Where Have All the Riot Grrrls Gone?
The year 1991 was the beginning of a period when young women wanted you to take their tampons and shove it. Anita Hill, a 35-year-old assistant to then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, testified against him for sexual harassment during a Senate hearing. Music journalist Sue Cummings, along with the Feminist Majority Foundation and the all-female grunge band L7, formed Rock for Choice, a concert series promoting abortion rights. Courtney Love gargled whisky and sang of teenage whores and baby dolls with her band Hole in their debut album Pretty on the Inside. Women released their angst through Do-It-Yourself methods, such as photocopying self-published “zines.“ Others formed garage bands, yearning to mosh without being groped. Like angry banshees, they howled their distress in being unappreciated by the men in their lives. It was the Riot Grrrl era where feminists wouldn‘t purr. Instead, they roared and ripped their t-shirts, exposing their breasts and declaring the right to make their own choices with their bodies. Riot Grrrls exchanged zines, which included writings on the sexism that surrounded them. Ultimately, Riot Grrrls rocked to their own beat, uniting their fellow sisters in search of equality.
In spring 1991, a black female police officer attempted to arrest a Salvadorian man for disorderly conduct. The officer ended up shooting the man who, according to various reports, carried a knife. This event caused the Mount Pleasant Riot in Washington D.C. between Hispanics and police officers. Jen Smith of Bratmobile wrote a foretelling letter to future band mate Allison Wolfe, declaring, “We need to start a girl riot.” Kathleen Hanna, a photography student from Evergreen State College, formed the art gallery, Reko Muse, after her school pulled down photos that showcased her struggles with sexism. For three years, aspiring musicians and literary bohemians gathered in local coffee shops and campuses. They created friendships and produced self-made publications for victims of abuse and rape, as well as for those who were ready to wear their Doc Martens and stomp on the society that has rejected them.
Numerous women from Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. formed an underground media empire consisting of zines (Girl Germs, Satan Wears A Bra), bands (7 Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland), record labels (Kill Rock Stars, Catcall), concerts, (International Pop Underground Convention) and organizations (N.O.W., H.I.P.S.) around the United States, spreading over to Europe. Their message focused on the many issues that plagued them, such as homophobia and racism. While several women openly embraced their status as a Riot Grrrl, others shunned the spotlight, refusing to speak with press or educate curious men. While the feminine revolution could have lasted, its reign quickly fell.
During this era, Hanna, who became lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill scrawled “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on her friend, Nirvana vocalist Kurt Cobain’s house. Referring to the brand name deodorant for teenage girls, the line was immortalized as Nirvana’s biggest hit, leading to the band’s overexposure and Riot Grrrl’s demise. With bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden also coming out of Seattle’s music scene, the media hungered to learn about what female bands had to offer. Many Riot Grrrl assemblies in D.C. shut down meetings to avoid the press. With time, bands, including Heavens to Betsy and Tattle Tale, broke up. Musicians, like Kristen Pfaff of Hole, died from heroin overdose. Many zines disappeared and females who once proudly labeled themselves Riot Grrrls, weren’t heard from again. By 1999, Riot Grrrl seemed long dead….or was it?
From “Fight Boredom with Feminism!” zine.
Stephanie Nolasco is a New York City-based writer. To learn more about her work, visit www.stephanienolasco.com.