Print Wars: Riot Grrrl vs. The World

A puzzling dichotomy exists between the reception and treatment of Riot Grrrl subculture during the early 90’s and its representation in present day texts (both mass mediated and academic). While Riot Grrrl was never able to make its mark on the charts, mainstream radio or television, its short history was in no way void of media attention. In Riot Grrrl’s early life, the highly oppositional nature of the genre catalyzed numerous clashes with the media, namely with print journalists. Riot Grrrl’s heyday was riddled with media-induced moral panic; within the context of Western music scenes, this concept calls for increased regulation of the perceived ‘threat’ to society (Shuker, 203). As a consequence, grrrls turned to DIY media creation of their own in the form of zines and self-produced music in order to counter the negative publicity. In fact, the large majority of grrrls avoided media relations altogether – which unfortunately led to an even larger number of misinformed and offensive stories being published (Schilt, 9). Even contemporary academics had very little insight into Riot Grrrl ontology, making it a highly inaccessible subculture. Knowing they were considered cultural curiosities, Riot Grrrls made considerable efforts to control the interests of the media and academics (Marrion, 252). This, coupled with their far Left, radical feminist political agenda made Riot Grrrl the perfect target for demonization by the media – and perhaps was part of what led to the recession and political dilution of the genre.

 “They do things like scrawl SLUT and RAPE across their torsos before gigs, produce fanzines with names like Girl Germs and hate the media’s guts. They’re called Riot Grrrls, and they’ve come for your daughters” – Kim France (Excerpt from an article in Schilt, 8)

The Popular Music Press vs. Zines

As the above quote indicates, Riot Grrrl’s presence in the mainstream media was predominately unfavorable. Those who offered critiques of the genre made very little effort to delve into why Riot Grrrls employed certain tactics and how these tactics complemented their political/social goals such as community building (and in the case of the above quote, addressing taboo issues such as sexual abuse and incest) (Schilt, 8-9). In another case, a story was run about Bikini Kill that included a picture of frontwoman Kathleen Hanna on the beach in a bikini. Articles such as this played a large part in discrediting and infantilizing Riot Grrrl’s feminism – how can she claim to be a feminist in a band called Bikini Kill when she wears bikinis? The act of trivializing a threatening cultural ‘Other’ is not a new concept; the media – seeking a more genial and non-threatening message in pop culture – attempted to devalue the work of Riot Grrrls in numerous ways, from their clothes to framing their young age as a built-in political disadvantage (Marrion, 242-243). Prolific music publication NME even went as far as to insist that, “the only thing people involved in the movement were ‘rioting’ against was boredom” (Davies, 310). Conversely, male musicians with strong political agendas are praised by the same media that treat these women’s issues as petty.

Though women in rock music have always been treated as anomalies, Riot Grrrl had its fair share of misunderstandings within the academic feminist community as well. Sara Manning wrote in MM:

The best thing that any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading, and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine. When the topic of French feminist theory was raised in one of the discussions, there were blank looks and hostile reactions. Read Kristeva, Cixous, Irigaray. Read Freud’s essays on sexuality and then come back with a reasoned understanding of who the enemy may or may not be . . . For now you can be a Riot Grrrl or you can be a feminist; you can’t be both. (MM, 29 January 1994) (In Davies, 310).

The feminism of these critics (and the media) was a concept defined based on particular socioeconomic circumstances and was constantly at war with the politics and behaviours of female youth and their new “Third Wave” ideals. The perceived extremity and naivette of Riot Grrrl politics presented a threat to social order and thus was smothered.

Besides forming a tight-knit community, Riot Grrrl countered this antagonism in numerous ways, particularly by refusing to place any labels on themselves, their feminism, or their music. Marrion describes it as a “romance with contradiction” (251) – because each woman’s experience is different, each offers a contradictory narrative that rejects the notion of a perfectly structured ideology.

We are not in anyway “leaders of” or authorities on the “Riot Girl” movement. In fact, as individuals we have each had different experiences with, feelings on, opinions of and varying degrees of involvement with “Riot Girl” and tho we totally respect those who still feel that label is important and meaningful to them, we have never used that term to describe ourselves AS A BAND. As, [sic] individuals we respect and utilize and subscribe to a variety of different aesthetics, strategies and beliefs, both political and punk-wise, some of which are probably considered “riot girl.”

– Tobi Vail on Bikini Kill’s authority to define and represent all Riot Grrrls (Garrison, 154)

By engaging in cheeky rejections of a culture that thrives on labels and binaries, Riot Grrrls were able (to an extent) to resist mass commodification and carve out a particular niche for themselves within their prevailing social circumstances. Even Kathleen Hanna has admitted to subversive media manipulation techniques: in Riot Grrrl’s early years, she told a journalist from L.A. Weekly that Riot Grrrl chapters existed throughout the country (plot twist: they didn’t). However, this lie aided in the quick uptake of the movement throughout the USA (Garrison, 155). Though the relationship between these women and the media was rocky at best, there is no doubt that the print media did play a small part in exposing/spreading the movement – though this was almost exclusively an attempt to commoditize and sell a particular image of the ‘Riot Grrrl’ (Garrison, 153).

The impossibility of successful communication with and through the media resulted in the aforementioned Riot Grrrl media blackout, but more importantly, grrrls turned to grassroots media production techniques in order to spread their messages and maintain dialogue within the community. Oppositional technologies in the fields of music and print gave grrrls the opportunity to weave political resistance into creative practices. Zine production was the backbone of Riot Grrrl culture and was massively popular among participants. In fact, when teen magazine Sassy published the addresses of multiple Riot Grrrl zines in one of their issues, the zine producers were forced to halt production in the face of the tidal wave of mail they received (Schilt, 7). Not only did zines validate young female’s experiences, they were vehicles for sharing personal narratives and establishing ties within a community that was not bound geographically.

 “Riot Grrrl is about not being the girlfriend of the band and not being the daughter of the feminist. We’re tired of being written out of history, out of the ‘scene,’ out of our bodies…. For this reason we have created our zine and scene” (Comstock, 385)

Outside the bureaucratic, male dominated spheres of the media and academia, grrrls claimed the title of ‘author’, freeing themselves from the hierarchical structures of the everyday. Zines were utilized as a medium of expression for marginalized individuals even before Riot Grrrl’s emergence, however no movement has been so heavily influenced by their use; Riot Grrrl music is even framed in terms of zinemaking, or as one grrrl explained, “a band is a musical zine” (Rosenberg & Garofalo, 823). This highlights importance of self-expression, personal narratives and authorship within the genre.

The intersection between Riot Grrrl’s musical and written expression demonstrates the extent to which intertextuality defines Riot Grrrl as a genre. In fact, one of the primary difficulties we have encountered has been establishing the relationship between the musical aspects of the genre and those related to activism, art, and literature. As we soon discovered, none of these could exist on their own within the context of Riot Grrrl as both a genre and movement. The politics cannot be separated from the music, the zinemaking was a necessary part of binding the community together, the art was an integral part of the activism, and so on. Consequently, when approaching the effects/interactions of this genre with various media, one may assert that their relationship is highly convoluted. This is true, however the highly incendiary, counter-cultural nature of Riot Grrrl makes it necessarily so. Their message was not tame and elegant and neither were their methods.

Romanticism in the Digital Age

Today, Riot Grrrl’s public reception is quite different; this blog is testament to that fact. I would go as far as to say it has reached a point of idealization; documentaries such as ‘don’t need you’ and ‘The Punk Singer’ have been made to commemorate these female rockstars and their political efforts, their styles have been appropriated by modern women (see our earlier post about fashion and social media), and the genre has been dissected and extolled in academia countless times for its ideological potency and political messages. Even the popular music press who so adamantly opposed the movement have changed their tune and have begun to approach Riot Grrrl (albeit 21st Century Riot Grrrl) with newfound enthusiasm:

But what has so drastically changed Riot Grrrl’s presentation in the mainstream media?

Arguably the romanticism we see today stems from early appropriations of Riot Grrrl in the 90’s. More genteel figures such as Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani championed the ‘girl power’ movement, however their feminism is watered down and highly depoliticized, making their existence much more ‘media friendly’.

Stefani’s ‘Just A Girl’, a 90’s girl-power anthem

Girl power, outside the context of Riot Grrrl’s angry, in-your-face feminism, is quite popular with the media: it can be presented as both progressive and non-threatening to the status quo. Groups such as Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre – remnants of early 90s Riot Grrrl groups – are far more demure and tame in their actions and dress, and thus also maintain a respected status in media publications. However, Riot Grrrl has still not made its mark on the radio or Top 40 charts. Even today, a more heteronormative feminism prevails in the popular music industry (e.g. Beyonce, Taylor Swift).

Though they never broke into the mainstream, topped the charts or lavished in extensive radio airtime, by no means did Riot Grrrls fail to make their mark. In sticking to technologies that best suited their countercultural purposes (zines, DIY music production, etc) grrrls developed and maintained an aesthetic and philosophy that still remains practical today. Perhaps this is why in the absence of its initial moral panic, it still resounds so powerfully with young feminists and academics alike.

Works Cited

Comstock, Michelle. “Grrrl Zine Networks: Re-Composing Spaces of Authority, Gender, and Culture”. JAC 21.2 (2001): 383-409. Web. 20 March. 2015.

Davies, Helen. “All Rock and Roll Is Homosocial: The Representation of Women in the British Rock Music Press”. Popular Music 20.1 (2001): 301-319. Web. 20 March. 2015.

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. 20 March. 2015.

Marrion, Leonard. “Rebel Girl, You Are the Queen of My World: Feminism, ‘subculture’ and grrrl power.” Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. Ed. Sheila Whiteley. London: Routledge, 1997. 230-256. Print.

Rosenberg, J. & Garofalo, G. “Riot Grrrl: Revolutions From Within.” Signs 23.3 (1998): 809-841. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Schilt, Kirsten. ““A Little Too Ironic”: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians”. Popular Music and Society. 26.1 (2003): 5-16. Web. 20 March. 2015.

Shuker, Roy. Understanding popular music culture. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.


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