Riolt Grrrl was a life raft
I was still in grade school when riot grrrl came on the scene in the early nineties. During that time, the only semblance of feminism on my pre-teen radar was in the form of the then-popular “girl power” meme, whose watered-down messaging was made popular by babydoll tees sporting slogans such as “girls kick ass” and by such anthems as No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl”, or any number of hits by *sigh* the Spice Girls.
During high school in rural Southern Californian suburbia, I struggled to find my subcultural niche. At a school largely dominated by bros, jocks, and cowboys, I found refuge in a motley crew of punks, queers, and ska kids. In my senior year, I became close with the amazing Jackie Marhoff, a zinester a couple years my junior who sewed her own clothes, and had music taste far superior to mine due to the influence of a cool older sister.
I thought this girl was so fucking cool, and eagerly devoured her recommendations and incredible mix cds. My seminal riot grrrl moment occurred upon receipt of one of these epic mixes, which featured songs from Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, the Casual Dots, and, of course, Bikini Kill.
I was instantly gripped by the combination of unstructured guitar, frenetic drumming, and most of all, the grown-up grrrl screams like the tightly controlled tantrum I had bottled up inside of me. It felt like a fucking release. This music articulated all the emotions I didn’t yet know how to deal with. It was primal, it was messy, and most of all, it was loud.
I was particularly shook up by the way Bikini Kill’s “Suck My Left One” struck a nerve beneath the skin I no longer felt safe in after years of abuse at the hands of my father. The words resonated in a hauntingly familiar way with the place inside me that was aching, it articulated the injustice I had experienced in a way that was accessible and incredibly validating.
Hearing this song for the first time was my first recognition that the things that were happening to me at home that I couldn’t talk to anyone about were happening to other girls, and this realization was simultaneously heartbreaking, comforting, and enraging.
Riot grrrl was both a liferaft and the catalyst for my self-recovery and resistance to what Bikini Kill so aptly labeled “psychic death”. It led me to feminism, which has helped me de-pathologize the fallout feelings and situate my complicated experience within larger discourses of patriarchy, sexism, and violence.
The only downside of my rapturous love affair with riot grrrl was that by this time it was 2003, and I felt like I had missed the boat on experiencing this phenomenon firsthand. Undeterred, I vowed to move to Olympia anyway, and luckily for me there was an incredible liberal arts college there. In 2006 I packed my bags and tiny Plymouth Neon to study feminist theory at the Evergreen State College and experience what I hoped would be the lingering spirit of riot grrrl, even though I was ten years late.
I almost had a conniption when roll was called on my first day of class and in attendance was none other than Tobi Vail, drummer of Bikini Kill and feminist theorist extraordinaire. I never worked up the nerve to tell her what an impact Bikini Kill and riot grrrl made on me, but I was absolutely starstruck and so fucking excited that she was there, a connection to the lifeline of the movement that had saved my life.
Nowadays, it is almost twenty years since the heydey of riot grrrl, and the music and message is still infusing my personal and political, recharging my psychic batteries, and fueling my workouts. I feel the energy of a fourth wave of feminism coming, and I experience it daily with my own microcosm of strong survivor best friends, DIY everything, and radical acceptance and self-love.
This is the kind of energy that I seek to experience collectively and communally with all the grown-up grrrls of the nineties, to carry the torch riot grrrl, to speak our own truths, to have our own movement.