Kurt Cobain once said: “The future of rock belongs to women.” Not that any woman ever needed his permission to radically change the rock scene — which is exactly what women of the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl did.
Riot Grrrl originated in the underground music scenes of Washington D.C. and the Pacific Northwest in the early ‘90s. Espousing themes of female empowerment and confronting the Patriarchy in all its nefarious forms — domestic abuse, oppressive gender roles, rape — bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney (among many others) fearlessly carved out a space for women in a predominantly male landscape. The narrative of Riot Grrrl transcends music, though. The women who identified with the movement fostered an entire subculture through DIY zines and meetings.
Unapologetically cantankerous, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna shouted brash lyrics like “just ’cause my world, sweet sister, is so fucking goddamn full of rape — does that mean my body must always be a source of pain?” and painted her body with the word SLUT during performances. At Bikini Kill shows, a “girls to the front” rule—meaning, men in the crowd were asked to move to the back of the room — was implemented to foster a safer environment for women at punk shows, who were frequently subject to violence and sexual assault.
Outside the shows, a burgeoning collective of women met to discuss feminism, racism, sexism and more, and churn out these discourses in DIY zines. Out of one of these zines came the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, with claims to existence like “BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.”
In short, the Riot Grrrl movement was fucking revolutionary—and yet, it only exists as a legacy. The movement exploded onto the underground rock scene of the early ‘90s, and true to explosive form, abated in smoldering ashes after its initial outburst.
Since the coming and going of Riot Grrrl, no musical movement to wholly support female expression and combat oppression has emerged on that scale. Sure, there have been promising displays of Riot Grrrl-esque musical rebellion in musicians like Kate Nash — seen especially in her latest release “Girl Talk” — and the women of Dum Dum Girls. But a few great artists who embody the ethics of Riot Grrrl does not a movement make.
The millennial generation needs something that combines the expressive capabilities inherent in music with the fiercely collective dedication to combatting patriarchal norms, and that something needs to be a visible effort.
That effort might take a different form and name than Riot Grrrl, as it should. The ushering in of the digital age has altered the cultural landscape so fully that Riot Grrrl in its original form can’t be repeated—but musicians can use this to their advantage. There are now countless mediums and outlets for a women’s music movement to play out across. What hasn’t changed is the persistence of the Patriarchy and its pervasiveness in every aspect of a woman’s life. The aims of Riot Grrrl have not been fully realized, and my generation needs to pick up where it left off.
~ Riot Grrrls – Most Important Thing to Happen to Rock n’ Roll ~