As we mentioned yesterday, our fourth selection is Sara Marcus’s recently released Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution — a chronicle of the early 90s underground feminist movement and the music, zines and politics that defined it. Today, Mia and Lindsay discuss their responses to the book.
Mia: So I want to open up this conversation by noting that Lindsay and I were angsty teenage feminists about a decade after the riot grrrl movement. As such, all of our knowledge of What Really Happened comes secondhand (largely from this book), though we certainly had heard of the movement as kids in the mid-90s, as the mass media was trying to wrap its collective head around riot grrrl and figure out a way to package it for mass consumption. Care to share the story of your first encounter with riot grrrl, Lindsay?
Lindsay: Let’s lift the curtain back to show how resolutely uncool we are. I first heard the term “riot grrrl” in 1996, roughly three years after even the last vestiges of the movement had died, when I saw it on that Gwen Stefani cover of Spin that would later be dramatized in the “Don’t Speak” video. “Riot girlie,” the caption read. I was intrigued! Years passed before I figured out what it actually meant. Can you possibly top my uncoolness/tardiness to the party, Mia?
Mia: I can and will! There was this episode of Roseanne from the 1995-1996 season in which Roseanne and her sister Jackie pick up a hitchhiker – played by Jenna Elfman, of all people – who opens their eyes to this exciting new world of riot grrrl.
Lindsay: CLIP, PLEASE.
Mia: Here we are! So Jenna Elfman gives them a riot grrrl mixtape, and Roseanne and Jackie are initially resistant to it, but then Roseanne’s like, “Hold up, all the music WE listened to was totally sexist and awful.” And later in the episode, her husband makes an off-hand sexist comment, and Roseanne calls him out on it and has this great feminist awakening moment. And lame as this is – learning about riot grrrl from A SITCOM – the memory stayed with me.
Lindsay: This is arguably the best Youtube clip I’ve ever seen.
Lindsay: But, I guess what we’re saying is, “Thank you, Sara Marcus, for documenting this movement so vividly and comprehensively. Signed, two girls who were young and uncool in 1991.”
Mia: But so was she! Like, her first exposure to riot grrrl was this 1992 Newsweek article which she later learned during her research was pretty universally despised by the riot grrrls themselves.
Lindsay: Yes, true. I had always heard the general narrative arc that “the mainstream press killed riot grrrl,” and, not knowing all the facts, that seemed a little scapegoaty and far-fetched, but after reading this book I have a very real understanding of how a certain level of mainstream media exposure can tear apart an underground movement.
Mia: Yeah, and it’s like, would riot grrrl have reached even a fraction of the girls it ultimately reached without these articles from uncool publications like Newsweek and Spin? Probably not. But the flip-side is that the mass media exposure fundamentally changed the dynamics of the movement to the point that its originators were pretty much done with it by the time the rest of the world discovered it.
Lindsay: And it’s perhaps only so evident in hindsight how the mainstream exposure thing could have potentially worked to the movement’s advantage. Like, we wouldn’t have this great and powerfully written book, had it not been for Marcus reading the Newsweek article all those years ago. Big Newsweek reader, Mia?
Mia: Wouldn’t that be a dirty secret!
Lindsay: I’ll take that as an “I only read newsweek.com.” Moving on, did reading about riot grrrl make you kind of pissed about how in the 20 years that followed there hasn’t been another unified youth feminist movement like it? Are we slipping backwards?
Mia: If anything, reading this book made me so grateful to have the means of communication we have today, i.e. THE INTERNET. I mean, I was in awe of the way these girls organized meetings and shows and protests using MAIL and the TELEPHONE and other antiquated devices. And yeah, they did some really cool things, and I wish there were a more unified movement today. But I think the nature of the Internet has made it so “the feminist movement” doesn’t have to be unified in order for individuals to get something out of it, you know? We all have our little pockets of the Internet, and sometimes we come together too.
Lindsay: Indeed. Which seems a fine enough segue into quoting one of my favorite exchanges from the book. Christina Woolner, who’d later go on to write the zine Girl Fiend, wrote a letter to Kathleen Hanna describing how, as a lesbian, she didn’t feel her particular voice was represented by riot grrrl. To which Hanna replied, via letter, “You’ve got to do a zine, cool dork girl!”
Mia: Which is totally the same as the story of how we formed our blog!
Lindsay: Revisionist history! Speaking of Kathleen Hanna, I think her role in the whole movement is fascinating. As the outspoken lead singer of Bikini Kill, a lot of girls saw her as the de facto leader of riot grrrl, but Kathleen was very uncomfortable with that title, mostly because she insisted upon the movement being non-hierarchical. Maybe, dare I say it, to a fault?
Mia: As far as the aforementioned media coverage went, I think not having a spokeswoman definitely hurt the movement and allowed the media to define riot grrrl. But, by and large, we’re talking about teenagers and women in their early 20s – it’s not like they were going to hire a PR person. Still, I like the spirit of Kathleen’s decision, because, again, this was about YOUNG women, many of whom were just discovering feminism and coming into their own and needed a space to express themselves and be taken seriously. And if there was a leader who everyone was expected to idolize and take orders from, I think the spirit of riot grrrl – this idea that every girl’s voice can be powerful – would have been lost.
Lindsay: Valid. As per that great Heavens to Betsy video you posted yesterday, let’s also talk race and riot grrrl. One of the movement’s biggest criticisms — reminiscent of, strangely enough, the feminist movement of the 70s — was that it was overwhelmingly white. This is one of the obvious damages the mainstream media wreaked, too; girls of color felt like they couldn’t identify because they only saw white girls in the RG magazine photo spreads.
Mia: Yeah, one part of the book that was really interesting to me was when the grrrls tried to talk about race at their national conference in D.C., and it was just a disaster because some of the white girls spent so much time trying to explain that THEY weren’t the racist ones. Later in the book, the movement also struggled a lot with class issues, in which some of the grrrls tried so hard to explain that it wasn’t THEIR fault that they had money. But, as you said, this exact issue was one of the reasons women of color couldn’t identify with 70s feminism, and I think it will continue to be an issue in subsequent feminist movements and certain counterculture movements. I mean, in respect to race, riot grrrl was just a reflection of the mainstream feminism community and of punk too – that’s to say: overwhelmingly white. Also, not to talk about the Internet too much (but I will!), but one of its great benefits is making middle-class white girls like us aware of these issues and aware of our privilege.
Lindsay: Truth. And consciousness raising is always the first step to understanding all aspects your privilege, as they say. Didn’t those riot grrrl meetings sound like such great and vital ways to get young girls understanding how sexism works in their everday lives? Can the Internet do that too, or is there no substitute for face-to-face conversation when it comes to something that personal and revelatory?
Mia: Those meetings sound like the consciousness-raising meetings of the 60s and 70s that bell hooks talked about! As per the Internet, again, I think it’s an excellent tool. I mean, for the girl living in the small town or the uncool town, or the girl who just doesn’t know any feminists in real life, I really think the Internet can be such a source of hope that there are rad feminist women (and men!) out there. I mean, obviously face-to-face conversation is great, and I know you and I come away from our in-person book club discussions with so much energy. It’s cathartic! But let’s not write-off the Internet entirely plz!
Lindsay: Dare I say, “You’ve got start a book club, cool dork girls”?
Mia: Yeah, cool dork girls to the front! Lindsay, do you think you would have gone to a riot grrrl meeting when you were 16? I’m not sure I was confident enough to go alone. I wish had the audacity of these girls.
Lindsay: I want to think that I would have, but who knows. It’s always easier when you feel like you have an ally in that sort of thing. Well, Mia, I think it’s safe to say we both absolutely loved this book, yes?
Mia: Yes. A safe assumption, indeed. And, per usual, I’d like to put out the offer for our readers in the D.C. area to borrow my copy. (Though if you can, please buy it, and support a cool author.)
Lindsay: Indeed. I will offer my copy too, if you are able to contend with such hyper-article margin writings as “DUDE. FUCK. YES” in the parts I really liked. Shall we sign off with our favorite Roseanne quotes?
Mia: Absolutely. “Women rule, dirtbag!”
Lindsay: Words to live by. And Mia, next time we’re taking a Thelma & Louise style road trip and a truck driver tries to leer at us from the next lane, I will find great joy in summoning my inner Roseanne Barr as I turn to you and say, “We’ll show him a little Bikini Kill!”