When members of Russian band Pussy Riot protested against President Vladimir Putin government at a Moscow church in 2012, it was as if time had folded back on itself, to the Riot Grrrl movement of the early ‘90s.
Riot Grrrl grew out of the Pacific North Western region of the US. It was a feminist movement led by young female punk rockers, like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who spread their message of “Revolution, girl style, now!” through their music and hand-made posters, pamphlets, self-published ‘zines, and meet-ups.
Few movements in the last 25 years have so graphically flipped off the patriarchy. By the ‘90s most people had taken for granted the feminist achievements of the preceding decades, but Riot Grrrl, emerged to say “we still have work to do.”
The name ‘Riot Grrrl’ is said to come from a personal exchange between members of the band Bratmobile, when Jen Smith wrote to Allison Wolfe: “this summer’s going to be a girl riot.”
With punk as its genre of choice, Riot Grrrls were laying claim to what had become by default ‘male-territory.’ The punk movement was about rage, release, and shock value. The objective wasn’t to be pleasing, and the genre was criticized for its lack of musical harmony (ah conservatives, will you never learn?)
But it was predominantly female-majority bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile that got told they couldn’t play their instruments. Here’s the thing though: Riot Grrrls weren’t on stage to deliver three minute arpeggio guitar solos. They were there to crush under their DIY-ed combat boots the social construction of passive, sexualized, consumable femininity. And also crowd surf without the fear of being groped at their own show.
“Because we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”
This is a line from the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, written by Hanna, and published in 1991. From seizing the means of production to battling internalized misogyny, everything we want to explode our Facebook timelines with today was already a major talking point for Riot Grrrl.
Laura Barton wrote that the movement gave voice to “domestic abuse, rape, sexuality, the need for safer streets, abortion rights and equal pay among the issues.” But what made the movement so recognizable was the anger. There was something new about not wanting to dilute this feminist fury, or make it palatable to the oppressors and their beneficiaries. It was all about sticking it to The Man.
Riot Grrrls were not just carving a space for themselves in music, but for women concert-goers too. Punk shows could get physically violent sometimes, a major reason why female fans felt unsafe going to see their favourite bands. In a defining moment, Hanna called “all girls to the front” at a Bikini Kill concert. She was also known to confront badly behaved douche-bros, mid-song.
There’s a lot of academic interest in the Riot Grrrl movement, and why not? Band members like Hanna and Jack Off Jill’s Jessicka Addams were steeped in feminist literature, and they were reproducing their knowledge in their performances. These weren’t glamourized hysterics of the musically immature. These were dedicated acts of subversion.
Kathleen Hanna more or less spearheaded the movement in 1991. On Bikini Kill’s anthem track “Rebel Girl,” Hanna sings, “When she talks I hear the revolution.” And the song’s same-sex sub-text is, for its time, pretty path-breaking. But make no mistake – this is no corny ballad, it’s a war cry, from one grrrl to another. The track “White Boy,” samples a male voice insisting that “girls are asking for it.” Hanna’s response on the record is so full of anger, you can still feel on this side of the twenty-first century.
The Lunachicks from New York City took a dig at the ‘crazy bitch’ stereotype/slur. Visually, members stayed true to their name, with streaming and over-the-top make-up, outlandish costumes, and an electrifying stage presence. On “Light As A Feather,” they sing about athe little séance game you might remember from ‘90s cult classic ‘The Craft,’ and other sleepover staples that these ‘uncool’ girls just never get invited too.
Over in Florida, Jack Off Jill was dominating. The group highlighted the grittier aspects of Riot Grrrl musical expression, with darker sexual themes, drawing on Goth subculture. Singer Jessicka Addams was also very different from other Riot Grrrls, often criticized for her weight. “There weren’t a lot of overweight women in [the] 90s-girl alt-nation,” she said. “I think I provided an antihero for [fat] women.”
Over in England, punk bands were mushrooming everywhere, like Skinned Teen, and Pussycat Trash. “Boy-girl revolutionaries” formed the Brighton-based punk rock outfit Huggy Bear in 1991, announcing the coming of a new and energetic era in their track “Her Jazz.”
The album art from each band’s early records are the best preserved examples of the Riot Grrrl aesthetic. A lot of the art harks back to the anarchist Dada art movement born in Switzerland in 1916. The Dadaists had their own manifesto, moved to action by their revulsion of society. Riot Grrrl seems to borrow a lot of their aesthetic choices, like the use of newspaper clippings, and a cluttered aesthetic. But while the Dadaists were about withdrawal and contemplation, Riot Grrrl posters issued a guttural call to arms to girls everywhere.
Among the guerrilla art-forms popularized by the movement, the ‘zine was the most interesting. It was deliberately and markedly different from all other commercial publications marketed to young women in the ‘90s, particularly the fashion magazines, which were seen as mouthpieces of sexist capitalism, telling girls to be blushing pin-ups and nothing more.
All the art was filled with positive, if enraged, messages about girl-power, about smashing the patriarchy, and about getting girls to love themselves in a world that fed off their insecurities.
Music critic Everett True said the movement “became codified far too rapidly into a handy tag,” and that it was too fluid for periodization. Twenty five years on, Riot Grrrl still has its political resonances.
The internet had digitized and expanded ‘zine culture, allowing young women to truly take the means of production into their own hands. Take, for example, Brooklyn artist Mikhaila Nodel, whose impressive body-positivity online zine, ‘Cosmic Cuties,’ challenges mass-market ideas of beauty.
In 2014, the “Alien She” exhibition, on all things Riot Grrrl, opened at Carnegie Mellon University. The following year, Boston declared April 9th as Riot Grrrl Day, with an official proclamation signed by the Mayor, “Because: Our young women can’t be what they can’t see. Girls need to see other girls picking up drumsticks, basses and microphones. They need to see other girls picking up paintbrushes and pens, and telling their stories loudly.”
(translated lyrics here)
Today Pussy Riot is still carrying the torch, followed up their church protest with another at the Sochi Olympics. They were whipped and pepper-sprayed by state-hired Cossacks shouting “Putin will teach you how to love the motherland,” but even this couldn’t deter members.
In her detailed summary of the feminist politics of Riot Grrrl, Jennifer Pan called it a “cultural moment that never quite materialized into a full-scale storming of the streets.” But what it did do was proliferate ideas of revolution and women’s solidarity through an explosion of cultural products. Riot Grrrl may have been written off as a purely ‘90s phenomenon that ended almost as soon as it started, but everybody needs to take inspiration from that old phrase. You know the one. Punk’s Not Dead. And neither is the riot.