In the 1990s, Courtney Love’s status as an opinionated musician in her own right during her relationship with a high profile male rock star led to bad press and public scorn in the mainstream. In the 2010s, Pussy Riot’s feminist activities have resulted in a damning judgement from the Russian state that has led to them losing their liberty. Amica Lane considers these different consequences against a backdrop of Riot Grrrl politics and wonders how far we’ve really moved towards accepting women who rebel on their own terms
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…
[Image description: 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.]