If you think the Spice Girls invented “girl power”, you probably have never heard of Riot Grrrl. And if you consider yourself a feminist, you need to know their story.
Riot Grrrl is a movement that originated around the punk and alternative rock subculture in the early ‘90s in North America and spread to over 20 countries. Some scholars claim that third-wave feminism actually developed thanks to Riot Grrrl.
The women who evolved in this subculture were angry and frustrated. They wanted to be included, better represented, and more connected to one another. Riot Grrrl really need no introduction but their manifesto, published in 1991:
“we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy… Because we need to talk to each other. Communication and inclusion are key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… Because in every form of media we see ourselves slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. 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 our day to day bullshit.”
WHO WERE THESE RIOT GRRRL?
The RG subculture arose out of the punk movement. They were mostly college-based young women who strongly disagreed with the misogynistic and violent undertones that punk was taking, so they created their own movement to voice their ideas and advocate their rights. Sick and tired of being defined in relation to men, they wanted the recognition that was owed to them.
It is with this desire for social, cultural, and political revolution that Riot Grrrl articulated their subculture. Their means of expression was music, as well as do-it-yourself zines, the rightful heirs of the feminist tradition of self-publication, the only way for their ideas to safely circulate in the male-dominated space of press without any fear of censorship. From old pamphlets, they learned about feminism, and through zines they perpetrated their resistance. There, they could openly discuss topics that were considered taboos by the dominant culture, such as sexuality, abuse, drugs, abortion, body image and more.
“We wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work,” they continue in the manifesto, seeking a chance at visibility and recognition. “We must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings,” and “create an alternative to the bullshit christian capitalist way” and (louder, for those in the back) “we hate capitalism,” because it has done nothing but commodify and objectify them since they can remember. They empower one another, “encourage and be encouraged in the face of all our insecurities,” and aim at “making an impact that DISRUPTS the status quo … create non hierarchical ways of being.” They predict “the coming angry grrrl rock revolution … that can and will change the world for real.”
Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? So why is it that the movement dissolved?
Riot Grrrl were invoking a revolution through their own peaceful means. They were uniting women across the globe under the cry of sisterhood and gender equality. But the dominant ideology fears what is divergent, and always tries to control and annihilate it through a process of recuperation.
As with most alternative subculture, Riot Grrrl too was subverted and co-opted: mainstream culture appropriated and incorporated the less revolutionary aspects of the subculture, keeping the style but disregarding key ideals. The symbols of Riot Grrrl were commodified and turned into mass-produced objects.
The dominant ideology countered the Riot Grrrl revolution with the creation of media texts – films, tv shows, comics, music – that kept the bleak, meaningless slogan of “girl power” that only sought to empower women in words, but didn’t actually denounce the systemic oppression that was in place. Hence you have the family-friendly and socially acceptable “feminist” phenomenon of the Spice Girls, Sex & The City, and Bridget Jones.
SO WHAT’S UP WITH THE RIOT GRRRL ERASURE?
I myself only found out about the Riot Grrrl movement in a Media textbook in my senior year of college, and was appalled to never have heard of them before, and I was not new to Media and Gender Studies. I was surprised they’re not more talked about. They’re not an obscure group from a time gone by, their revolution happened 25 years ago and the pioneers of this movement that paved the way for modern feminism are still alive and kicking. (Bikini Kill, the most famous Riot Grrrl band, even just reunited in 2019!)
So why isn’t Riot Grrrl as popular nowadays as it should be? History – the media – decided to silence the movement so that they could continue perpetrating their patriarchal norms, which Riot Grrrl was fighting so hard against.
Like all forms of cultural resistance, the women in Riot Grrrl wanted to create a free space for their voices to be heard. But no matter how universal the hegemony might be, there will always be counter-hegemonic groups and movements making “noise” cracking the harmonious sound of ideology for a little while before the dominant culture intervenes to erase them.
It is our job to pass on their ideas and make sure they continue on.