Riot Grrrl was a deeply personal, yet political, punk subgenre and counterculture that emerged in Washington, D.C. in 1991 to protest what many women judged as a patriarchal and shamelessly impudent punk scene. As women at punk shows were driven to the sidelines, mosh pits were aggressively hyper-masculine, which allowed almost exclusively white men to dominate expressions of rage. Riot Grrrl adopted the slogan “girls to the front,” a declaration of space as part of the movement’s call to action, “Revolution Girl Style Now!”
“Revolution Girl Style Now!” not only critiqued sexism in the punk scene but sought to create conversations about systemic issues in mainstream culture. It adopted a do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit for connecting communities of like-minded women and creating unapologetically rowdy music with whatever was available — all consistent with punk culture. Zines, which are compilations of self-printed works, were a popular forum for Riot Grrrls, who shared inspirational rants, personal stories, artwork and more. On a communal level, Riot Grrrl’s zine culture was a means of waging connections through shared experiences. Individually, it was a means of writing and expressing the feminine into being, as seen in zines that purposely leave rants unfiltered, misuse language and keep spelling and grammatical errors untouched.
Recently, I’ve noticed many bands in the Binghamton punk scene emulating the DIY spirit and unpolished sound of Riot Grrrl. Local band Dirtybandaid even performed a Riot Grrrl classic, “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, at a show in October 2021 as the crowd jumped around eagerly. Although pioneer bands of Riot Grrrl, such as Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland, were staples for me growing up, singing along to a classic back in October was more comforting to me than immersing myself in Riot Grrrl culture. I felt the connection to my peers, and this method of inspiration Riot Grrrl’s zine culture fostered not by reading its feminist manifestos but by embracing a classic with nostalgia, as if Riot Grrrl had only been a movement of the past.
While not all music is political, Riot Grrrl was, in true feminist “the-personal-is-political” fashion. “Revolution Girl Style Now!” claimed to be anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and everything in between, as outlined in Bikini Kill’s Riot Grrrl manifesto. Workshops and zines sought to be a manifestation of these progressive claims. However, while Riot Grrrl critiqued injustices outside of the safe space it had created, it fell short of implementing these claims within an individual and communal basis. My inability to resonate with a movement heralded as a safe space was not solely because I believe Riot Grrrl failed to lyrically describe my experiences as an Asian American woman — it is because the performative and DIY nature of Riot Grrrl had claimed a space — in the front — never removed from the structures the movement protested: demarcation based on identity, wealth inequality, appropriation, etc. Thus, I look back at “Revolution Girl Style Now!” as a call to action whose radicality never existed in the first place and can be reworked toward a feminist future.
Many women of color have already spoken up about their lack or loss of interest in Riot Grrrl due to lack of diversity. The lack of representation caused more than just an uneasy feeling — it constituted exclusion documented in years of zines. For example, many seemingly inspirational feminist acts were photographed and circulated, including the infamous photo of Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill writing “SLUT” across her stomach. However, these acts accomplish nothing for those whose sexual agency, or lack thereof, is predetermined by or confined to racialization, and thus cannot be reclaimed in Sharpie markers. While white women feared being violently shoved to the back of shows, women of color were either “in the front” or pushed to the back because of their race, which could “[trump their] gender,” according to an article by Laina Dawes on bitchmedia.org. Considering that sexualization occurs differently for everyone, the start of Riot Grrrl popularized a single narrative of womanhood that antithetically compelled me to abandon reflections about my own identity outside of the Riot Grrrl community.
Riot Grrrls of color certainly existed. In fact, they published their own zines, such as “Bamboo Girl” and “Mamasita,” that highlighted their frustration with Riot Grrrl’s lack of representation and created space for themselves on the outskirts of the movement. Tamar-kali Brown, a hardcore musician, even created Sista Grrrl Riots, a movement by and for Black women. The initiative taken by women of color reveals the difficulty in claiming a Riot Grrrl identity. While Riot Grrrl was dominated by middle-class, well-educated, white girls, the movement relied on word of mouth to stay both active and underground. Word spread from one white girl to another, especially in segregated areas, and attempts to remain low-key devolved into gatekeeping. Even more so, cultural participation in Riot Grrrl embodies a privileged coming-of-age fantasy. This fantasy, or narrative of womanhood, could only be afforded with access to advanced communication (e.g., camcorders and computers), not to mention time and freedom in between adolescence and adulthood to experiment with new identities.
“Revolution Girl Style Now!” was not completely devoid of social awareness, but its radicality is questionable. Popular zines, such as “Girl Germs,” often included imagery of Black children, alluding to anti-Blackness in America or colonization in Africa. Rather than intending to educate, zinesters compared such oppressions to that of American women. Not only did this allow white Riot Grrrls to claim oppression they did not experience, but it also allowed them to tokenize Blackness as a means of power to their cause.
It is clear that “Revolution Girl Style Now!” acknowledged the existence of systemic oppression but failed to examine them outside the scope of their own identity or recognize oppressive forces, such as segregation due to capitalism or within Riot Grrrl itself. Looking back at a 1997 Bay Area Girls Convention anti-racism workshop, Bianca Ortiz writes in her zine “Mamasita” that “they were busy with the revolution while we [Mexican girls] fried tortillas until the grease from the pans stuck to the grease on our faces.” Riot Grrrls may have recognized the presence of women of color but failed to participate with them.
Ortiz’s account reveals Riot Grrrl’s lack of accountability, personal reflection and willingness to learn. It is not to say that being open to learning is enough. All too often, women of color are expected to bear the burden of intersectional thinking, teach others how to be an ally or forgive others for not getting it right the first time. Surely the pioneers of Riot Grrrl may grow and change, but as white feminism popularized the term “weaponized incompetence,” only contextualizing it to heterosexual relationships, it is only appropriate to say Riot Grrrl had no reason to not do better. Nonetheless, the demise of “Revolution Girl Style Now!” should not only teach today’s feminists to listen to intersectionality advocates but take initiative in filling claims of solidarity by thoroughly interrogating whiteness as opposed to appropriating oppression.
I’ve never resonated with Riot Grrrl’s lyrics, nor have I been inspired by any of its manifestos enough to encourage me to simply pick up a guitar and sing about my anger. While I’ve accepted that “Revolution Girl Style Now!” never existed for women of color, the trend in creating, instead of reclaiming, space among intersectional punk fans, such as with “Mamasita” and Sista Grrrl Riot, gives hope that a DIY revolution is still possible through music.
Julie Ha is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.