“BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”
—Kathleen Hanna, “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” in Bikini Kill Zine 2
The riot grrrl movement of the early 90s began with a bunch of badass young women, influenced by badass women before them, speaking—or more accurately, shouting—up for themselves, primarily through zines and through punk songs. It was an underground subset of an an already underground scene—that of alternative and punk music, most prominent in D.C. and in the Pacific Northwest—a positioning which made the movement radically alternative, but also very culturally specific, and therefore divisive. Recent retrospectives on riot grrrl range from the deeply nostalgic to the deeply critical—both with good reason. The movement’s DIY aesthetic, emphasis on raw expression, and politics of intimacy inspired countless young girls to write their own words, make their own zines, and develop their own feminisms. Still, the movement fell short in some ways, often failing to address its own privilege, and consequently alienating many members of the female-identifying population.
Today, some say riot grrrl is currently experiencing a revival, and some say it never really ended in the first place. Either way, judging by the slew of recent books and documentaries, as well as the newly-declared official “Riot Grrrl Day” celebration in Boston, it’s safe to say the movement is alive and kicking. Musician Kate Nash started a worldwide girl gang for her fans, and present-day bands like Skinny Girl Diet channel the musical and political sensibilities of their punk girl predecessors.
But how does riot grrrl fit into our evolved notions of feminism? Let’s take a look at what needed to change, and what has changed, to make the latest iterations of riot grrrl work within the whatever-wave, intersectional feminism we have today.
The riot grrrl manifesto, the official declaration of the movement and its mission penned by Bikini Kill lead singer and riot it-grrrl Kathleen Hanna, includes the following statement:
“BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.”
Her words suggest a commitment to intersectionality—a term only recently coined and coming into the feminist consciousness at the time—but for many such promises felt empty. At Bitch magazine, Laina Dawes recounts feeling ignored by the primarily white revolution: “I distinctly remember the white women within the punk scene were capable of being just as exclusionary and bigoted as the men were, and among the white women I knew who identified as feminists, there was a strong sense that there was little to no concern as to how ethnicity made my experiences as a woman different than theirs.”
Moreover, scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen notes the ways in which white privilege was inherent in many of the more radical actions riot grrrls prided themselves on: “For instance, women of color wondered out loud for whom writing ‘SLUT” across their stomachs operated as reclamations of sexual agency against feminine passivity, where racisms had already inscribed such terms onto some bodies.”
Some blame for the overwhelming whiteness of the riot grrrl movement was placed on its origins—in punk rock and in the Pacific Northwest, two overwhelmingly white scenes. But while that may explain to a degree the lack of diversity in the movement, it doesn’t justify it—if working for all women was the goal, the voices of all women needed to brought to the front. Both Kathleen Hanna and Corin Tucker (of noted riot grrrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney) have vocalized regret about the movement’s lack of intersectionality and lack of attention to race in particular.
But while the face of riot grrrl was most certainly white, sections of the movement worked to increase the visibility of women of color, and feminist archivists, like those behind the POC Zine Project, are making sure those voices are not forgotten.
Today, the biggest population of riot grrrl supporters and activists reside in Latin America, suggesting that the new wave might serve a more diverse population and wider variety of interests.
The age of the internet and social media has made the idea of a DIY movement a little bit different than it was back in the day. Online zines and tumblrs make up the latest wave of from-your-bedroom activism, particularly popular among young women. Accessibility, which was always at the center of riot grrrl ideals, is arguably at an all-time high. While there may be something lost in the lack of in-person, small community organizing and sharing, the ability to reach wider audiences ultimately makes for a more inclusive movement.
For better or for worse, feminism has moved out of the margins and into the mainstream. From Beyonce at the VMAs to Emma Watson at the U.N., feminists and feminist messages have made it to the big time. This is a huge accomplishment brought on by decades upon decades of activism, and it definitely shows that we’re moving in the right direction. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the work is done or even that the days of organizing in basements are over—the more radical movements and messages are still kept out of the conversation, and many popular feminisms still fail to account for intersectionality. Mainstream feminism is often criticized as “feminism lite”—dumbed down and de-radicalized to make it easier to swallow. Mainstream feminism also tends to focus on white and middle-class feminist issues—discussions about the generalized wage gap, for example, vastly outnumber and get more attention than discussions about the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color.
There is still a need for counterculture feminism, and perhaps the new generation of riot grrrls—educated in intersectionality and afforded the advantages of the internet—can provide that.
While there’s a lot that didn’t work—or that didn’t work for enough women—about riot grrrl politics, there is a lot still to be learned from revisiting it. Today’s’ culture of confessional feminism, of sharing experienced truths, and of calling out oppressions small and large in our lives likely owes something to the take-no-shit girls-to-the-front attitudes of our riot grrrl predecessors. They didn’t always get it right, and neither do today’s feminists, but by continuing to educate ourselves and evolve our views we can only keep improving. In the words of the punk singer herself: “it’s not about being perfect, it’s about opening the conversation.”
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