Thank You to the Riot Grrrls, Then and Now

Tanyel Gumushan /
Aug 2, 2017 / Music

Mad, isn’t it? That we have some sort of human instinct to categorise items and thoughts by gender.

Well, maybe not mad, but definitely weird how we associate some things to be masculine and others feminine. We follow an unwritten rule book, and chapter ten of that rule book may well be music. The very idea that certain styles of music can only fully be performed by or listened by a certain gender? Well, that? That’s what is mad.

Let’s take it back to the 1990s. Punk was for the boys; loud, angry, requiring strength and aggression in its delivery and at the receiving ends. There we go, so called masculine traits. Yet punk has always been political, and angry about the state. So surely girls can do that too. Ironically punk shouts about injustices yet in the ‘90s particularly, stopped women from doing the same.

1990s America was stale, laddish and male dominated. The ‘lad culture’ of that era was even more littered with double standards. In 2015, The New York Times’ Kurt Anderson reminisced on the era as ‘The Best Decade Ever’. In doing so, he thanked Starbucks for the ‘sudden availability of excellent coffee.’ Anderson however, made no reference to the Riot Grrrls.

The Riot Grrrls however, were a group of teenage girls, ‘rebel girls’, in Washington who stood up to the blatant slap of unjust and retaliated kicking and screaming. They became a tight knit bunch who dedicated everything to creating a safe place for girls to make music that resisted all expectations and dominant ideologies. This wasn’t quiet, or innocent, naïve or passive. Revving their instruments and singing with vengeance outwardly and openly about their sexuality and desires, the girls wore their delicate pink dresses with hefty black boots, and ripped open their shirts to reveal their chests with slurs that they faced, like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ written across in tarnished sharpie. Contradiction and expectation is bittersweet to play with. The Riot Grrrls created fanzines featuring content made by girls and for girls, talking about politics, relationships and womanhood in a way that taught, and didn’t limit. Their feminist consciousness and punk attitude tore apart the fictitious and dangerous rule-book of how girls should act and think.

But who gives a shit about that when we now have pumpkin lattes, hey, Anderson?

Calling for Revolution, Girl Style, Now! – the title of pioneering Bikini Kill’s first album, there was a rise of formation in all female or female led bands altering the balance of women musicians in the punk and rock scenes and bringing them to the front. Just like at their gigs, where the rule was, women at the front to let loose and avoid fear of harassment. Something that Girls Against still tirelessly campaign for. Loud and reckless, the leaders were Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile who did everything themselves maintaining the heart of DIY whilst stomping on the rules of the music industries. Girls can shout. Girls can sweat. Girls can think. Girls can stand up.

Bikini Kill’s outspoken and quite frankly, badass front-woman, Kathleen Hanna, snarled “I can sell my body, if I wanna” (‘Jigsaw Youth’) and defied the ‘male gaze’, another theory that suggests humans view each other through a masculine view and sexualise women in particular as objects or vice versa. Unfortunately, not a Charlie Brooker script. The Riot Grrrls took control of their own sexuality and objectified themselves before any male gaze could. This taking back of ownership and responsibility wasn’t always received well. Just as we see today when women choose to show their body, in photographs or not, a backlash usually quickly follows. Whilst today there is arguably more empowerment of a woman’s body, that may have come with the more fluid acceptance of appearance and self-identity, the unaccepting narrow-mindedness from the 90s and prior is still very much embedded in our society. Something that Kathleen Hanna still fearlessly battles, in her music and touring talks. Check out her documentary “The Punk Singer.”

The Riot Grrrl movement fought for equality. For equality to apply to women. For equality to apply to women even if they weren’t acting or looking like others expected them to. That is equality. Their manifesto stated that people are people and every being, regardless of gender, should be treated with the same respect. Yet the ideals of punk still contradict this, pushing feminine associated traits to the back and masculine hard shells at the front. Women may be the pretty girlfriends backstage, the men perform on stage – bleeding, shoving, sweating. You may be emotive and sensitive in themes of songs, but perform with vigour. Punk is one of those annoying jawbreaker candy that feels good when you finally break into it with a satisfied bite.

God, did the Riot Grrrls bite. They didn’t completely conquer the world, and they didn’t always get it right. But they challenged beliefs in a deeply musty society. Music is fluid and shouldn’t be restricted by barriers or limits of who makes and listens to it. As a universal communicator it should be used to potential; to talk and express real emotion.

Today we see this wide spread across all genres. Take Beyonce, an icon of empowerment, a symbol of strength for many communities. Tove Lo, the Swedish ‘Cool Girl’ who thinks ‘taboo’ itself is a taboo word, so doesn’t shy away from singing about her activity in the sheets. Miley Cyrus who reins back her power and never justifies her performance. Jenny Hval, who dedicated an album, Blood Bitch, to menstruation. A standout from the male dominated pelvic thrusts of male dominance in music, she pants frantically and haunts in a half witch, half angelic vocal that discusses blood and vampires. Kate Nash, who has helped so many come-of-age and runs an online club, ‘Girl Gang’, to invite members to virtual conversation about adolescence.

Yet the idea of a ‘front-woman’ is still seen as a novelty. It’s always the point of conversation in interview. A critic’s favourite use of the word ‘gimmick’. In punk and rock too, the likes of Millie Manders, The Pretty Reckless, Hinds, Skating Polly and Tacocat – to name a few – are incredible, rip-roaring artists in their own rights. Baring similarities to the original Riot Grrrls in image and sound, is simply comparing them the musical equivalent of comparing every female author to Jane Austen?

One thing that is shared however, is the values. From their strength of facing negativity and abuse, to the unity of community coming together and the passion that flooded into the music, that’s what still remains a legacy today. The Riot Grrrls made their smeary mark on the industry and won’t ever be wiped. Today, we need this similar movement and we need to carry on the fight more tailored to the new rising problems we’re facing and the ones that are still unjust. The values that the Riot Grrrls implanted in the music world have been graciously received by many other artists that have followed their lead. We thank you all.

Words by Tanyel Gumushan

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