Riot Grrrl

The 90s feminist punk movement that deserves a resurgence


Jessi Morrison, Writer/Photographer

It’s 1989, and Kathleen Hanna, a college student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington meets Tobi Vail, a member of a punk band and the writer of a punk fanzine (fan-made magazine) titled Jigsaw. Hanna, a young feminist, who had been inspired to perform spoken word that addressed taboo topics such as sexual assault and sexism, teamed up with Vail to create a new fanzine, Bikini Kill. Bikini Kill would also include Hanna and Vail’s take on sexual assault, feminism, and the place of women in punk. At the time, punk and feminism were two topics that did not often meet each other. For many people, punk, a hard-rock genre that began in the late 70s, was seen as a music and fashion movement for men, by men. For Hanna and Vail, fans of punk music themselves, it was heartbreaking to not only experience an exceptional amount of sexism and violence in the world but also in the punk community. This was a view shared by many other young women in the rising Washington punk scene at the time, including Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman. Wolfe and Neuman were also fellow fanzine writers, contributing to Girl Germs. Wanting to get more exposure for their work, both pairs of girls would soon start their own bands. Hanna and Vail would start Bikini Kill in 1990, and Wolfe and Neuman would start Bratmobile in 1991.
For about a decade, punk had been quietly existing underground in small basement venues since the “death of punk” in 1980. Many bands, from the second generation in the late 70s, either split off into other genres such as new wave or continued evolving their sound into hardcore, which would dominate the 80s punk scene. But in the late 80s, a particular sound was beginning to brew in the pacific northwest, particularly Seattle and Olympia. The sound that would come out of Washington, grunge, was somewhat of a combination of punk and alternative college rock. The main contributor to the scene was infamously Nirvana. Because of their number one hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, punk began the third wave and was pushed into the mainstream for the first time. On the other hand, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, formed just in time, and would unknowingly become the founders of a similar but separate movement in Washington called Riot Grrrl.
Riot Grrrl, a term coined by Neuman, Wolfe, Vail, and Hanna would become the title of their new zine. Riot Grrrl was a word to describe young activists who wanted change for not just women but the treatment of people of color and members of the LGBT+ community. Riot Grrrl was about taking back femininity, giving a platform for women to hear each other and actively participating.
With the creation of Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, both bands began playing shows around Olympia. Bikini Kill channeled Hanna’s feelings about sexual assault, human rights and sexism into fast, loud, rough punk songs, destined to pull a crowd. Bratmobile addressed the same topics with added satire, making fun of beauty standards and expectations for women. As the grunge movement rose, so did the attention towards the two bands and other female-led punk bands in the area such as Huggy Bear and L7. As Hanna’s songs catered towards young women, she began asking the girls to come to the front of the crowd during her shows. “Girls to the front”, became a term used by many bands and still remains relevant today. A lot of women involved with the scene would hand out flyers and zines advertising meetings and clubs where they could talk with each other about their experiences with assault and sexism.
With the release of Nirvana’s album, “Nevermind” in 1991, resulting in the extreme success of the band, (who happened to be close friends with the members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile), helped boost the Riot Grrrl sub-genre to new heights, greater than Bikini Kill and Bratmobile members could’ve ever imagined. Dozens of bands and fanzines popped up all around America, following in the footsteps of the Riot Grrrl founders, spreading radical ideas about rape culture and misogyny. Many people expressed their disgust with Riot Grrrl, and the news tried to turn it into controversy, but Kathleen stood grounded; she was determined to make a change.
The Riot Grrrl movement not only altered the face of punk forever but as well as music in general. Because of the bravery many bands demonstrated, female empowerment is often still talked about today in music and widely accepted. Riot Grrrl helped spark a new wave of feminism and gave women a safe space to express themselves, but the lasting impact of Riot Grrrl brings us to the state of feminism today.
Now, in the age of technology and the internet, many bands and feminist creators have even more opportunities to express their ideas, but the internet is an ugly place. A negative stigma has surrounded the term feminism, and it’s backed by false information. Many people on the internet have begun describing it as an “anti-men” movement, making fun of female activists by titling them as “social justice warriors”. With the vast field of hatred blooming towards feminists, it’s time for another positive spark一and bringing back riot grrrl would be a sufficient way to re-enforce the true meaning of feminism. Riot Grrrl was about bringing together all types of women with music, which is why it would be a perfect introduction to the fourth wave of feminism.

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