Asking For It: Riot Grrrl Revolution
"When she talks, I hear the revolutions. In her hips, there's revolutions. When she walks, the revolution's coming.
In her kiss, I taste the revolution."
The notions of female sexuality and power are clearly present in Bikini Kill's anthemic, "Rebel Girl," an iconic song of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Riot Grrrl was primarily a musical and feminist movement which emerged from the punk scenes of Olympia, Washington, developing alongside the shifting sub and counter cultures of the 1990s. Kathleen Hanna, the pseudo-founder of the Riot Grrrl genre and its pioneer band, Bikini Kill, was at the epicentre of this cultural shift which spread from the subversive culture of the Seattle area to traverse the United States, spread to Canada, The United Kingdom, and Australia. Bikini Kill existed in a cultural sphere which linked the small punk rock feminist band to a multitude of big names in the music industry including: Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Courtney Love (Hole), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Marilyn Manson and Jessicka Addams (Jack Off Jill). The revolutionary concept of women being at the forefront of a male dominated subculture was met with backlash even within the progressive mindedness of punk rock.
The "Girls to the Front" credo at concerts, lyrics which addressed negatively stigmatized subjects such as rape, eating disorder, abuse, self harm and paradigms of gender caused the dismissal of girl bands as a novelty rather than serious musicianship. The Riot Grrrl revolution produced an ideology of rejecting victimization paradigms and giving power to girls through solidarity, voice and demanding rather than requesting agency. This era acted as the precursor to modern intersectional feminist ideologies and began the Third Wave feminist movement. While the Riot Grrrl movement is criticized for its de facto state of being predominantly white and trans-exclusionary, its de jure ideology of feminism being for women of all classes, races, sexual orientations and religions brought to light the need for female inclusive and safe environments The message to body positivity, acceptance of diverse sexuality and rejection of patriarchal gender paradigms was central to the doctrine of Riot Grrrl.
This gender revolution was centered on identity politics, subverRting concepts of binaries and dichotomies, as well as advocating for dismantling negative social stigma and double standards of sexuality for women. Many of the lyrics and zines of Riot Grrrl dealt explicitly with rape culture, slut shaming, and victim blaming, many of the musicians experiencing firsthand the darkness which inspired their accusatory lyrical screams.
"Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? If she was asking for it, did she ask you twice?"
- "Asking For It," Hole
During a period in which the new generation was being characterized primarily by its apathetic and disenfranchised youth, the 1990s in the United States was an era of evolution for ideological values and dynamic cultural shifts. The silent war on women underneath the surface of American culture began a metamorphosis in what many were beginning to consider a post-feminist era. In the shadow of the popular rise of the grunge music scene in Seattle, a new girl style of feminist punk rock was demanding attention amid a male dominated sub culture. By conducting a historical analysis of the Riot Grrrl movement, an understanding of how it came to bring about a Third Wave feminist movement during the early 1990s in the Unites States can be developed. The fields of modern feminist and queer theory have been heavily influenced by the intersectional ideologies which first took root in the Riot Grrrl movement.
Examining this movement will contribute to the comprehensive understanding of how cultural conceptions of gender and sexuality have evolved in the context of the United States over the past few decades. The purpose of this research is to analyze the historical climate which was able to produce a Third Wave feminist movement, in the form of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. What began as a small movement in Olympia, Washington spread across the entire country and attained international influence. By adhering to an ethos of being creators, not consumers of culture, Riot Grrrl fabricated its own identity in music, fashion and zine communities, which helped propagate the spread of a new wave of feminist thought and ideology of intersectionality would serve as the basis for modern feminism.
In order to understand the political and cultural environment surrounding issues of sex and gender in the United Stated which led up to the birth of Riot Grrrl and the Third Wave feminist movement, one must look at the preceding climate of the nation. The cultural climate of American society in the 1990s regarding sexuality was heavily influenced by the previous decade's exposure of widespread childhood sexual abuse and incest. Something that Beryl Satter examines through her ideas on passivity And emotion in mid-twentieth-century America.
The feminist movement would use this as one of their main issues in trying to give rise to a societal shift from a culture of victim blaming and a departure from the Regan era style social conservatism which had gripped the nation over the past few decades. The Third Wave feminist movement which began within Riot Grrrl, has a distinct age and ideological gap between their predecessors of the Second Wave in the 1970s.
While feminist movements of the past focused on the rights and place of women in voting, education and the workplace, this new feminism sought to bring attention to those who had been traditionally excluded from feminist dialogue. The Riot Grrrl movement was predominantly a youth culture movement born from the anger of young girls looking to be heard in a world where their voices are silenced and unacknowledged. What made Riot Grrrl so revolutionary is its concept of female solidarity across any social boundaries of age, race, religion. sexual orientation or economic status. This intersectional feminist concept would pave the wave for modern feminist ideology and attempt to correct what past movements had been criticized for, but despite the de jure policies of the Riot Grrrl chapters, a de facto observation of the movement sees past trends continuing.
This movement can be criticized for being comprised of mainly young, upper middle class, white girls. This issue was recognized by certain members of the movement and expressed in zines, such as this reflection:
Our movement is predominantly white for specific reasons-because we have not spent enough energy or time incorporating race + class awareness into our "feminist" (gender only) awareness. Because we have not spent enough time or energy addressing the particular concerns of nonwhite girls. We have not made this movement feel inclusive to them according Marcus one biographer of Riot Grrrl. This historical period in the United States saw a myriad of events, both political and violent, which would inspire a new generation of feminists. The Green River Killer, "had murdered at least forty girls and young women near Seattle in the '80s". Kathleen Hannah, the front women of the quintessential pioneer Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, "told a critic her influences were '"fourteen women in Montreal'" - the engineering students killed in 1989," at the École Polytechnique Massacre. The Anita Hill hearings in 1991 reflected what would be a focal point of Riot Grrrl ideology, a rejection of the patriarchal paradigms which sought to shame female sexuality and victims. The sociopolitical context of the United Stated in the 1990s was heavily influenced by the persisting and clashing cultures of the 1970s, which in a new era will manifest in new forms but still represent conservative Christian morality competing with liberal ideologies of gender, race and sexuality.
The beginnings of Riot Grrrl and a national Third Wave feminist movement come from a small punk scene in Olympia, Washington. In a time period of complex identity, the youth of Generation X's disenfranchisement and observation of a nation on the brink of a major cultural shift brewed a sense of hope and rage. This manifested itself through the new trend of all girl punk bands, drawing attention to the major issues they faced and felt silenced for such as eating disorders, rape, abuse, and self harm. The Riot Grrrl doctrine incorporated a variety of principle tenants such as solidarity of women, expression of creativity through music, art and zines, embracing sexuality and diversity, and the reclamation of girlhood and sexuality to take away any power given to abusers in a patriarchal culture of slut shaming and victim blaming. A classic moniker of the Riot Grrrl genre was its members finding empowerment in the words slut, pussy, cunt and queer, which they scrawled on their body or screamed in their lyrics:
I fight like a girl. I fight like a girl who refuses to be a victim. I fight like a girl who's tired of being ignored + humoured + beaten + raped. I fight like a girl who's sick of not being taken seriously. I fight like a girl who's been pushed too far. I fight like a girl who offers + demands respect. I fight like a girl who has a lifetime of anger + strength + pride pent up in her girly body...I fight like a girl who fights back. So, next time you think you can distract yourself from your insecurities by victimizing a girl think again. She may be me, and I fight like a girl.
This image taken from a zine reflects the rage of young girls in this period and the militant standpoint of Riot Grrrl that took a no compromise attitude in the face of a patriarchal paradigms reinforcing a culture of slut shaming and victim blaming. This is a prime example echoing the sentiments of girls who felt sexualized, abused, victimized, patronized, and silenced. While female gender is socially debilitating in a patriarchy, youth also accounted for another layer of disenfranchisement through lacking agency. This hidden rage manifested itself as Riot Grrrl and as girls across the nation were identifying with the message, the feminist punk rock subculture emerged into a full scale Third Wave feminist movement. Riot Grrrl was the radical notion that girls deserved to love themselves and each other, it was the demand by girls to be acknowledged and respected, and it was the promise of the threat girls could pose.
This era produced a number of bands and names, some of which remain common cultural capital, despite their milieu in sub and counter cultures, and others who remain prominent in the art and film industries. All of these names came into prominence in the same period and have links interconnecting their histories; Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill, Courtney Love of Hole, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and Jessicka Addams of Jack Off Jill. When discussing music artists of the 1990s, there are many prominent figures to mention across genres, however, despite the significant influence of female musicians and the close ties to the grunge and Riot Grrrl scenes in this period, there is a transparent cultural erasure of women through separation, categorization and forgetting.
This period in music was graced with major pop culture icons like Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain who while within the grunge community were closely associated with the Riot Grrrl movement and used their fame as a podium for open feminist advocacy. These alternative sub cultures were paralleled in ideology within the more mainstream music scenes in the 1990s such as with pop and ska, where the Spice Girls and Gwen Steffani of No Doubt were marketing their own brand of female empowerment. These artists each had their own individual approach to manipulating gender expression through blending girlishness with sexuality, cross dressing or taking on an empowered hyper femininity, allowing them to use the performance of gender and sexuality to give the artists agency over their own identity and message.
The significant contributions of women to the music industry during this period are subject to cultural erasure due to the latent androcentrism of society which causes female performers and girl bands to be ignored critically and eventually forgotten. The forgetting of women in the popular culture of music, does not mean their influence cannot be keenly observed in other stratifications of popular culture. Courtney Love, known as the patron saint of Riot Grrrl despite her disdain and disassociation with the movement, spawned the "kinderwhore" fashion style with her babydoll dresses and bold makeup. Gwen Stefani's unique dress, including her iconic cultural appropriation of the bindi, created its own trend.
The styles and ideologies of this period proved to be popular internationally and created tandem movements in the UK and Australia. The Riot Grrrl Revolution in the UK worked in tandem with the United States movement, with bands like Huggy Bear cooperating internationally with Bikini Kill. In other areas of culture in the UK, the Tank Girl comics, inspired by Riot Grrrl ideology, despite drawing heavily from British pop culture would in turn gain standing in the United States causing a Hollywood film adaptation.
Among the most sacred of creeds in the Riot Grrrl ethos was the D.I.Y. ethic which reinforced ideology of female agency and skill. This was one of the founding and driving principles of the movement which encouraged girls to start bands, learn how to play instruments, make art, become writers etc. A culture of self-published zines began to infuse its way into the movement in the wake of Kathleen Hannah and Tobi Vail's Jigsaw series, which focused on the core principle of female power which could transcend boundaries of race, class and sexual orientation to instill a sense of political and self agency. Through its several issues Jigsaw offered a powerful social and political commentary which addressed the need to create a supportive female community, examine gender roles and norms, and expressing the need for an intersectional ideological basis.
The Riot Grrrl movement's strong ideological rejection of mass media portrayal, led zine-making to become a defining characteristic of the movement, inspiring girls on an international level to make their own zines and be part of a sui generis community. The emergence of zine culture and the Riot Grrrl Press allowed for the movement to reject mainstream media outlets but still have a information network based on community. The misrepresentation in mainstream media of Riot Grrrl made it clear that the spread of ideology, music, fashion or any topics of interest to expansive zine community needed to be in the hands of those within the movement.
The multiplicity of these individual manifestos was fundamental in the spread of Riot Grrrl ideology allowing it to evolve from a sub movement within a small town punk scene, to a national Third Wave feminist movement. By having no true leaders and allowing a community to grow and be embodied in the form of self published zines, Riot Grrrl set the stage for the beginning of a Third Wave Feminist movement by providing a form of communication, representation and emotional support system.
While Riot Grrrl was an extremely significant feminist movement it cannot be championed and idealized. There are many failings to the movement's actualization of their ideology, being comprised of mainly young, white middle class girls. A highly important issue that Riot Grrrl fails to address is the aspect of trans-inclusion in feminism , a defining characteristic of modern intersectional ideology. Amongst the icons of these subcultures, there is a stain upon Riot Grrrl's history where Courtney Love punches Kathleen Hannah in the face at Lollapalooza in 1995. While the former incites Gwen Steffani to write "Hollaback Girl" by calling her a cheerleader, the latter is the subject of the NOFX song, "Kill Rock Stars," taunting, "Kill the rockstars? How ironic, Kathleen. You’ve been crowned the newest queen...I thought the goal here was mutual respect...I wish I could have seen Courtney demonstrate some real misogyny.”
The Riot Grrrl Revolution's incursion of American Culture in the 1990s had a significant impact on a myriad of faculties. This cultural revolution was premised with a socio-political climate begging to reject the Regan era style social conservative orthodoxy that had shrouded the nation for decades, and address the silent war on women. Riot Grrrl in the tradition of cultural erasure and forgetting of women, has been one of the greatest mostly unknown influence on American culture. Despite creating its own place as a musical genre, Riot Grrrl inspired fashion trends with the kinderwhore style, but the movement was always about politics and its pseudo-leaders rejected the mainstream media's misrepresentation of the movement with the fear, according to Marcus, that is would cause girls to, "conclude she wasn't cute or thin or rich or punk enough to be a riot grrrl, or that the way to be powerful was to dye her hair and wear bright lipstick and combat boots”.
While those like Kathleen Hannah and Courtney Love were seen as icons of Riot Grrrl, the anarchic principal of punk which permeated the movement's origins intended it to be a leaderless revolution of the people. Many Riot Grrrls identify both Hannah and Love as the symbolic leaders of the movement, but both artists express dissociation with that role. Hannah rejects her role as the de facto leader of the movement, urging for community minded thinking, while Love expresses a complete disassociation with the movement and, "is also used to define what Riot Grrrl is not. For instance "Grrrl love, not Courtney Love' was the official slogan of a 1996 Riot Grrrl convention" (Hecate, 148).
The D.I.Y. ethos of Riot Grrrl allowed for the production of self represented culture and creation of a girl community dedicated to information and emotional support. The expansive zine community propagated the spread of Riot Grrrl ideology into a full scale Third Wave feminist movement. From its conception, despite failing at actualizing the incorporation of race and its latent trans-exclusivism, Riot Grrrl incorporated a principle of intersectionality to its ideology, which would be the basis of modern feminist thought. Riot Grrrl was most important and revolutionary for giving a voice to young girls who were disenfranchised and silenced, now finding outlets to be able to openly address issues that affected them and pave the way for modern feminist discourse:
When you are a teenage girl who's trying with all your might not to hate yourself, trying not to be harassed or raped, trying not to let bikini blondes in beer ads crush your self- image, trying not to be discouraged from joining a sports team or math club or shop class or school newspaper, trying not to let your family's crippling dysfunction...make you want to fucking die, a feminist movement that's mostly about electing new Senators might not be all that compelling to you...
if feminism is going to survive...You're going to have to make this thing your own!
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