A Commentary on the Genre and Its History
*Note: we will be using the words ‘movement’ and ‘genre’ interchangeably within our discussions of Riot Grrrl, given the applicability of both terms to the topic*
It is impossible to define an enigma, and Riot Grrrl is no exception. That considered, the genre flat out refuses to succumb to mainstream definitions in the first place; those who have tried have generally failed to encompass precisely what Riot Grrrl entails. Is it a musical style? A feminist movement? A doctrine? Just another branch of DIY punk? Riot Grrrl is arguably all of these and none of them at the same time. The best explanations we have encountered have come from the participants themselves, notably one by Mimi Nguyen, arguing that,
“beyond a distinctive musical styling, Riot Grrrl was an informal pedagogical project, a kind of punk rock teaching machine that existed in and sometimes replaced the classroom as the most meaningful context for the transmission and production of knowledge among its body of participants” (Feigenbaum, 132).
Three significant characteristics can be taken from this definition: Riot Grrrl entails a community focused on production, a set of ideals, and a means of transmission. In this case, the musical manifestations of Riot Grrrl’s principles were but one part (albeit a significant part) of its repertoire of ideological exchange.
The idea that Riot Grrrl exists well beyond the scope of a musical genre makes it incredibly difficult to discern precisely how and why the music played such an important role in the movement. More common definitions, such as those found on Wikipedia (“an underground feminist hardcore punk movement”) and Grovemusic.com (“an American feminist initiative which developed out of the underground indie music communities of Olympia, Washington, and Washington, DC”) are similar in that they acknowledge Riot Grrrl as both a distinct musical style and a feminist enterprise. However, they fail to explain the dynamic within which feminism and punk, politics and culture, are utilized to negotiate female experiences within everyday life and in the mosh pit.
Other definitions, such as the one found in the Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, use a far more holistic approach, acknowledging the musical context within which Riot Grrrl operates, as well as defining it as “a musical style characterized broadly by a punk-inspired indie rock sound and an initiative of feminist action”, but also asserting that Riot Grrrl’s purpose was to “encourage involvement and to enable participants to interpret the idea flexibly… the concept was intentionally fluid and those involved shunned requests to offer an authoritative definition of Riot Grrrl which might ossify or curtail interpretive possibilities.”
“Resistance is everywhere, it always has been and always will be. Just because someone is not resisting in the same way you are (being a vegan, an ‘out’ lesbian, a political organizer) does not mean they are not resisting. Being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it is a form of resistance.” (Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah, quoted in Garrison, p. 146-147)
“This is the revolution. I don’t understand the revolution. I can’t lay it all out in black and white and tell you what is revolutionary and what is not. The punk scene is a revolution, but not in and of itself. Feminism is a revolution; it is solidarity as well as critique and confrontation… It’s mine, but it doesn’t belong to me .” (Nomy Lamm, quoted in Garrison, p.159)
This leads us to another essential facet of Riot Grrrl: its inherent fluidity and subjectivity. In acknowledging the distinct life experiences of its participants, Riot Grrrl leaves its meanings open to interpretation and presents itself merely as a framework for navigating individual experiences. The movement’s politics were not about fitting a particular mould of feminism or revolution, but instead were concerned with expanding the possibilities of revolution within and across individual communities; Riot Grrrl focused on ensuring the possibility of collective action throughout countless worldviews, experiences, and methods of action (Garrison, 160).
As a consequence, one of Riot Grrrl’s most defining characteristics was one of its biggest challenges. The risk of mainstream media appropriating and recontextualizing meanings was a significant issue, and is often credited as what led to the dispersion of the movement. The discrediting and erasure of young feminists from the political landscape are what Jennifer Pozner calls the “false feminist death syndrome” (Feigenbaum, 133). The rapid rise and fall of the movement between 1990 and its canonical ‘death’ in 1995 speaks to the media’s immense power over framing and focusing more on the spectacle than the political significance of issues.
Having established the framework within which the movement operates (our tentative “definition”, per say), it makes sense to take a closer look into the evolution of the genre, beginning with its influences and concluding with its impact on present-day feminist politics and music.
The inception of the transatlantic punk scene in the 1970’s marks the involvement of women in both the music and the subculture, and many female performers such as Joan Jett and Patti Smith are credited as forerunners of the punk feminist scene (although women ranging from artists to authors such as Kathy Acker have also been labelled as early riot grrrls) (Feigenbaum, 135). However, it was not until the 1990’s rise of Riot Grrrl subculture that punk culture and feminist schools of thought were truly brought together as a definite movement in reaction to the violence, heteronormativity and hypermasculinity of the earlier punk scene.
Cherry Bomb performed by Joan Jett and The Runaways, 1976
The phrase ‘grrrl’ – first coined by Kathleen Hanna in one of her earlier zines – is to be taken as a feminist growl. It is a retort to the infantilization and weakness associated with the term ‘girl’, or as Gilbert and Kile so aptly put it: “Grrrl” puts the growl back in our pussycat throats” (in Garrison, 141). A key aspect of Riot Grrrl culture is this juxtaposition of expected performances of girlhood with the political and countercultural desires of women within the movement. Grrrlhood is about finding agency and empowerment within a society that primarily assigns women a very particular place in regards to cultural signs and objects.
The musical manifestations of these principles are no exception; powerful language is turned into song through a form of shouted, extended speech – almost completely void of the conventional inflections that characterize musical phrasing (Potter, 196). As Potter elaborates, “The result is more like an attempt to reproduce the musical neutrality of a printed page of words” (196), which directs the listener to the content of the text despite the cacophany of simple, growling guitar riffs and crashing drums.
Riot Grrrl also places huge emphasis on female-owned record labels, individual production, performance and distribution, as well as maintaining an ‘underground’ status (Garrison, 154). More so than a simple desire for authenticity, this is necessary for the movement to operate outside the boundaries of the male-dominated culture industries.
The punk DIY style that pervades the musical expression of the genre also plays a large part in the maintenance of communities and oppositional consciousness across large geographical spaces. Riot Grrrls make use of a predominately low-tech, amateur, alternative repertoire of cultural objects and technologies – primarily zines – which have played a massive role in the spread and development of the movement. Zines were used as instruments of analysis, reflection, discourse, and community building. The ties between the musical and printed styles of the movement are very similar, as one participant so insightfully opined, “a band is a musical zine” (Rosenberg & Garofalo, 823). Though they differ in media of expression, grrrl zines and bands are very similar in their uses and disruptive, powerful methods of expression.
These channels of consciousness-raising, political commentary, education and support span an enormous variety of topics from racism to domestic abuse, but Riot Grrrl has not managed to remain entirely unproblematic and escape all criticism. Due to punk’s (and subsequently, Riot Grrrl’s) predominately white, middle-class demographic, the movement received a significant amount of backlash – particularly from the mass media – for being far less inclusive than they claim, as well as accusations of reproducing dominant structures of racism and classism (despite many Riot Grrrls being visible minorities, men and people of all age demographics) (Feigenbaum, 142). What’s more, the rapid rise and fall of the movement can be partially attributed to the depoliticization of issues through the commodification of resistance aesthetics (i.e., focus on the trendiness and mainstream appropriation of Riot Grrrl dress). The political content quickly became watered down through the near exclusive focus on commodifying the image of the Riot Grrrl.
This being said, the genre has not completely disappeared into the woodwork of musical history. Instead it has simply evolved – and we believe that since the very beginning it has been not a static event, nor a definable genre, but a process. For example, when Kathleen Hanna’s (of Bikini Kill fame) new band Le Tigre signed with a corporate label in 2004, there was massive disparity among fans as to how the band could reconcile this decision with their previous discursive and aesthetic expressions of feminist punk. Hanna challenged this by insisting that a feminist presence in the mainstream media would beneficial to the movement and not taint it (Feigenbaum, 146). As the music industry and feminist politics evolve over time, so too must expressions of rebellion. Riot Grrrl music, in all its styles and expressions, may be chained to a particular social and historical context, but its politics resonate today and will continue to play a large part in the inclusion of women in the music industry and in the ever changing landscape of modern feminist thought.
“TKO” by Le Tigre, 2004 – contrast this with our first video posting of “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill:
Feigenbaum, Anna. “Remapping the Resonances of Riot Grrrl.” Interrogating Post-feminism. Ed. Yvonne Tasker & Dianne Negra. London: Duke University Press, 2007. 132-152. Print.
Garrison, Ednie Kaeh. “U.S. Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth (Sub)Cultures and the Technologics of the Third Wave.” Feminist Studies 26.1 (2000): 141-170. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.
Potter, John. “Not the Song: Women Singers as Composer-Poets.” Popular Music 13.2 (1994): 194-199. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.
Rosenberg, J. & Garofalo, G. “Riot Grrrl: Revolutions From Within.” Signs 23.3 (1998): 809-841. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.