“When She Talks, I Hear the Revolution”: Looking Back at the Riot Grrrl Revolt

Anyone whose has a cable subscription to IFC probably recognizes Carrie Brownstein from her comedic stylings on the channel’s popular show Portlandia.  Yet, fewer may know that Brownstein currently plays guitar for Wild Flag or along with Corin Tucker founded seminal Pac NW rock group Sleater Kinney.  Formed in 1994, Sleater Kinney (the band functioned as a three piece and had three different drummers over the course of its existence) has often been pegged as part of the Riot Grrrl Movement.  However, if one reads Sara Marcus’s engaging Girls to the Front:  The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, Sleater Kinney appears to be the belated second wave of the movement, a culmination of its best intentions if you will.  This is not to say Sleater Kinney’s connection has somehow been fabricated or imagined, but rather after reading GTTF, it would seem the “formal” movement imploded just as its effects, example #1 Sleater Kinney, began to emerge. Sure, Corin Tucker played in one of the quintessential RG acts of the early 1990s, Heavens to Betsy, but the musicianship and lyrical depth that Sleater Kinney exhibited probably would have developed on its own.  Yet, it would be hard to deny that RG gave the band a solid foundation upon which to build and space within which to dominate.

When Sleater Kinney went on permanent hiatus following their final release, The Woods, Brownstein turned to a number of activities, among them blogging for NPR.  In a famous 2009 post entitled, “Rock Music Goes the Way of the Beard,” Brownstein lamented the “the rise in popularity of mostly bearded men making very sensitive music: Fleet Foxes, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Devendra Banhart, Beirut, Girls, Grizzly Bear, The Dodos, Iron & Wine, and so forth and so on.”  The former Sleater Kinney guitarist noted it worked for both genders, throwing Feist and others into the mix as well.  Brownstein advocated for more power, more agency. “What we need is more contemporary rock music that addresses or mirrors the chaos, the gray areas and the uneasiness. Just go listen to The Stooges or Bikini Kill for a second to remember what that sounds like,” she implored.  “I enjoy sweet songs as much as the next person, but I’m tired of passive music that allows us to merely sit back. I want music that makes me sit up. Personally, I think it’s time to shave the beard and risk getting a cut or two. “

Brownstein doubts the beard

The point here is not to determine the veracity of Brownstein’s opinion but note that a prominent female voice advocating for more aggressive, challenging, heavy music on an NPR blog did not seem out of place.  In large part, Brownstein (who was active herself in the queercore scene as a member of Excuse 17) and others can thank RG for such developments. Marcus achieves several feats with GTTF, but perhaps the most obvious is the way in which RG changed the male dominated and often sexist world of punk and rock music while serving as a springboard for acts like the aforementioned Sleater Kinney. RG provides a tangible example of a real social movement that used musical and literary prowess to undermine sexual hierarchies and force for a more level (it’d be hard to say it’s equal even today) playing field in society and pop culture.

Bikini Kill

For better or worse, few individuals represent the Riot Grrrl movement more than Kathleen Hanna.  As founder of Bikini Kill, Hanna occupies a central place in the book; you really couldn’t write a book about the movement without focusing on Hanna.  Hanna’s efforts to meld punk, politics, and art via the influences of Situationism, Futurism, and writers like Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and, though no one says so in the book more than a touch of Foucault, resulted in a budding scene in Olympia, Washington.  As in Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, where Long Island universities serving the suburb’s black belt provided a site for interaction and ideology resulting in East Coast rap legends like Public Enemy and Rakim, Evergreen State served as a similar space.  If Chuck D debated black nationalism in Long Island, Hanna and others discussed music, feminism, politics, art, and semiotics, in the process fusing theory with music.

Marcus juxtaposes these developments with the broader tone of society at the time.  Again, much like Chang reveals the urban decay wrought by New Right economic policies, Marcus demonstrates the misogyny and gendered violence of early 1990s America.  Court cases like Penn vs Casey challenged a woman’s right to abortion and placed serious limits on its accessibility, Dan Quayle’s famous Murphy Brown remarks about single mothers, and the public rape and beating of a Central Park jogger in 1989, serve as only three examples marshaled as evidence.  Moreover, the infrastructure of women’s clinics and rape centers developed unevenly in cities and suburbs across the nation. In Erotic City, Josh Sides notes that the first wave of women’s rape centers and domestic abuse clinics developed in San Francisco due to rising levels of violence against women and only by the 1980s did a women’s health care infrastructure get replicated in other cities.  Considering all the moving parts involved with municipal governance and the declining budgets of the decade, one can imagine some cities failed to develop the level of support that emerged in San Francisco.  In this atmosphere and considering the prevalence of sexual violence, Hanna, Erika Reinstein, Tobi Vail, Allison Wolfe,  and others articulated a “noisy message of female self empowerment.” (14)

In the long history of social movements, geography has proven a differentiating factor within scenes and communities. Chang demonstrates this most clearly in the division between the East coast black nationalist message of Public Enemy and that of nihilistic overdose heard in the gangsta rap pioneered by Compton’s NWA and others. Though the gang scene in New York had died down and enough black affluence accumulated such that suburbanites like Chuck D could craft It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in Los Angeles gangs had long permeated the “electro rap scene.” (see the work of Felicia Viator for more)  NWA’s “poems celebrated pushers, played bitches, killed enemies and assassinated police.  Fuck delayed gratification, they said, take it all now,” notes Chang (319).  While Chang’s example provides a useful point of reference for the effects of geography, it also encapsulates some of the very misogyny that late 1980s and early 1990s rap perpetuated.  Even Public Enemy pushed a very masculine vision of black nationalism, while NWA, Easy E, Dre, Ice T and Ice Cube trafficked in misogyny.  They may have also been vitally important as protests against police brutality and the reality of urban life under the cascade of 1980s free market municipal governments, but they also marginalized women, the very trend Riot Grrrl hoped to reverse.

Though Riot Grrls at Evergreen State no doubt took political stances, these came through music, community, and style more than formal political protest.  When Hanna and members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile decamped for Washington D.C., one might argue the nation’s capital provided the ideal space for diffusion of their burgeoning political message.  Once in town, the Pac NW Riot Grrrls fell in with a collection of punks connected to the legendary Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, and Positive Force.   Rather than universities, the Embassy, a local group house in the D.C. neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant and the Positive Force House in Arlington, VA provided spaces for politicization.

NOU: Whose got the real anti-parent culture sound?

Though the D.C. punk scene remained male dominated, the gender imbalance did not initially seem so daunting to Tobi Vail and others. “The frustration [Vail] felt at the scene’s lopsided gender ratio was outweighed by how fantastic so many of these boys were,” writes Marcus.  In the early and mid-1990s, D.C.’s punk scene basically fell under the watch of the two Ians: NOU’s manifesto spouting Ian Svenonius and Fugazi leader and former Minor Threat luminary Ian Mackaye. The ultra indie ethos of Mackaye’s Dischord Records and the radical politics of NOU provided a useful backdrop to the growing Riot Grrrl movement which questioned not only gender and sexual hierarchies but increasingly capitalism.

Despite its male heavy demographics, D.C. proved an effective site for Riot Grrrl organization.  The network’s ideologically open punks and hipsters along with the capital’s potential for political and artistic theater enabled activism that could not be matched by any other metropolitan area. In D.C., the printed mini-zine Riot Girl #1 served as a microcosm of the larger explosion in zines that would help define 1990s music and youth culture. Zines provided the life blood of the movement, creating space for ideology, rhetoric, identity, and commonalities. Tobi Vail’s Jigsaw and the Nomy Lamy’s I’m So Fucking Beautiful serve as two prominent examples. Numerous others emerged in this period.  These zines resemble those of the 1960s New Left which John McMillian argued created identities and structures for alternative lifestyles, personhood and political dissemination.   Obviously, one wonders had the blogsphere existed in 1991/1992 would it have benefited the movement or simply attenuated it? After all, the collage style mash ups of the early zines were important statements for readers, an aesthetic that seems less impactful in blog form.

In addition to Riot Grrrl #1, Hanna molded semiotics, feminism, Butler and music in one maneuver.  Borrowing from the straight edge movement’s practice of writing X’s on hands to identify fellow adherents, Hanna began writing words like “slut” across her stomach, an act meant to draw attention “to the roles women’s bodies had played throughout the history of art, and using their own bodies to look at how culture uses women,” notes Marcus. (146)  By combining “streams of feminist art and activist visuals,” Hanna enabled observers to directly participate in her protest.  In this way, Riot Grrrls’ bodies served as moving political challenges, water based marker agency that said a great deal without having to say much. “[Hanna] was enlisting a whole generation of girls in the project,” reflects Marcus, “Soon the audiences at almost every Bikini Kill show included girls sporting words and shapes on their hands, arms, and stomachs.” (147)

If it sounds like music served more as a medium for political awakening, that would be because for Hanna and several others, the movement wasn’t about the music, the music was about the movement.  Fanzines and group meetings in Olympia and D.C. (really in Arlington, VA at the Positive Force house) drew readers and participants.  While Marcus acknowledges some girls came and soon left not quite connecting with the group, others stayed.   These activities mattered just as much as Bikini Kill or Bratmobile songs.  Like the early punk scene RG emulated, getting onstage and simply performing meant as much as the finished product.

Despite this sense of openness, real differences existed between the Olympia and D.C. sets.   The punks populating the D.C. scene often had attended fancy prep or exceptional public schools and hailed from middle and upper middle class backgrounds.  Evergreen State College provided a solid education but it lacked the monocled pedigree the more august private East Coast institutions.  Students at Evergreen came from working and lower middle class families. Additionally, the musicianship in D.C. far outpaced that in Olympia as many punks had been given instruments and lessons at a young age. Money issues forced Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna to take drastic measures as Vail survived by “snacking on crudités backstage at other people’s gigs” while Hanna picked up shifts at the Royal Palace strip club.

No one can say Bikini Kill didn’t suffer for its art. As the band continued to attract more and more attention, Hanna’s role in the movement declined.  The inverse relationship between BK’s popularity and Hanna’s Riot Grrrl engagement can be linked to the difficulty of sustaining a non-hierarchical social movement.  Though Marcus stresses Hanna’s attempts to avoid any kind of cult of personality or sense of hierarchy, one developed anyway.  According to Marcus, the media coverage, the media’s airing of Hanna’s own history of sexual abuse, and the suffocation of having to be a symbol rather than a person took a toll.  In the book’s last half or third, Hanna fades from the movement.

From “I’m So Fucking Beautiful”

As the media tried to cover the story, Riot Grrrls recoiled from the coverage they received in periodicals like Newsweek, Spin, and the Washington Post.  In response, the DC and Olympia chapter issued a directive that basically banned interaction with the media.  As the aforementioned Nomy told Marcus, in retrospect the move proved a bit of a head scratcher. “I think it’s interesting that we .. made this decision and then wanted everyone else to abide by it, when supposedly Riot Grrrl was a decentralized movement,” Nomy reflected.  “There was no reason to expect everyone else to go along with the blackout, without having some investment in the decision making process.” (228) Efforts to force a media blackout met with failure.  The D.C. and Olympia sets may have been resolute in their boycott, but the other chapters popping up in places like Minneapolis consisted of women who viewed the media less warily.  Jessica Hopper, a member of the Minneapolis outfit, disagreed with the order.  “In her mind, any press attention for Riot Grrrl, however imperfect could help empower and inspire the girls who read the coverage,” conceded Marcus. (210)  The subsequent Newsweek article horrified members throughout the movement. In general, journalists employed “easy stereotypes about appearance or sexuality, or else leaned on mainstream youth culture signifiers like MTV, things whose importance may have been axiomatic to readers but had little to do with what mattered to the girls,” summarized Marcus.  Considering the level of community and confidence many of the Riot Grrrls had invested in each other, Hopper’s action left many shaken: “If riot grrrls couldn’t trust one another not to sell them out, who could they trust?” (214)

What’s surprising about the controversy isn’t that someone would talk to the media but the idea that no one would.  After all, the Riot Grrrls employed aspects of Futurism and Situationism, artistic movements that promoted public confrontation and challenge.  Provocation served as their cultural currency and rightly so, but how realistic is such an approach if you have no media strategy?  In Racial Propositions, Daniel HoSang explores how California’s referendum system actually served to reify racial disparities imposed by dominant groups.  Often civil rights advocates found themselves on the defensive as less progressive forces defined referendum debates.  It took sixty years, but the California civil rights community learned that in political struggles like referendums, they needed to engage the media first, set the terms of debate, and push forward. While it would be unfair to judge the Riot Grrrl movement from this perspective—in no way did it replicate any type of electoral reform and members surely lacked the money and professionalism of a formal political campaign—it nonetheless ceded the public forum to the media and those who might marginalize them.  As noted by Edward Morgan in his recent book, What Really Happened to the 1960s, earlier generations of feminists recognized how the media operated.  The media liked outrage and stridency, leading several prominent feminists to stake out increasingly polarizing positions.  Predictably, the press failed to focus on issues in these instances but rather on the radicalism or perceived radicalism of the participants.  Riot Grrrls seemed fully aware of such developments but did very little address the issue.  Considering their own media experience with fanzines and organization, it seems incongruous that a better strategy failed to emerge.  Of course, The Real World premiered twenty years ago, and since then we have witnessed a barrage of reality TV and social media that’s changed an entire society’s relationship to media.  Cellphones barely even existed in 1991, so blaming RG for its lack of technological savvy might be off the mark.  Still, if a similar movement were to emerge today, undoubtedly its practitioners would be more equipped to deal with such contingencies.

With Hanna’s retreat from the spotlight and the failed media blackout controversy, the second half of Girls to the Front feels much different from the first. The LA Times Evelyn McDonnell put it simply: “If the first part of Marcus’ book is exhilarating, the end can be depressing. Instead of supporting ‘girl love,’ as they’d earlier vowed, members turned against one another and their male sympathizers.”  Corin Tucker and others took Fugazi to task for its song “Suggestion” which describes sexual harassment from a female perspective. As Marcus points out, few other male bands of Fugazi’s reputation even broached the subject let alone accused its audience of complicity, yet to some in the RG it sounded “like a self righteous white boy appropriating girls’ issues so he could appear more virtuous.” (116) Hanna dismissed similar efforts by other bands: “A lot of this white straight edge boy thing singing about sexism is so incredibly stupid to me, I just can’t even deal with it.” (229)

San Diego 2011

If trust in their male colleagues or allies had eroded, other issues continued to disrupt RG. Race and class proved two of the most difficult to reconcile. Though Riot Grrrls consisted of several ethnicities and races, many women hailed from white, middle class backgrounds.  To their credit, fully aware that feminism in 1970s foundered on its inability to address the needs and concerns of working class women and women of color, leaders attempted to broach both subjects at conventions and elsewhere.  In general, the efforts failed to truly address the problem.  At the first national convention, discussions about race usually collapsed as many white participants resisted being portrayed or described as “oppressors.” “Some of the women of color were angry and getting a very poor response from one or two vocal people in the room,” noted Jessica Miller. (165) Others felt that only so many ramparts could be run by one movement. “We were what we were,” commented May Summer. “We were suburban young girls involved in this predominantly white scene.  It wasn’t Riot Grrrl’s responsibility to attract and recruit other people.”

Class divisions had long existed, but in the movement’s latter years more vocal members brought this issue to the forefront.  Working class Riot Grrrls like Erika Reinstein pushed these issues aggressively. Though some of Reinstein’s arguments held merit, the means by which she pursued them proved divisive.  Again, when one thinks about the demise of the Black Power, Chicano, and New Left (i.e. SDS) movements of earlier decades (all which struggled with sexism) and how Marxist/capitalist debates clearly divided members, this development seems quite predictable.  Ironically, in part due to the problematic media coverage they had so opposed, the grassroots nature of the music, and the proliferation of zines, as original core chapters collapsed, new ones opened all time. Ann Carroll, one of the leaders of the Omaha chapter, recognized the collapse, but only in the core.  She received correspondence from new groups in Toronto, the suburbs of Dallas and elsewhere.  Not to mention, similar women’s groups formed that eschewed the RG title but promoted similar ideologies regarding women and women’s rights.

In her review of the book, A.V. club’s Ellen Wernecke questioned Marcus’ objectivity on the subject of the Riot Grrrl’s dissolution and factionalism.  Where Marcus sought to blame “external forces” like tensions over media policy for factional disputes.  Wernecke suggested Marcus add two other factors: “insularity and inflexibility.”  While Marcus acknowledged these two dynamics, for Wernecke she did so “not often enough.” Wernecke raises a good point, but to be fair, one would be hard pressed to find a youth social movement that didn’t struggle with these issues.  The music and vibe that inspired Riot Grrrls, punk, was rooted in insularity and inflexibility.  When Joe Strummer formed the Clash, he and the other members admitted to being “Stalinist” in their relations.  Old friends found themselves no longer acknowledged.  Much like Kathleen Hanna and others, the Clash believed a mission sat before them.   When Green Day exploded, punks from the Berkeley scene savaged them.   The intellectual influence, academia  — think bell hooks, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis – rivals the kind of elitism one finds in indie/punk music scenes.  Marcus expresses trepidation over interpretations that might characterize RG factionalism as “catfighting,” women clawing at women for the wrong reasons.  In reality, what she captures serves as reminder of how difficult social movements are, notably those in our youth, when figuring out one’s identity remains hard enough.  The Riot Grrrls’ disregard for centralization and hierarchies deserves commendation, but as a foundation for a persistent and self-sustaining movement, unlikely. Then again, maybe this kind of thing just can’t be “planned”.   Maybe, that wasn’t even the point.

Carrying the Torch

Never doubt the Sleater-Kinney

if you could talk
what would you say
for you things were
just night and day
take off the dress
take off the face
i’ll hold you close
before i leave

don’t say another word
about the other girl

— Sleater Kinney, One More Word/Dig Me Out, 1997

In a 2003 article about the band, Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield described Sleater Kinney’s “One More Word” off its 1997 Dig Me Out release as “one of the saddest songs ever written.”   The song’s stark depiction of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s romantic dissolution struck a chord with many listeners, men and women.  However, it demonstrated the kind of shifts that RG both symbolized and contributed to in American music and society.  Many of the Riot Grrrls identified as bi-sexual and often dated men, but others did not.  When the New York chapter finally emerged, it was characterized by greater numbers of self-identified lesbians. “Easily over half the New York group identified as dykes, and even many of the apparently straight members came out of the closet within a few months of joining,” notes Marcus. (290) The fact that Rolling Stone, a magazine famous for its machismo, now celebrated a song like “One More Word” demonstrates the kind of path Riot Grrrl bands blazed.  Moreover, RG enabled former Riot Grrrls Brownstein and Tucker to focus on more than just the message.  “We’re not just a feminist band or a punk band or a girl band or whatever,” Brownstein told Rolling Stone. “I mean, we are, but we’re not only that. We’re all those things at once.”

Wild Flag

In 2011, Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole, and Janet Weiss, collectively known as Wild Flag released their epynomous titled debut. In its most recognizable single “Romance,” Carrie Brownstein sings:

Hey, hey, can you feel it? The way it sways you,
The hum in your chest?
You make my feet move, you turn my head loose
That’s why I love you the best

Brownstein simultaneously addresses music and the people, in this case her fellow band members, who make life worth living.  A homage to the force that has driven them this far in life and those women who came along for the ride, “Romance” epitomizes much of the RG message.  When Wild Flag finished their set on the Letterman Show, the host himself sheepishly stumbled over clearly impressed.  Look at what Riot Grrrl hath wrought.  Women celebrating their musical inspiration while crediting the other women who helped make it possible.   Considering the recent antics of Rush Limbaugh and the silence of many Republican leaders in response, sometimes it seems like we haven’t come that far.  Sure, a rock band playing a late night show might seem inconsequential, but in 1991 – outside of the Bangles, maybe L7 and hard rock/metal acts like Vixen – would it even have been possible?  Girls to the Front serves as useful reminder of the shifts in gender and women’s rights over the past twenty years.  It may not be authoritative about society in the 1990s or the movement itself, but it tracks how an influential collection of young women responded to what they saw as a vastly unequal society.  With a Republican Presidential candidate who responded to Limbaugh’s recent antics with “it’s not the language I would use,” perhaps we could learn a few things from some pissed-off girls.