Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Her Jazz

In the early '90s, punk girls improvised new forms of feminist agitation

Johanna Fateman


I spent my late teens and early twenties in the orbit of the Riot Grrrl movement, a '90s third-wave-feminist punk subculture that spat out the image of girlhood in raw experiments in political activism, music, art, and self-invention. I've only recently come to accept the term "Riot Grrrl" as the proper designation for that strangely chimerical underground. At first, I dismissed the term as too specific—Riot Grrrls attended meetings, I didn't. Then, within a year or two, younger girls were drawn to portrayals of the movement in the mainstream press, and the name was abandoned to them. But while I say that my scene wasn't exactly Riot Grrrl, its overlap with this iconic movement has placed my subsequent work—especially my band Le Tigre—within a lineage I wouldn't want to deny.

Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous. In its self-mythologizing rhetoric, the revolution belonged to all girls but couldn't be owned or represented by any one. Its work was done in secret, in incremental and internal acts of resistance, as well as publicly through songs, zines, gatherings, and, as a 1992 tour flyer for the bands Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy announced, "new aesthetics and ways of being." Now, Riot Grrrl struggles to be heard over almost two decades of associations—its influence detected in the emancipatory vibe of female-fronted tween pop and the periodic ascent of a woman rock star. But in the original anthems of Riot Grrrl, "Girl Power" was not the can-do sound track of gymnastic routines. It was the power to confront a rapist, an urgent challenge to the systematic silencing of girls, and the invocation of inconsolable, vengeful, and exhilarated revolutionary states, which would have been as unwelcome in Spice World as they were in The Man's world.

From a recent constellation of efforts to preserve Riot Grrrl's work and examine its legacy comes Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus's ambitious and convincing book that makes narrative sense out of events that had so far been recorded only in mythic, unverified, and fragmentary form. Marcus (who is a freelancer at Artforum, Bookforum's sister publication) acknowledges the difficulty of describing a movement that "existed first and foremost as an incantation, an idea," but she makes bold edits, narrowing her scope to a manageable history while painting a meticulously researched social and political backdrop.

Marcus shows how Riot Grrrl exploded out of a changing public discourse about gender politics and the heightened push and pull between punk DIY culture and major-label alternative rock. The movement took formal shape during the summer of 1991, predating the maddening interrogation of Anita Hill, the publication of Susan Faludi's best-selling Backlash, and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind by just a few months. Marcus's description of the women's movement in the early '90s captures the somewhat oppositional attitude my punk peer group had toward our feminist forebears: "The feminist movement had faltered, depopulated," in the wake of the disappointments of the '80s—the unratified Equal Rights Amendment, the federal defunding of abortion, the widespread hallucination of a postfeminist era—and, in its bland focus on electoral politics, had "traded prophetic visions of whole-cloth cultural change for a reined-in, pragmatic focus on access and ratios. . . . But in doing so, feminism had backed off, too, from constituents whose survival depended on the big questions—the artists, the radicals, the queers, the misfits, the young."

Girls to the Front starts in 1989 and follows several young women in the bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy as they transform the resources of their local DIY music scenes into outlets for new styles of feminist agitation. Kathleen Hanna, the charismatic singer of Bikini Kill (and later my bandmate in Le Tigre), emerges as a central character. Calling girls to the front of the audience to dance unmolested, handing out photocopied lyric sheets, and speaking bluntly about issues such as incest, sex-industry work, and misogyny, Hanna and Bikini Kill were completely out of step with male-dominated punk and hardcore, as well as with the whimsical indie rock then making the rounds. The band rapidly became interchangeable with Riot Grrrl in the public imagination, and the media fixated on Hanna's irresistibly controversial and quotable declarations and her legendary image-making power as a performer, as Marcus describes: "She stands stock-still, looking plaintively at the audience and holding her left hand to her crotch, a gesture that twists the Madonna-esque virility pose into an act of pained protection. Then the guitarist tears into his chords again and, fed by the renewed clamor, Kathleen is instantly back in motion, leaning over as if she might vomit and roaring, 'I'll resist with every inch and every breath I'll resist this psychic death.'"

If this account of a 1992 Bikini Kill performance reads a bit rapturously, that's part of the point. Marcus writes as a feminist fan of feminist culture, propelled by fascination with her subject and an activist's interest in preserving its history. Marcus participated in the subculture she chronicles here—writing zines and playing in bands (including a few shows opening for Le Tigre in 2000). She's thus determined to portray Riot Grrrl as "a radical feminist movement of young women" and not, as it was spoken of in the late '90s, as "a music scene, an expired trend: at best, a period of openness to strong female performers; at worst, an ideology of bad musicianship or a style of dress." By focusing on Riot Grrrl as a political movement, Marcus writes of its key figures as catalysts and organizers and quotes lyrics and zines that have an everygrrrl quality—the ones most typical of the ideas circulating at the time. She also recounts some of the highlights: the gratifying chaos instigated by UK Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear after playing live on the British television show The Word in 1993, the Xeroxed flyer Marcus received in the mail romantically suggesting that "pro-revolution girls" find one another by writing on their hands with Magic Marker ("You can draw hearts or stars or write words on yr fingers, whatever . . ."), and the evangelical power of a band like Bikini Kill.

In 1992, before many people were calling themselves Riot Grrrls, and before there was a stereotype of what one looked like, the audience for a Bikini Kill show would be goth girls with fag friends in tow, older hippies, art students, leather dykes—people attracted to the danger and audacity of the performance. This periphery of devoted misfits is perhaps the best proof of the contagion, the broad appeal, and the endurance of Riot Grrrl's messages. But it is not Marcus's subject. Instead, she follows the women who, for better or worse, made Riot Grrrl the center of their activities and identities. And perhaps that's why there's a detour in her story's arc: By 1994, the protagonists of 1991 held the term Riot Grrrl at arm's length.

Marcus addresses this turn, summarizing the disillusionment of Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill's drummer and author of the zine Jigsaw: "Her ideas about angry grrrls and revolution girl style had been hijacked by the media, and she'd watched her articles of faith and fervor become unrecognizable" in the mainstream press. In Jigsaw, Vail wrote that "the main problem" with "this riot grrrl thing" was that it had become "all about identity . . . rather than [focused] on action—everybody's talking about what kind of girl, nobody's starting a riot." Vail's blend of punk vernacular with the academic language of feminist cultural criticism was a powerful influence on many writers (myself included), but not on the confessional, identity-politics-driven zines and micropolitical focus of the women who were, as Marcus writes, "the closest thing Riot Grrrl had to leaders, as of 1994."

Marcus chronicles the disappointments of Riot Grrrl as it began to disintegrate—the relentless critique of personal politics within the movement, the onstage disbanding of Bratmobile, a lackluster Omaha Riot Grrrl convention—which seem a world away from the ebullient gestures of just a year before. Marcus could have crafted a purely emboldening feminist tale, but she instead took on the task of tracing what she terms the "epiphanic bliss" of her introduction to the movement back through "the unfortunate parts of the Riot Grrrl story." She diplomatically interprets the difficult revelations of her research, which have undoubtedly delayed the writings of first-person accounts, and delivers her engaging story of Riot Grrrl into this cautious silence. In passionately describing Riot Grrrl's radical propositions as the youth movement that formed the sharper edges of both feminism's third wave and '90s punk rock, Marcus argues powerfully that it's a spirit of urgency and confrontation still needed in the feminist struggle for girls' lives.

Johanna Fateman is a member of the band Le Tigre. She lives in New York, where she owns Seagull Salon.

kkuvo

October 9, 2010
12:34 pm

Thank you, Jo.

I don't know why, but I was relunctant to read Girls To The Front until I read your terrificly insightful and well written review.

I'm looking forward to reading this book and keeping the topic of conversation and action alive!

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