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How Riot Grrrl Rocked Femininity

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

We’ve all heard the line “sugar, spice, and everything nice” as a playful commentary on the idea of what makes a girl a girl. Yes, it’s just a quote from the Powerpuff Girls, but the underlying meaning behind these simple “ingredients” is that they represent an established societal viewpoint on what defines femininity. But many people, including myself, feel that these traditional ideas of femininity are cages rather than guidelines.

I’ve never been keen on the idea of gender roles. As a kid, I always wanted to play in the mud with the boys, rejected the color pink, and wished girls were cool in the ways boys were. Movies I watched growing up always featured boys going on fantastical adventures whereas most media targeted at young girls were diminished to a focus on school crushes or aiming to become “the popular girl” archetype. I noticed an unspoken freedom ingrained in boyhood that I didn’t feel girls had the same access to. I am not afraid to admit that I definitely grew up to be an I’m-not-like-other-girls kind of person in my adolescent years, but I now acknowledge the harm and confusion behind statements like that. I thought femininity was tied down to dressing and acting a certain way, like one big eternal game of dress-up. Because I believed feminine traits were limited to being fragile, docile, and just plain girly, I thought I would never truly be able to connect with the idea of femininity. Today, I find comfort in gender expression from the radical deconstruction of feminine norms expressed by the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s.

Back in the Pacific Northwest, female-fronted punk bands were growing tired of the sexism, misogyny, and plain-out unfairness of the male-dominated music scene. In an environment where everyone is proudly a misfit, why were women still the outcasts? This type of thinking inspired the beginning of the Riot Grrrl movement as musicians, artists, and writers banded together to create a safe space within the punk scene that would celebrate women of all backgrounds and amplify their once spoken-over voices.

“Riot Grrrl” itself initially started out as a weekly newsletter compacted into a free handheld zine that discussed socially taboo topics including sexuality, domestic abuse, and female empowerment. The girls of the scene thought of them as diaries you share. These zines would also include poetry or graphics that usually depicted modified feminine or cute figures that were purposefully drawn to look abnormal. Through the creation of these zines, women involved in this movement were literally rewriting their own narratives.

Beyond the zines, Riot Grrrls were also heavily involved musicians who used their platforms to spread the feminist agendas they believed in. The front-running bands of the time were Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Sleater-Kinney, and several others. Liz Naylor, the manager of Huggy Bear, was quoted saying “There was a lot of anger and self-mutilation. In a symbolic sense, women were cutting and destroying the established image of femininity, aggressively tearing it down.” This progressive act of deconstruction is clearly demonstrated through the crude and brutally honest lyricism of these bands. Nothing was off the table to talk about, whether or not it was “inappropriate” for a woman to do so. Their stages were their soapboxes and they equipped themselves with butch haircuts, safety-pinned clothes, and loud potty mouths. One of my personal favorite set of lyrics comes from the Bratmobile song “Do You Like Me Like That?” in which lead singer Allison Wolfe screams,

So what do you know about the catty girls?

The only thing you know is your rich boy world. You’re talking politics on your pedestal and your half-baked idea of what it means to be a girl”.

“What it means to be a girl” is a line that sticks with me because, in a way, it’s almost a rhetorical statement. There’s not a perfect answer that sums up how every person feels about or responds to the concept of girlhood. What I admire about the individuals who participated in this movement is that they were fearless in how they expressed themselves. Repeated imagery throughout zines, fashion, and music of the era included distorted depictions of dolls and traditional feminine attire. Dresses were ripped up and fastened back together, body hair was embraced, and provocative words like “slut” were written in lipstick on their bodies. If gender expression is a performance, then Riot Grrrls deserve an encore for their bold, unapologetic rebellion against the cookie-cutter images of femininity.

Although I champion Riot Grrrl for its defiance against beauty standards and oppression, I have to acknowledge the faults within the movement. Several women writers of color at the time expressed their feelings that Riot Grrrl only rallied for middle-class white women rather than women of all ethnic and financial backgrounds. Black people, in general, are often overlooked in the history of punk music and culture despite their heavy involvement and influence. Though disappointing, the erasure of black women within the Riot Grrrl scene is not too surprising. Musician and writer of her own zine “Gunk”, Ramdasha Bikceem wrote, “Riot grrrl calls for change, but I question who it's including ... I see Riot Grrrl growing very closed to a very few i.e. white middle class punk girls” In response to the gatekeeping that spawned from Riot Grrrl, young black women created the Sista Grrrl movement to uplift other black women who didn’t feel accepted within the Riot Grrrl world. Similar to how white women were fighting back against misogyny from punk white men, black women were fighting microaggressions and misogynoir from women who were meant to represent justice for all women.

In addition to the exclusion of women of color, another common flaw seen in Riot Grrrl’s pitfall of “white feminism” is the exclusion of trans women. Participants of the Riot Grrrl wave of feminism were repeatedly criticized for supporting events like the trans-exclusive “Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival”, also known as “Michfest”, which promoted a “womyn-born-womyn” agenda (“womyn” being a political term used by feminists to avoid the use of the word “men”). I think to truly appreciate unconventional representations of femininity, we have to acknowledge not only the deviation from eurocentric and heteronormative ideals but also the reclaiming done by white cisgender feminists. If your feminism isn’t intersectional and inclusive, how can your views on femininity be?

The presence of “girl punk” is still alive and well today, spreading the same revolutionary passion of the Riot Grrrls through modern bands like Doll Skin, Destroy Boys, Skating Polly, be your own PET, The Linda Lindas (whose youngest member is only 11 years old!), and plenty of others. There’s also been a recent resurgence of zine creation as the activity continues to gain traction on social media applications like Instagram and TikTok. Though the Riot Grrrl movement didn’t create zine-making, the influence of using a physical medium to convey thoughts and ideas is still relevant in proving that any platform can be creatively used for activism. Even though “punk” as an aesthetic has been overly commodified in pop culture to the point where it almost loses its original intention, the current trend of thrifting and altering your own clothing represents the original DIY attitude affiliated with the subculture.

Riot Grrrl birthed a subculture and feminist-driven movement that challenged patriarchal norms through music, art, zine-creation, and political action. We can still learn from it today in terms of how we view femininity, but in a way that prioritizes diversity and inclusion. Being feminine doesn’t mean you have to adhere to outdated gender roles that were instilled centuries ago. Femininity can be whatever you want it to be, but to me it’s punk!

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