Riot Acts: Punk Girl Groups Are Putting the Self Back in Self-Esteem
Posted by grrrlriot on April 2, 2008
This is an OLD article from the New York Times about the riot grrrl movement.
Japenga, Ann. The New York Times
15 November 1992: Section 2, Page 30.
Punk’s Girl Groups Are Putting the Self Back in Self-Esteem
The singer Kathleen Hanna sashayed onto the stage to distribute lyric sheets before a recent Seattle appearance of her band, Bikini Kill. The men in the crowd surged forward, extending their arms to receive the word from this new punk Madonna, with her flailing magenta ponytail and seductive stage manner. But she slapped the men back. “Girls only,” she scolded, putting copies of the lyrics in each upraised female hand. Ms. Hanna’s action set the tone for the performance: the band was delivering its wisdom to women, and men had better behave themselves if they wanted to hang around.
Bikini Kill is part of a growing cadre of so-called girl bands that are claiming a place in punk rock. And the rise of groups like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Mecca Normal and Bikini Kill has inspired a larger movement of feminists in their teens and early 20′s who call themselves Riot Grrrls. That’s girl with an angry “grrrrowl.”
Riot Grrrls is a grass-roots movement that began in the summer of 1991 around Olympia, the sedate state capital 65 miles south of Seattle, in the same thriving music environment that has spawned other Northwest bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney. The term Riot Grrrls was coined by a small group of female musicians in an attempt to define a more confident, less passive attitude about being a young woman. And though no one knows how widespread the scene has become, concerts here at college auditoriums, church halls and even art galleries are packed with Riot Grrrls, and pockets of sympathizers have sprung up around the country.
To call herself a Riot Grrrl, a woman need only rally to the slogan “Revolution Girl Style Now” and appreciate bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, whose aggressive, unpolished sound has much in common with the early punk rockers Patti Smith, the Raincoats and Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex.
Indeed, the movement is above all a triumph of punk, a genre not normally noted for its enlightened attitude toward women. Riot Grrrls say they owe their existence to punk’s do-it-yourself ethic: if you have something to say, pick up a guitar, write a song and say it. “There’s no way any of this could have happened if it wasn’t for punk rock,” says Molly Neuman, Bratmobile’s 21-year-old drummer.
The Riot Grrrl credo is that young women should take care of one another. “This world doesn’t teach us how to be truly cool to each other, and so we have to teach each other,” says a Bikini Kill manifesto circulated in one of the movement’s scores of small newsletters. Riot Grrrls literature and lyrics speak out against the competition and jealousy that they feel society encourages among young women; the Riot Grrrls want to replace those attitudes with loyalty and support.
One of the central tenets is that talking about personal abuses and travails can make women stronger. Accordingly, Riot Grrrl bands address firsthand experiences of rape, incest, insecurity and the struggle of young women to define themselves within a patriarchy. “Don’t need you to tell me I’m cool/ Don’t need you to tell me I’m pretty,” Ms. Hanna shouts in a tune called “Male Approval, NOT.”
Riot Grrrls have a distinct look, combining traditional fashions like round-collared, cinched-waist dresses and incandescent red lipstick with harder touches: heavy black high-top boots and hacked-off punk hair. Also popular is a deliberately nerdy or dowdy appearance, a challenge to the cultural expectation that women should strive to be pretty. Some Riot Grrrls use felt pens to draw block letters on their arms and stomachs spelling out the words “rape,” “incest” and “shame,” another means of focusing discussion on painful personal issues.
Older feminists are heartened by the movement and see the Riot Grrrls as their descendants. “These are the individualistic daughters of the Reagan-Bush years,” says Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who works with teen-age girls. “It’s very hard for this generation of young women to imagine organizing. In their lifetimes, they haven’t seen collective struggle that has been successful.”
In fact, Riot Grrrl bands, nearly all white and middle class, seem more interested in networking with like-minded women than in courting mainstream recognition. Ms. Neuman wants to get the word out, but many young women who follow the scene will not talk to reporters. One explained her refusal by saying that the movement “is just something that’s been really important to me, and I’m afraid of it being exploited.”
It may be no surprise that these young feminists are trying to maintain a low profile. Society has traditionally been intolerant of young women who do not conform, suggests Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author with Carol Gilligan of “Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development.” “To be openly resistant is to invite trouble. These are the girls who get sent to therapy or get kicked out of school.”
Ms. Brown is one of several researchers whose studies show that girls suffer a plunge in self-esteem as they approach adulthood, with its still-rigid cultural expectations of femininity. By rewriting the word girl, Riot Grrrls are a rare example of young women banding together to reverse that trend.
From its inception in Olympia, the Riot Grrrl phenomenon has spread to cities like Toronto, Washington, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio — as young women with little or no musical training formed what some of them call “angry girl bands.”
Bratmobile and Bikini Kill were among the first Riot Grrrl bands. Ms. Neuman was studying women’s issues at the University of Oregon in Eugene when she and Allison Wolfe, started Bratmobile and the newsletter Girl Germs. (“Spread as many girls germs as you can,” one issue admonished.) About the same time, Ms. Hanna and Tobi Vail were putting together Bikini Kill, in Olympia.
Adhering to punk’s do-it-yourself ethic, they started recording cassettes in home studios or releasing 45′s on small labels. The band members also began corresponding with other groups in Oregon and Washington, and out of that the Riot Grrrls movement grew.
“We were all talking about similar things,” recalls Ms. Neuman. “We were frustrated with the world and with sexism, and even with the sexism we saw in alternative culture. It was an exciting time for me, feeling like I wasn’t crazy and there were people who felt the same things I did.”
Calvin Johnson, whose Olympia-based K Records has recorded Bratmobile and Mecca Normal, is amazed at how Riot Grrrls have caught on. “There’s been a spontaneous explosion of interest that I compare to punk rock in the 70′s, when people in Toronto and Paris and Olympia and Tucson were all saying at the same time: ‘Oh, yes, this is what I was looking for.’ “
In Ms. Neuman’s bedroom is a cardboard box full of letters from young women who have responded to Girl Germs. One girl wrote from “an elitist school dominated by the American dream” to say that finding others like her was “my only hope to survive this living hell.” Her letter closed: “Send me your lives.”
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