Jess McCabe reviews a book which documents the powerful girl-centric political and cultural movement that was riot grrrl
Did you miss riot grrrl? I did. When I was a teenager, I was busy listening to commercialised bands like Nirvana and even, God help me, Bon Jovi. But all the time I was trying to play Alice in Chains songs badly on the guitar, something infinitely more interesting was going on.
My first contact with riot grrrl came when Bikini Kill, the band that has come to define the genre, had already disbanded, and its unofficial spokesperson in Kathleen Hanna had already recorded a couple of albums in her new group Le Tigre. I may have leafed through the odd zine here and there, but the movement has been something I’ve largely encountered through CDs not live gigs, books not meetings, hearing stories but missing the event.
As such, Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now! was a joy to read and filled in many gaps. Anyone else who skirted the edges of riot grrrl, or readers both younger and older who feel like they missed it completely, will find the book a revelation. Indeed, the book succeeds in showing that riot grrrl was and perhaps still is a much bigger movement than is commonly thought. In a handy US and UK timeline, it charts the journey from the launch of K Records in 1982, via the first Bratmobile show in 1991, right up to Ladyfest London planned for 2008.
The book is split into several sections which record the inception of riot grrrl, what influenced it, the music it produced, how it spread across the US, how it then jumped to the UK and Europe, its zines, and finally a personal and political account of the movement from the specific point of view of one of its members, Suzy Corrigan. Each part of Riot Grrrl is effective in its own way, and together it gives as complete a guide as is probably going to be possible for to such a diverse and decentralised phenomenon. One of my favourite pages from the publication is the green map of “In-grrrl-land, Scatterland & Wails”, with little symbols to show the location of record labels, spray-painting, music-making, flyposting, workshops, gigs and simply “grrrls”.
In the introduction, Beth Ditto defines riot grrrl as “a movement formed by a handful of girls who felt empowered, who were angry, hilarious, and extreme through and for each other”. Riot grrl was, essentially, an underground movement of girls making music, stapling together zines, raging about and then creating something different from both mainstream and ‘alternative’ culture that denigrated and belittled women and girls.
Over the course of the book, we learn about the political and social backdrop from which riot grrrl sprung. A lot of this still sounds familiar in the last days of 2007: Corrigan explains that “a young woman might well have detected a seething hatred she couldn’t explain, but felt was directed at her, begun to connect that sense of male entitlement with the way women on the margins of this society were treated, seen examples of abuse, bullying or preferential treatment in the home, noticed that displays of female flesh were okay when it was a male idea, but subject to brouhaha otherwise.”
The book also explains about riot grrrl’s relationship with feminism, both of the ‘second wave’, 1970s and academic versions, as well as third-wave feminism that, as Red Chidgey puts it, “attempts to fuse critical race theory, queer theory, postmodernism and anti-essentialism”, more or less successfully.
However, the most powerful story told by the book is that the effect the movement had on young girls and how that influence has carried over into their adult lives. Chidgey lovingly describes the “girl gang energy” and the “I’ve got your back grrrl politics” that challenged jealous competition between girls. She points out that “one of the biggest shake-ups riot grrrls initiated was the influx of girls becoming cultural producers for the first time. This was generally a historical anomaly. Whether in media industries or feminist ‘kid-lib’ movements, conventional roles for girls have always included being talked down to and educated at… From teen-magazines to girls’ advocacy projects, girls are constructed by adults as being pre-political, acquiescent, boy-crazy and unfailing fans of popular culture.”
The book functions as a rich historical source in itself, particularly when it comes to the stapled-together zines that played such an important role in distributing and perpetuating riot grrrl. We are treated to large slices of this ephemeral record, with lots of photos, reproductions of fliers, covers and extracts from xeroxed zines with doodles in the borders and cuttings appropriated from the mainstream media as illustrations. Because of the limited numbers of these zines, and the limited number of people who ever got to participate in the riot grrrl movement – even as spread out as it was – this book will be a great tool to demonstrate that something did happen: riot grrrls did exist, and not just in Olympia, Washington.
In her chapter, Cazz Blase provides a useful discography, fitting the bands you probably have heard of, such as Le Tigre or Beth Ditto’s group, The Gossip, into place with more obscure groups like Mambo Taxi and Skinned Teen. Blase also draws the connection between these independent rock bands and the diluted version of riot grrrl – ‘girl power’ – that made it into the mainstream, through bands like Shampoo and, more lucratively in this country, the Spice Girls.
Although it is a celebration of riot grrl, the book does not shirk from the limitations of the movement, whether that be a lack of depth to some of the messages sent out by its zines, its failure to recognise its “white girl middle class” privilege, or the inbuilt restrictions on how far a purely DIY culture can permeate. For example, many riot grrrl ‘scenes’ refused to communicate with the media or to commercialise what they were doing in any way.
Chidgey writes: “Zine pages get blown up and wheatpasted over advertisements, slipped into teen-mags and diet books, and left in bathrooms and on bus-seats for chance readers to pick up. Grrrl zines were often communication by subterfuge.” Which is all very well if you happened to pick up that particular copy of J17, as opposed to the millions of other issues which didn’t contain the key to a subversive, feminist underground. But how would the average girl make the transition to grrrl if she didn’t even know there was a movement going on? Writing about one attempt to rectify this issue, Chidgey says that the Riot Grrrl Press was established in Washington, DC, because “a strictly ‘secret’ communication network was elitist”. Hopefully, Riot Grrl will help to bring the riot grrrl ethos to new audiences, and maybe even inspire a new generation of girls to growls anew.