Saleen Cabrera, Section Editor
Punk music has traditionally been an art form that speaks out against oppression by the marginalized. However, as it grew in influence, punk rock became harmful itself. One of the groups that the movement was most toxic towards was women, who were assaulted during shows and were not taken seriously as artists. So, in the early 1990s, a group of women came up with a vision that would change punk rock and musical history forever, Riot Grrl.
When the women’s movement began in the 1990s, due to the frustrations with the punk scene, it didn’t actually start as music. Zines, a self-published fan-created magazine, were heavily circulated in the punk scene. Some set the stage for the sexism that dominated punk rock. In 1976, the London punk zine “Sniffing Glue” wrote, “Punks are not girls.” It was perhaps fitting that women like Tobi Vail, started to use zines to respond to the misogynist ideas. In “Jigsaw,” her own independent publishing, she wrote, “I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys.” Vail wasn’t the only woman that felt like this about the punk scene. Kathleen Hanna shared similar feelings when she and Vail formed their own zine called, “Bikini Kill.” Around the same time, two women named Alison Wolfe and Molly Neuman collaborated on “Girl Germs,” a feminist zine.
These self-published magazines brought these women together and decided that if they really wanted to get a message across to the punk community, the best way to do it was through music. In October 1990, Vail and Hanna teamed up with Billy Karren and Kathy Wilcox to form Bikini Kill, named after their zine. Then, in February 1991, Erin Smith joined Wolfe and Neuman, and together they became Bratmobile. These bands were truly the driving force behind Riot Grrl. You can hear this drive and determination in their music. Just listen to “Rebel Girl,” arguably Bikini Kill’s most famous song and one that became an anthem for the movement.
In the second issue of Bikini Kill, the band set out a manifesto for their movement and gave it its name. Riot Grrrl was officially born. The name came from Jen Smith, who used the words “girl riot” in a letter to Allison Wolfe when she talked about the Mount Pleasant race riots. She was saying that women needed to have a similar riot. The “Grrl” part of the title came from the fact that these women remembered feeling most empowered as children, as girls before they were forced into unwanted roles by society.
It’s important to note the aesthetic of Riot Grrl too. They were proud to be feminine. Riot Grrl bands wore their hair in ponytails and performed in makeup and dresses. Kathleen Hanna even sang in a valley girl accent frequently. The Riot Grrl manifesto laid out some of the key aspects of their movement. They aimed to give women a voice. Some Riot Grrl artists were not worried about a particular message in their lyrics, but by the fact that they have the ability to scream and not be the perfect embodiment of a female that society pushes them to be. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon recognizes screaming as an outlet, “Screaming is a kind of vehicle for expressing yourself in ways society doesn’t let you.”
Press attention was never really the goal of Riot Grrl. The movement wasn’t concerned with fame or success, but rather with creating real change, and they did just that. The thriving zine community provided resources for queer youth, women who had been sexually abused and those who were struggling with mental illness. It also provided a new space for feminist thought, moving it from an academic setting onto the stage of punk rock. The impact of Riot Grrl still relevant to this day. Riot Grrl was the last strand of true punk culture. It was unapologetically feminine, and it created real change in the music culture.