Thompson, Lea. 1997.
Media-Grrrl vs. riot grrrl
In 1992 and 1993 there was a new buzz-word in the media. Riot grrrl popped up small at first, but by the middle of 1993 it was in major magazines such as Glamour and Seventeen. I have been with riot grrrl since I was a sophomore in high school and have watched the twisted course the media has taken it through. The first time I heard about riot grrrl in NewsWeek I was really excited and wanted to get involved. I then wrote to some grrrls in the Chicago area that I discovered in the Chicago Tribune. Shortly after this I began to notice the unfair and inaccurate stories that were being published. Riot grrrls put up a media block and refused to talk, but shallow, inept articles still appeared. Around 1994 the flurry had diminished. Today it is harder to find information about riot grrrl activity or people who even believe it is still active. The bands and grrrls are still out there but what happened in the media has really torn the movement apart. Riot grrrl activity seems to have decreased proportionetly with the media coverage in the past couple years.
Riot grrrl is a grass-roots movement involving women, often in, but not limited to, their early teens to middle twenties. The group first began in Olympia, Washington when grrrls from local bands got together and began to discuss topics like racism, sexism, punk music and abuse. They found they had a lot in common and started meeting on a regular basis. The meetings spread and so did the bands. A real instrument in the spread of the movement was, and is, zines. The word comes from magazine. They are independently produced (Xeroxed) newspapers/flyers. They contain poems, interviews, pictures, journals, rants and essays. A lot of it is hand-written, pasted together, copied and then distributed for free. Zines are a communication system of their own. Some of the more prominent bands from Olympia, "Bikini Kill" and "Bratmobile", moved to DC where there was already a big punk scene and political action. That lead to an even greater spread of the movement. The movement hopes to reach further by getting politically active in women's, minorities and human rights in the US and the rest of the world. The first riot grrrl convention was held in July of 1992 and consisted of bands, poets, workshops and discussions. The workshops were on sexuality, rape, unlearning racism, fat oppression, domestic violence and self defense.
The main purpose, as one grrrl says, is "To help each other" (Johnson 6). We address the fact that our biggest obstacle is ourselves. Women are often jealous of each other and insecure of themselves. We want to "STOP the J word jealousy from killing girl LOVE" (zine). Women don’t trust each other and it effects the kind of friendships we have. Women are set up against each other to be the prettiest, sexiest, the homecoming queen or the girlfriend of the quarterback. One of the most asked questions is to why we use 'girl' and 'grrrl' instead of woman. Girl has been used as a derogatory term towards women to invalidate their power as an individual. Girl is usually taken to mean, passive, weak, quiet and dependent. By using the word ourselves we take the sting out of it and render it useless to those who would use it disrespectfully. Another more recent interpretation relates to books like Reviving Ophelia. Girl is our more free selves, it describes who we were before we were reprogrammed into the beauty myth. By changing the spelling to grrrl it represents our anger towards inequality and standards of conduct for women. Women have long been denied their anger because it wasn’t pretty or feminine. Anger is not the only focus, we are not all militant and mean. As I said before we use the anger to inspire us to help, believe and support others.
Another often asked question concerns the writing of "bitch", "slut" and "rape" on parts of our bodies. This is, in much the same way girl is, to make people face their own assumptions and prejudices. By labeling ourselves, people’s judgment is laid out in front of them. All women deserve respect equally; if someone labels one woman a "slut" she/he makes it permissible to label other women as well. The magic marker is a way to beat her/him to it. She/he is forced to evaluate her/his actions because it makes the actions unavaoidable.
An often found motto in the zines and various publications is:
"No we are not paranoid.
This addresses one of the most common objections to supporting the group and the response that we’re overreacting. The one the media seems to pick on most is that we are man-haters. This goes back to early feminism in the 60's and 70's when the same thing was said about that part of the movement. In an article written by bratXgirl, she writes that in a magazine riot grrrl was referred to as a "militant feminist neo-nazi group". This was news to her! She was stunned when she found out she was a neo-nazi and replied, "gee, whiz, i’m not even white."
The NewsWeek article isn't totally erroneous, but now that I have re-read it, I’ve noticed some things wrong. The accompanying pictures aren't so bad, it's some of the captions that bother me. The magic marker written on a grrrl's arm is described as "war paint for the battle of the sexes" (Chideya, Rossi and Hannah 85). The media has always seemed to focus on this battle of the sexes business. Riot grrrl is not about hating men, it's about getting rid of the patriarchy that has become so inherent. There are bad men, but there are many, I hope more, who aren’t. Just because the movement is female-focused does not mean it is anti-male. Under her picture Courtney Love is billed as the movement's "'patron saint'" (85). One of the glaring differences between the media's definition of the movement and a riot grrrl's is that when asked to explain it, riot grrrls often first clarify that they are speaking as an individual, not for the group as a whole (Klein 7). They make it clear that everyone has their own opinions and that riot grrrl is a collective of their shared opinions and a way to help get their messages across. The media will often pick out specific grrrls like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna as representative of the whole group.
This article, as well as others, are filled with terms like "sassy" (hinting to the young women’s magazine) and "MTV" that distract and wrongly associate the movement with standard culture themes. The grrrl interviewed in the NewsWeek article (Jessica Hopper) is trivialized at times when described as "young, white, urban and middle class," as if because she is not a minority or rich her ideas are not really important (85). She is called contradictory because she "gush[es] about some ‘incredibleee cute bass player’," and at the same time started a pro-choice group when she was 12 (85). How is that contradictory? I think the reporter is trying to invalidate Jessica and ignoring the fact that people are not one or the other, serious or light-heated, all the time. Last, the reporter in NewsWeek assumes most of it will "evaporate when it hits the adult real world," because they are still at home or in college, "a far cry from what they'll face in the competitive job market or as they start to form their own families" (86). Riot grrrl has already proven it knows more about the real world than most adults by facing head-on rape, sexism, child abuse and refusing to hide or endure these wrongs any more. Riot grrrls are certainly not anti-family, but to say that they will either enter the job market or start families is one of the oldest female stereotypes.
An interview in a feminist magazine deals with the issue of the negative effects of the media’s involvement. Two riot grrrls (Carly and Evelyn) described how a woman from USA Today came to one of the conventions and exaggerated the way some of the grrrls there dealt with a few guys who were heckling them. According to them, one of the guys had "shouted that punk rock was an excuse for ugly girls to get on stage" (Johnson 9). These guys were approached, "People did come up to them and say ‘this is our day; if you don’t have any respect for us, leave; but otherwise, please be quiet...,’" but this was not how the reporter wrote it up (9). The reporter wrote it up as, "‘raging girls with pink mohawks came swarming around and screamed him off’ and he ran crying" (9). They also comment on the Spin article in which there was an artsy photo of a woman with riot grrrl written on her arm. They were disgusted at the idea of a paid model in such a set up photograph, how there was something inherently passive about the composition and that it looked like none of the grrrls they knew. Carly and Evelyn also knew a local reporter who did an article on riot grrrl and was told she had to re-write it because it was too friendly towards the movement.
I think the harm the media did was indismissable and pushed many away from the movement. This is evidenced by the disbanding of the riot grrrl mailing list and disappearance of many notable zines. The network is much looser now. This is in response to widly varying involvement and conflict resulting from the sudden barrage of the media-made definitions of the movement. It created a very confusing atmosphere within the group and altered its progress. Many just getting involved with the group had different impressions of what the movement was about than those who had been with it for a while. Instead of accepting new contributors, misconceptions and all, as peers who can at least help in that they serve to spread the message of asserting your power as a woman, some root members became distrustful. They were very disgusted with the media and became clique-ish. They assumed the new comers only had ideas about riot grrrl from the media and wanted to take part because it was cool. They were harsh to outsiders and it stunted them badly. The media picked up on these attitudes and articles that appeared on how elitist it was, finally killed the incursion. The Seventeen article was one such instance. The leader for the articles asks, "Punk rock, explosive politics, and no boys allowed. Will Riot Grrrl refocus feminism or fry in its own fury?" (Malkin 80)
Riot grrrl’s influence and involvement has not completely dissipated though. The bands are still going and the music is as strong as ever. How many ads on TV and in print can you think of that have strong females? There's a lot more now, than there used to be. One such ad is for a clothing company named Dirt which features a woman in work pants, coat and ski cap karate-kicking, sledge hammer in hand, with the title, "EEEYAH! Kung Fu clothing for working girl." Another example is the new Mountain Dew ad with accomplished singer/songwriter Lesley Rankine and some bunjee-jumping, sky-surfing, building-hopping, yawlping women. There is an article in Time that just came out that examines the "bewitching teen heroines" that are on TV (Bellafante 82). The shows it reviews are about believable teens that are true to life in their personalities and "speaking out, cracking wise and casting spells" (82). It even goes so far as to have a short blurb about riot grrrl, "a much hyped and ultimately successful effort by popular female punk bands to make rock less boycentric" (82). While the movement wasn’t just about the music, it is positive and in a major publication at the same time. Many zines on the internet have also popped up. Some of the zines are really good and have the same focus as many of the original print ones. Home pages written by riot grrrls are also available. There aren’t as many as I’d like but I think the number is growing. The internet is such an easy way to connect and collaborate. There are news groups and chat rooms devoted to the topic as well. I hope the impression isn’t lost and that the movement will develop further to once again reach out to the women who can find relevance in it.
Bellafante, Ginia. Time May 5, 1997: 82-84.
bratXgirl. alien she’s homepage Online. World Wide Web. 22 April 1997 Available: http://www.angelfire.com/nj/alienshe/grrrl.html
Chideya, Farai, Melissa Rossi and Dogen Hannah. "Revolution Girl-Style." Newsweek Nov. 23 1992: 84-86
Johnson, Angela. "Start a Fucking riot." off our backs May 1993: 6-10
Klein, Melissa. "Riot Grrrls." off our backs Feb. 1993: 6-12.
Some of the references I’m using are from ‘zines, flyers and pamphlets that are not copywrited and contain no information on author, date or city. They were meant to be of free use to copy, distribute and use in any way.