The Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990’s began around the same time as the Grunge movement; the latter mentioned receiving much higher acclaim in the media whilst the other was misunderstood and chastised. Both rock movements even began in the same place, Washington State, and so often integrated to further push the messages behind both rock forms, yet this comradery is forgotten. There is often more importance placed upon male Grunge acts than Riot Grrrls from music journalists and critics- perhaps due to the majority of the writers being male, thus not fully capable of understanding the impact Riot Grrrl movement had to feminism and the subsequent impact on rock music as a whole. Or perhaps they were capable- but scared shitless by what goes against society’s grain. This work will analyze Riot Grrrl music and the way in which this style of tumultuous rock music and revealing lyricism helped women from all over the world fight the patriarchy through the raw power of punk.
Rough Beginnings: Placing Bare Breasts Up Against Rock Music’s Glass Ceiling
Sure, we all may have heard the term “riot grrrl” tossed around when discussing 90’s rock, describing a sub-sub-genre, but aside from the music term what do we really remember about it? It seems grunge, alt-rock and post-punk (let’s leave out boy bands, please) are the rulers of the 90’s roost. What about Riot Grrrls? It’s not like they had a major impact on the rock industry or anything, oh wait. *insert winking face here*
Tossing aside grunge which seems to receive most of the limelight of the era, let’s dive into the other major movement happening at the same time, in the same place- Riot Grrrl.
Paving the way for Riot Grrrls were rock acts the Raincoats and the Slits, both being punk bands consisting of all female members; the Bangles are another influence, as well as the Runaways. (It would be trivial to list all female influences, but those seem to be common denominators betwixt Riot Grrrls). Women have always been in rock music, yes, but the majority of female rock musicians previous to the aforementioned groups either occupied a role in a rock band (say for example, bass player: Kim Deal, Kim Gordon, Tina Weymouth, Melissa Auf Der Maur, Rhonda Smith, Tal Wilkenfeld, Ezperanza Spaulding- to name a few) or were singer-songwriters and/or frontwomen. These artists also rarely got to cover lyrical topics as heavy or as revealing of the way in which women in the music industry were treated, especially in the world of rock which is notoriously white-male dominated (even though rock originated and was made successful by African Americans, this soon too being passed over… *shakes head*). This is why the Riot Grrrl movement is so important and influential; the women behind these bands took their “inferior” status and shoved it right back into the rock world’s face, right where it needed it most – on stage.
Picture it: the year is 1989 and hardcore live acts in the post-punk world and early stages of grunge are making huge waves in the US (Washington cities especially). Yet at these explosive live shows when bands would take the stage, it quickly became a crazed, hazardous space for the crowd attending.
Men would push, punch, spit and kick their way to the front of the stage, making a massive mosh pit in which women attendees were forced to the back for their own safety. At some of these shows, as it portrays in the documentary Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, women became ‘human coatracks’- sent to the back of the venue rooms so the men could riot in the mosh pit as the women held their coats. At one ’89 show in particular men began chanting “women are poop” proving this scene to be a male-only welcomed domain. The message given from these shows and the music (music videos of this era also notorious for portraying women in extremely provocative attire and situations) was being made clear: women are not welcome in the participation of rock music. However the tides were turning; Riot Grrrls soon emerging with a vengeance.
Riot Grrrl Manifesto #1: Because us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.
(Full Riot Grrrl Manifesto – https://onewarart.org/riot_grrrl_manifesto.htm)
So who started the Riot Grrrl movement? Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna are the main contributors to its beginning. Without their collaborations, Riot Grrrl would have never happened. Wolfe and Neuman attended school together at the University of Oregon and began writing feminist zines before music. Kathleen Hanna attended Evergreen State College and performed spoken word on the violence towards women and sexism ideologies for a couple of years before moving to songwriting – subsequent to the suggestion from punk poet Kathy Acker. Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17 (later both Sleater-Kinney members) also attended Evergreen, forefronters of the movement as well.
In 1991, Hanna met Wolfe and Neuman – and the future of rock music was about to change for the better. They began working on a fanzine together under the name, Riot Grrrl, and the zine grew such popularity that music gig collaborations were inevitable to ride the wave of success; the punk term Riot Grrrl was born.
‘We wanted to start a magazine, and Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman from the band Bratmobile had started a little fanzine called riot grrrl and we were writing little things for it. I’d always wanted to start a big magazine with really cool, smart writing in it, and I wanted to see if the other punk girls in D.C. that I was meeting were interested in that. So I called a meeting and found a space for it, and it just turned into this sort of consciousness-raising thing. I realized really quickly that a magazine wasn’t the way to go. People wanted to be having shows, and teaching each other how to play music, and writing fanzines, so that started happening. It got some press attention, and girls in other places would be like “I wanna do that. I wanna start one of those”.’ – Kathleen Hanna
In short, the Riot Grrrl movement was more than just music. It was a supportive collective. The fanzines served as a written informative of what the music stood for. The Riot Grrrl manifesto was created by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, which laid out each element of what was to be believed in and preached on through the lyricism and actions of each Riot Grrrl (band member or fan!). Organizing all-female band events served the public by giving women rock fans a physical space to feel free and understood; no longer human coatracks. The music forced listeners to hear the anger being felt by women, whether from being treated as unserious musical contributors or personally victimized due to their gender. Kathleen Hanna at Bikini Kill gigs became notorious for making male attendees feel uncomfortable; sometimes making men move to the back so the women could have free range close to the stage, a complete opposite of previous punk show atmospheres. She would also force male hecklers to leave if too rowdy.
Whether it was by the fans of rock music or the band members making the feminist waves themselves, women’s voices were finally being heard in the form of screams and wails of Riot Grrrl music. Not everyone was a fan, however. Riot Grrrl music began receiving several negative reviews from rock critics, some saying the music and theatrics were naïve. Some of the popular theatrics included dressing childishly or writing words like “slut” across their bare abdomens. Dressing like a girl was intentional; wishing again for that time in a woman’s life of innocence before reaching an age of brute realization of the violence and prejudice against them solely because of their born genders.
“I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear. They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say, they would take our articles, and our fanzines, and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.” – Corin Tucker
Writing shock terms onto their stomachs was another attempt at breaking gender norms and stereotypes. “Why a man isn’t called a slut?” Critics also seemed annoyed at Riot Grrrls, not taking their music seriously. In a review of Bikini Kill’s debut EP, Rolling Stone writer Chuck Eddy felt the need to bring up Kathleen Hanna’s former occupation, an underlying suggestion that her work should not be taken seriously as a feminist for once being a stripper:
Rolling Stone 1993 review by Chuck Eddy of Bikini Kill’s EP: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/bikini-kill-19930204.
Because music journalists and critics were so often misquoting the band members, slamming their feminist intents and labeling them as not-serious musicians, Kathleen Hanna called for a ‘media-blackout’ in response. The Riot Grrrls closed off the media; they would just play their music for the fans – the only people who mattered. The plan behooved them greatly.
By the mid-90’s it was finally not an incongruity to see an all-female rock band. Women forged their way into the rock music scene by playing by punk rules- and the Riot Grrrls were the pioneers who made rock music an acceptable place for women after decades of it being male-dominated. Following Riot Grrrls were the “angry-women” of rock: Alanis Morrisette, Fiona Apple, Liz Phair, Meredith Brooks and others. They were termed angry women by the media because of their feminist lyrics and howling vocals. Yet one major difference occurred: the media loved them. This newer movement was easier to package and sell. They were angry feminists, sure, but were well-behaved and still willing to look sexy. Because they were willing to cooperate with bigger labels and the media they were catapulted to stardom, unlike the Riot Grrrls who mainly operated under indie labels such as Kill Rock Star. However, if the Riot Grrrl movement never took place years before, the angry women would have probably been packaged as something far less edgy for the mainstream.
Fiona Apple: Sleater-Kinney:
A truly perfect summary of the Riot Grrrl movement impact can be found within the words of one of rock music’s finest musicians. In Carrie Brownstein’s book Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, she writes:
‘I feel very lucky that Bikini Kill came first. By the time I was playing in Sleater-Kinney, a lot of those early battles- for space, for respect, for recognition within the context of punk and indie music- had already been fought. We were ultimately recognized as a band, not just female band, and that is a luxury that cannot be overstated. A certain kind of exhaustion sets in from having to constantly explain and justify one’s existence or participation in an artistic or creative realm. What a privilege it must be to never have to answer the question “How does it feel being a woman playing music?” or “Why did you choose to be an all-female band?” The people who get there early have to work the hardest. Bikini Kill weren’t the first-they had predecessors and influences- but they carve, tore, and clawed out a space in music for which I am very grateful.’
Conclusion- Modern Girl
Ultimately, female empowerment really relies upon the individual listener; the music fan. Frankly, just in the same way every woman is different, every woman’s connection and fulfillment of empowerment is different. One music fan may be more inspired by the Spice Girls, Madonna, or Shakira, who can speak to them through provocative lyrics and being unafraid of using their bodies as emphasis of owning one’s sexuality.
Another music fan however (myself included) can be inspired more by artists like Sleater-Kinney or Joni Mitchell, who put more emphasis on social and political issues rather than dressing themselves in dramatically desirous ways. Regardless of what type of artist appeals to you, it is the impact of their work that matters. As for the Riot Grrrls and their impact, it is evident their work had a major influence on the rock world ever since. It is now common to see bands consisting of all female members and it is no shocker to music fans; before the movement ‘twas a different story. So thank you, Riot Grrrls, for placing your bare breasts against rock music’s glass ceiling and paving the way for every female musician and song-writer since. Without the Riot Grrrl revolution the culture of 90’s rock would have looked entirely different, and a female rock empowerment movement would likely have not come until much later, further prolonging the much needed advancement in rock music.
1. Schilt, Kristen. “A Little Too Ironic’: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians. Popular Music and Society, Volume 26, No. 1, 2003.
2. Documentary. January, 2003. Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl. Directed by Kerri Koch.
3. Strong, Catherine. Grunge, Riot Grrrl and the Forgetting of Women in Popular Culture. The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 44, No. 2, 2011. Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
4. Documentary. March 10, 2013. The Punk Singer. Directed by Sini Anderson.
5. Ryzik, Melena. A Feminist Riot That Still Inspires. The New York Times. June 5, 2011.
6. Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. October 2015. Riverhead Books
RIOT GRRRL DISCOGRAPHY TO LISTEN TO:
1. Bikini Kill – Pussy Riot
2. Heavens to Betsy- Terrorist
3. Bratmobile- Pottymouth
4. L7- Pretend We’re Dead
5. The Frumpies- I Just Wanna Puke on The Stereo
6. Babes In Toyland- Fontanelle
7. Team Dresch- Personal Best
8. Sleater-Kinney- Dig Me Out
9. Huggy Bear- Taking The Rough With The Smooch