Monday, August 15, 2005

Riot Grrrl 1992

Actually, the last story brings me to a story from my past, and a fact that's striking to me anyway: The DC Riot Grrrl Convention was in 1992. Thirteen years ago- could it really have been that long ago? What the hell happened? Is this what it means to be old? Asking what the hell happened to everything we remember?

I was a senior in High School in Fairfax, Virginia, and involved with Positive Force DC by this point so I was pretty well acquainted with the Riot Grrrl movement, and it was a movement, no matter what you've been told. There was a palpable feeling in the air that something was happening, and unlike so many other "lefty" causes, it was something more joyous than terminally enraged. People were making "zines"- everyone I knew in fact. They were a bit like blogs, but the comparison frankly doesn't hold because there's a hell of a lot of design and creativity that goes into zines that just isn't there in blogs. You have to sit up all night gluing things together, taking pictures, drawing sketches and writing, writing, writing.

But, somehow, everybody seemed to be putting out three zines and starting a record label. Simple Machines was down the street and we used to sit up all night stuffing record sleeves for pizza and wine. Fugazi was in the process of becoming an "important band" so every other DC band sounded like Fugazi. And then there were these college girls from Olympia Washington and Washington DC who were holding meetings in the PF house on Sundays to try to question why it is that such a "radical movement" as punk rock falls all-too-often into bullshit patterns of boy-girl behavior. Mark Andersen has described going to see the real Dead Kennedys in DC and watching a punker boy hand his jacket off to his dutiful girlfriend so he could go dance in the pit. I've never been much of a feminist myself, but it doesn't take Simone De Beauvoir to see that we still grow up with a great deal of crap about what boys and girls are supposed to do and be pumped into our heads.

I remember when I worked at the grocery store I would watch moms and their teen daughters shopping together and it was always the same, mom making the same cutting comments to the daughter to cut her off at the knees when she was becoming a woman and starting to get more attention from dad. Young boys whose way of rebelling against mom was to get drunk and make mysogynist jokes with the boys, rape a few girls before they get out of University, never really learn to relate to others without trying to find the angles to "get one up on" them. I knew, even then, that it was a bunch of shit, more appropriate for the toilet stall walls than a series of cultural norms.

Punk wasn't immune to all of that. Hell, the left was pretty sexist all through the 1960s and 1970s. Have you ever read Black Panthers talking about "their" women? They sound like the Taliban- no kidding. Riot Grrrl was long overdue by the 1990s.

What a weird time it was too... See, Communism was this long nightmare that we forgot about once we woke up. I can't fully explain to Canadians what it was like to grow up knowing that you were going to be nuked, that it was only a matter of time. Any day now. Red Dawn, Iron Eagle, Top Gun, Rambo, the Day After... Even Silver Spoons did an episode about nuclear anihilation. Here's an idea for the novelists out there- a book about a bunch of little boys who were expecting nuclear war to come and allow them to play war forever. That was the 1980s.

Then, it was gone. Overnight. Could it have been such a threat, such a dialectical other to position our lives and minds against? I grew up hating communism, and that never really changed. No matter what the conservatives may say, a lot of us on the left hated communism. Then, it was gone. And everyone in the country was conservative, and angry about everything that had been stolen from them by liberalism. And we were at war again. And Oliver North was a hero instead of a psychopathic felon. It was worse than the 1980s, and even more frustrating because after so many years of hearing "OH MY GOD! THE SOVIETS ARE GOING TO KILL US! THE SKY IS FALLING!!" nothing changed. Conservatives just went on the warpath against abortion doctors, queers, and "liberals" which meant anyone to the left of Pat Buchanan. Those were the "good old days"? Well, I'm glad they're over.

So, why "Riot grrrl"? According to online sources:

The term "riot grrrl" came from two sources. Tobi Vail had already been writing about "angry grrrls" in Jigsaw, her zine. The word "riot" came from a letter that was written to Allison Wolfe by Jen Smith, who had also played briefly in Bratmobile. She was discussing the recent Mount Pleasant riots in Washington, D.C. following a racial shooting incident. Jen wrote, "We need to start a girl riot." Eventually the words were flipped around to "riot grrrl.

Riot grrrl was a breath of fresh air because it suggested that people could change their lives by getting together and creating art. It was the logical next step for a musical genre in which as many fans got into the scene because of Patti Smith as the Clash. And what was really unique was that it wasn't carved into stone in any way. Hardline old-school feminists would get as ticked off to see young feminists in fishnets as conservative talk-show hosts would to see young feminists at all. It was something challenging to just about every established way of thinking of the time. Sex-positive feminism? Huh? Punk rock progressive change? What? It's no wonder the media killed Riot Grrrl in just the same way they kill everything- by translating it into "stupid" so the folks at home will get it.

A few people I remember- Everyone asks about Kathleen Hanna, which is a bit like star-worship. But, if Riot Grrrl ever needed a voicce, they got one in her. How many people in punk rock can sing like that? If you ever saw Bikini Kill live, it was like she was a small, white Aretha Franklin. I was watching a video from the 1992 Supreme Court show a few months ago, and there's one part in there... she's performing the song "Girl Soldiers" and it's just her and a snare drum, and she's singing "After all only women were dying" over and over and over, and it just gives you chills. Aside from that, I remember her as a short pissed off woman at a lot of the shows. Also, every girl I know in DC seems to have gotten a ride home from her at one time or another. She is notoriously big-hearted.

Mary and Erika- or as they called themselves in zines, "Marika" were the bravest people I knew in DC. Actually, I guess I should note here that I was a shy kid, so I never really knew them personally, but they were both really inspiring to me. I remember turning on the news and seeing Erika getting arrested at a demonstration outside of a roller skating rink that wouldn't let girls skate together during the couples' skate. Not only did she go to jail, she also harassed the cops the whole way there about their sexual issues. They were both pretty uncompromising- that can be inspiring, but it can also burn you out. Erika had conflicts with plenty of people I knew. But, they were also two of the only people I knew who were trying to keep punk politics from becoming a cushy armchair to relax in.

There were a dozen other girls that shaped my perspective from that time on, but this is getting long and there are already things I know are inaccurate. That was always the curse of Riot Grrrl- everybody got them wrong. Punk boys wanted to imagine that they were castrating bitches out to weaken "the scene". Then the media caught on- I imagine that there were a lot of feminist journalists out there who meant well, but every article that came out had this shitty patronizing tone that went something like: "These girls don't want to behave, boys! So there!" "Grrrl" became a synonym for "fiesty", which as with everything that young women do, contains a hint of "dumb" in the appellation. Nirvana got big. Hole got big. Suddenly, everyone was getting offers to "sign" to major labels. And everybody I knew was paranoid that their friends would actually do it.

Riot Grrrl is an illustration of what they were afraid would happen. Because you had these really complex, challenging and intellectual, but still fun records, writings and artwork coming out from these young women, and the media apparently studied all of that and still came up with shit like, "Girl Power!" and "Lock up your daughters!" (Newsweak). The Washington Post incorrectly claimed that Hanna had told them her father raped her, causing god knows how much pain for her family. The Evening Standard wrote, charmingly, "Their ideas may be babyish. But at least they have some." That pretty much sums up every article I read. All were written in that ironic contempt towards anyone outside of the press club that passes for "journalism" in this country. These were supposedly brats- little crying gurls. But, that wasn't the people I knew, the people who challenged me to question how I thought about half of the population, and myself. Would I have the sort of marriage that I do if I only modelled it on the way my parents were? Not a chance.

By the time I moved into the PF house, Riot Grrrl was on media blackout. I was supposed to tell any media representative who called to fuck off. So, I got to tell MTV, Sally Jessie Raphael and Mademoiselle to fuck off- sort of a dream come true really. And then, riot grrrl was gone. Most of the "big names" stayed in music. Most of the activists stayed in activism. There are Ladyfests all over the country each year. I've seen a few people since then- none of them can believe it's been 13 years either.

Meanwhile, buying a lot of shit and sleeping with strangers is now held up as the cultural ideal of freedom for women. Girls are expected to cut out everything from their minds and bodies that wouldn't work in a porn flick. Even Bust Magazine, founded in and of that era, avoids ever using the word "feminism" in case it might upset consumers. Just about every woman I know has been raped at some point. I got sick of the excesses of the movement- I knew Dworkinite college girls who actually believed that all Art encourages rape- but, at least, it wasn't this tepid resistance towards adult thought that seems to be the norm today. At least it had ideas, and no, those of us who were paying attention picked up pretty quickly that they weren't babyish ideas. Of course, any thought that isn't babyish is ignored or misquoted.

But, I remember:

BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock 'you can do anything' idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.
("Riot Grrrl is" 1991)


daisy said...

Thanks for this. I'm going to put on Bikini Kill right now.

Rufus said...

I was actually just thinking to myself: "You know who would probably find this interesting? Daisy." Glad to be of service!

billierain said...


i just stumbled on this entry... this is erika from riot grrrl. i go by billie now though. i'm wondering if you went by rufus way back when? well either way, i'm glad to read your perspective on riot grrrl. that's really funny about the roller skating rink! hehe.

take care.

love billie

Anonymous said...

I know it's stupid to leave a comment on such an old post but this was amazing. Thanks for this great entry. I'm 17 and learned about riot grrrl some months ago. And, yes, I'm young but I'm not babyish and, growing up in an often sexist country, I just feel really good knowing that there was a movement like that and that people still remember it... So, thanks