Grrrl Power

Documenting the impact of the '90s riot grrrl movement
  • Photo: Pat Graham
    Bikini Kill
  • Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis
    Sara Marcus
  • Girls To The Front, by Sara Marcus
  • Photo: Steve Eichner/PhotoWeb/WireImage.com
    Bikini Kill
  • Photo: Pat Graham
    Riot Grrrls onstage at a Supreme Court protest concert in Washington, D.C., in 1992
  • Third Sex
November 10, 2010 -- 3:00 pm PST
By Jon Matsumoto / GRAMMY.com

From Bob Dylan's protest songs in the '60s to Rage Against The Machine's leftist rants in the '90s, socially conscious music has often been celebrated for its boldness and progressive vision.

In the early '90s, riot grrrl emerged as a vibrant feminist punk movement in the Pacific Northwest, led by bands such as Bikini Kill, the Butchies, Excuse 17, Heavens To Betsy, and Third Sex, among others. Riot grrrl, which generally attracted high school girls and young women not far removed from their teens, drew criticism from both the mainstream and underground music media. For the young women and girls in the movement, media accusations that they resembled whiny children rather than righteous revolutionaries felt like an extension of the institutionalized sexism that had been used to oppress women for centuries.

"We were young and we were doing something that was really important to us," says Kathleen Hanna, former vocalist for Bikini Kill, arguably the movement's preeminent band. "It was a time when feminism was considered ridiculous. There's still a lot of that around today. We were not only ridiculed in the mainstream press, but we were also hated in the underground magazines."

Approximately 20 years later, riot grrrl is receiving acceptance as a viable social and musical movement with a lasting impact. The Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University has established a riot grrrl collection to document the evolution of the movement. Fanzines, journals, flyers, clippings, photographs, and video footage are some of the materials that have been donated to the collection by riot grrrl artists. The collection will provide primary resources for scholars studying feminism, punk activism, gender theory, and music history.

The fanzines, in particular, were a critical component of the movement. Homemade riot grrrl zines, including provocative titles such as Housewife Turned Assassin, were often personal reflections on feminist issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women, unequal pay in the workplace, and stereotypical female body image expectations.

Girls To The Front, an in-depth book examining the history and importance of riot grrrl, was released this past September. Authored by former riot grrrl participant Sara Marcus, the book attempts to bring clarity to the movement and dispel lingering misperceptions. For example, the book aims to punctuate the point that riot grrrl was not just about music, but a scene that also embraced meetings on important female issues, national conventions, social activism, art, fanzines, and other devices designed to empower females.

"Riot grrrl had become this vague cloud of anything that happened in the early '90s that had to do with women and loud music," says Marcus, who first became involved in the movement as a high school student living in suburban Maryland in the mid-'90s. "But that [inaccurate definition] leaves out the zines and teenagers having meetings. It definitely became a scene of the music world, which did keep the idea that there was this thing called riot grrrl alive. So many movements that don't have a musical component completely vanish."

As an indispensable founding figure in the riot grrrl movement and one of its most political outspoken exponents, Hanna discovered firsthand the power riot grrrl and music had in bringing hope and solace to people in crisis. Her prior experience volunteering at rape relief and domestic violence shelters helped her counsel fans via letters or even in person after concerts.

"A lot of women that I met or wrote me letters would say they felt too nervous to go to a rape relief place or to call a crisis line," Hanna recalls. "They felt more comfortable talking to me because they felt they knew me through the music. I was doing crisis counseling in back alleys after shows. Then the mail started pouring in and it was mostly girls, but sometimes boys, who had experienced sexual violence. I always tried to point them in a good direction."

By the time the riot grrrl movement began to wane in the mid-'90s, chapters had been planted in major cities from New York to Los Angeles and Chicago, and in heartland areas such as Oklahoma, Minneapolis and Texas. There were also scenes in other countries, including Brazil, Canada, England, Scotland, and Switzerland. Some of these chapters were small, but provided a testament to the movement's international reach.

The youth-oriented profile may have helped energize the riot grrrl movement, but it also contributed to its demise.

"People aged out of it pretty quickly because it was largely about expressing a certain kind of anger and clearing up a certain kind of confusion that's really endemic to late adolescence," Marcus says. "For a movement to really endure, it's helpful to have some continuity. You need some people to stick around to bring the next people up to speed. That's not something that happened."

Riot grrrl's influence has been felt significantly in music and society. In the late '90s the Spice Girls adopted the scene's girl power theme. Edgier female artists such as Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette emerged as successful mainstream artists. Today, riot grrl's theme of empowerment is also noticeable in organizations such as Girl Rock Nation, which is designed to motivate and inspire young women in music.

"Riot grrrl was obviously a huge influence on young girl's ability to see themselves as rock musicians. There's certainly no longer a sense that a girl can't play the guitar or drums," says Lisa Darms, senior archivist at Fales Library & Special Collections, who is overseeing the riot grrrl collection.

Hanna is reminded of the movement's influence whenever she hears from women who grew up with riot grrrl. Some now thank her for writing back to them when they were troubled or searching teens. Marcus and Hanna also say that there are quite a few women from the movement that are now working in the media and able to help spread the riot grrrl spirit through their work.

Is the time ripe for a riot grrrl revival?

"I'll say that I definitely hope that my book is going to help spark young people to have some of these conversations that were so important to me and my friends when we had them at that age," states Marcus. "But I hope that [there isn't] a riot grrrl revival. I hope people form something on their own that arises directly out of their own conditions and not out of a wistfulness for a past moment that they missed."

(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)

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