexuality (Attwood 2007). Although re-appropriating this language empowered some women, others believed embracing derogatory words reinforced dominant sexist power structures. Zines were a covert but important form of feminism within the subculture; they allowed women to recognize that the trauma they experienced through sexism and sexual abuse was not a personal problem but rather a societal issue. Having a safe space for expression also allowed women to practice voicing their concerns, allowing them gain more agency within society as a whole (Schilt 2003).
Society perceived riot grrrl subculturalists as deviant because they embraced taboo topics head on and refused to accept the exclusion of women in punk music. The music of riot grrrl musicians was often labeled negatively, possibly because it often contradicted sexist stereotypes of women (Downes 2012). Reports in the media on riot grrrl failed to discuss the meaning and symbolism behind aspects of riot grrrl culture, such as women writing “slut” on their own bodies, and presented the subculture as both scary and pointless. Often, the subculture was framed as dangerous and parents were warned against allowing their daughters to participate in even casual aspects of the scene, such as reading zines (Nguyen 2012). Many media reports also failed to interview prominent riot grrrl bands, leading to misrepresentation of the subculture. Men were often excluded from the subculture, which assured its authenticity as a scene focused on female empowerment, but also worked to alienate men and create a more deviant reputation for riot grrrl (Downes 2012).
Race: All Grrls Aboard?
Participants of Riot grrrl culture were predominantly white, middle-class women. Although some of the early zines acted as a platform for discussing racism, and bands like Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill wrote lyrics that acknowledged racism within punk and riot grrrl, white women often marginalized women of color within the scene (Schilt 2003). Many white participants stressed the importance of reclaiming their sexuality through re-appropriating sexist language, but society often fetishized women of color which made it harder for them to take agency over their sexuality in the same way that white women could (Nguyen 2012). Although white riot grrrls often expressed interest in inclusion and learning about women of color in order to be good “allys,” their desire often forced these women into the roles of teacher and model minority. Acting as a representative of an entire group of people was often exhausting and frustrating for women, making it more difficult for them to express themselves in the same way that their white counterparts did. Furthermore, white participants often admitted to their own white privilege and lack of anti-racism activism as a means of affirming their open-mindedness and good intentions. By owning this guilt, women gave themselves a pass from taking real action to stand up against racism, while constructing a self-image that showed them in a positive light and made them appear self-aware (Nguyen 2012). Although white riot grrrls harmed and alienated women of color, feminists today can learn from this racism to better navigate the intersection of gender, race, and other identities. Therefore, we cannot view riot grrrl as a racist failure, but rather as a learning opportunity (Nguyen 2012).
“Angry Women”: Influence & Mainstream Music
Riot grrrl paved the way for “angry” female musicians, like Alanis Morisett, Fiona Apple, and Tracy Bonham. Just like riot grrrl musicians, these women refused to shy away from sharing their frustration with sexism and discussing typically taboo themes. However, unlike riot grrrl bands, these artists were able to garner success because they operated within the system: they created pop music, which was safer than the punk music many people found abrasive (Schilt 2003). Additionally, unlike riot grrrl bands, these artists worked with major labels to construct an identity and spread their feminist messages after they had gained success. In some cases, such as Apple’s music video for her song “Criminal,” these feminist artists capitalized on the popularity of sexualizing women to attract attention. This strategy ultimately reinforced the sexist power structures that they, and riot grrrl, worked to dismantle. Although these artists were arguably less authentic than riot grrrl, they were able to spread their feminist messages more widely. Other feminist musicians, like the Spice Girls, stressed unity through “girl power,” but were sometimes less effective because they did not strive to fulfill a particular goal and did not offer a platform for women to connect with each other. Because these artists lacked the personal connection stressed by punk music and the riot grrrl community, they were less efficient in actually reaching women who needed feminist support.
What Can We Learn from Riot Grrrl?
Beyond a fascinating scene that fostered the creation of creative zines and catchy music, riot grrrl demonstrates the potential for resistance within subcultures. It shows that the style, music, and conventions, displayed by subcultures can by used as a form of resistance to and refuge from oppressive social inequalities. Furthermore, studying race and gender within the subculture can also allow current feminists to better understand the importance of an intersectional approach to feminist organizing.
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Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl (1993)
Bikini Kill was at the forefront of riot grrrl culture. Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail, members of the group, were particularly instrumental to the origins of the subculture. Their music urged women to rebel against sexism.
Heavens To Betsy – White Girl (1994)
Heavens to Betsy was another prominent and popular band in the subculture. This song, White Girl, is a rare example of white subculturalists recognizing the hypocrisy of wanting a female revolution without addressing racism within society and the subculture itself.
Bratmobile – Cool Schmool (1993)
Bratmobile, another popular band, sings about being an individual and not worrying about other people’s opinions.
Her Jazz – Huggy Bear (1993)
In this song, the band Huggy Bear calls for a revolution of equality and warns that this revolution will come with or without the help of men.
Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl (2005)
This documentary, directed by Kerri Koch, offers a window into the origins and influence of riot grrrl and provides primary source information on the subculture, including interviews with subcultural leaders and images of riot grrrl documents.
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Darms, Lisa et al. 2014. The Riot Grrrl Collection. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. A collection of early riot grrrl zines and primary documents, such as posters.
Marcus, Sara. 2010. Girls to the Front: the True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. New York: HarperCollins. In an extensive history of Riot Grrrl, this book ties the subculture to feminist movements through research, interviews, and her personal experience with the subculture.
Meltzer, Melissa. 2010. Girl Power: the Nineties Revolution in Music. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. This book focuses on the influence of riot grrrl on feminism and female musicians and compares riot grrrl musicians to female musicians in other genres.
Attwood, Feona. 2007. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.” Journal of Gender Studies 16 (3): 233-248.
Downes, Julia. 2012. “The Expansion of Punk Rock: Riot Grrrl Challenges to Gender Power Relations in British Indie Music Subcultures.” Women’s Studies 41: 204-237
Force, William Ryan. 2009. “Consumption Styles and the Fluid Complexity of Punk Authenticity.” Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction 32 (4): 289-309.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi. 2012. “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival.” Women & Performance 22 (2/3): 173-196
Rosenburg, Jessica. 1998. “Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from within.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23 (3): 809-841.
Schilt, Kristen. 2003. “’A Little Too Ironic’: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians.” Popular Music and Society 26 (1): 5-16
Schilt, Kristen. 2003. “I’ll resist with Every Inch and Every Breath: Zine Making as a Form of Resistance.” Youth & Society 35 (1): 71-97.
Spiers, Emily. 2015. “‘Killing Ourselves is Not Subversive’: Riot Grrrl from Zine to Screen and the Commodification of Female Transgression.” Women 26 (1/2): 1-22.
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