Truth time: I have no clue what a riot grrrl is. I like the fact that “girl” is spelt with three r’s, giving it an aura of distinctness and badass-ery, but I do not know the why, who, what, where, or when behind this cool kid spelling. All I know, all that I feel, is that this is the type of phrase that would be rebelliously scrawled across a bathroom mirror in bright red lipstick. This has brought me to an important realization.
When we choose to label ourselves – taking on a singular word or phrase and assimilating it into our being – we do not often take the time to dig deep within the recesses of history, to discover and explore. After viewing Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech at the United Nations, I know many young girls who started seeing “feminist” as a word that was safe, popular enough to protect them from ridicule. Because of this pop culture phenomenon, the history of this word is not always accounted for, which is a shame because it is a colorful, empowering one.
I am guilty of this same logic. I called myself a feminist because its equality-filled definition connected with my own beliefs, but I did not do my research. I participated in lazy self-labeling.
My lack of thorough investigation was completely and utterly apparent to me when I came across “riot grrrl.” I had enough basic knowledge to known that this phrase has to do with feminism, but that was about it. In my lack of understanding, I felt both excited and self-conscious. Excited because I knew this meant that I had a magical feminist journey before me. Self-conscious because I was realizing that I didn’t really knowing the breadth of force behind the feminist label.
When I decided to adventure into the riot grrrl realm, a fellow Lady suggested that I watch The Punk Singer – which is conveniently on Netflix – and the first step of my quest was set in motion. My initial question: “What does a punk singer have to do with riot grrrls?”
The moment I pressed play, I was riveted. The movie was loud, brash, and full of energy. “I’m their worst nightmare come to life. I’m a girl who can’t shut up. There’s not a guy big enough who can handle this mouth.” This was the introductory sentence that hit my eardrums, ringing through my mind as I grasped to understand, as I felt its strength.
“Kathleen’s voice was so strong, and so powerful, and so punk.”
“This was not a girl who was gonna fade into the background.”
“All girls to the front.”
Every one of these statements refer to Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the (mostly) grrrl band Bikini Kill and co-founder of the Riot Grrrl Movement. Kathleen was a new kind of role model for women – she was, and is, sexy, tough, angry, funny. She speaks with a valley grrrl accent. She is an enigma. She is the embodiment of a riot grrrl.
Bikini Kill’s music was real and raw, touching upon topics such as rape and sexism. Typically, at punk rock shows, the boys would fight their way to the front, hurting anyone that got in their way – even women. “There physically was not the space for young women to be safe at these shows. And that was a huge part of what Kathleen did, was to say that’s unacceptable,” stated Corin Tucker of the band Sleater-Kinney.
Kathleen changed this. Bikini Kill changed this. They encouraged women to come up front, to seek safety on the stage if necessary. To rebel against the boy-filled mosh pits that left them with bruises and broken ribs. To become grrrls who riot, who take back their power.
After deciding to make a fanzine – a handmade magazine written about anything you’re a fan of – about feminism and political issues, the riot grrrl manifesto was born. “The idea was that any woman, anywhere, could take that name and use it and create anything she wanted. “We didn’t brand it or copyright it or anything like that. It belonged to everybody,” explained Kathleen.
Bikini Kill, along with fellow grrrl band Bratmobile, decided to change the course of their music/activism by moving to Washington D.C. Around this time, a man had gone on a hunt for women, killing 14 innocent females in the process. Kathleen, her bandmates, her friends, and fellow activists knew that something needed to change. Activist, artist, musician, and zine editor Jen Smith said, “You know what? We need a girl riot.” Bikini Kill’s drummer Tobi Vail had talked about ‘angry girl’ with many r’s for some time. From these two ideas, the Riot Grrrl Movement blossomed.
Riot grrrls were a key part of feminism’s 3rd wave. Riot grrrls encouraged women to go back to their grrrlhood and reclaim it, reliving that part of their lives so that they could purposefully re-direct their life from that point. In doing so, this movement encouraged all women to reconcile the extremes within them. You could be a bisexual with armpit hair, wearing a pink mini-dress and combat boots, and still be a woman. You could be anything you wanted to be and still be a feminist.
At The Punk Singer’s conclusion, Kathleen Hanna talks about her struggle with not only public criticism, but with late-stage Lyme’s Disease, saying that:
She does not care if people don’t believe in what she says, or does, but people should have to stay out of her way.
This, for me, perfectly wraps up what it means to be a riot grrrl. Mission accomplished.