Birthplace: Washington D.C., the Pacific Northwest (US)
Heyday: Early ‘90s
File Under: Alt-rock, hardcore, punk.
Notable Acts: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy, The Frumpies.
For lovers of: Vivian Girls, The Grates, Dum Dum Girls, White Lung, Speedy Ortiz.
‘…BECAUSE we hate capitalism in all its forms and see our main goal as sharing information and staying alive, instead of making profits of being cool according to traditional standards.
BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.
BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girltype behaviors.
BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.’
– Riot Grrrl Manifesto (1991)
Some of you may already be familiar with the guitar wielding, feminist-minded, fuck-the-status-quo punk genre that is Riot Grrrl. Enjoying a timely comeback thanks to Queen of Teens And Genuinely Cool Human Being, Tavi Gevinson (of Rookie Magazine) and her website’s legion of smart/funny/talented young writers, the early ‘90s underground feminist punk movement represents basically everything you’ve seen discussed in online media regarding feminism over the past year or so. Consider it the musical personification of Australia’s own self-proclaimed ‘Feminist Killjoy To The Stars’ Clementine Ford (a hero in her own right); the rad women at the forefront of this movement were concerned with one thing: grrrls. Well, that, as well as grrrl empowerment, rebellion, unity, education, self-representation, activism and of course, power.
Thanks to the emergence of liberal-minded youth magazines like Sassy, feminist discourse was still alive and kicking in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — but it was in 1991 that the conversation really came to a head. This was the same year that the Christian Coalition attacked legalized abortion with their ‘Right To Life’ campaign, and the year that attorney/academic Anita Hill was ridiculed by popular media after she testified against Federal Judge Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment. It was also the year that American writer Rebecca Walker announced the Third Wave of feminism, and most importantly, that a group of women from Washington, D.C. held a meeting to discuss ways of addressing sexism in the punk scene.
‘…BECAUSE we want and need to encourage and be encouraged in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of “authorities” who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and
BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.’
An unfortunate (and still prevalent) fact of life, and another motivator for the formation of Riot Grrrl, was the fact that the punk music scene was almost entirely a wiener fest. Even in a genre trademarked by its supposed opposition to conservative social structure, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be this: if you didn’t have a wiener, you don’t belong in punk music. All too often, women trying to make it in the scene were (and still are) laughed as novelty items, as sexual objects, as inferior musicians, and were judged on every other aspect of their being other than the music they make -– by critics, other musicians, and punk ‘aficionados’ alike. However, thanks to the powerful female-fronted punk bands like Courtney Love’s Hole and The Slits already in circulation, a few female musicians felt empowered enough to start biting back.
Inspired by the anti-racism riots in Washington D.C. earlier in 1991, the legend goes that early Bratmobile member Jen Smith sent a letter to fellow band member Allison Wolfe, saying either ‘this summer is going to be a girl riot’ or ‘we need to start a girl riot’. Wolfe then went on to team up with fellow Bratmobile member Molly Neuman and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail to start a new zine called ‘Riot Grrrl’. Though the facts remain unclear, it has been suggested that the word ‘girl’ symbolised the time in a modern woman’s life when she is most confident and self-assured. At any rate, the three r’s used in ‘Grrrl’, making it sound like a growl, succeeded in conveying the Female Fury that was the masthead for the entire movement.
Riot Grrrl bands were known for their solid commitment to the punk ethos – using performance and aggression as means of protest, rejection of consumer culture and authority, a do-it-yourself attitude, taking away the emphasis on playing instruments ‘well’ – and their co-opting of that ethos for the feminist cause. Bands like Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Heavens To Betsey sung about everything from rape, eating disorders, and domestic abuse to sexuality, patriarchy and empowerment. They refused to incorporate airy metaphors into their music, crafting songs entitled ‘I Like Fucking’, ‘Suck My Left One’ and ‘Bitch Theme’. Musically, they were also inspired by the female punk and rock legends of years past, such as Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits, The Raincoats, The Runaways and Kim Gordon.
Although the movement was irreparably splintered in the mid ‘90s due to ongoing media misconceptions (critics started assigning the ‘Riot Grrrl’ label to any female-fronted band. Even Alanis Morissette), and allegations that Riot Grrrl was not ‘inclusive’ enough, its legacy lives on. Because every girl is a riot grrrl.
Fronted by Kathleen Hanna, who many consider to be the Godmother and pioneer of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill are an integral part of the genre. Everything about them was confrontational: their lyrics, live performances, their general attitude. At their live shows they became known for encouraging young women to get into the pit and handing them lyric sheets… they were like awesome big sisters.
While still rooted in the punk genre, fellow Washington D.C. band Bratmobile also fused surf pop, garage and rock elements into their production. Their band name continues to be one of the greatest of all time.
Recently reformed to the elation of ’90s kids everywhere, Sleater-Kinney are apples in the eyes of the punk community. So let it not come as a surprise that Carrie Brownstein, aka one half of the hilarious Portlandia duo, aka Feminist Bookstore Owner Candace (!), plays guitar and sings. Their sound is far more rock-influenced than anything, though they were considered a part of Riot Grrrl for their song’s subject matter and feminist leanings. Oh, and for being loud of course.
Made up of most of the members of Bikini Kill (bar Kathleen Hanna), The Frumpies could perhaps be best described as the Pond to Bikini Kill’s Tame Impala. Producing savagely excellent lo-fi punk, The Frumpies were politically less intense than Bikini Kill — choosing instead to write songs about suburbia, growing up and crushes.