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Every Girl is a Riot Grrrl

May 15th, 2011     by Carly Lewis     Comments

Before there was Toronto-based bossa-funk-disco vixen Maylee Todd, before Emily Haines became the fearless leader of Metric and before “girl bands” became an embarrassing buzz phrase, there was Riot Grrrl, a feminist movement ignited by women in punk rock bands during the early ’90s across the west coast of America. While Maylee, Emily and musicians like them don’t necessarily play punk music, they do embody the spirit of Riot Grrrl – they have no patience for sexism and they fight for gender equality in their music, even if just by being strong women musicians on a stage and dispelling the myths that music is a man’s game.

The Riot Grrrl Revolution was mobilized by punk bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, with Bikini Kill’s lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, at the helm. The path they paved for women musicians and their fight for feminism has been preserved by Sara Marcus in her book, Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.

You don’t need to be punk, or even a girl, to appreciate the Riot Grrrl movement; its goals were to create discussion about gender inequality, to stand up against discrimination and to be heard. It also heavily relied upon and encouraged a Do-It-Yourself way of doing things. “Riot Grrrl popularized the classic punk notion that it was okay to start a band before you had become highly proficient on your instrument,” says Marcus, adding that this was, at the time, “a liberatory notion for female musicians in particular, considering all the crippling self-doubt we are constantly being schooled in.”

This meant that more young girls were picking up drumsticks and guitars and securing themselves a place in the music world alongside their male counterparts. The Riot Grrrls are thought of as pioneers, not only for women who play music, but for anyone who believes in the value of doing whatever you feel like doing and not being quiet about it.

“The spread of this permissive DIY ideal meant that people could find their voices and styles through experience and experimentation as much as (or more than) through imitation,” says Marcus. Making and distributing zines were a big part of the Riot Grrrl movement. It was a way to spread the message of feminism, rally people together for protests and meetings, share new art and music and above all, to uphold a strong sense of community. These days, the work of zines tends to be done using the Internet instead of glue and scissors, but Marcus says that’s okay. “Zines played an important function in the Riot Grrrl movement, but online communications can fulfill similar roles as long as we’re intentional about it. When I mailed somebody a zine in the ’90s, I would frequently include a long letter about what I’d been thinking about lately or what I’d thought of the other person’s last zine. It was much more involved than just hitting “like” or “reblog” on somebody else’s Tumblr post, and it meant we were having substantive conversations about ideas, discussing one another’s work and trying to carry the conversation forward.”

To the Riot Grrrls of today looking for a sense of community, Marcus has some suggestions. “Why do so many young feminists’ blogs just involve posting images?” she asks. “I would love to see people start writing more about their reactions to the images they post, and including in-depth responses when reposting other people’s blog posts.”

Marcus, who exemplifies the Riot Grrrl spirit herself, says there are many ways to manifest this very ideology. “Be bold, ambitious, and self-mythologizing in your creative life. Notice sexism and other forms of inequality, name them as such, and don’t blame yourself for the ways they affect you…Keep discussing with your friends what kinds of relationships you want to have with each other and what kinds of transformation you want to make possible for one another and the world. And then turn that into reality.”

This reality is an entirely possible one, and Marcus says the key is connecting with like-minded people. “Think about the people in your school or your town, and reach out to anybody who you think might be interested in the things you’re interested in, even if you don’t know them already. Start a Facebook group. Call a meeting. Make flyers and put them up at the library or the coffee shop. Get connected with any group in your town that seems even halfway likely to be doing things that interest you. Start a blog or start a zine. If you make friends online, take the friendships seriously and figure out ways to visit each other and to encourage each other to make things and put things out into the world.” The bottom line, Marcus says, is “make stuff.”

Connecting with others through DIY art, music, zines and activism is exactly what the Riot Grrrls did. As Marcus says, quoting the words written on the body of activist Angela Seguel in one of the book’s photographs, “Every girl is a Riot Grrrl.”


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