It's A Grrrl Thing
Punk rock, explosive politics and no boys allowed.
"Revolution Girl Style Now!" That's the rallying cry of Riot Grrrl, an underground feminist movement that's raising the consciousness of young women everywhere -- and raising a lot of eyebrows, too. Riot Grrrl is loud, brash, confrontational, passionate and angry. This is no quiet riot. Girl power is what's it's all about: young women getting together to help and encourage each other, pulling on their Doc Martens and stomping the sexist stereotypes of what girls are "supposed" to be (quiet, sweet, quiet, soft, quiet -- you get the picture).
These sisters are doing it for themselves at weekly meetings and events (like the Riot Grrrl Convention, held for the first time in Washington, D.C.), through their own fanzines and in their own rock bands. "The main thing about Riot Grrrl is people saying, 'I believe in you,'" says Lois Maffeo, of the band Lois. "If you say you've been raped, harassed, abused, or you've been trying to be in a band and no one will help, or you've been trying to stop sexism in your school, I believe you, and I will support you in your fight to correct those things."
Sounds grrreat. But as everyone knows, revolution by definition breeds unrest. And already there's trouble in paradise...
The seeds for Riot Grrrl were planted about two years ago in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. A few girls (notably members of Grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile) decided to get together to talk about their main interests -- feminism and punk rock. Their first sessions were such serious fun the participants put up posters to attract other like-minded girls. Many more came. They found they had other things in common: They were vegetarians; they were against drugs; they had been molested as children. At one meeting, an enterprising woman took notes, photocopied them, turned them into a cool fanzine, and Riot Grrrl was born.
Olympia and D.C. are perfect petri dishes for radical punk rock uprising. A small city about an hour south of Seattle, Olympia has long been a mecca for experimental creative types. "Olympia's always been a step ahead of Seattle," says Candice Pederson of K, the Olympia-based record label that releases a lot of Riot Grrrl music. "Everybody's trying different things here. If you make a mistake, that's okay; if you're successful, everyone applauds you." D.C. also has a vital alternative-music scene, and as the nation's capital, it's a prime site for political rebellion.
As Riot Grrrl "soldiers" began shuttling between the bastions on both coasts for meetings and shows, they made contact with girls across the country. Riot Grrrl chapters now meet in cities all over the U.S. and Canada. It's even catching on in England. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of women in their teens and twenties who've declared themselves Riot Grrrls.
Music is the glue that makes Riot Grrrls stick. Picture a crowd of girls with chopped-off hair in plaid vintage dresses and D.M.s, moshing in the pit as a Grrrl group onstage plays its heart out about real-girl feelings. It's a bonding-to-the-beat experience that girls just can't get from Metallica. Many Riot Grrrls get into a band as a outlet for outrage. "For a long time, there were not many women in bands, and even fewer who were speaking aggressively about being a woman in society," says Jean Smith, the fiery singer-poet in the group Mecca Normal and inspiration to many Grrrls. "Now young women are getting together to play with other women, rather than being thrown into the whole boy's world sort of thing."
Next to music, the most important componet of the movement is the fanzine scene. Part pen-pal, park punk publishing empire, the hundreds of Riot Grrrl fanzines (like Wiglet, Quit Whining, Fantastic Fanzine and Girl Germs) are the journalistic equivalent of Riot Grrrl rock. Each zine reflects the interests and personalities of the girls who put it out. Articles in the zines include letters from Riot Grrrls near and far, poetry, essays like "I Am a Feminist and So Is My Dad," pieces on such subjects as abortion rights, artist profiles, record and concert reviews, factoids and statistics (like, did you know on Super Bowl Sunday, women's shelters report a large increase in calls for help?), and service pieces (e.g., "Recording Your Own Cassette").
Another thing Riot Grrrls share is an attitude of rebellion against beauty conspiracy. They defy the concept that women should do everything they can to look as physically attractive as possible. "A lot of these girls are really cute and people are always saying that to them. But it's almost not a compliment," explains Candice. "It's like, 'So, I'm cute. That's not what I think about. I'm actually a really smart person.'" That's why a lot of Riot Grrrls don't shave and deliberately give each other bad haircuts.
The Riot Grrrl refusal to conform to fashion dictates, however, has created a "look" of its own. "It's the idea of taking what's considered normal and redefining yourself," says Candice. So, you'll see Riot Grrrls in fishnet stockings and army shorts, cinch-waisted dresses and combat boots or miniskirts with long underwear. Grrrls also like to "accessorize" with black Magic Markers, painting pro-girl slogans, bands' names, or in-your-face words like "rape," "guilt," and "slut" on their bodies.
In theory, Riot Grrrl would create a female utopia. In practice, it's a somewhat different story. Already there are rumblings of an internal rift between Riot Grrrl's vehemently militant and the less hard-core groups -- something sixteen-year-old Jessica Hopper from Minneapolis, Minnesota knows all about. "What attracted me to the movement was the sense of unity, being part of a collective. It seemed to be a great way to hook up with other people who were into the same things I was," she explains. "I'd never really had an in-depth conversation about feminism before Riot Grrrl."
Unlike some Riot Grrrls, Jessica never suffered sexual abuse, but she didn't exactly come from a Norman Rockwell home, either. "My mom has been married three times and that whole divorce-remarriage-divorce syndrome affected my views on men and marriage," says Jessica. "I'd always felt distanced from my mom and I had a hard time being close to women." Riot Grrrl gave Jessica the kind of female relationships she's yearned for: strong alliances without undercurrents of competition or jealousy.
Once Jessica started her own, Hit It or Quit It, she got to meet some of the women she admired most. "I interviewed Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and she talked for four hours," Jessica says. "It was like, Wow! You really look up to these women for what they've lived through and accomplished and then you meet them and become friends. It totally validates you."
Jessica became a confirmed Riot Grrrl. "I was full into it. I'd write 'Revolution Girl Style Now!' on anything that didn't move," she says. "But then the media blitz happened -- and I talked." Jessica is referring to the recent magazine and newspaper coverage of Riot Grrrl -- a virtual media feeding frenzy that caused a lot of dissension in the ranks. Jessica understands their suspicion. "A lot of them felt that once things got into the mainstream, Riot Grrrls would get distorted," she says. "They feel the press is just looking for a story and they don't want Riot Grrrl to become trendy." Still, when Newsweek contacted Jessica, she wanted to talk. "I was just speaking for myself, about my band, Andromeda Strain, and my fanzine. But of course Riot Grrrl came up because I was so heavily involved with it," she explains. After the story hit, "I started catching slag," Jessica says. "I felt I was being personally attacked for talking to the media. I felt pushed out."
Today, though she's continuing with her fanzine and her band, Jessica is an official Riot Grrrl dropout. "I realized that I was disagreeing with a lot of the things they were saying," she says. And she's not alone. Riot Grrrls are at odds on a number of issues. Like the punk superiority trip. "I've gotten letters from girls saying they'd gone to meetings and people were hostile to them because they weren't really punk or militant," Jessica says. "There is peer pressure to be like that."
Perhaps the biggest rift is the girl-versus-guys thing. "There's a constant debate about men," notes Candice. "Should we put on a show only women can go to? Should men have to pay more?" While no one will argue that Riot Grrrl is right to expose and explode misogyny wherever it lurks, are they justified in condemning the Y chromosome as the root of all evil? "There are women in Riot Grrrl who are very antimale," says Lois. "And the backlash from that could be dangerous for the movement."
That's not to say all Riot Grrrls think men are pigs. Indeed, some Grrrl bands have male members, the audiences at Riot Grrrl shows usually have a fairly balanced male-to-female ratio and plenty of Grrrls have boyfriends and boy friends. The male response to Riot Grrrl is mixed: "Women taking control of their music is positive," says Rob Flaggert, an editor at the Seattle music newspaper Hype. "But a lot of what they're doing could be seen as reverse discrimination."
Ultimately, the movement's militant slant may intimidate some young women otherwise drawn to the Riot Grrrl ideology. "It's a hard line to walk," says Lois Maffeo. "To be angry at some people, men especially, and still retain any sort of warmth and humanity. Warmth and humanity are key."