From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The term "riot grrrl" is both a genre designation of the movement, and can also refer to individual self-proclaimed riot grrrls who foster an aggressively independent Do-It-Yourself subculture by organizing and supporting female-centric bands, festivals and shows; group meetings, networking, collectives, and support groups; free workshopping, self-defense courses (like Home Alive), activism (often with benefit concerts), and underground fanzine culture.
In the early 1990s, many young women involved in underground music scenes throughout the United States articulated their feminist thoughts and desires through the "Do-It-Yourself" methods of making 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 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."
Women and bands often cited as important influences to this movement in feminism include but are not limited to: Suzi Quatro, Patti Smith, X-Ray Spex, Crass, The Avengers, Yoko Ono, Joan Jett and The Runaways, The Slits, L7, Lunachicks, Ann Magnuson of Bongwater, Gladys Bentley, The Plasmatics, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Ronettes, The Raincoats, Aretha Franklin, Betty Davis, The Shirelles, Honey Bane, Ma Rainey, Moe Tucker, Big in Japan, Judy Nylon, Nico, Bush Tetras, Au Pairs, Niagara, Sharon Cheslow, Penetration, The Shaggs, Rubella Ballet, LiLiPUT, Lydia Lunch, Poison Girls, Exene Cervenka of X, Julia Cafritz of Pussy Galore, The Nuns, The Bags, Frightwig, The Shop Assistants, Kim Gordon, Yeastie Girls and others; feminist artists like Carolee Schneemann, Linda Benglis, Yayoi Kusama, Martha Rosler, Johanna Went, Diamanda Galás, Vaginal Creme Davis, and Barbara Kruger; and writers such as Angela Davis, Kathy Acker, bell hooks, Gertrude Stein, Julia Kristeva, and Emma Goldman.
Uses and meanings of the term 'Riot Grrrl' developed slowly over time, 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 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: "angry grrls".
"Revolution Grrrl Style Now"
Although they're known for frequently denying exclusive credit for the movement, two bands in particular remain inextricably linked to its early formation.
Kathleen Hanna had been working as an exotic dancer to support herself, volunteering at a women's shelter, and studying photography at Evergreen State College in Olympia, where she'd opened her own small art gallery called Reko Muse, and would frequently have bands like The Go Team and Some Velvet Sidewalk play in between art exhibitions (partially just to keep the gallery running). While there, she started a band herself called Amy Carter with fellow gallery-founders Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland to open at shows. After touring with some other projects like Viva Knievel, she hooked up with The Go Team drummer and zinester Tobi Vail, who'd 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.
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.
It was a really hippie town, and we were getting really politicized, but also really into this DIY thing, so we kinda started creating. 'Let's make our own fanzine!' (Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground by Maria Raha)
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 didn't 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 weren't really a band and having only played a few garagey 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 '91, they finally started playing together as a trio just in time for the IPU convention in August of that year.
International Pop Underground Convention
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 modrockers, 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.
An all-female bill on the first night called "Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now" signalled a major step in the movement, featuring artists like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Nikki McClure, Lois Maffeo, Jean Smith of Mecca Normal, 7 Year Bitch, and 2 side projects of Kathleen Hanna: the first was Suture with Sharon Cheslow of Chalk Circle (DC's first all-women punk band) and Dug E. Bird of Beefeater, the second was the Wondertwins with Tim Green of Nation of Ulysses. 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.
The following days would also feature bands like Unwound, L7, The Fastbacks, The Spinanes, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Girl Trouble, The Pastels, Kicking Giant, Rose Melberg, Seaweed, Kreviss, I Scream Truck, Scrawl, Nation of Ulysses, The Melvins, Jad Fair, Thee Headcoats, and Steve Fisk.
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. Consciousness-raising activist-punk group meetings began taking place in international chapters, held in any available space from dorm rooms to community centres to studio apartments, soon becoming much bigger things like conventions and conferences, one of the first of which took place from July 31-August 2, 1992 in Washington, DC.
Other bands and artists associated with the riot grrrl movement in one way or another include Mecca Normal, Slant 6, Sta-Prest, Sue P. Fox, Jenny Toomey, Autoclave, Jack Off Jill, Raooul, Nomy Lamm, Excuse 17, Oiler, Canopy, Third Sex, Cheesecake, CWA (Cunts with Attitude), Tattle Tale, Growing Up Skipper, The Need, Team Dresch, Fifth Column, Bangs, Free Kitten, Emily's sassy lime, The PeeChees; in the UK, bands like Huggy Bear, Mambo Taxi, Skinned Teen, Pussycat Trash, The Phantom Pregnancies, Linus, Budget Girls, Sister George, Karen Ablaze, and Voodoo Queens; and in Asia, bands like Hang on the Box, Nonstop Body, Red Bacteria Vacuum, and Lolita No. 18.
However, it's also worth noting that there were quite a few girl-centric or all-women punk bands of this era like 7 Year Bitch, Red Aunts, Thee Headcoatees, or Spitboy, who were plenty independent and political themselves, but didn't necessarily self-identify with the 'riot grrrl' label, despite sharing similar DIY tactics and feminist ideologies.
Zines and self publishing
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, devotedly working instead with indie labels such as Kill Rock Stars, K Records, Slampt, Piao! Records, Catcall, WIIIJA and Chainsaw Records. 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, homosexuality, and sometimes vegetarianism. These zines were archived by zinewiki.com, and Riot Grrrl Press, started in Washington DC in 1992 by Erika Reinstein & May Summer. 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.
Many of the women involved with queercore were also interested in riot grrrl, and zines such as Chainsaw by Donna Dresch, Sister Nobody, Jane Gets A Divorce and I (heart) Amy Carter by Tammy Rae Carland embody both movements. There were also national conventions like in Washington D.C. or the Pussystock festival in New York City, as well as various subsequent indie-documentaries like Don't Need You: the Herstory of Riot Grrrl.
Concerts and conflict
Although many riot grrrl bands included male band members, like 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 like Bikini Kill would often actively invite members of the audience to talk about their personal experiences with sensitive issues like 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 sometimes violence) and once caused Melody Maker to accuse them and riot grrrl in general of misandry, a common criticism.
However 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.
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.
Bands would often reappropriate ordinarily derogatory phrases like 'cunt', 'bitch', 'dyke' and 'slut' (the very same words often received from male audience members), writing them proudly on their skin with lipstick or fat markers, thus nullifying their attempted offensive power and making them ultimately harmless and funny.
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.
Molly Neuman once summarized: "We're not anti-boy, we're pro-girl."
Indeed, members of riot grrrl culture, fans or members of bands, include males 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."
- List of all-women bands
- Girl Power
- Punk ideology
- Indie rock
- Indie pop
- Rock Against Sexism
- Guerrilla Girls