FEATURE: The Rebel Girl Who Rolls Her ‘Rs’ to the Fight: The Riot Grrrl Rebellion and Its Striking Legacy



The Rebel Girl Who Rolls Her ‘Rs’ to the Fight


IMAGE CREDITJulia Scheele  

The Riot Grrrl Rebellion and Its Striking Legacy


RIGHT now…



there is tension in the air and a sense that equality, as we want it stand, is a way off. I keep reading news reports that cause reaction because women are being overlooked. Whether it is to do with pay or something around sexual abuse – we haven’t evolved as much as we should. Given the weight of sexism and the struggle still ahead; one might assume female artists would feel reluctant to strike forward and take charge. The opposite is happening: there are some fierce and attacking female bands that are showing what spit and determination they have. I think about things happening in music and how female artists are getting on with things. From REWS and Goat Girl to Melkbelly and Palberta – there are a lot of great female/female-fronted bands that are capturing the spirit and attitude we saw back in the 1990s. The reason I wanted to explore riot girrrl and the role of innovators like Kathleen Hanna was to illustrate the sort of energy and desire that was in the air back then. One can say things have gotten worse since the 1990s when it comes to inequality and the role of women in music. It does not have to be all about Punk and aggressive music: brilliant female Pop and Folk artists are producing wonderful work; some great Electronic minds and those adding their touch to R&B. I will conclude with a playlist, but there are some great articles that chart the birth of riot girrrl and the sort of feelings that were stirred back then. The movement was more than music and the sort of D.I.Y. Punk aesthetic that was present among the best acts. There was the fanzine culture and a wider support for women in music. There was something inspiring in the air back in the 1990s:

Riot Grrrl was an underground feminist movement that began in the early nineties, which was closely tied to punk music, radical politics, and a DIY aesthetic. Riot Grrrl activism involved meetings, the creation of zines, and a nationwide network of support for women in music. While some say the movement lasted until the mid-90s, others contend it never ended. With the popularity of Sara Marcus‘s recently published book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, it seems there may be some truth to that statement. And there are many zines, which tell the tale of the origins of the movement. In 1993, according to a Canadian newspaper (as mentioned in Girls to the Front), 40,000 zines were published in North America”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Bikini Kill/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

So, then: who were the articulators and innovators who defined the movement? Many have their own views as to the pioneers and crucial figures who brought riot grrrl to the underground. There are many modern female Punk groups who take seeds from that movement and are continuing the great legacy that was laid out:

Groups like Perfect Pussy, Joanna Gruesome and Potty Mouth frequently invoke comparisons, apt or otherwise, to the Riot Grrrl movement that began in the early ‘90s. Riot Grrrl was a loose collection of women-driven bands born of a thriving do-it-yourself, activist punk subculture that directly addressed third-wave feminist concerns, like sexual autonomy and violence against women, in their music. Kathleen Hanna of the Olympia, Washington-born Bikini Kill is widely viewed as the movement’s trailblazer, paving the way for today’s punk women with her fierce charisma and politically-charged lyricism. Popular songs include “Rebel Girl,” “White Boy” and “Don’t Need You”.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Alongside the music were fanzines and publications like Action Girl newsletter and Snarla; Runt and Manifixation. It was an exciting and productive era that was fed by the notion women’s’ voices were not being respected and understood. I am drawn to the music at the time – and bands like Bikini Kill – but understand there was a whole community and identity that was enforced – one that carries on today and, in hard times, needs to be highlighted. It seems strange we are surprised to find female musicians project power and read instruments. The term ‘riot grrrl’ was often applied to any female musician who had a voice. Back when the movement started; it was applied to a specific culture and style of music. Although it was a largely white movement – black female artists created a movement of their own that best articulated their struggle – it has mutated into today’s music. Artists like Beyoncé are seen as modern-day examples of the riot grrrl sound and ethos. An interesting article explored the birth of riot grrrl and a particular song that is seen as the movement’s clarion call:

The term “riot grrrl” tends to come up as soon as someone with a vagina starts a band. There are countless women considered riot grrrl figureheads: Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, the Slits, X-Ray Spex and modern musical figureheads like Beyoncé among them. Even Haim have probably been called riot grrrl at one time or another. But this list is specific to the riot grrrl scene that erupted, fanzine in hand, in the 90s Pacific Northwest, and the bands they directly inspired. The original movement ended not long after it began, as magazines started putting girls dressed in the grunge kinderwhore style on their covers and “riot grrrl was conflated with girl power”. Riot grrrl’s DIY, punk philosophy opposed alternative music’s dominant bro culture and created, through gigs and pamphlets, spaces where women could discuss issues of gender, race, sexuality, equality and enjoy being able to crowdsurf without being groped. As outlined in the manifesto that appeared in the fanzine by riot grrrl linchpins Bikini Kill (which I had pinned to my bedroom wall for all of my teens), they saw girls as a “revolutionary soul force” with the power to change the status quo.

Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl was the scene’s rebel yell, a short, sharp shock of serrated, anthemic punk that’s an ode to attitudinal, give-a-fuck females. The titular Rebel Girl holds her head high despite people calling her a “dyke” – or, in another recorded version of the song (there are three), a “slut” – disparaging the notions of sexual ambiguity and promiscuity that the riot grrrls kicked against. But she also rides “the hottest trike in town”, imagery that matches how singer Kathleen Hanna sings the song in the style of a girlish playground taunt. Musically, it’s the ultimate riot grrrl walk-on music, with Tobi Vail’s strutty, Dr Martens-stomp of a drumbeat, guitarist Billy Karren’s crunchy, lip curl of a riff and Hanna’s exorcism-strength screech of “in her kiss, I feel the revolution”. It is, in a word, badass”.



The scene might have shifted and spilt into genres like R&B, Pop and other genres. Whilst there is not the same concentration and intensity as the 1990s. Whilst there are some incredible female artists in the scene right now; the fight continues and many have been looking around for a riot grrrl-like movement that kicks up the dirt and sends a shot to the world. Riot grrrl – if we want to keep using that term – continued past the 1990s but now, in 2018, I wonder whether some of the anger and community has gone away. There might be fanzines and publications but fewer then there was. The feminist movement is strong but it has altered its makeup and appearance. Maybe a new movement will not override the sexism and imbalance we see but there is a desire for unity and a definite shot across the water. I know of so many great female groups, Punk or otherwise, that have immense skill, intensity and talent. I look back at the notion of riot grrrl and why it came about: the need for female artists to be heard and feel they were being listened to. It was more complex than that but I wonder whether lessons were learned and those in positions of power took notice of what was happening. I will end by collating a riot grrrl-inspired playlist that looks at some of the movers and shakers that let their voices shout proud. It was a fascinating and wonderful time that achieved a lot and gave maligned and overlooked female artists a forum and voice. As we look forward to music and wonder whether things will change for the better; I wonder whether we need to look back at a movement – some hate the term ‘riot grrrl’ and others applaud it – and rebellion…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Sleater-Kinney/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

WHOSE echo is still being felt.