The early 1990s, and in the underbelly of America’s north-west coast, a new slice of anarchy was cutting through social conventions and norms. The foundations of this movement lay deep in the D.I.Y methods of punk rock and its aggressive fist, waiting to break into the glass ceiling of punk music and the subculture at large, a message summarised by the leading 3-piece of this movement, Bikini Kill and its bellicose frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, “Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world”. Through the fashion, zine publications and a raw music sound, they were interested in inhibiting a new identity, one that took the patriarchal voice of punk and turned it on its head.
The music that centred around the small town of Olympia, Washington with Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre broke new waves. The two-and-a-half-minute punk song, previously drawn up by male bands or those who played “cock rock” was revolutionised into something that celebrates a wider connection of sisterhood to its followers and admirers. The theme, for example in Bikini Kill’s publication of the RIOT GRRRL manifesto was to challenge the ludicrous stereotypes ran in mainstream media outlets of what Hanna simplifies as “Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak”. This narrative manifested itself into some of the most controversial and pioneering music that took away acceptable boundaries of artist performance and replaced it with a “call to arms” militancy framed in feminine unity. As Hanna outlines firstly in the RIOT GRRRL manifesto of Bikini Kill’s “Zine 2” of 1991:
“BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to us that we feel included in can understand in our own ways”
RIOT GRRRL evolution had come about from the image of punk rock and the alternative scenes in between them had become a noisy boys club. The poster boys for these bands from the Ramones and Black Flag in the States, to Public Image ltd and their renegade frontman that is John Lydon to other outliers such as, The Fall and Joy Division in the UK. This issue here was the enigma surrounded great frontmen, and female members were often side-lined. Some bands, however, did compensate for this. Iconic musicians Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads (later Tom Tom Club) and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, demonstrated the attitude that put musicianship over image. Their presence in both of their respective bands saw the change in direction of the focal point in alternative bands. It saw the vital input of female musicians that went above and beyond, valued as equal to their male counterparts.
The RIOT GRRL identity did more than expand its subcultural sphere, it became an intellectual hub. The new raw sound from Washington became imbued in the intellect of third-wave feminism and radical far-left anarchist politics. The post-punk literary heroine Kathy Acker became the equivalent of the cult writers of the Beat Generation that patriarchal punk first proclaimed as an influence. Young women were now being granted a voice that previously was shut down or called out as something of a childish strop. The anger at patriarchal hegemony, the ownership of insulting labels sometimes written across their bodies or through their outlandish outfits, saw a political transfer of power contained in full view of the music press. The notoriety gain has become forever attached.
Riot Grrrl continues its presence in popular contemporary music. Bands like Deep Vally, Amyl and the Snifflers, and of course, the Russian avant-garde Pussy Riot who are still emulating the belligerent attitude to music and politics, with the stifling atmosphere of gender inequality very much in the air. These issues still remain, but without a creative collective to combat them, RIOT GRRRL’s legacy would be all in vain.