A Riot of Their Own
Riot Grrrl and Feminist theory- Part 1
At the start of the 1990s, a new subgenre of punk emerged that started a ‘revolution, girl style’ and emboldened many young women and girls to pick up a guitar/drumsticks/pens/placards and get musically active and politically involved.
Riot Grrrl is having somewhat of a resurgence at the moment, simultaneously reviving the previous ideals of solidarity and justice and righting any wrongs/addressing the gaps left by the previous incarnation. The one thing everyone knows about riot grrrl is, it was unabashedly feminist. But with many different thoughts, strands and waves within feminism, what was the theoretical underpinning of the riot grrrl ideas? Which feminist thinkers’ ideas have found their way into the songs of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and L7? Were the types of topics covered by those bands present in some popular feminist tomes? There are so many topics covered in riot grrrl that this post would be exponentially long if I attempted to squeeze them all in, so consider this just the first instalment.
What was riot grrrl?
Riot grrrl was a subgenre of punk that started (primarily) in Washington, US in the early 1990s. Riot grrrl sprung up from a combination of a strong zine network of women and girls who were communicating about issues relevant to their lives and promoting solidarity and ‘girl love’- challenging society’s predilection for setting girls in competition with one another. America had a vibrant and incredibly influential punk scene throughout the 1980s (hardcore) that addressed political issues around American society such capitalism, poverty, racism, and police brutality amongst others. Although there were undoubtedly women and girls involved in the hardcore scene, they were outnumbered by males and as such, there is little music tackling issues that would be of specific interest to female fans. Riot grrrl sought to redress this- creating a cohort of female bands that sang about violence against women, reproductive rights, sexuality, body image and beauty standards. The aim was to bring in a wave of women’s voices, experiences and perspectives into punk; ensure that punk shows were considered safe and respectful (perhaps in contrast to the reputation that hardcore shows had for violence); and to get people politically aware and active.
Where did this fit within feminism?
Feminist activity ( i.e., activity that seeks to promote women’s rights and equality) has of course, been occurring throughout history- certainly pre-dating the suffragettes which is a common starting point. However, the study of feminist theory and organised political activity, tends to group together certain clusters of thoughts and activities into ‘waves’.
The first wave of feminism refers to activity (largely in Western Europe and America) throughout the 19th century and through to the early 20th century. The suffragettes are probably the most iconic figures of this wave and the campaigning focused (mainly) on legal rights such as the right to vote and the right of custody for their children.
The second wave of feminism covers the activity from the 1960s to the 1980s, starting in the US and then quickly spreading to other parts of the world. Some of the key issues focused on during this wave include violence against women, women’s rights in the workplace, access to birth control and the general patriarchal nature of society’s institutions. Like the first wave before it, the second wave was not just about certain seminal books and philosophers (such as Betty Freidan and Simone de Beauvoir) but about tangible, proactive acts of solidarity. During the second wave, there was a flurry of refuges, women’s centres, and support groups popping up in towns and cities and providing services to women who needed them, as well as a safe place to meet and organise.
Moving forward to the third wave- which started in the early 1990s- this is where the fates and actions of feminist theory coincided with this new punk movement. The emergence of riot grrrl is considered by many to have kickstarted the third wave of feminist activism- certainly in America. Whilst many of the previous issues were still on the feminist agenda, new ideas and perspectives came to be during this period.
There was a focus on the experiences of teenage girls and the harmful messages conveyed during adolescence about self-image, sex, consent, and friendships. There was a recognition that public portrayals of women and girls have real life impacts on them in their personal lives- that the humiliation, degradation, exclusion, and dismissal of women creates harmful thoughts and internalised anger, fear and confusion. By challenging these messages (that women should be thin, pretty, subservient, nurturing, conforming, virginal yet sexy) riot grrrl sought to simultaneously create safe spaces for women to create, build friendships, critically analyse, and express their individuality.
Other strands of thought or political critique developed- intersectionality (the phenomenon of a person or group’s different social categories such as race, class and gender creating overlapping elements of discrimination or oppression); transfeminism (the idea that the liberation of trans women is inherently entwined with the liberation of all women) and sex positivity (that women’s sexual freedom is an important part of their overall fight for freedom). The previous wave’s focus was continued but sprawled out to include a plethora of new voices and perspectives.
One event that certainly put women’s place in society in the spotlight was the treatment of Anita Hill by the media and the public. Anita Hill is a lawyer who in the 1980s, worked as a legal advisor to Clarence Thomas who was at the time Assistant Secretary in the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Hill alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her and made unwanted sexual advances. Hill stopped working with Thomas in 1983 and went on to become a law professor. In 1991, Thomas was nominated to become a Supreme Court Justice and Hill’s disclosures were made known and she was called to testify to her experiences in a Senate Judiciary Committee. By the end of the hearing, Thomas was confirmed as a Judge in the Supreme Court and many felt that the treatment of Hill by the committee demeaning, sexist and designed to paint her as a ‘hysterical woman scorned’. This very public incident took place as the riot grrrl phenomenon was taking off and the eyes of the country’s (if not the world’s) women were on America and how they treated a victim of sexual harassment by a man in power.
As well as being encouraged and empowered to document their own experiences and feelings via ‘zines, journals, songs, poetry etc, many fans of riot grrrl were keen to delve into feminist literature that inspired many of their forerunners.
Kathleen Hanna- lead singer of Bikini Kill and considered the godmother of the riot grrrl movement- is said to have been inspired as a child by her mum checking out a copy of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique from the local library.
The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and had an overarching hypothesis that women were unhappy with their lives in the 1950s and 60s and Friedan wanted to know why. One central theme to the book is that women had been told by the media, by society, by politicians and by men, that fulfilment for them would come from their roles as mothers and homemakers. And this pervasive message had created a set of standards and expectations for women (also held by many men) that they would not pursue education, employment, or roles outside of that in the home.
Another significant and influential book was Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, which was published in 1970 based on the author’s doctoral dissertation. Sexual Politics looked at the role of the patriarchy in women’s sex lives and criticised the sexism inherent in popular writers and thinkers such as Freud, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.
Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book Against Our Will- Men, Women and Rape made the argument that sexual violence against women is a tool used by the patriarchy to keep women in a state of perpetual fear. The book sought to challenge many of society’s myths around rape both in terms of who commits rape and who can be the victim of rape.
Carol Hanisch wrote a 1970 essay entitled The Personal is Political (which became a very popular second wave feminist slogan) in which she stated that women’s personal experiences need to be understood in the context of wider power structures that women find themselves in. For example, an individual woman may experience domestic abuse but as well as being an individual experience, it is rooted in the societal dynamic of women being an oppressed class. Hanisch was also instrumental in organising the protests at the 1970 Miss World pageant in which feminist activists threw flour bombs during the event and heckled the host.
So, looking at some of the examples above from the second wave and the sorts of topics that were brought to the forefront of the debate around women’s place in society, it is easy to see riot grrrl as continuing the discussion on these topics. Certainly, as riot grrrl was all about giving women voices to bear testament to their own experiences, bands sung about all the ways society impacts their safety, wellbeing, and sense of self. And the concept of personal injustices being intrinsically linked to, and sanctioned by, wider power structures is a core tenet of riot grrrl messaging.
Heavens to Betsy came out of the Washington scene with a line-up that included Corin Tucker who would later go on to form Sleater-Kinney. Heavens to Betsy sang about street harassment (Terrorist), menstruation (My Red Self), and the loss of autonomy in relationships (Decide).
New York riot grrrl-ers Lunachicks have written about almost every female-centric topic under the sun. There are songs about periods (Plugg), eating disorders (Binge and Purge), beauty standards (Less Teeth, More Tits) and reproductive rights (Fallopian Rhapsody).
One of the most popular riot grrrl bands- Bikini Kill- sang about female love and solidarity (Rebel Girl); women’s sexuality (I Like Fucking); individuality and non-conformity (Resist Psychic Death) and sexual abuse (Daddy’s Li’l Girl). Frontwoman Kathleen Hanna has stated in numerous interviews that disclosures from gig-goers about violence and abuse they had suffered was relatively commonplace and was testament to the power of singing about such taboo topics and creating a sense of support.
In fact, most of the songs recorded during this period of riot grrrl covered the very same topics that the band’s second wave sisters were also discussing and writing about. But to hear these experiences in song, to have a soundtrack to the life changing and the mundane of women’s lives was a revolutionary act in itself. At a time when marital rape was still legal in the UK (1991 was when the law changed); when progress on addressing violence against women was slow; when women’s right to contraception and abortion often seemed to be precarious and when Reagan and Thatcher’s years of disdain for feminists and neglect of their goals was still raw, riot grrrl galvanised a generation to continue the fight. Benefit gigs for local women’s organisations and campaigns were commonplace, this activism and cooperation mirroring the ethos of the second wave sisters.
Not every riot grrrl would have read the works of Freidan, Millett, de Beauvoir et al. And the works of Jo Freeman, Gloria Steinem, and Mary Wollstonecraft (who was writing in the 18th century) were not required reading before you were allowed to participate in the scene (although many would have read some of them). But it is clear that the same things that the feminists in the 1960s, 70s and 80s were fighting for were still very much relevant to women in the 1990s. Using punk’s DIY ethos, they were encouraged to engage in resistance however they could- either by political organising, creative endeavours or both. Traditional notions of femininity were challenged, gigs were reorganised to place women at the front, the gender balance in the punk scene was upended.
All of this was achieved in a storm of activity that was really confined to about 6 very productive years in that initial scene. However, those initial songs, bands, ‘zines and friendships have a legacy that has endured and kept the riot grrrl spirit well and truly alive. The torch has been passed to successive waves of musicians, fans, artists, and writers who are still bringing girls to the front in everything they do.