WORDS & PICTURES Julia Scheele
I first heard about Riot Grrrl when I was 16. That was 2000: a decade on from the movement’s beginnings and a few years after the Spice Girls “invented” Girl Power. We’d recently got an Internet dial-up connection and I spent a LOT of time online. I was looking for people with similar interests to me – the punks and goths I’d seen in comics and films who I felt would “get me”, but who were absent at the small conservative school I went to. I started in particular to search for more women in music, spurred on by my already-strong teen love of Gwen Stefani and Shirley Manson. I found Sleater-Kinney. Then Le Tigre. Then Bikini Kill and a lifetime love for Kathleen Hanna.
I’d never seen anyone like her before – a woman who was so unapologetically in-your-face angry about gender inequality and violence against women, a woman who used that massive amount of angry energy to make music that just tears through you and empowers you in a way I’d never felt before. It’s not surprising to me that Kathleen Hanna gets mentioned a lot in Double Dare Ya, the anthology about Riot Grrrl I co-edited with Sarah Broadhurst: especially after The Punk Singer, a documentary about Hanna, came out this year. I watched it and it made me feel as excited about punk rock feminism as I did when I was a teenager. I felt pumped. Like, fuck you pumped. Like, “I want to make art about this” right now.
This time around though, I noticed something I wouldn’t have noticed as a teenager. I watched The Punk Singer and I was left with the impression that Riot Grrrl was made up of a sea of white faces. Riot Grrrl was, after all, a very white and middle-class movement (something that Rhian E. Jones can talk about much more eloquently than I can, in her essay “From Olympia To The Valleys: What Riot Grrrl Did And Didn’t Do For Me”). Teenage girls wanted a voice, they were angry about abuse and sexism, they were angry about the Patriarchy, they were angry about the world and they were angry enough to believe that they could change it if they grouped together. But how exactly did the movement manage to completely exclude women of colour?
In Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus writes about the failures as well as the accomplishments of Riot Grrrl. She writes about women of colour being invited to meetings but not feeling welcome.
In Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus writes about the failures as well as the accomplishments of Riot Grrrl. She writes about women of colour being invited to meetings but not feeling welcome. She writes about women of colour being shouted down when they talked about privilege and previously unexamined racism. She paints a picture of Riot Grrrl chapters trying, but embarrassingly and monumentally failing at being inclusive. Laina Dawes writes in “Why I Was Never A Riot Grrrl”, an essay about The Punk Singer for Bitch Magazine:
“Now I remember why I never felt interested in being part of the riot grrrl scene. The film shows snippets of footage of young white women in that era, saying that the riot grrrl was a scene in which they didn’t have to fight in the mosh pit, or have men sexualize them for being at a show. For me, I was in the mosh pit, getting bruised and punched because as an individual, not as a woman, I wanted to be where the action was and even back then I knew that allies, regardless of gender, were few and far between. So I was just me. I also remembered being more fearful of being assaulted because I was black than because I was a young woman. I would have almost begged to be seen as a woman back then, but my ethnicity trumped my gender. (…) 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. There was no knowledge, and more importantly no interest to know…well outside of Rebecca Walker, who was the right age, of the right class and most importantly, not ‘too angry’ to alienate them or challenge their naïve idealized notions about how the world works. If my ideas differed from them, guess who was wrong and who was right?”
It’s important to look at those failings now, especially in a time of resurgence for Riot Grrrl in the wake of popular media like the Punk Singer and Gone Home. It’s dangerous to look at it through eyes of pure nostalgia, and even more dangerous to look at it purely as a style, sweeping its discontents under the carpet and domesticating it as a Top Shop t-shirt.
Why the resurgence now anyway, apart from all the 90s nostalgia? To me it makes sense: with the way social media weaves through the minutiae of all of our lives, we’re more connected to everyone in the world, and all of their opinions as well, whether they’re progressive or painfully old-fashioned. We might surround ourselves with friends and family who think similar to us, but over the last ten years, I’ve seen women I admire, women I count as friends and allies, be forced to face swathes of online abuse that ranges from creepy overstepping of boundaries and dumb-as-shit “well-meaning” stereotypes, to outright death and rape threats. It’s now part of the life of every woman who gets exposure and is vocal on the internet – from the Men’s Rights Movement to Pick Up Artists, from Not All Men and Mansplaining and Gamer Gate, to how much people will, to this day, resist listening – REALLY LISTENING – to any woman who has faced abuse and mistreatment.
Kathleen Hanna talks about her mental breakdown in The Punk Singer, when she had to distance herself from Bikini Kill and the scene because she was constantly being bombarded with abusive misogynist hate mail and threatened by confrontational and even physically violent men at gigs. Over the Internet, this sort of abuse can now be directed at ANY woman with an opinion. Just look at the recent swamp of humanity that constitutes “Gamer Gate”: a direct and organised misogynist hate campaign aimed at female games journalists, weakly disguised as a crusade for “ethics” in journalism – that has, to this date, managed to chase three women and their families out of their homes with targeted death threats.
Yet in its own way, social media today can work even better than the zines of the 90s did. To me, zines are really the most engaging part of Riot Grrrl – angry, raw, confrontational, visual, cheap to produce, connecting girls who thought they were alone with their alienation and their anger across states, countries and oceans. The Internet is a way for teenage girls to channel their anger at being excluded and being made to feel “other”, which – in theory at least – is a beautiful thing. Of course, just as with Riot Grrrl zines, it has its shortcomings. From high tempers to absolutism and immaturity, I see good points forever lost in a sea of infighting and nitpicking. But you know what, that’s fine. People grow up, gather more life experiences, become more responsible and take more things into account. Everyone’s just cutting their teeth.
For the optimist still somewhere in me, I’m happy that we’re talking about this at all. We’re making the people who are willing to think do just that – think about their attitude to life, about privilege, about race, gender, and how the world is changing. Voicing our anger. Telling our stories. Demanding to be heard. Showing that we’re up for the fight.
Let’s connect. Let’s discuss and disagree and even fight, but let’s not contribute to the dumb abuse we’re already facing.
Riot Grrrl is so, so imperfect. It was wonderful, but Christ, it was hella shitty, too. Let’s not look at it as gospel, let’s not even try to revive it as a movement. But let’s listen to our rage and channel it into making something better, into learning and understanding. Let’s connect. Let’s discuss and disagree and even fight, but let’s not contribute to the dumb abuse we’re already facing. Let’s keep talking.