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‘Girls To The Front’: The ’90s Music Movement That Made Feminism Punk Rock

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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.bk

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 Beginnings

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.

The Politics

“Because we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

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A typical Riot Grrrl style poster

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.

The Music

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 Art

lunachicksThe 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.

Is Riot Grrrl Finished?

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.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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