“‘You suck!’ and I’m like, “Yeah. And I swallow.” – Peaches
Music has a history of being political. Art in general does, but through actual singing people can more easily express their voice. Punk music was brought to life in the 70s and in the first two decades, it embodied its intended motto of acceptance of the strange, unusual and unwanted. Up until the late 80s, women were readily included and accepted in the alternative music scenes. “The shift of punk during the 80s forced women out of the scene. Punk moved to ‘hardcore’; something that was both ‘violent and testosterone-fueled’. Because of this, women were excluded,” (Turner, “The Riot Grrrl Movement”). A product of the idea that women were somehow more delicate, unable to stand their ground and that it was unsafe because of groping and sexual assault, women got shoved to the side, even pushed to the back of the venue and unable to be a part of or even see the show they came to enjoy.
“Riot Grrrl is a grass-roots movement that began in the summer of 1991 around Olympia…. The term Riot Grrrl was coined by a small group of female musicians in an attempt to define a more confidence, less passive attitude about being a young woman” (Ann Japenga, “Riot Acts”). Kathleen Hanna, lead vocalist of the band Bikini Kill, best explains the Riot Grrrl movement in an interview on the show, Totally Biased. “Riot Grrrl was a movement of feminist punk rock girls in the 90s who challenged all boys club punk had become. We helped each other start bands, ‘zines, promote shows, and there was even conscious raising meetings.”
Riot Grrrl was a backlash in response to the abuse and harassment of women in the scene. In an article by Dylan Sielger in Ms, Magazine: “[A]t a Rock for Choice benefit show that Bikini Kill played, some female fans were assaulted in the audience – one in particular by a guy who was rubbing his penis on her…. And so a bunch of girls grabbed him and dragged him outside. They didn’t beat him up or anything, but they were stopped by security and told that if they didn’t want these things to happen to they should just stay home and rent videos.”
The man at the show was sexually assaulting this woman by rubbing his genitals on her, but then the security guard goes further by not reprimanding the perpetrator, which gave the message to these women that they deserved this type of treatment, they should expect it and let it happen without question or a fight, and if they do have an issue with it then they should stay home, where it’s safer because they are not worthy of having a influential voice in how they are treated. When these girls do band together and decide to do something about it, they themselves are punished and objectified for it.
The extent of the sexual assault did not stop there; “[Courtney] Love watched from the wings as [Nirvana] played “Rape Me,” and noticed a female fan up front who had been engulfed by a group of men, who were ‘staring straight ahead…as they ripped her shirt, bra, panties…as they started mangling her breasts…hands on either side – her face was all screwed up in a scream – and the men were all glazed – and staring straight ahead… [T]he girl was bloody and hysterical – her breasts and stomach looked as though they had been clawed by jackals’” (Cinderella’s Big Score, 157).
The formation of Riot Grrrl was a response to these assaults and all those that mirrored them. There were certain instance where groups girls have reclaimed mosh pits by “…joining hands and walking up to the front of the stage, where [girls] protected each other and themselves and actually got to see the show” (Spencer, “Grrrls Only”). Additionally, in order to spread awareness about the chauvinism women faced daily, people who were a part of the movement wrote negative terms on their body like ‘rape’, ‘slut’, ‘insect’, ‘cunt’, and ‘whore’. One of the leader-heads of the movement, Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, “Often flashed the audience, sometimes pointing out her cellulite, scrawled the words “Bitch” and “Slut” on her stomach, and sang of sexual attraction to both girls and boys, allowing women, particularly feminists, to be at once angry and sexual” (Cinderella’s Big Score, 207).
The spread of any movement is normally aided by media coverage. But in this case, the media created such a false portrayal of the Riot Grrrl movement that it had no benefit. Instead of focusing on the political stances and extreme lengths that women were willing to go to prove their points, the media chose to criticize how scandalously they were dressed and how poorly they sounded.
In a TV interview on the show Totally Biased, Kathleen Hanna commented on the media, looking back on the miscommunication between the two entities. “The media was focusing on outfits and ‘who wears what’…[that Riot Grrrls’] must have been sexually abused because they hate men and that’s what feminism is…We spent so much time being misrepresented that we couldn’t make our art. It was like; ‘Let’s just not,’ (Kathleen Hanna, Totally Biased, 5:03). Because the media was misrepresenting the Riot Grrrl movement, many of the participants decided that they were better off without the distraction of false information and repeatedly attempting to get their message across, so they ignored the media all together.
The songs these women sang articulated situations that they encountered and endured due to sexism and strict gender roles that still imitated those from the 50s. The lyrics by Bikini Kill from the song White Boy are as follows: “It’s hard to talk with your dick in my mouth/ I will try to scream in pain a little nicer next time/ White boy, don’t laugh, don’t cry, just die!/ I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me/I cannot scream from pain down here on my knees/I’m so sorry that I think!” In Bikini Kill’s songs Hanna talks about sexism, issues, stereotypes and the sexual pressures that women faced daily in different aspects of life in addition to the troubles of the music scenes.
On alienation, women were not only excluded and objectified in society, they were now shunned from the punk scene where they had previously been able to find elation and use the music as an unexploited outlet. “In the pit, men violently collided into each other and women were groped, injured, or simply shoved to the side” (Turner, “The Riot Grrrl Movement”). Since it was assumed women were unable to handle the new type and culture of the music, they were often times both literally and physically pushed out of the scene.
To get their messages across easier, lyrics weren’t that symbolic. In the song Suck My Left One, Hanna screeches, “Daddy comes in her room at night/ He’s got more than talking on his mind/My sister pulls the covers down/She reaches over, flicks on the light/ She says to him:/ Suck my left one! Suck my left one!” In this section of the song, Hanna is talking about a father that molests his children. These sets of lyrics are straight to the point and easy to interpret at any level of intelligence as well as speak out against and about issues that concern women and girls. They, as well as other instances, illustrate the simple language and blunt, antagonistic examples that Riot Grrrls used to cast light on women’s issues and feminism.
As a replacement for flyers or traditional pamphlets, Riot Grrrl used ‘zines, which are handmade magazines created by the girls and women of the movement. These low-cost, self-published works became a natural venue for punk rock fans to express themselves creatively, politically, and personally while they critiqued and supported punk musicians.
The Riot Grrrl movement strived to amend this issue and change the disgrace of words like ‘slut’, ‘whore’, and ‘cunt’ – three words that were, and still are, frequently used as negative term when referring to women. “[Riot Grrrls] marked their bodies with blunt, five-inch letters reading RAPE or SLUT – an MTV-era way of saying, ‘That’s what you think of me; confront your own bigotry.’”(“Revolution, Girl Style.”) With this, they also tried to add fluidity to the concept of sex and gender. In their song, Sugar, Hanna sings, “I’m a self-fulfilling porno queen…yeah/ I mimic out your every fucking fantasy yeah! Yeah!” These lines articulate that by giving out and performing these abstract sexual favors, it is expected that the woman is also pleasured without a deeper stimulation. The lyrics moreover verbalizes that a woman is expected to do what she is told by her partner; fulfilling his fantasy that was inspired by some unique position he witnessed in a video, solidifying that she is only seen as a sexual object. The next few lines in Sugar, “…Oh, baby…why can’t I ever get my! sugar?/…I won’t play girl to your boy no more, sugar/ I want mine right here right now, baby sugar/ I can almost reach it now, now, now,” also express that women, contrary to popular belief, are able to enjoy sex and have their own fantasies and a libido (while this is more obvious now, the 90s was still a time where women couldn’t fully articulate this). In total, Riot Grrrl stirred up the roles that men and women were expected to play during and outside of intercourse, in hopes to offer a more fluid idea of sex and sexual activity.
A more extreme example of gender fluidity and open sexuality is the musical artist Peaches. “Onstage, she’d been known to eat an entire loaf of bread, vomit fake blood, feign tampon removal and dominate a sex slave…Peaches represents much of what is left out of pop music – all things flawed, home-grown, spontaneous, raunchy” (Cinderella’s Big Score, 249). She was not only as zealous onstage either. Peaches has said, “…If we’re going to use motherfucker, why don’t we use fatherfucker? I’m just trying to be even” (Cinderella’s Big Score, 248). Quick witted and head-strong, Peaches is a female who, on the cover-art of her album Fatherfucker, messes with society’s gender roles for females by supporting a full grown beard.
Overall, the Riot Grrrl movement was one that pushed punk music and equal rights thrashing forward. After being pushed to the side, women in the scene stayed true to aggressive punk ideology and pushed their way back into the most pit.
Turner, Chérie. Everything You Need to Know about the Riot Grrrl Movement: The Feminism of a New Generation. New York: Rosen, 2001. Print.
Japenga, Ann. "Riot Acts." New York Times 15 Nov. 1992: n. pag. Rpt. in Twelve Little Grrrls. N.p.: n.p.,n.d. N. pag. Print. http://www.cs.xu.edu/~tankgirl/twelvelittlegrrrls/articles/newyorktimes.html
Totally Biased. Interview by W. Kamau Bell. Youtube. Youtube, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WozprgZeCmo>
Sielger, Dylan, ed. Ms. Magazine. N.p., Aug. 2000. Web. http://www.msmagazine.com/aug00/shesays.html
Chideya, Farai, Melissa Rossi, and Hannah Dogen. "Revolution, Girl Style." Newsweek 23 Nov. 1992: n. pag. Rpt. in Twelve Little Grrrls. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print. http://www.cs.xu.edu/~tankgirl/twelvelittlegrrrls/articles/newsweek.html
Raha, Maria. Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2005. Print.