With the revival of 90’s culture and fashion creeping into aspects of today’s society, it’s hard to ignore the fact that feminism and girl empowerment amongst the hot topics of the youth. From Lily Allen’s much-discussed “Hard Out Here” and Beyonce’s new album referencing feminist issues, it’s clear that feminism has become almost fashionable, everyone’s talking about it, and most female musicians don’t just simply want to be seen as music icons – but instead – feminist icons.
But women have been fighting the feminist fight through the medium of music for many years now, it’s nothing new, despite the trend, and I think everyone should be informed of the women and ‘grrrls’ who have been at this – often with little credibility – for decades now.
The 1970s: punk rock – a liberating and exciting musical movement – is born. Mixing youthful rebellion and anti-authoritarian ideologies with fast, hard-edged music, it’s quickly becoming a major cultural phenomenon, but with acts such as New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, Ramones, and The Clash dictating the scene, it’s apparent that males are predominantly and automatically assumed to be the voices of anarchy and revolution.
Or so it seemed…
The stance that “punk was not for girls” sparked in itself a catalyst of female rebellion against the rebellion – and so an array of female punk and rock musicians such as Joan Jett (and The Runaways), Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, The Slits, The Raincoats, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Mecca Normal, Lydia Lunch, and Fifth Column to name but a few, helped establish the musical foundation on which the riot grrrl ethos would (some years) later be built on.
THE RIOT GRRRL MOVEMENT BEGINS TO TAKE SHAPE
‘Riot grrrl’ is far more than just a music genre; it is a political stance, cultural movement, and lifestyle.
The early 1990’s – The Pacific Northwest:
“BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy… BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication and inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… BECAUSE in every form of media we see ourselves slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit”
Young women (especially those involved in underground music scenes), in Seattle and Olympia, Washington, begin to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines (a D-I-Y publication produced and circulated by fans for fans) and forming bands. Due to the undeniable misogyny in the punk culture, these women feel to represent their own interests and thoughts, they have to create their own music and art.
Kathleen Hanna, a twenty-two year old native of Portland, Oregon, is working as a stripper to support herself, and volunteering at a women’s shelter. She hooks up with zinester and friend Tobi Vail who’s been writing about her own experiences and struggles:
“I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys mostly…”
After recruiting their friend Kathi Wilcox, the duo start working on a zine called Bikini Kill (which would eventually become a band, who, along with Bratmobile, are exclusively credited in many people’s minds as the creators and instigators of the riot grrrl movement).
The riot grrrl movement allowed women their own space to create music and make political statements about the issues they were facing in the punk rock community as well as in society. They used their music and publications to express their views on issues such as patriarchy, double standards against women, rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, and female empowerment.
Women in the movement would often attempt to re-appropriate derogatory phrases like ‘cunt’, ‘bitch’, ‘dyke’ and ‘slut’, writing them proudly on their skin with lipstick or sharpie.
Bands associated with ‘Riot Grrrl’ include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, Sleater-Kinney, Adickdid, Bangs, The Butchies, Calamity Jane, Dickless, Emily’s Sassy Lime, Fifth Column, The Frumpies, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, and L7. In addition to the music scene; zines, DIY ethic, art, political action, and activism are a big part of the movement.
DECLINE AND LEGACY
By the mid-nineties, riot grrrl had severely declined. Many within the movement felt that the mainstream media had completely misrepresented their message, and that the politically radical aspects of riot grrrl had been subverted by the likes of the Spice Girls and their “girl power” message. The term ‘Riot Grrrl’ was often applied to less political female-fronted alternative rock acts such as Babes in Toyland, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, Hole, and even No Doubt.
The legacy of riot grrrl is clearly visible in society today; as numerous girls and women (and men!) worldwide cite the movement as an interest or an influence to their lives and/or their work. Some are self-proclaimed riot grrrls (and riot boys), others are admirers, some play in riot grrrl tribute bands, others simply listen to and enjoy the music of a subculture thats impact has spanned two decades.