In early 1990s Olympia, Washington, the rebellion and riffs of the punk scene were adopted in a boisterous, unabashed display of feminine insurrection – riot grrrl.
The Pacific Northwest was noted for its do-it-yourself culture, which was a breeding ground for self-published magazines, grunge and alternative music, and underground art. In college towns particularly, young women began to form angry, artistic alliances, where they could vocalize their grievances and frustrations with a patriarchal world that seemed to violently reject them.
Not only musicians but also activists, these groups of grrrls held support group meetings, safe spaces to discuss their aspirations and dreams as well as their assaults and traumas. Out of these groups sprung genre-shifting bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, and Excuse 17.
In the realm of twentieth century music itself, women in rock were often disregarded as “groupies,” decorative sex objects for male-dominated scenes to use and discard. In response, riot grrrl bands attempted to reappropriate slurs that had been used in the past to invalidate them, scrawling derogatory terms like “slut” and “whore” across their bodies as they performed. Their lyrics, at once furious and heartfelt, embraced the topics of rape, chauvinism, self-esteem, sexuality, and violence.
Watch: Don’t Need You: Herstory of Riot Grrrl (2012)
At shows, fans and band members distributed homemade magazines, called “zines” where grrrls were called to arms, called to protect and defend themselves and one another through art and activism. At the same times, bands and fans rallied together at reproductive rights benefits and demonstrations and held lively discussions, refusing to be left out of the larger political conversation.
The riot grrrl revolution was not without its critics, however. An offshoot of third-wave feminism, the scene was criticized for its lack of representation and intersectionality, as white women, often from privileged backgrounds, comprised much of the arena, discounting both women of color and trans* women. As the movement grew, these demographics voiced their opinions through zines and bands of their own, combatting the toxic exclusivity that would negate the movement’s purpose entirely.
A Bikini Kill zine distributed at one of the band’s early shows perhaps best puts the mission, mantra, and mechanics of the movement best:
“We girls want to create mediums that speak to us. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy… BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication/inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.”
Lisa, Darms, The Riot Grrrl Collection (2014)
Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010)