Asking for it: giving outspoken women in music a bad name

1991. USA. It may have felt like a defeat to some feminists when Julia Roberts won a Kid’s Choice Award for the romanticised portrayal of a prostitute in Pretty Woman but high up on the West Coast, a new wave was forming, regardless.

These girls didn’t want to just be watching punk rock bands anymore, they wanted to be in them – and to be as outspoken and provocative as any of their male counterparts. Women had, of course, been a part of punk rock before the early 1990s but Riot Grrrl acts, such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, represented a new surge of female fronted bands who were using music as a way of communicating political ideology that specifically related to feminism.

The core ethos of the movement was to unite women together, providing a female friendly counter culture that printed zines, organized meetings and promoted a feminist ethos. Riot Grrrl was a subculture, as well as a musical movement. In the words of Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, in the 1991 Riot Grrrl Manifesto, Riot Grrrl existed because of anger at a society telling women that “Girl = Bad”.

Riot Grrrl has been incorrectly used as an umbrella term for all feminist-minded bands of the ’90s (particularly those from the Washington state area). But it wasn’t just Riot Grrrl acts who were responsible for promoting feminism through music. Others, such as 7 Year Bitch, would go on to champion feminist causes but refuse to label themselves as a Riot Grrrl band or identify feminism as a core part of the band’s work; “We [Agnew and Davis] are the most feminist but we don’t use it as a vehicle for the band” said drummer Valerie Agnew.

Bands like Bikini Kill were arguably feminists first and musicians second. This meant they operated within a strict doctrine that left some of their peers feeling isolated. Courtney Love, for example, is a curious character in the story of Riot Grrrl. According to her, the Riot Grrrl movement did not embrace her as a feminist figure and said her feminism “came in a weird brand“. This was reflected in Hole’s lyrics: 1994’s ‘Olympia‘ (mislabelled as ‘Rock Star’ in the track listing for Live Through This) has been interpreted as Love calling out Riot Grrrl for imposing “more restrictions” on women in rock and the later tracks ‘20 Years in the Dakota‘ (the B-side to ‘Miss World’) and ‘Awful‘ directly reference the movement critically.

Courtney Love may have had a ‘weird brand’ of feminism but it was still present

Regardless of the disputes, the Seattle/Olympia Washington music scene of the time was a hub of feminist activity. Courtney Love may have had a ‘weird brand’ of feminism but it was still present. Babes in Toyland did not identify as a Riot Grrrl band but they tackled issues of rape and female identity in their songs. Kurt Cobain was a staunch feminist, as is Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth; neither of them were Riot Grrrl’s, but they were vocal advocates of feminism nonetheless.

Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards offer the following description of the emergence of the Riot Grrrl movement in the 2005 book Manifesta:

“They scrawled ‘slut’ on their stomachs, screamed from stages and pages of fanzines about incest, rape, being queer and being in love. They mixed a childish aesthetic with all that is most threatening in a female adult: rage, bitterness and political acuity.”

This could also apply to many of the other female-fronted bands of the time. Indeed, the mergence of adult and bratty child was a common theme. For example, it is generally accepted that Kat Bjelland of Babes In Toyland defined the ‘Kinderwhore‘ aesthetic, while Courteney Love popularised it. With its use of the German word for children, Kinderwhore was a possible reference to the problematic ‘Lolita’ trope of yesteryear. Along with the more general childish aesthetic adopted by many young women at the time (such as pleated schoolgirl skirts with clumpy shoes) it was also a predecessor to the ‘Lolita’ look of today, which originated in Japan. (The shop Baby the Stars Shine Bright sells ‘Lolita’ style clothes and Courtney Love is said to be a fan.)

The style demonstrated by Sue Lyon in the 1962 film adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita and Brooke Shields as Violet in the 1978 film ‘Pretty Baby‘, with its heart shaped sunglasses and lacy babydolls, seemed to portray the girl-child as a docile object of sexuality. Kinderwhore, however, took this look and put a very different spin on it: Courtney Love dressed like an adult version of Brooke Shield’s character ‘Violet’ – but the lacy dress now hung at her thighs instead of her ankles, accessorised with ripped fishnets and a halo of bleached Nancy Spungeon style locks. ‘Lolita’ had grown up. And she was pretty pissed off.

Both Kat Bjellend and Courtney Love released songs entitled ‘Violet’, although it’s unknown whether this was a direct reference to Violet played by Shields. “They get what they want, and they never want it again – Go on take everything” Love screamed on her release of ‘Violet’; The issue of young women being exploited for sex might have struck a nerve with Love, who would later tell biographer Poppy Z Brite of how she had worked as a stripper in Japan at 16 years old.

She was loud, rude, unapologetic and, in her own words, ‘Not even pretty’

Despite Love being an outsider to Riot Grrrl, this confrontational anger probably played a part in her becoming the accidental poster child for the media’s coverage of the movement. Along with her position as a prominent musician and star in her own right, rather than groupie in the background, it also threatened the patriarchal status quo. This led to Love bearing the brunt of a widespread backlash after Kurt Cobain died in 1994.

Courtney Love met Cobain in 1990. Both had relative success as individual musicians. Hole’s first single, ‘Teenage Whore’, entered at number one on the UK Indie Charts in September 1991 and Hole outsold Nirvana until Nevermind was released later in the same month. However, by 11 January, 1992, Nevermind was the number one album on the Billboard Top 100 and Nirvana were a global phenomenon.

Kurt and Courtney have been compared to John Lennon and Yoko Ono: both women suffered from a fan backlash and accused of interfering with the bands of their husbands.

Unlike John and Yoko, Kurt and Courtney had been together before Nirvana became so famous – yet fans still regarded her as a caustic and unwelcome presence in Cobain’s life. Indeed, Barbara Walters who interviewed Love in 1995 said “When they married and had a child, most of Kurt’s fans saw Courtney as a manipulative groupie who got lucky.”

Courtney Love was not the typical wife of a rockstar. She was loud, rude, unapologetic and, in her own words (and the title of her solo art show in 2012), ‘Not even pretty.’

But Cobain repeatedly declared Love as his ‘soulmate’ and became devastated at the public vitriol aimed at her. After Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair wrote a hatchet job on Courtney and Kurt, incorrectly blaming Kurt’s drug use on Courtney, Cobain recognised the sinister turn public opinion was taking.

Twenty years stuck inside The Dakota, I won’t let that happen to you” Cobain told Love whilst she was in labour, referring to John and Yoko, who famously retreated into The Dakota Hotel after the Beatles split up. (’20 Years in the Dakota’ was referenced in the title of the B-side to 1993’s ‘Beautiful Son‘, further hinting at the similarities between Yoko Ono and Courtney Love in the public eye.)

If the situation were reversed, would Kurt Cobain have endured the same treatment?

Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. Four days later, Hole’s album Live Through This was released. Rolling Stone called this album “[maybe] the most potent blast of female insurgency ever committed to tape” and Love, who had contract obligations, left to join her band on tour shortly after the release.

However, to the grieving fans of Nirvana, going on tour was widely interpreted as a slight against Cobain. Those who already disliked Love became angry, accusing her of everything from being a bad mother to murdering Kurt. She was labeled as a gold digger and the merits of Live Through This were discredited as naysayers theorised that Love had stolen Cobain’s songs and passed them off as her own.

If the situation were reversed, would Kurt Cobain have endured the same treatment?

Being disliked is part of becoming famous but the backlash that followed Love seemed to border on becoming a witch hunt. Indeed, Courtney Love may have been obnoxious, arrogant and relentlessly ambitious – but the same could be said of many of her male counterparts.

Ambition is an important part of this equation. Imagine meeting the non-famous Courtney Love in a woman’s shelter. She grew up between being placed in foster care and a correctional facility, ended up stripping to pay the bills, got addicted to heroin and had a child with her equally addicted boyfriend who then killed himself. In any other walk of life, it would be considered fairly barbaric to launch a hate campaign against this person. Yet, some would probably say that because she made herself a public figure, she was somehow asking for it?

Russia is a fraught alternative to Seattle and Olympia

A lot of the music labelled by the media as ‘foxcore‘ fell out of fashion around the time of Cobain’s suicide and the late ’90s became the era of ‘Girl Power’ and the Spice Girls.

Later, in 2012, during a time when 21% of women would apparently sleep with a footballer to become famous, it became apparent that ’90s-style feminism had influenced a new generation of women in Russia: Pussy Riot are arguably the true daughters of the original Riot Grrrls – screaming, hostile and extremely political. They loudly declare themselves as feminists and have cited Simone De Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin and Judith Butler as inspiration.

Pussy Riot may have differentiated themselves from the original Riot Grrrl movements geographically, but, judging by what Pussy Riot have to say themselves, their ideology is strikingly similar:

“What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image. The difference is that Bikini Kill performed at specific music venues, while we hold unsanctioned concerts. On the whole, Riot Grrrl was closely linked to Western cultural institutions, whose equivalents don’t exist in Russia.” (The St Petersburg Times)

Russia is a fraught alternative to Seattle and Olympia – if the word ‘feminist’ is controversial in the West, it seems to be a dirty word in Russia.

Indeed, after three members of Pussy Riot were famously jailed for protesting in 2012, a poll from the Levada center indicated only 5% of Russian people thought Pussy Riot should not be punished. The three women, who had staged a non-violent protest inside a church, were told “that they had crudely undermined the social order.” They were sentenced to two years inside one of Russia’s harshest penal colonies.

There was a tepid outcry in the West, notably from other musicians, but also grumblings on Facebook and Twitter that Pussy Riot had been “asking for it”.

Both Pussy Riot and Courtney Love have been judged harshly for their transgressions, albeit from different sources and with different consequences

There have also been gripes over any concern about the punishment of Pussy Riot. For example, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian snidely writes that “Artists round the globe may plead free speech, but to treat the Pussy Riot gesture as a glorious stand for artistic liberty is like praising Johnny Rotten, who did similar things, as the Voltaire of our day.”

This doesn’t seem like a fair comparison. The Sex Pistols were political but they weren’t a response to a human rights emergency; meanwhile, Pussy Riot were formed because government started to enforce legislation that placed restrictions on legal abortions. And, despite the controversies at the time, the Sex Pistols did not receive the same punitive consequences as Pussy Riot.

Time will obviously tell but, as it stands, Pussy Riot have ruled out asking President Vladimir Putin for a pardon and would rather lose their children and face possible death than back down from their beliefs. Meanwhile, Johnny Rotten has now abandoned his anarchist roots to be the face of ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’.

Both Pussy Riot and Courtney Love have been judged harshly for their transgressions, albeit from different sources and with different consequences. However, reactions have not been proportionate to the actions of either. Did Courtney really deserve the backlash she received? Do Pussy Riot deserve to spend two years away from their young children in a prison colony? And don’t these different punishments exist on the same misogynistic continuum? After all, some countries have punitive laws to prevent deviation from the status quo while others claim freedom but police minorities in more insidious ways, such as through the press and mobs.

Katy Perry recently accepted a Billboard Woman of the Year award by saying “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”

Yes, we can all champion the strength of women. But what if the women are confrontational? Aggressive? Unlikeable?

Can we believe in the strength of women if they want to get rich or have an orgy in a museum? Or is it then that we say “they were asking for it”?

[Image descriptions:

1. Bikini Kill performing live at Sylvester Park in Olympia, Washington on 1 May, 1991. They are partially undercover with trees visible in the background. Kathleen Hanna is at the microphone playing a red guitar and Kathi Wilcox is playing a white guitar in the background. By jonathancharles, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

2. Courtney Love alone at the microphone stage with scaffolding and a small portion of red background (possibly part of a curtain) behind her. She has one leg bent up higher on a step or block, supporting her black guitar, which is bathed in a greenish light that makes it appear to be a dark jade green. By jazzlawyer, shared under a Creative Commons licence (also front page picture).

3. Cover of Hole’s Live Through This (1994). This depicts a beauty queen with smudged eyeliner and an expression of open-mouthed joy and jubilation. She holds a bunch of flowers.

4. Posed shot of Pussy Riot in front of a neutral backdrop, with their faces concealed by coloured balaclavas. They are wearing colourful outfits. In the middle at the back, a member holds up an orange sheet while the central member in the middle holds up a hand as if to imply a whisper or a shout. The middle member at the front is playing a guitar. By Igor Mukhin, shared under a Creative Commons licence.]

Amica Lane is a PhD student researching cyber-psychology and feminism. She is @ami_lan3 on Twitter