Revolution Girl Style: Tales of Riot Grrrls Past (and Present)

via Music Teacher’s Helper

The late 80s and 90s saw a new wave of punk and hard rock artists take over the alternative – and mainstream – scene. While these musicians represented a change in the overall sound, lyricism and style of punk rock, the scene was still as male-dominated as ever. Women in the alternative scene constantly got reduced to the roles of girlfriend, groupie, or backup singer, and casual misogyny was rampant. And the women who had to put up with being sidelined were tired of it. At this point, the question was not if there was a problem and more what to do about it. And in a small town in Washington State, a few women decided to start coming up with some solutions.

Part I: The girl riot begins

In the early 90s, the collective frustration many women in the punk scene were feeling came to a head. A group of women in Olympia, Washington, held a meeting about sexism in their local scene. These women had come to the realization that the existing punk scene was not made for them. Their solution? To create their own scene. Alternative rock music had long been used as a tool for protest and discussing serious topics; bands that were prominent in the 90s, such as Nirvana, did it all the time. The group of women who met decided to take advantage of that. They wanted to use punk as a means to normalize female anger and frustration. They wanted to carve out a space where they could embrace their sexuality without fear of societal judgment or retaliation. They wanted to be just as loud and brash as their male counterparts while disseminating important and empowering information to girls and women. They wanted, in the words of Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of band Bratmobile, to start a girl riot.  

From the start, the riot grrrl movement was unabashedly counterculture; the movement’s originators wanted to make their own, original imprint on the map. That meant self-producing and distributing music, but more than that, it established the use of fanzines to produce publications “unhampered by corporate structure”, according to a Grinnell College article. Fanzines – zines being short for magazines – were independent publications that disseminated information throughout the riot grrrl community. They were usually politically provocative and often featured articles about taboo topics like rape, incest, and eating disorders. Fanzines gave women a chance to share pieces about things that wouldn’t get published anywhere else. They also gave women the opportunity to express themselves artistically; doodles and other graphics were featured throughout fanzine pages, often bearing a political message. Fanzines bridged the gap between artists and listeners, giving everyone in the movement a chance to form a genuine community and engage with like-minded people. They made the prospect of a girl riot more accessible to a lot of girls and women. 

Fanzines also facilitated the emergence of new ideas and unifying stances within the movement. For instance, riot grrrl extraordinaire Tobi Vail coined the spelling of girl as ‘grrrl’ in an issue of her zine, Jigsaw. Most notably, the riot grrrl manifesto was first circulated in the second edition of the Bikini Kill zine, which was published by the band of the same name. The riot grrrl manifesto loudly outlined everything the movement was to stand for. It somewhat formally established an unapologetically girl-centered, girl-created, anticapitalist community that would do everything it could to subvert the status quo and disrupt male hegemony. The manifesto changed over time, with constant additions, deletions, and edits being made, but the essence of it never really changed. By the time the manifesto came about, riot grrrls already knew “that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”; the purpose of the manifesto was to catch everyone else up to speed. 

In the late 80s and early 90s, the riot grrrl movement was but a microcosm of the phenomenon it would grow into over time. At the forefront of this small community was Tobi Vail, a drummer, guitarist, and singer. Vail was heavily involved in the iconic Olympia music scene in her teens and into young adulthood. She was an inspiration to pretty much all the main girls in the riot grrrl movement. She, in part, convinced Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox to form the band Bikini Kill with her, which went pretty well to say the least. Vail and Hanna dated Kurt Cobain and David Grohl, two thirds of a super obscure and unsuccessful band called Nirvana. Before joining Bikini Kill, Vail was in a band called the Go-Team with Calvin Johnson, who was close with the lead singer of a group of friends that would later form Bratmobile. The Oregon-Washington music scene was a bubble; everyone knew everyone, even if indirectly. Riot grrrls capitalized on this, emphasizing closeness and community within their ranks. Riot Girl Olympia, the founding chapter of the movement, if you will, met every Sunday, having discussions about taboo topics like sexuality, rape, and eating disorders. They planned shows and concerts and brainstormed ideas for fanzines. Riot grrrls managed to create their ideal world in the form of a tiny, Pacific Northwest-situated, Olympian bubble. But that bubble got bigger and bigger, and it was only a matter of time before it would burst.

Part II: The movement grows + riot grrrls go off the grid (CW: brief mention of rape)

Subcultures can have birthplaces, originators, and even spokespeople, but they can never have true leaders. Subcultures are inherently decentralized; anyone within them has the power to start something new – in fact, this is encouraged. So it is no surprise that many girls across the country, inspired by the likes of Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail, started their own fanzines, bands, and riot grrrl chapters. For every Girl Germs, there were ten more girl-run fanzines. For every Bikini Kill, there were hundreds of girls picking up guitars and drumsticks for the first time. For every Riot Girl Olympia, there were dozens of chapters across the country. The movement presented itself as accessible, and its messaging compelled angry girls to join in droves.

We all know that teenage girls make pop culture (it’s true!). So naturally, when adolescent girls started joining the girl riot, the mainstream media took notice. Bikini Kill, not even two years old at the time, got coverage in publications such as the New Yorker, Spin, Sassy, and the New York Times. Newsweek released a now-infamous article covering the broader movement in 1992. And the more articles that were written, the more girls found out about riot grrrl, which led to even more zines, more bands, and more bodies with something to bring. In this way, the mainstream media had a somewhat symbiotic relationship with riot grrrls; it gave them coverage, they gave it content. However, in many other ways, the mainstream media hovered over riot grrls like a parasite, unwanted and unhealthy to the organism that was the burgeoning movement. Tabloids portrayed riot grrls as “violent, man-hating, and dangerous feminist[s]”. Publications played into the moral panic of the public, warning people to protect their innocent daughters (In an article about riot grrls, Rolling Stone wrote, “They’re called Riot Grrrls, and they’ve come for your daughters”). Some even went as far as to spread misinformation about the movement and its members, with reporters writing that Kathleen Hanna had been raped by her dad, an accusation that Hanna never made, without even calling her to corroborate the story. Riot grrrls were vilified and invalidated, reduced to a group of petulant man-haters in the eyes of the public and the press. The media that had a significant part to play in the rise of riot grrrl would aid in accelerating its downfall.

Riot grrrls never wanted mainstream media attention in the first place. As the paper entitled “Why Every Girl Isn’t a Riot Grrrl”: Feminism and the Punk Music of Bikini Kill in the Early 1990s’ by Charlotte Briggs notes, “The media was seen as a cog in the patriarchy forcing women in the underbelly of society”. A big reason why riot grrrls gravitated toward zines was that they could manage and produce their own narrative, on their terms, without corporate media bogging them down. The media’s unreasonable – and even outright false – depictions of riot grrrls only confirmed their biggest fears surrounding mainstream media coverage. Riot grrrls felt that their abstract philosophy was being misconstrued for the benefit of the publications that wrote about them. They knew they wouldn’t win with the media – they would either be vilified or get labeled “the voice of a generation” against their will. In protest, many prominent riot grrrls, like Bikini Kill, staged a media blackout. Publications like USA Today and ABC News came knocking at their door, itching for their next tale from the underground – each time, the riot grrrls turned them away.

Part III: Mistakes

As recounted by a Chicago Reader article, in 1992, by the time they had relocated to D.C., the band members of Bikini Kill sat in a run-down house – affectionately dubbed “The Embassy” – with members of the later legendary band Fugazi. Fugazi’s lead singer holds a copy of the latest Rolling Stone issue, an issue with none other than Nirvana on the cover. Kurt Cobain is front and center on the cover, wearing a t-shirt that says “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”, but Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye isn’t buying it. “Can you believe this?” MacKaye asks. “This is just so weird.” He carries on, bewildered, “Everyone’s signing to major labels, except the people in this room”. “Yeah,” says Kathleen Hanna. She’s sure they never will. 

While riot grrrls managed to make a statement by staging a media blackout, in doing so they isolated themselves from the society they wanted to change and the people they wanted to liberate. They, like many in the underground scene, held this air of superiority that led to their ideas never really catching on. Riot grrrls thought that they were right, but also that they were doomed to be perpetually misunderstood, which led to them shutting themselves off to the world, denying people across the country the chance to even begin to understand what they were about. Riot grrrls believed they were above greater society but were also afraid to venture into it. They chose not to rub noses with corporate media – an admirable decision, in my opinion – but they took it a step further, a step too far. They eventually became so focused on creating a small utopian bubble for riot grrrls that they forgot what they set out to do in the first place – liberate all girls.

Since we’re on the topic of exclusivity, we might as well address the elephant in the room. The riot grrrl movement, for all it’s outwordly anti-racist sentiment, was pretty white. The scene was not all-white as the media of the day portrayed it, and saying that was the case erases the many contributions of women of color in the scene. But we cannot deny the obvious either. I don’t think most riot grrrls were even trying to be exclusive of women of color – the nature of the movement just inherently did not cater to women who weren’t white. In the same way that the male-dominated scene didn’t feel like a safe space for riot grrrls, the riot grrrl community didn’t feel inclusive to women of color. Tamar-kali Brown, a hardcore musician who lived in New York in the 90s, explains it perfectly in a Vice article: “I got what Riot Grrrl was about. I didn’t think it was exclusive, but it didn’t feel inclusive to me”. On the outside, the riot grrrl movement seemed committed to addressing all bigotry; a part of the Riot Grrrl Manifesto says, “doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives”. But in practice, that intersectionality only went so far. Ramdasha Bikceem, a Black former riot grrrl who published a zine called GUNK, experienced this first hand all the time within the scene. A passage in GUNK #4 recounts Bikceem’s experience attending the first Riot Grrrl Conference in D.C., where this lack of awareness was made apparent: “They had a workshop on racism and I heard it wasn’t too effective, but really how could it have been if it was filled up with mostly all white girls. One girl I spoke to after the meetings said the Asian girls were blaming all the white girls for racism and that she ‘just couldn’t handle that.’”

Besides their ignorance of the intersections of race and gender, many riot grrrls were also oblivious to their class privilege. Many riot grrrls came from at least middle-class households. They may have faced issues because of their girlhood or womanhood, but they were very different from those that low-income girls, especially low-income girls of color, were facing. As mentioned in a Chicago Reader article, riot grrrls had “the time and the freedom to express their rage”; other girls were just trying to survive. For a lot of people, what riot grrrls were doing felt somewhat surface level. In the aforementioned Vice article, Tamar-kali Brown talks about this, saying, “Being in this urban jungle [New York], I was a different type of girl. I was hearing what they were saying, but I was living in an environment where people were getting stabbed. Riot Grrrl felt like a bubblegum expression.” 

Additionally, while many riot grrrls were lesbian or bisexual, there was a lack of (openly) trans women in riot grrrl spaces. There weren’t really any trans women that were prominent members of the movement. That doesn’t mean that riot grrrl spaces were explicitly transphobic, but any space that centers women should especially uplift the voices of women who are on the margins of society, like trans women. Also, some post-riot grrrl bands like Le Tigres, a band that Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill fronts, came under fire in the late 90s and early aughts when they played Michfest. For those unfamiliar, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or Michfest, was a music festival that only allowed entry to “womyn-born-womyn”. In other words, they did not allow trans women on festival grounds. It wasn’t the best look for bands like Le Tigres and queer punk band the Butchies to be playing an explicitly transphobic festival. Some of these bands have apologized, and others haven’t. As for Kathleen Hanna, she has explicitly supported trans rights in more recent years, so we can assume she has changed her tune. The actions of these bands aren’t indicative of the feelings of the entire riot grrrl movement, but regardless of their actions, it is clear that the riot grrrl was not a movement explicitly for – or by – trans women. 

Amidst all the recent romanticization of the riot grrrl movement, many people forget – or don’t care enough – to mention that the movement wasn’t as impactful or inclusive as it seemingly set out to be. In fact, many members of up-and-coming riot grrrl-inspired punk bands probably would not be able to exist happily in the 90s scene. Actions always speak louder than words, and the actions of many 90s riot grrrls, and the nature of the movement itself, tell me that the movement was made for a very specific type of girl. Back then, not every girl could be a riot grrrl.

Part IV: The new wave

Recently, riot grrrl has been making a comeback. For one thing, the media realized that maybe they were a little hard on the movement, and have been revisiting the movement and the impact it had. For another thing, critics are also realizing that they gave riot grrrl albums crappy reviews for nothing and that the music actually bangs. And obviously, trends tend to make a comeback every 20 years, give or take. Many people around my age are discovering riot grrrl for the first time, being inspired by it. Many new punk bands, whether composed of teenagers or adults, are drawn to this era for inspiration. I spoke to west coast-based punk rock band Teen Vamp Army – who you should totally check out –  about the impact riot grrrl has had on them. Annalise Dauble, the band’s drummer, says, “I find myself listening to a lot more of the older stuff. I really enjoy all of it [old and new riot grrrl], but I lean more towards 90s riot grrrl”. Leandra Calvanese, the lead singer and guitarist of the band, adds, “The riot grrrl movement in the 90s had a lot of great things for feminism. Women were coming to the forefront of rock”. The riot grrrl movement allowed new generations of girls and women to see themselves in the rock genre and encouraged them to make music of their own. However, the band feels like while riot grrrl was a big step in the right direction for making the alt-rock scene a safer space for women, the scene can still feel like a boys club at times. Calvanese talks about this, saying, “The rock genre as a whole often does feel like a boys club… If somebody were to list all the biggest bands in the world, barely any of them would include even one woman or person who wasn’t a man”. Akira Junyaa, who also plays guitar for the band, adds, “I think 90s riot grrrl definitely opened up a space for women to be more comfortable just enjoying different punk subcultures […] but there is always room for improvement”.

Another aspect of 90s riot grrrl that has carried over into the new wave is the sense of camaraderie that people in the scene have with each other. Often, 90s riot grrrls would form connections through trading zines, either in-person or via the mail. People could form bonds with strangers just by writing letters and sharing their favorite zines. However, in an increasingly online world, and especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities aren’t formed the way they were in the 90s. There are no riot grrrl meetings to attend, no concerts to go to, and nobody under 50 routinely handwrites snail mail. Nowadays, it is social media where people congregate to connect and share ideas with others. Francesca Attar, Teen Vamp Army’s bassist, shares that social media has allowed them to talk to other bands during the pandemic, saying, “I think that social media has been a big part, especially right now, in us connecting with other bands”. Junyaa agrees, explaining, “We’ve talked to a few [bands] and it was just really cool getting to know other bands, listening to their music and how it’s different [from ours] and their different influences”. 

As I mentioned, 90s riot grrrl was not without its faults. Many new wave riot grrl and punk rock bands are addressing this head-on, trying to make the scene a more explicitly inclusive space. Calvanese addresses this, saying, “In that same movement, there was a lot of transphobia and racism. We have people who are non-binary and people of color in our band, so obviously we want to be inclusive of our own members, and people getting into rock music when they feel like they don’t have a place in it. Hopefully we can provide some sort of comfort”. Dauble agrees, adding that, “With the scene sort of coming back, we can now take the time to really focus on being more inclusive”. Attar notes that the recent increase in representation of diverse identities in the alternative scene has been incredible to see, saying, “I see how POC and women and people who aren’t men have started to be bigger influences in the movement and it’s great”. Junyaa agrees, saying, “Certainly, for me, just seeing a whole bunch of different bands, and seing a lot of LGBTQ representation, seeing a lot of people of color is really inspiring to me”. That is a part of the reason why Junyaa prefers new-wave riot grrrl to the first wave. They recommend bands like Mannequin P*ssy and Pinkshift, which both have people of color and queer people in their ranks. They also mention a new movement called riot ghoul – the new term being used to include non-men who are not women – which is more intersectional than its conceptual predecessor. 

For all its shortcomings and imperfections, the original riot grrrl movement was filled with an admirable idealism and hope for the future. Riot grrrls believed everything they said in their manifesto, regardless of what the mainstream media, men, or greater society told them. They were willing to face unwarranted backlash to stand in their beliefs. And I see that same radical optimism in the new grrrls – and ghouls – on the block. Trends will come and go, and maybe in four years, the riot grrrl wave will have done its time. But the riot grrrl spirit is timeless. It may be embodied by different faces in different clothing as days go by, with each new group righting the wrongs of the last, but it will never die.



P.S. If you want to do more reading on the riot grrrl movement, here is a list of resources you can consult 🙂









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