Untypical girls, extraordinary women
Today women and girls don’t think twice thinking about starting a band and in many cases, they don’t even feel the need to call out the band member’s gender. Girls in bands are the new normal.
In a recent interview for the independent cultural magazine, THE SKINNY writer Cheri Amour – who worked on the editorial team at the girls are with me for a number of years- discussed this fab new reality with Allison Wolfe musician, journalist, writer and podcaster, a founder member of key riot grrrl band Bratmobile and LaDIYfest (see Part 2).
“A lot of that is to do with the girl rock camps, they’re really bringing up this new generation of musicians who aren’t going to think twice about starting a band.
“It’s weird because it felt like there was an army of these girls across the country. In the early 90s, there were a lot of girl bands but by the late 90s when RG had died off there was a backlash and a lot of bands had broken up it felt like it was back to the boys and that was disappointing That’s why I started Ladyfest and championing the RG idea. OK, we’re working towards this festival. After that date rape culture/bro culture, we created our community, we participated in creating our own culture.” Allison Wolfe (2018)
You need to know
- The Reveal, uncovering and recording, unknown, or forgotten women musicians and artists, proving the bias in the musical canon through writers, editors, publishers. Examples are Gillian G Garr, (date) She’s A Rebel, Lucy O’Brien, Dusty and She-Bop, (dates), Jacqueline Warwicks (date) Girl Groups Girl Culture.
- Giving the artists’ voice, such as Liz Evans (date) Women, Sex and Rock n Roll, In their Own Words, Anne Savage, (date) They’re Playing Our Songs, Women talk about feminist rock music, or Zara Van-Burdens, (date) Women of the Underground: Music, Cultural innovators speak for themselves.
- Academic clout, the introduction of feminist theory applied to music culture, such as Deborah M Withers (date), Kate Bush Theory, Lucy O’Brien (date) Madonna, updated and republished 2019, Marion Leonard (date) Gender in the Music Industry.
New Writing – the part riot grrrl played
This was the key for me about Riot Grrrl – a quantity of new writing for comparison, contrast and reassurance. I had searched out and read all the right books for young alternative women writers, for example How to Suppress Women’s Writing, (Joanna Russ 1983), and Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1965), Underground: The London Alternative press 1966-74 (Nigel Fountain, 1988), but it was riot grrrl that gave me a quantity of women’s writing about music and socio-political culture, akin to my life, and gave me the opportunity for contrast and comparison, in order to go on the adventure I’d been waiting for – to find my own creative identity, my wholeness. And get away with it for the rest of my life.
You should know
Identity politics and body image – the part riot grrrl played
“And now here I was witnessing this strange apparition … a long-haired guitarist in jeans, who as I drew closer I realised was – a woman! Playing power chords! I had never seen a girl play on stage in a band before. … “ Vivien Goldman, (2019), Revenge of the She-Punks.
It’s good to know – white feminism
“What riot grrrl (in the UK) didn’t do particularly well was to reach out to black women. We had some non-white grrrls, but I remember failing to convince a very amazing woman that it was for her – she felt naturally excluded. So what I’m pleased about these days is the more diverse nature of punk rock feminism, the younger generation has taken it and progressed it where we couldn’t.” Jennifer Denitto, (June 2019) former member of UK riot grrrl band, Linus.
Slipping into white feminism, understanding reaction/action as natural, when in fact it’s cultural, learned behaviour; the same thing we point out to men, is a critique of riot grrrl: non-inclusive, patronising, writing on behalf of people’s concerns, not verbatim but in a narrative of the writer’s making, like how we unpicked patriarchy/the hero from the text, assuming likes and dislikes. It was a missed opportunity because riot grrrl was driven to show and support alternatives to the male-dominated rock/indie/punk genre, and there’s no doubt these successful genres are dominated by white men.
Imagine, all those people learning about being human, and some of them failing, because in a sense all the untypical girls had to start from scratch, the rock-poets, punks and riot grrrls. (Me, by circumstance and soul.)
“All these artists had to trash out new ways of living, in a break from their foremothers,” explains Vivien Goldman in relation to the rock-poets and She-punks (2019).
I spent some time comparing Nietzsche’s Will to Power theory with John Lennon, another who started from scratch, and continued to re-assess, challenge, experiment, and change – this is in fact what Madonna has materialised, in every sense. (It was an academic challenge given to me by a mentor.)
Being told you’re a white feminist is hard to take, and in turn, proves the argument: it’s not all about you, but you have to hear it if it’s true. Girl love is not always whoops! and cheers! for everything you do.
The argument that riot grrrls experienced a privileged position, relating to class, as well as colour, endangered the value of the political intent, and was reinforced when the internet arrived. The cost of home computers was at its highest peak, meaning that while it was important and relevant for riot grrrl to embrace this fabulous new tool of communication, it meant that the organisation and voice was the realm of the middle-class women (ones who had access to university computers).
That said, I always felt that riot grrrl feminism wanted very much to be a progression from the first wave (the right to vote), the second wave (equality) when women of colour noted the ways in which mainstream feminism often failed to address their concerns. (Riot grrrl felt so inclusive.) Some of the second wave feminists were seen as totally uncool, even embarrassing, at the time.
For example, Mrs Rockafelller took up karate and gave public presentations with her woman only group, to show feminism at work. In the underground magazine Oz, 1970, Germaine Greer, the well known feminist and writer, dug in deep:
“Militant women owe a great deal to the media that guy them. The average housewife is dulled and confused by her day-to-day diet of pulp-journalism and crap television. She does not catch the nuances of contempt that swill around the images of Abbey Rockefeller splitting a board with her head. Treading her way through clouds of clever-clever verbiage she retains the overwhelming impression that ‘something is happening here’ even if ‘what it is ain’t exactly clear’. Most of her life she has served fashion without demur, and now the media have created the fashion of female liberation. At last the fucking media look as if they are hoist with their own petard.” Germaine Greer (1970) The slagheap erupts, London Oz, issue 26.
In fact, educated riot grrrls had taken the benchmarks of identity politics, a term often credited to Demita Frazier’s, Beverly Smith and Barbara Smith’s, founders of the Combahee River Collective. Many individual riot grrrls have been influenced by some of the great poets, writers, and theorists that CRC made possible: Alice Walker (who coined the term womanist), Audre Lourde, Bell Hooks, Angela Davis. Smith launched a WOC-focused publishing company from literally around a kitchen table, calling it the Kitchen Table (1980).
What now? Feminism is more intersectional; communities of much smaller groups with their own focus and concerns related to gender identification, sexuality, colour, for example. All the strands of alternative feminism come together for a mutual cause, such as anti-abortion, FGM, domestic violence against women, women’s right in countries around the world. This tallies with how the internet and new media public sphere has expanded the cultural and political realms – and informal discussion and debate. It’s not that you need riot grrrl in your life. You need to know the legacy of the she-punks and riot grrrl, so you can build on it, rather than start all over again.
Update: July 2019 [all links accessed June 2019]
It’s been noted by women of colour in the industry, contemporaries and allies, that the subject of white feminism in Riot Grrrl Part 3, above, would benefit from some comments/quotes of actual WOC.
Updating articles, books and lectures and presentations is connected to the current media2 debate and the nature of feminist archives.
The act of adding an update, rather than going back in and applying the edit to a published piece, is also important and shows how feminism, like contemporary culture, is constantly on the move, even while it reflects and analyses. It also shows that the written work is not a godlike authority, but the start of a conversation. Reading and research, even our conversations/professional dialogue are part of applying the learning – and should be recorded, so they can be shared and acknolwedged as archive material and become official primary and secondary resources.
I attached three recommended articles to add to your Need to Know knowledge and understanding of the history and progression of feminism in contemporary music culture, and its relationship to the 90s and Riot Grrrl. The final is an introduction to the meaning of the term white feminism, and how easily people slip into white feminism, overall, not specific to music culture, via an interview with the white author of White Fragility (2018, referenced below), Robin DiAngelo. Each of the three resources have a different agenda and perspective, and the differences are significant.
The first link is a personal account by Laina Dawes (2013), Bitch Magazine, Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl, a thoughtful and honest response to her watching The Punk Singer documentary, referenced in this three part feature, after hearing an inspiring talk by Kathleen Hanna and reflecting on the question: Why wasn’t I a riot grrrl at the time?
“About 10 minutes into the documentary, I knew that I had made a colossal mistake.
Well, actually, as soon as I saw a snippet of 17-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson waxing poetic about an era she was not even alive to witness, I knew that I would not be able to put my personal biases in regards to my age—and more importantly, my ethnicity as a black woman—aside when watching this documentary.
From watching The Punk Singer, I realized why I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn’t for me. It was for white women.”
This link reflects a different perspective about white feminism and its link to Riot Grrrl, in that it reclaims the status of women of colour involved in the movement at the time, and is a detailed and engaging long form piece, by Gabby Bess,(2015) Alternative to Alternatives: The Black Girls Riot Grrrl Ignored.
The final link below is an interview by Sady Doyle (2018)with Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Race (2018), Penguin, Elle magazine, Why are White Women So Terrified of Being Called Racist?
Gone in a puff of smoke.
- Riot grrrl normalised women in bands, you could even be pretty, geeky, smiley, and so on
- Boys called themselves feminists too. Punk boys supported the women but they didn’t call themselves feminists to fans, outsiders and so on, in the same way. They didn’t declare it, or their musical tastes, such as Kurt referencing the Raincoats.
- Riot grrl gave us new music and new writing, more women behind the scenes and as managers, agents, promoters, photographers, and artists.
- Riot grrrl introduced the first rock workshops, schools, and camps for girls. That’s a game changer.
- Riot grrrl gave us LaDIYfest.
- Grrrl love, as a force for passion projects in music, art and theatre is a priceless tool.
- Grrrl love makes everything else easier; self-esteem, confidence, self-love, our mental health.
- Riot grrrl applied feminist theory into their practice: words, music, actions, philosophy (girl love, girls to the front) which effects solutions.
For your reference here’s what Kathleen’s been doing in her own words, since the 90s, The Punk Singer.
More references, please see Part 1 and 2 References for further recommended reading
A Girls Guide to Taking Over the World, Writing from the Girl Zine Revolution, (1997) Karen Green and Tristam Taormino, ed, St Martins Press: New York Cherie Turner, The Riot Girl Movement, The Rosen Publishing Group: New York, p 13, p 29
I Don’t Belong Here: Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo In 13 Albums, (that inspired her new novel Weirdo, The Quietus, July 25th, 2012, https://thequietus.com/articles/09449-cathi-unsworth-favourite-albums?page=5 [accessed May 2019]
Ijeoma Oluo (28 March 2019) Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people, TheGuardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/confronting-racism-is-not-about-the-needs-and-feelings-of-white-people?fbclid=IwAR0U8x3ZI44Dk1VXGu3r042VEHVDffgk3zl98Ll_p2_RQGYuURJuHWM_u8s [accessed June 2019]
Vivien Goldman, Revenge of the She-Punks, A |Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot, University of Texas Press: Austin pp 1 and 3
Lucy O’Brien, (2009), The Guardian, The NME’s First Female Editor, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/jul/31/nme-first-female-editor [accessed June 2019]
Other stuff – as you collect riot grrrl info of your own, please add to the comments.
To read more about women’s writing in the music press, visit Ines Punessen’s online MA dissertation, which includes an interview with myself, Professors Lucy O’Brien and Martin James, former colleagues, among others. In this case study, a male Melody Maker writer admits that they couldn’t have a pregnant music journalist (me, in 1998). Grrrr
https://bikinikillarchive.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/21410-riot-grrrl-cover-show/ [accessed June 2019]
- If you’re in a boy/girl band, and if the venue landlord, promoter, other bands, the record labels, journalists and sound engineers are male, do they talk directly to the boys in the band, before they’ll catch your eye?
- Boys or elders call you darling, or sweetheart, or other when you’ve just met them (in a professional environment.)
- You feel you’re taken seriously in workshops, sessions, or auditions as a musician or performer?
- You’re expected to contribute and collaborate with friends, contemporaries, mentors?
- A feeling that boys have recruited you for their band because you’re a hot girl for a front person, in order to garner press and media attention?
- When playing live, always being aware that there’s a camera or mobile phone, pointing at you from questionable angles?
- Do you know of friends or yourself who’ve experienced violence and or groping at gigs?
- Have you experienced girls in a band, class, scene, on the same billing, not being supportive of other wannabe girls musicians and performers?
- Have you experienced girls being competitive over their position in a band, scene, group of friends?
- Have you experienced other girls in a boy band making you feel invisible with the pack?
- Do you start conversations with other women contemporaries?
- Do you follow through by making contact?
- Do you invite other women contemporaries to collaborate?