“BECAUSE we are unwilling to falter under claims that we are reactionary “reverse sexists” AND NOT THE TRUEPUNKROCKSOULCRUSADERS THAT WE KNOW we really are.” – Excerpt from Riot Grrrl Manifesto
Even 25 years after the formation of Bikini Kill, mainstream media and music still feel the ripples of the Riot Grrrl movement. A cornerstone of the third wave feminism, the Riot Grrrl movement had humble beginnings in Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s. Notable bands from the movement include: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile and The Third Sex, which have inspired the formation of many other feminist punk bands. The movement’s fight for a voice in a male-dominated music scene brought to light the issues surrounding sexism, domestic abuse, patriarchy, racism among others. Kathleen Hanna, often hailed as one of the founders of the movement fronted groups such as Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and most recently, Julie Ruin. The distribution of Riot Grrrl zines allowed women to discuss more “taboo” topics such as eating disorders and sexual violence, stimulating much needed dialogue. The makings of riot grrrl were always grounded in its political activism and DIY spirit.
Of course such icons like Kathleen Hanna have without a doubt been able to make a significant impact on certain modern subcultures, but what does it mean to be a riot grrrl in 2016, or does it mean anything at all?
For me, I’ve always felt empowered by the idea of women making themselves visible and heard in male-dominated spaces. Growing up, I was always interested in music; it seemed like such a powerful creative medium and was easily accessible to me. It was always striking that the pioneers of most genres were domineered by all-male acts. As an Asian woman, I rarely saw these aspects of myself represented in the music scene. Which icons could I relate to? It was as if the musical acts I enjoyed didn’t extend an invitation to me to participate in the culture about which they made music about.
Now, I’m not asserting that I was cool enough as a thirteen-year old to have started to listening to the likes of Bikini Kill or any other of the aforementioned riot grrrl groups, but I was introduced to Tegan and Sara and other female-fronted indie acts, most of which I’m sure have been influenced by the unapologetic spirit the riot grrrl culture is known for and cherishes. The roots of many femcon musicians may be found in traces of the underground movement which started in Olympia. Which conveniently brings me to my next point, how has the riot grrrl movement seen today and what are the musical and social consequences of constructing this image of the “punk girl?”
Lindsay Zolads writes an interesting article addressing just that, noting the problematic aspects of what seems to be a very narrow idea of what it means to be a woman in music. By constructing an image of the quintessential riot grrrl and the music made from the movement, (although it had and still has meaningful connotations) many are quick to bunch any women in music under this general catch-all of “female” music. Where sometimes music is revered solely for the fact that it is female, entirely dismissing the personal artistry behind it. Somehow, this seems limiting to me. As Hannah Lew of Grass Widow put it, many female musicians feel a respect for the Riot Grrrl movement, but feel the “frustrations about the difficulty of escaping gendered language.” While I absolutely applaud and admire women who are making strides in the music industry (or any other male-dominated industry for that matter), I find the oversimplification of women in music to a few musical niches to also be discouraging. This extends beyond riot grrrl to genres such as “twee pop” and “girl bands” in general. Suppose the music industry would abandon these gendered descriptive terms altogether, I believe there would there be outcry about the lack of acknowledgement of women in music. It’s a bit like being put between a rock and a hard place that way, with the need to acknowledge female presences in music while also needing not using language that diminishes the artist.
Despite the shortcomings of the phrase “riot grrrl,” I believe that the movement has done serious good for all those underrepresented in music. Although the movement evolved it slowly lost its relevancy in modern music, homage should be paid to the pioneers of bringing femme to the front. The roots of riot grrrl are seen in its DIY and feminist values, from bedroom producers to punk bands- an ever-expanding group of people are embracing riot grrrl ethics. Perhaps the archetype of the riot grrrl is fading away; however, the ideas surrounding the movement are relevant as ever.