Riot grrrl

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Riot grrrl is an underground feminist punk movement that began during the early 1990s within the United States in Olympia,[1] Washington[2] and the greater Pacific Northwest[3] and has expanded to at least 26 other countries.[4] Riot grrrl is a subcultural movement that combines feminism, punk music and politics.[5] It is often associated with third-wave feminism, which is sometimes seen as having grown out of the riot grrrl movement and has recently been seen in fourth-wave feminist punk music that rose in the 2010s.[6] The genre has also been described as coming out of indie rock, with the punk scene serving as an inspiration for a movement in which women could express themselves the same way men have been doing all along.[7] To quote Liz Naylor, who would become the manager of riot grrrl band Huggy Bear:[8]

There was a lot of anger and self-mutilation. In a symbolic sense, women were cutting and destroying the established image of femininity, aggressively tearing it down.

Riot grrrl songs often addressed issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, racism, patriarchy, classism, anarchism and female empowerment. Primary bands most associated with the movement by media include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear.[1][9][10][11][12][13] Also included were queercore groups such as Team Dresch and the Third Sex.[1][14]

In addition to a unique music scene and genre, riot grrrl became a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action and activism.[15] The movement quickly spread well beyond its musical roots to influence the vibrant zine and Internet-based nature of fourth-wave feminism, complete with local meetings and grassroots organizing to end intersectional forms of prejudice and oppression, especially physical and emotional violence against all genders.[16] Riot grrrls are known to hold meetings, start chapters,[4] and support and organize women in music[17] as well as art created by transgender people, gays and lesbians, and other communities.[14]


The riot grrrl movement originated in the early 1990s, when a group of women from Olympia, Washington, held a meeting about sexism in their local punk scenes.[17] The word “girl” was intentionally used in order to focus on childhood, a time when children have the strongest self-esteem and belief in themselves.[18] Riot grrrls then took a growling "R", replacing the "I" in the word as a way to take back the derogatory use of the term.[19] Both double and triple "R" spellings are acceptable.[20]

The Seattle and Olympia, Washington music scenes had sophisticated do it yourself (DIY) infrastructure.[8] Women involved in local underground music scenes took advantage of this platform to articulate their feminist beliefs and desires by creating zines (short for "magazine").[21] While the model of politically-themed zines had already been used in punk culture as an alternative (to mainstream) culture, zines also followed a longer legacy of self-published feminist writing that allowed women to circulate ideas that would not otherwise be published.[21] At the time there was discomfort among many women in the music scene who felt that they had no space for organizing due to the exclusionary, male-dominated nature of punk culture at the time. Many women found that while they identified with the larger, music-oriented subculture of punk rock, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes. Women in the Washington punk scenes took it upon themselves to represent their own interests artistically through the new riot grrrl subculture.[22]

Riot grrrl bands were influenced by groundbreaking female punk and mainstream rock performers of the 1970s to the mid-1980s. While many of these musicians were not originally associated with each other during their time and came from a variety of backgrounds and styles, as a group they anticipated many of riot grrrl's musical and thematic attributes. These performers include the Slits, Kim Deal, Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, Poly Styrene, Janis Joplin, and Siouxsie Sioux, among others.[8][10][11][17][23][24][25][26][27][28]

Of Kim Gordon, in particular, Kathleen Hanna noted, "She was a forerunner, musically [...] Just knowing a woman was in a band trading lead vocals, playing bass, and being a visual artist at the same time made me feel less alone."[28]

In 1985, the Go Team formed with then fifteen year old Tobi Vail. The band would go on to collaborate with Olympia scene musicians who are inherently linked to the riot grrrl movement: Donna Dresch, Lois Maffeo, and Billy "Boredom" Karren.[12][29] Karren was a rotating musician who played in the band, and it was there that he and Vail played together for the first time, later collaborating in several other bands which included Bikini Kill and The Frumpies.

Two years later, two articles on the topic of women in rock would be published by Puncture, a zine edited by Katherine Spielmann and Patty Stirling.[30] Authored by Rough Trade employee Terri Sutton, these articles became what is considered by some to be titular writing on riot grrrl ethos.[31] One article, "Women, Sex and Rock ’n’ Roll" is considered particularly important as the manifesto of the riot grrrl movement.[32] Sutton would go on to say, in “Women In Rock: An Open Letter,” written in 1988, "To me rock and roll is about lust, lust for feeling; the worst I can say about a band is they’re boring. That’s why it’s so crucial that women get up onstage and impart--inspire some emotion."[33]

Vail began publishing her own zine, Jigsaw, in 1989. At the time, Vail was working at a sandwich shop with Kathi Wilcox who was impressed by Vail's interest in "girls in bands, specifically," including an aggressive emphasis on feminist issues.[34] Meanwhile, Kathleen Hanna came upon a copy of Jigsaw and found resonance with Vail's writing.[35] Hanna began to contribute to the zine, submitting interviews to Jigsaw. In Jigsaw, Vail wrote about "angry grrls", combining the word girls with a powerful growl.[21] Vail's third issue, published in 1991 after she spent time in Washington D.C., was subtitled "angry grrrl zine". Some issues of Jigsaw have been archived at Harvard University as a research resource along with other counterculture zines.[36]

After touring for two months, Hanna's band, Viva Knievel, called it quits. Hanna then began collaborating with Vail after attending a performance of The Go Team and recognizing Vail as the mastermind behind Jigsaw zine.[37] Hanna and friends Vail and Wilcox then recruited Karren to form Bikini Kill. Additionally, Hanna, Vail and Wilcox also collaborated on a feminist zine also titled Bikini Kill for their first tours in 1991.[37][38]

While Bikini Kill, amongst other bands, frequently avoided attention from mainstream media outlets due to the fear that riot grrrl would be co-opted by corporate enterprises, in the few interviews they did take, they often made the movement out to be bigger than it was, claiming the music scene existed in cities far beyond its actual scope. This encouraged feminists to seek out said scenes, and when they couldn't find them, they created them on their own, further broadening riot grrrl's scope.[39]

By 1994, riot grrrl had been discovered by the mainstream, and Bikini Kill were increasingly referred to as pioneers of the movement.

Bikini Kill[edit]

Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox were all studying at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington during the late 1980s. Hanna worked at Reko Muse, a small collective art gallery that would frequently host local bands to play shows between art exhibitions. There she met Vail after booking her band, the Go Team.[40] At the same time, Vail was writing Jigsaw zine and working with friend, Kathi Wilcox. Vail wrote at the time in Jigsaw:

I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys mostly and partly because punk rock of this generation is coming of age in a time of mindless career-goal bands.[41]

Hanna, Vail and Wilcox also began collaboration on Bikini Kill zine during their first tours in 1991.[37][38]

The band wrote songs collaboratively and encouraged a female-centric environment at their shows, urging women to come to the front of the stage and handing out lyric sheets. Bikini Kill made it their goal to inspire more women to join the male-dominated punk scene.[42] Hanna would also stage dive into the crowds to personally remove male hecklers who would often verbally and physically assault her during shows.[43] However, the band's reach did include a large male audience in addition to the female target audience.[43]

Kathleen Hanna

After releasing the Bikini Kill EP on the indie label Kill Rock Stars in 1992, Bikini Kill began to establish their audience. Members of Bikini Kill also began to collaborate with other high-profile musicians, including Joan Jett, whose music Hanna has described as an early example of the riot grrrl aesthetic.[44] Jett produced the single "New Radio"/"Rebel Girl" for the band after members of Bikini Kill heard “Activity Grrrl,” a song Jett wrote about the band.[45] "Rebel Girl" has become one of Bikini Kill's signature songs as well as a widely-recognized anthem for the riot grrrl movement[46][47] While "the unforgettable anthem", as Robert Christgau calls it,[48] never charted due to its independent release, it has received widespread critical acclaim. It has been called a "classic",[49] and praised as part "of the most vital rock-n-roll of the era".[50]

Despite retrospective acclaim, at the time the band was criticized for excluding men, and even Rolling Stone described Bikini Kill’s first album as “yowling and moronic nag-unto-vomit tantrums."[26][51] "My joke is always like, I didn’t just hit the glass ceiling, I pressed my naked [breasts] up against it," Hanna said of that time.[26] Bikini Kill eventually called for a "media blackout" due to their perceived misrepresentation of the movement by the media.[52] Their pioneer reputation endures but, as Hanna recalls:

[Bikini Kill was] very vilified during the '90s by so many people, and hated by so many people, and I think that that's been kind of written out of the history. People were throwing chains at our heads – people hated us – and it was really, really hard to be in that band.[53]


Bratmobile in 1994.
Bratmobile in 1994.

Hailing from from Eugene, Oregon, Bratmobile was a first-generation riot grrrl band that became the second-most prominent founding voice of the riot grrrl movement. In 1990, University of Oregon students Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman, and Jen Smith (the Quails) were collaborating on feminist zine, Girl Germs, touching on sexism in their local music scene.[41] In early 1991, Jen and Christina Billotte (Autoclave) joined Wolfe and Neuman in Bratmobile when they temporarily relocated to Washington, DC. Jen wrote in a letter to Wolfe, "We need to start a girl RIOT!"[41][54] Jen proposed they collaborate with members of Bikini Kill on a zine called Girl Riot. When Neuman began the zine, she changed its title to riot grrrl, providing a networking forum for young women in the wider music scene and giving the movement its name.[41] Smith, Billotte, Wolfe, and Neuman released only one tape together as Bratmobile, titled Bratmobile DC.[55][56]

We were very encouraged by people like Tobi and Kathleen in Olympia, and we were like, "Oh let's do a band, let's do radio—we wanna [sic] have an all-girl radio show!" Even though there was no such thing as college radio at the time there.[12]

Neuman and Erin Smith (no relation to Jen) were previously introduced at a Nation of Ulysses show in Washington, DC, in December 1990 by mutual friend, Calvin Johnson (The Go Team). Neuman, Erin, and Wolfe played their first show together as Bratmobile in July 1991, with Neuman on drums, Smith on guitar, and Wolfe on vocals. They were a supporting act for Bikini Kill.[41]

Exposure to Bikini Kill and then Bratmobile inspired other riot grrrl factions to spring up around the country. Women in other regional punk music scenes across North America were encouraged to form their own bands and start their own zines.[12]

International Pop Underground Convention[edit]

From August 20 – 25, 1991, K Records held an indie music festival called the International Pop Underground Convention. A promotional poster reads:

As the corporate ogre expands its creeping influence on the minds of industrialized youth, the time has come for the International Rockers of the World to convene in celebration of our grand independence. Hangman hipsters, new mod rockers, sidestreet walkers, scooter-mounted dream girls, punks, teds, the instigators of the Love Rock Explosion, the editors of every angry grrrl zine, the plotters of youth rebellion in every form, the midwestern librarians and Scottish ski instructors who live by night, all are setting aside August 20–25, 1991 as the time.[57]

An all-female bill on the first night, called "Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now!" signalled a major step in the movement.[58][59] The lineup featured Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Nikki McClure, Lois Maffeo, Jean Smith, 7 Year Bitch, and two side projects of Kathleen Hanna: Suture, with Sharon Cheslow of Chalk Circle (DC's first all-women punk band) and Dug E. Bird of Beefeater, and the Wondertwins with Tim Green of Nation of Ulysses. It was here that so many zinester people who'd only known each other from networking, mail, or talking on the phone, finally met and were brought together by an entire night of music dedicated to, for, and by women.[citation needed]

The convention also featured bands such as Unwound, L7, the Fastbacks, the Spinanes, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Girl Trouble, the Pastels, Kicking Giant, Rose Melberg, Seaweed, Kreviss, I Scream Truck, Scrawl, Nation of Ulysses, Jad Fair, Thee Headcoats, Steve Fisk, and spoken-word artist Juliana Luecking. This convention demonstrated a new relationship between audience and performers, dismantling the power dynamic of the past, for instance voicing anger at people harassing the female performers.[60]

Decline and later developments[edit]

By the mid-nineties, riot grrrl had severely splintered. Many within the movement felt that the mainstream media had completely misrepresented their message, and that the politically radical aspects of riot grrrl had been subverted by the likes of the Spice Girls and their "girl power" message, or co-opted by ostensibly women-centered bands (though sometimes with only one female performer per band) and festivals like Lilith Fair.[citation needed] Later waves of riot grrrl chapters opened in Latin America, North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia through to the 2010s.

Of the original riot grrrl bands, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear had split in 1994, Excuse 17 and most of the UK bands had split by 1995, and Bikini Kill and Emily's Sassy Lime released their last records in 1996. However, Team Dresch were active as late as 1998, the Gossip were active from 1999, Bratmobile reformed in 2000 and, perhaps most prolific of all, Sleater-Kinney were active from 1994 to 2019, releasing 8 albums.

Many of the women involved in riot grrrl are still active in creating politically charged music. Kathleen Hanna went on to found the electro-feminist post-punk "protest pop" group Le Tigre and later the Julie Ruin, Kathi Wilcox joined the Casual Dots with Christina Billotte of Slant 6, and Tobi Vail formed Spider and the Webs. Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17 co-founded Sleater-Kinney at the tail end of the original movement, and reformed the band again in 2014 after an 8-year hiatus, while Bratmobile reunited to release two albums, before Allison Wolfe began singing with other all-women bands, Cold Cold Hearts, and Partyline. Molly Neuman went on to play with New York punk band Love Or Perish and run her own indie label called Simple Social Graces Discos, as well as co-owning Lookout! Records and managing the Donnas, Ted Leo, Some Girls, and the Locust. Kaia Wilson of Team Dresch and multimedia artist Tammy Rae Carland went on to form the now-defunct Mr. Lady Records which released albums by the Butchies, the Need, Kiki and Herb, and Tracy + the Plastics.[citation needed][61]

Feminism and riot grrrl culture[edit]

Riot grrrl culture is often associated with third wave feminism, which also grew rapidly during the same early nineties timeframe. The movement of third-wave feminism focused less on laws and the political process and more on individual identity. The movement of third-wave feminism is said to have arisen out of the realization that women are of many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds.[62] While multiracial feminist movements have existed prior to the third wave, the proliferation of technology during the early nineties allowed for easier networking amongst feminist groups. Riot grrrls used media spectacle to their advantage, crafting works from oppositional technologies such as zines, videography, and music.[63] The riot grrrl movement allowed women their own space to create music and make political statements about the issues they were facing in the punk rock community and in society. They used their music and publications to express their views on issues such as patriarchy, double standards against women, rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, and female empowerment.[64]

An undated, typewritten Bikini Kill tour flier answers the question "What is Riot grrrl?" with:

"[Riot Grrrl is ...] Because we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy... Because we need to talk to each other. Communication and inclusion are key. We will never know if we don't break the code of silence... Because in every form of media we see ourselves slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. Because a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit."[65]

Like other third wave feminists, riot grrrls attempted to foster an acceptance of diversity within feminist expression. That relationship to feminism is evident through their use of lyrics, zines and publications, and taking back the meaning of derogatory terms. All three of these forms were claimed to be a source of empowerment for women in the movement.[citation needed]

The riot grrrl movement encouraged women to develop their own place in a male-dominated punk scene. Punk shows had come to be understood as places where "women could make their way to the front of the crowd into the mosh pit, but had to 'fight ten times harder' because they were female, and sexually charged violence such as groping and rape had been reported."[66]

In contrast, riot grrrl bands would often actively invite members of the audience to talk about their personal experiences with sensitive issues such as sexual abuse, pass out lyric sheets to everyone in the audience, and often demand that the mosh boys move to the back or side to allow space in front for the girls in the audience.[44] The bands weren't always enthusiastically received at shows by male audience members. Punk Planet editor Daniel Sinker wrote in We Owe You Nothing:[citation needed]

The vehemence fanzines large and small reserved for riot grrrl – and Bikini Kill in particular – was shocking. The punk zine editors' use of 'bitches', 'cunts', 'man-haters', and 'dykes' was proof-positive that sexism was still strong in the punk scene.[citation needed]

Kathi Wilcox said in a fanzine interview:

I've been in a state of surprise for several years about this very thing. I don't know why so-called punk rockers are so threatened by a little shake-up of the truly boring dynamic of the standard show atmosphere. How fresh is the idea of fifty sweaty hardcore boys slamming into each other or jumping on each others' heads? Granted, it's kind of cool to be on stage and have action in the front, much more inspiring than to look out at a crowd of zombies, but so often the survival-of-the-fittest principle is in operation in the pit, and what girl wants to go up against a pack of Rollins boys who usually only want to be extra mean to her anyway just to make her "prove" her place in the pit. This was the case when I was first going to shows, and it's sad that things haven't changed at all since. ... But it would have been so cool if at one of these shows someone onstage would have said, hey let's have more girls up in the front, just so I could have had more company and girls over to side could have seen better/been in the action. So yeah, we do encourage girls to the front, and sometimes when shows have gotten really violent (like when we were in England) we had to ask the boys to move to the side or the back because it was just too fucking scary for us, after several attacks and threats, to face another sea of hostile boy-faces right in the front.[67]

Kathleen Hanna would later write: "It was also super schizo to play shows where guys threw stuff at us, called us cunts and yelled "take it off" during our set, and then the next night perform for throngs of amazing girls singing along to every lyric and cheering after every song."[40]

Many men were supporters of riot grrrl culture and acts. Calvin Johnson and Slim Moon have been instrumental in publishing riot grrrl bands on the labels they founded, K Records and Kill Rock Stars respectively. Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot said, "I was totally into the riot grrrl music, I see it as a very important form of expression. I learned a lot from that, way more maybe than from 'male' punk rock."[68] Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain dated Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail (also respectively), and often played with Bikini Kill even after splitting with them; Kurt was a big fan of the Slits and even convinced the Raincoats to reform. He once said, "The future of rock belongs to women."[69] Many riot grrrl bands included male band members, such as Billy Karren of Bikini Kill or Jon Slade and Chris Rawley of Huggy Bear.

Molly Neuman once summarized: "We're not anti-boy, we're pro-girl."[68] Riot grrrl concerts provided a safe haven for women, and often addressed issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality and female empowerment. For example, in Bikini Kill's "Don't Need You", they sing: "don’t need you to say we’re cute/don’t need you to say we’re alright/don’t need your protection/don’t need your kiss goodnight", rejecting stereotypical heterosexual relationship dynamics.[17]

Influenced heavily by DIY culture, most bands' presentation subverted traditional or classically trained 'musicianship' in favor of raw, primitive, avant-lo-fi passion and fiercely deliberate amateurism: an idea growing rapidly in popularity, especially in the Olympia music scene, with bands like Beat Happening coining the slogans: "Learn how to NOT play your instrument" and "hey, you don't have to sound like the flavor of the month, all you have to do is sound like yourselves"[citation needed], arguing that traditional musical skill doesn't ultimately matter and should always be subservient to the passion, the fun and ideas in their music.[citation needed] This argument is similar to the ideological origins of punk rock itself, which started partially as an attempt to dissolve the growing division between audience and performer. These indie-punk bands (and riot grrrl bands in particular) were often ridiculed for "not being able to play their instruments", but fans are quick to counter that identical criticisms were often faced by the first-wave of punk rock bands in the 1970s, and that this DIY garage amateurism "play just 'cause you wanna, no matter what" attitude was one of the most appealing and liberating aspects of both movements.[citation needed]

Zines and publications[edit]

Even as the Seattle-area rock scene came to international mainstream media attention, riot grrrl remained a willfully underground phenomenon.[65] Most musicians shunned the major record labels, devotedly working instead with indie labels such as Kill Rock Stars, K Records, Slampt, Piao! Records, Simple Machines, Catcall, WIIIJA and Chainsaw Records. The movement also figured fairly prominently in cassette culture, with artists often starting their own DIY cassette labels by as basic and spartan a means as recording their music onto cheap off-the-shelf boom-boxes and passing the cassettes out to friends, seldom charging anything beyond the cost of the actual tapes themselves.

Riot grrrl's momentum was also hugely supported by an explosion of creativity in homemade cut and paste, xeroxed, collage zines that covered a variety of feminist topics, frequently attempting to draw out the political implications of intensely personal experiences in a "privately public" space.[65] Zines often described experiences with sexism, mental illness, body image and eating disorders, sexual abuse, racism, rape, discrimination, stalking, domestic violence, incest, homophobia, and sometimes vegetarianism. Grrrl zine editors are collectively engaged in forms of writing and writing instruction that challenge both dominant notions of the author as an individualized, bodiless space and notions of feminism as primarily an adult political project.[70]

These zines were archived by, and Riot Grrrl Press, started in Washington DC in 1992 by Erika Reinstein & May Summer. Others can be found anthologized in A Girl's Guide to Taking over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution, for which actress/singer/musician/writer/performance artist Ann Magnuson of Bongwater fame wrote as a foreword:[citation needed]

When I think of how much benefit my teenage self could have gained from the multitude of zines that have proliferated over the past decade, I weep for all the lost potential. Except for Joan of Arc and Anne Frank, the thoughts of teenage girls have rarely been taken seriously.[citation needed]

Bands would often attempt to reappropriate derogatory phrases like "cunt", "bitch", "dyke", and "slut", writing them proudly on their skin with lipstick or fat markers. Kathleen Hanna was writing "slut" on her stomach at shows as early as 1992, intentionally fusing feminist art and activist practices.[20] Riot grrrls making political statements to reclaim phrases is a common theme among third-wave feminists.[citation needed] Not only did their music address the same issues as third-wave feminism, but they took a political stance against the oppression they were feeling.[citation needed]

Many of the women involved with queercore were also interested in riot grrrl, and zines such as Chainsaw by Donna Dresch, Sister Nobody, Jane Gets A Divorce and I (heart) Amy Carter by Tammy Rae Carland embody both movements. There were also national conventions like in Washington, D.C.[citation needed], or the Pussystock festival in New York City, as well as various subsequent indie-documentaries like Don't Need You: the Herstory of Riot Grrrl.

Starting during the fall of 2010, the "Riot Grrrl Collection" has been housed at New York University's Fales Library and Special Collections, as "The Fales Riot Grrrl Collection". The collection's primary mandate is "to collect unique materials that provide documentation of the creative process of individuals and the chronology of the [Riot Grrrl] movement overall".[71] Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman, and Becca Albee have donated primary source material, while Molly Neuman, Allison Wolfe, Kathi Wilcox, and Carrie Brownstein are expected to donate material shortly. The collection is the brainchild of Lisa Darms, Senior Archivist at the Fales Library. According to Jenna Freedman, a librarian who maintains a zine collection at Barnard College, "It's just essential to preserve the activist voices in their own unmediated work, especially because of the media blackout that they called for". Kathleen Hanna, while understanding no collection can replicate the concert experience, feels the collection is a safe place that will be "free from feminist erasure".[71][72]

Media misconceptions[edit]

At first most Riot Grrrls were open to using the media as a way to spread the word to other girls. Shortly thereafter, however, feeling that they had been misrepresented, trivialized, commercialized, and made into a new fad and trend, the Riot Grrrls changed their minds.[73]

As media attention increasingly focused on the emerging grunge and alternative rock scene in the mid-nineties, the term "Riot Grrrl" was often used as a catchall for female-fronted bands and applied to less political alternative rock acts. While many female-centric or all-women rock bands, such as Hole, 7 Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland, the Breeders, the Gits, Lunachicks, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, and L7, shared similar DIY tactics and feminist ideologies with the riot grrrl movement, not all of these acts self-identified with the riot grrrl label.[citation needed] Courtney Love, in particular, felt the need to disassociate with Riot Grrrl as a whole:

As supportive as I am of them, there's a faction that says, "We don't know how to play, but we're not going to follow your male-measured idea of what good is." Look, good is Led Zeppelin II. That's fucking good. And I'm not going to sit here and say you're a good band when you suck. They're like, "But we're entitled to suck." Really? We work so hard to get good at what we do without covering up who we are as women.[32]

To their chagrin, in 1992 riot grrrls found themselves in the media spotlight gracing magazines from Seventeen to Newsweek.[74][75] Fallout from the media coverage led to resignations from the movement, including Jessica Hopper, a teenage music critic who was at the center of a Newsweek article. To ease tension, Kathleen Hanna called a "press block" for that year.

In an essay from January 1994 that had been included in the double compact disc release of Bikini Kill's first two albums, Tobi Vail responded to media misrepresentation of Bikini Kill and riot grrrl in general:

One huge misconception for instance that has been repeated over and over again in magazines we have never spoken to and also by those who believe these sources without checking things out themselves is that Bikini Kill is the definitive 'riot girl band' ... We are not in anyway 'leaders of' or authorities on the 'Riot Girl' movement. In fact, as individuals we have each had different experiences with, feelings on, opinions of and varying degrees of involvement with 'Riot Girl' and though we totally respect those who still feel that label is important and meaningful to them, we have never used that term to describe ourselves AS A BAND. As individuals we respect and utilize and subscribe to a variety of different aesthetics, strategies, and beliefs, both political and punk-wise, some of which are probably considered 'riot girl.'[76]

Sharon Cheslow stated in EMP's Riot Grrrl Retrospective documentary:

There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn't handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing 'slut' on their stomach.

Corin Tucker stated:

I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear. They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say, they would take our articles, and our fanzines, and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.[77]

Other female-fronted punk bands, such as Spitboy, were less comfortable with the childhood-centered issues of much of the riot grrrl aesthetic, but nonetheless dealt explicitly with feminist and related issues as well.[78] Lesbian-centric Queercore[79] bands, such as Fifth Column, Tribe 8, Adickdid, the Third Sex, Excuse 17, and Team Dresch, wrote songs dealing with matters specific to women and their position in society, exploring issues such as both sexual[80] and gender identity.[81] A documentary film put together by a San Diego psychiatrist, Dr. Lisa Rose Apramian, Not Bad for a Girl, explored some of these issues in interviews with many of the musicians in the riot grrrl scene at the time.[82]

Other bands and artists associated with the United States riot grrrl movement include Slant 6, Sta-Prest, Jenny Toomey, Tattle Tale, Jack Off Jill, the Need, Nomy Lamm, Lucid Nation, the Frumpies, Bangs, and the Quails; and in the United Kingdom, Blood Sausage, Mambo Taxi, Voodoo Queens, Pussycat Trash, Frantic Spiders, Linus, Sister George and Lungleg.[citation needed]


The "Riot Grrrl" movement has received criticism for not being inclusive enough. Riot Girls are often accused of being separatists: they want to form a life away from men and invent "girl culture".[83] One major argument is that the movement focuses on middle-class white women, alienating other kinds of women.[84][85][86] This criticism emerged early in the movement. In 1993, Ramdasha Bikceem wrote in her zine, Gunk,

Riot grrrl calls for change, but I question who it's including ... I see Riot Grrrl growing very closed to a very few i.e. white middle class punk girls.[65]

Musician Courtney Love has criticized the movement for being too doctrinaire and censorious:

Look, you've got these highly intelligent imperious girls, but who told them it was their undeniable American right not to be offended? Being offended is part of being in the real world. I'm offended every time I see George Bush on TV![87]

Some have suggested that, while riot grrrl bands worked to ensure their shows were safe spaces in which women could find solidarity and create their own subculture, some higher-profile riot grrrl bands participated in the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, a trans-exclusionary events that had a "womyn-born womyn" policy. Former members of Le Tigre did see protests at their shows for having participated in the festival in 2001.[88] However, Kathleen Hanna has stated directly that she supports trans rights on her own Twitter account and her regret of her decision to perform at that festival. Additionally, JD Samson, another former member of Le Tigre, is a proponent of gender fluidity.[89] The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, celebrated its last annual festival in 2015. The Advocate speculated that the decision was related to ongoing controversy over the festival's decision to not admit transgender women.[citation needed]

Legacy and resurgence[edit]

Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney in 2005

In the foreword to the 2007 book, Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!, Beth Ditto writes of riot grrrl,

A movement formed by a handful of girls who felt empowered, who were angry, hilarious, and extreme through and for each other. Built on the floors of strangers' living rooms, tops of Xerox machines, snail mail, word of mouth and mixtapes, riot grrrl reinvented punk.[90]

Additionally, Ditto writes about riot grrrl's influence on her personally and on her music. She muses on the meaning of the movement for her generation,

Until I found riot grrrl, or riot grrrl found me I was just another Gloria Steinem NOW feminist trying to take a stand in shop class. Now I am a musician, a writer, a whole person.[90]

Many women write to Hanna in hopes of reviving the Riot Grrrl Movement. Hanna says, "Don’t revive it, make something better".[91] In 2010 Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution became the first published history of the riot grrrl movement.[92][93] The author had had also attended Riot Grrrl meetings herself.[94] As of 2019 there were approximately ten weekly riot grrrl meetings held nationwide and bands multiplying faster than can be counted.[4][18]

The Regrettes formed in 2015 and merge riot grrrl with elements of doo-wop[95]

In 2013 Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss curated Alien She, an exhibition examining the impact of Riot Grrrl on artists and cultural producers. Alien She focuses on seven people whose visual art practices were informed by their contact with Riot Grrrl. Many of them work in multiple disciplines, such as sculpture, installation, video, documentary film, photography, drawing, printmaking, new media, social practice, curation, music, writing and performance—a reflection of the movement's artistic diversity and mutability.[96][97][98] It opened September 2013 at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and ran through February the following year. It visited four subsequent art spaces (Vox Populi in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March – April 2014; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, October 2014 – January 2015; Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California, February – May 2015; and Pacific Northwest College of Art: 511 Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, September 3, 2015 – January 9, 2016[99]).

The term "grrrl" (or "grrl") itself has since been co-opted or used by agencies as diverse as advocacy on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (GRRL POWER 1.0 5-PACK / Memetics for the Ladies)[100] and a roller derby league in Singapore.[101]

The resurgence of riot grrrl is clearly visible in fourth-wave feminists worldwide who cite the original movement as an interest or influence on their lives and/or their work.[102][103] Some of them are self-proclaimed riot grrrls while others consider themselves simply admirers or fans. In an age where Internet is the most accessible platform for individuals to express themselves, the fourth-wave riot grrrl community has risen in popularity in recent years. Not only do these online platforms capture discussion regarding larger topics of intersectional oppression, but they also provide space for budding feminists to express smaller issues, such as the successes and challenges of their everyday lives. Young feminists have harnessed the internet as a forum for self-determinism and genuine, open expression: a core part of the riot grrrl message that allows young adults room to decide for themselves who they are.[22] As both a purported musical genre and as a subculture, riot grrrl has been acclaimed as an influence on contemporary groups as varied as Kitten Forever, Skating Polly, the Shondes and the Ethical Debating Society. Additionally, the riot grrrl movement has influenced an eclectic array of music genres and art in modern times.

In January 2019, Bikini Kill announced their reunion tour for the first time since their last show in Tokyo 22 years ago. The Guardian stated in an article about reunion that the once-underground riot grrrl movement has gone mainstream due to word of mouth from celebrities and the increased attention to other modern feminist developments such as the Me Too movement. In the same article, drummer Tobi Vail stated her frustration with lack of social progress related to feminism.[104]

These same issues still exist, being a woman in public is very intense, whether it’s in the public eye or just walking down the street at night by yourself.[104]

Vail also explained the aims of their reunion, that women discover the band and understand their history, especially those who did not have the opportunity to hear them during the original riot grrrl movement.

We’re doing it because we want to be a part of this conversation about what feminism is in this moment.[104]

Global proliferation[edit]

Pussy Riot. Photo by Denis Bochkarev.
Pussy Riot. Photo by Denis Bochkarev.

Since its beginnings, the riot grrrl movement was attractive to many women in varied cultures. Its spread across the world established bands in Brazil, Paraguay, Israel, Australia, Malaysia, and Europe,[105] and its globalization was also aided by the distribution of zines across Asia, Europe, and South America.[106] The discovery of riot grrrl provided women across the globe with access to an outlet that challenged the dominant culture's attitudes toward the female body through a form of self-expression[105] that previously was often inaccessible to women in non-western nations.[106] In addition to becoming a vehicle of expression for equality, bands in the genre affected the status quo of the music industry by challenging the gender norms that favoured male musicians.[107]

One of the most well-known bands to come out of the globalization of the riot grrrl movement is Pussy Riot, a Russian group who self-identifies as twenty-first century Russian riot grrrls.[106] Pussy Riot first came to popular media attention in 2012 when they staged a protest performance of "Punk Prayer" at the altar of Moscow’s largest cathedral. The song includes lines such as, “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out![citation needed] All three members of Pussy Riot at the time were arrested by authorities and accused of hooliganism.

Currently Pussy Riot performs music with themes of feminism, LGBT rights, and opposition to the policies of Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom the group considers to be a dictator.[108] Pussy Riot embraces the ideals of riot grrrls by challenging the political climate they personally experience as well as the homophobic and patriarchal elements of everyday Russian life.[106]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Gottlieb, Joanne and Gayle Wald. "Smells Like Teen Spirit: Riot Grrrls, Revolution, and Women in Independent Rock." Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture. Eds. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Kaltefleiter, Caroline K. (2016). "Start your own revolution: agency and action of the Riot Grrrl network". International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 36 (11/12): 808–823. doi:10.1108/IJSSP-06-2016-0067. ISSN 0144-333X.
  • Kearney, Mary Celeste. "Brought to You by Girl Power: Riot Grrrl's Networked Media Economy," Girls Make Media. New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0-415-97278-7.
  • Kearney, Mary Celeste. "‘Don’t Need You’: Rethinking Identity Politics and Separatism from a Grrrl Perspective," Youth Culture: Identity in a Postmodern World . Ed. Jonathan Epstein. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1998. ISBN 1557868506.
  • Kearney, Mary Celeste. "The Missing Links: Riot Grrrl—Feminism—Lesbian Culture." Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. Ed. Sheila Whiteley. New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0-415-14670-4.
  • Leonard, Marion. "Feminism,‘Subculture’, and Grrrl Power." Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. Ed. Sheila Whiteley. New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0-415-14670-4.
  • Nguyen, Mimi Thi. "Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival." Women & Performance 22. 2-3 (2012): 173-196.

External links[edit]


Dedicated Websites[edit]