Riot Grrrl and Beyond: The Power of Feminist Youth-Based Creativity
Bikini Kill’s reunion and return to live environments reminds us that, whether a teenager or somebody who’s already come of age, there’s an enduring charm to DIY communities.
Music, art, literature, publishing: These are all things that go hand-in-hand, intersecting with each other due to their purpose of being a creative outlet. When all a part of a specific subject matter, formulating a cultural movement in the process, the impact can be special. It’s special at the time for those involved, who feel a part of a community and liberated in their vocalizing of thoughts, and it’s special for those who discover it at a later time, feeding off its legacy and the artifacts that have remained.
The Riot Grrrl movement, a wave of underground feminist punk beginning in the early 1990s is an example of this. Initially a revolt against the male-dominated punk scene and general sexism experienced in everyday life, bands such as Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear took the things that fuelled their anger and turned them into energized, loud, and self-identifying songs. Lyrics included things like “Innocent little girls turn you on don’t they? You like to make them cry/ You like to tell them why/ you like to grow them up/ Swallow hard and throw them up” (“Love Thing”, Bratmobile) and “Don’t need you need to tell us we’re good/ Don’t need you to say we suck/ Don’t need your protection/ Don’t need your dick to fuck” (Bikini Kill, “Don’t Need You”) while a manifesto printed in 1991 in Bikini Kill Zine 2 exclaimed “Riot Grrrl is… BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society” and “BECAUSE every time we pick up a pen, or an instrument, or get anything done, we are creating the revolution. We ARE the revolution.”
A charm of Riot Grrrl, and subsequent internet-based media is that when it originated it captured a period in life that’s short-lived and significant: adolescence. Discovering teen-based creativity when no longer a teenager can induce a tinge of regret and sadness, like, why didn’t I know about this before? This feels particularly true when reading indirect snippets of the zines, produced by girls in their bedrooms and distributed via post and gigs. It’s like peeking into someone’s diary — or rather, an anthology of diaries by likeminded people — or like eavesdropping on a personal conversation. Riot grrrls sought to be aggressively outspoken and disrupt societal norms, but it’s as though instead of enforcing any direct change they were creating a tight sense of community where young women could feel enlightened by the real-life issues affecting them and refreshingly respected and listened to. Like any subculture, there was a set of codes that enabled inclusion and, for riot grrrls, these were femininity, punk, and creativity.
There’s the iconography: Doodled love hearts and stars in the pages of zines and derogatory words like “slut” and “whore” self-assertively scrawled on the skin in marker. Outfits preserved in photographs include underwear, t-shirts with Little Mermaid and cats on, and babydoll dresses, while the notion of “girl power!” was celebrated before the commercialization with pop culture and The Spice Girls. It’s both cute and aggressive, innocent and disruptive. Riot grrrls created an aesthetic that remains influential in reaching contemporary audiences.
But music, unlike photography and illustration which are fixed to visuals, has the ability to transcend an aesthetic. The combination of lyrics and sound evoke different things to different people, the message perhaps similar but the imagery attached to it being personal on behalf of the listener. “I’m Miss World / Watch me break and watch me burn / No one is listening, my friends” whines Courtney Love with gritty realism in Hole’s “Miss World.” The 1994 album it’s featured on, Live Through This, is an angsty depiction of femininity and victimization in media-laden society.
Girlhood and femininity were fertile ground for Riot grrrls. The underground space in which their materials circulated — zines were distributed via post and in person, records and shows were challenging to come across unless you were a part of the community — was like a metaphoric bedroom. It can be seen as an extension, or reaction, to the theory of bedroom culture proposed by Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber in the 1970s. This idea stemmed from their 1977 essay “Girls and Subcultures,” which highlighted how girls had been ignored/misrepresented in prior research on youth culture and that, while girls were less prominent in street-oriented activities, they still occupied their own distinctive culture through consumption of pop culture media in their bedrooms. Zines, for example, contained romance (sexual encounters,sometimes with other females), beauty (body image), personal life (abuse, rape), and (punk) music, while gigs strived to become female-friendly environments through incentives such as bringing girls to the front of the crowd (“All girls to the front! I’m not kidding. All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back… back”, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna famously declared during a set).
This Riot Grrrl movement was alive before social media and everyday uses of the internet, therefore it could aim to distance itself from the mainstream. When the press caught onto the scene, either negatively(“Thurston Hearts The Who” by Bikini Kill was recorded live with a disparaging review of one of their shows read out over the song as a kind of two fingers up to the critics) or as zeitgeist, its prevalence began to fade. Founding members started to disassociate themselves or move on to other projects; people grew up and left it to remain as a cherished former identity.
In a way though, ‘Riot Grrrl’ was just a tag. Its real essence — The DIY mentality, the feminism, the angry, empowered creations from teenagers and those in their early 20s — has continued, evolving with the times. In her book Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century, author Anita Harris highlights how public and private spaces become blurred when it comes to youth activism in a cyber landscape: “Many young women are electing to work through new networks and new media, forming marginal, creative, and visual spaces to express themselves and to engage with one another,” she argues, adding that there’s broader work involved because “it moves between public and private, building collective secret knowledge and then using this carefully to create manifest activism.”
One example of this is Rookie magazine, founded by Tavi Gevinson in 2011, and its surrounding online culture. Its DIY values and emphasis on teen girl empowerment were akin to that of Riot Grrrl (albeit less angry), as was the aesthetic of stereotypically girly iconography. Rookie, having shut down in November 2018, is now also a subject of the past. Its content thus becomes a source of nostalgic inspiration; its legacy is one that lives on.
While the original Riot Grrrl movement is still considered underground, it’s become a more documented topic: books such as The Riot Grrrl Collection (2013) and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World: Writings From The Girl Zine Revolution (1997) have reprinted pages of zines, and NYU’s Riot Grrrl collection offers a vast archive of personally sourced material. The scrutiny has highlighted the flaws in the original movement (notably the overall whiteness) but also preserved the iconography of authentic, youth-oriented, feminist creativity. As independent publishing in recent years has emphasized, accessibility can be a powerful tool.
Bikini Kill announced a reunion tour in January 2019, and are currently playing shows. It comes at a time, with 90s nostalgia abuzz and general creativity being stimulated by the past when authenticity could be questioned. Female empowerment is a mainstream topic, often bordering too much on the commercial. But it feels right that Bikini Kill has returned to remind people of the power their songs had in giving individuals a voice. Whether you are listening to recorded songs, live music, sharing writing, producing art, or connecting with people via social media, maybe it doesn’t matter whether you’re an inspired teen or an established adult: the values of self-expression posed by the Riot Grrrl movement are alive and thriving.