I was brought up in a house headed by a matriarch. I learned to be a feminist before I could tie my shoes. I have been surrounded by smart, kind, strong women my entire life. This served me to be confident in myself as a young woman; I am assertive in my conversations, I defend myself, I believe in myself. I am a feminist.
And yet, I walk to class every morning bumping along to Kanye West. I watched the Dave Chappelle special (which was uniquely offensive, even for him). Kanye West is not the only rapper who says “bitch” too regularly. A lot of rap culture belittles women. Dave Chappelle is not the first comedian to joke about rape or undermine transwomen. I used to cringe a little when songs would so explicitly objectify women, but I’ve begun to notice that I don’t flinch at all anymore. I’ve just accepted that this is what men sing about.
And so the debate ensues: Do I belong in a club that practices intersectional feminism if I leave listening to Kanye West? What about R. Kelly? Or Chris Brown? Or Tupac? Can we separate the art from the artist? It gets complicated. Maybe there’s a moral boundary that distinguishes listening to the artist that says “bitch” too much from listening to rapists. But what if your favorite artist gets accused of rape?
By listening to that music, by watching that special, we’re directly supporting people who don’t believe in women. And the conclusion seems obvious: stop giving money to people who are abusing women, belittling women, raping women.
But sometimes the music is good. And sometimes it’s really unique. If we found no separation between art and artist then the allegations against Michael Jackson would have made it nearly impossible to listen to “Who’s Lovin’ You.” So much of our musical canon is composed of problematic individuals. If we ruled out every rap song that objectified women, we would have substantially smaller playlists. But by continuing to listen to artists who have been exposed as sexual assault offenders or even just artists whose songs disempower women, we are perpetuating a culture that not only excuses these demeanors but almost encourages them. Not to mention that streaming the music of an abuser is directly profiting them.
Kanye West is a misogynist. And a musical genius. I am a feminist, but his songs are pretty good. What do I do?
Riot Grrrl is on the tongues of many young feminists today. Many of us are familiar with it but are not in touch with its origin. Academic feminism, the kind of feminism that develops on and inhabits college campuses in the Western world, is far removed from the punk scene and “do it yourself” culture embodied by Riot Grrrl. I myself am positioned on an Ivy League campus in the Northeast of the United States. If you saw me on the street, or traversing the Arts Quad, you would never peg me for a punk. But Riot Grrrl spoke to me in a language that was shockingly comprehensive for someone so focused on feminist academia and theory.
So what is Riot Grrl?
Riot Grrrl is a social movement. It has been defined in a myriad of ways, but at its most basic, Riot Grrrl arose as a subset of punk in the Pacific Northwest in the early 90s. The pioneering bands, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, Heavens to Betsy, Le Tigre, and others were “girl bands” in today’s terms. They were musical groups composed of punks who were women or women who were punks. They were sick of the toxic culture in punk that excluded women and failed to legitimize their music. So they started a riot.
What’s so amazing about Riot Grrrl is that it never really materialized into something specific, but at the same time, it became this feminist movement, this unifying term that anyone could invoke. Riot Grrrl wasn’t defined by music, by its iconic zines, by certain leaders, or by bands, symbols, or brands. Instead, it existed broadly as a cultural phenomenon. This flexibility and intangibility is in large part what allows Riot Grrrl to live on today in the minds of young feminists who didn’t live through “Rebel Girl” as a hit or watch Carrie Brownstein get up on stage looking like a real punk. Most of us just know her from “Portlandia.”
So how can we learn from Riot Grrrl and 90s women in punk? I guess, for many, the question might even be why should we learn from them?
When I first learned about DIY punk culture and Riot Grrrl, I couldn’t believe they had been excluded from my definitions of feminism. There is so much that modern feminists, especially those of us still developing our ideologies and definitions, can learn from young “Grrrls” who existed within this exclusive punk culture in which they managed to carve out space for themselves and even extend beyond its original boundaries. Riot Grrrl began in the 1990s when a group of punk rockers came together to start a riot. They formed Grrrl bands, wrote songs, made fanzines, protested, and talked. The Riot Grrrl consciousness was formed. A subculture of feminism and punk was born.
While there are many groups positioned squarely within riot Grrrl culture and there are many, many others that are often viewed as related to the movement. Examples include precursors like Joan Jett, a queer, feminist punk rocker, or modern revivals through collectives like Pussy Riot, which functions less as a cohesive band and more as a feminist political revolution. However, there are a couple of bands that have achieved icon status and early riot Grrrl punks who have become symbols of feminism, queerness, and political resistance.
Sleater-Kinney & Carrie Brownstein
Sleater-Kinney is a Riot Grrrl group formed by Carrie Brownstein and Corrie Tucker in Olympia, Washington in 1994. Both women had been parts of other iconic Riot Grrrl bands, Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy, respectively. When their time in these bands came to an end, they formed Sleater-Kinney. While the band never officially asserted itself as a “part of the movement,” it is strongly associated with the vague defining features of Riot Grrrl: feminist punk, women-led bands, the Pacific Northwest, queerness, and DIY culture (including zines).
While the composition of the band has changed since ‘94 as members have left to form their own projects, Sleater-Kinney is an important part of the Riot Grrrl legacy because, unlike most of the big names, they continue touring to this day. In this way, Riot Grrrl as a period in music exists in the modern context. Brownstein, who has made a name for herself beyond music, continues to push the boundaries of femininity and gender roles, identifies as a bisexual, cementing Riot Grrrl as movement of rebellion, androgyny, and queerness as well as feminism.
Bikini Kill & Kathleen Hanna
If Sleater-Kinney represents the longevity of the feminist punk music that was defined in the 90s through Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill represents the political aesthetics of the movement. Bikini Kill is arguably the most visible Riot Grrrl band, fronted by Kathleen Hannah (above, left). The band was formed in 1990 in Olympia, Washington by Hanna and bandmates Billy Karren, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox (above, right). Bikini Kill was known for its political lyrics. Hanna continues her career as an activist and artist with her band The Julie Ruin.
While Bikini Kill gained fame through performances and records, they were also instrumental in carving out a very important element of Riot Grrrl culture: fanzines. Fanzines, or as they came to be known, “zines” were defined by scholar Stephen Duncombe in his 1997 text Notes from Underground:Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture as ‘little publications filled with rantings of high weirdness and exploding with chaotic design’ where the producers ‘privilege the ethic of DIY, do-it-yourself: make your own culture and stop consuming that which is made for you’ (Triggs, 2006).
The above image features one such zine associated with Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl culture. These publications were circulated through the punk scene and often provided creative entries (as you can see from the above coloring book), political ideas, and visual art formatted together as a “chaotic” homemade design. “BIKINI KILL ZINE 2” published the most cohesive political ideology put forth in the Riot Grrrl movement in the RIOT GRRRL MANIFESTO, which laid out a commitment to opposing misogyny and building a “girl”-centered culture through Riot Grrrl. They were intentional in their precarity and represented a subculture media produced outside of the mainstream. For Riot Grrrl, this subculture promoted feminism, solidarity among women, and “girl power.”
While this article discusses just a small slice of Riot Grrrl, it is important to consider the legacy of this movement as a whole in the context of modern feminism. Music and counterculture continue to be defined by a rage against misogyny and calling out the inequalities that exist within our societies. While DIY-culture and zines are no longer at the forefront of activism, Riot Grrrl, sometimes referred to as “third-wave feminism,” was essential to redefining the boundaries of feminism ideologies.
Feminism is not for the elite. Learning and listening to Riot Grrrl helped me to see that the theory I read and protests I attend are not distinct moves but two parts of a whole. Feminism encompasses both the academic and the mobilizing realms. I argue that the sphere of activism and counterculture are the foundations for the revolutionary spirit that must guide the development of our intersectional feminism.