May 2013

Kati Nolfi


The Riot Grrl Collection edited by Lisa Darms

It's funny (depressing?) to think that I was too young for Riot Grrrl at its peak and now I'm too old for Riot Grrrl nostalgia. The Riot Grrrl Collection -- zines, letters, flyers, and other ephemera from 1989-1996 archived at NYU's Fales Library -- is a must-have for those of us too isolated, young, or uncool to participate in Grrrl zine culture the first time around. The introductory non-zine material is written in typewriter font, in keeping with the aesthetic of the materials collected. There are essays by Le Tigre's Johanna Fateman and the archivist and editor Lisa Darms, contextualizing Riot Grrrl for readers who haven't picked up Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus or Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism by Alison Piepmeier, two valuable introductions to Riot Grrrl  and zines. The donors include Tobi Vail, Ramdasha, Mimi Thi Nguyen, and Cindy Crabb. The zines include Riot Grrrl, Girl Germs, Cupsize, I (Heart) Amy Carter, Gunk, and Jigsaw.

Although it is criticized for race and class privilege and lack of inclusiveness, Riot Grrrl aimed to unify all girls around their collective oppressions, our insecurity and vigilance. From the movement's inception, working against racism and heterosexism were central goals. There were failures in these efforts. The most visible Riot Grrrls may have been able-bodied, white, upper-middle-class, and pretty, but there were Grrrls who didn't fit into those categories who were part of the movement, and as Mimi Thi Nguyen wrote in her zine Slant, "I care, therefore I critique. If I don't push, the car doesn't go, right?" Some alienated girls of color described an experience with Riot Grrrl similar to the one white girls had in the misogynist punk scene: being objectified, tokenized, and oppressed by their own people. Hardcore was macho and nihilistic, like jock culture but with better music. The boys still blocked your view, still expected you to watch them skate. And the white girls, in their unifying efforts, would ignore the very real differences in the experience of girls of color in punk and Riot Grrrl. In Gunk 4, Ramdasha Bikceem is funny and astute in her irritation with punks who can be creative with their hair color and feel oppressed, even though it is completely reversible and they don't have to worry about oppression for their immutable identity.

The zines in The Riot Grrrl Collection show these girls fought against sexist stereotypes of competitiveness and backbiting that would ten years later become the tiresome mean girl caricature. Riot Grrrls resisted the self-defeating idea that women and girls had to fear each other, not men. They believed that solidarity was the only chance of dismantling patriarchy and that encouraging girl-on-girl hate was in the interests of men.

Riot Grrrl began in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. Though it aimed to be anti-hierarchical and leaderless -- the whole point was to inspire girls everywhere, from Orange County to Ohio to NYC, to DIY together -- the media focused on charismatic figures like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame. As with Occupy Wall Street, the pressures of dealing with a media that latches on to a provocative message but deals in simplistic sound bites contributed to the movements' splintering, infighting, and fatigue. Riot Grrrl was a zine, a collective project in 1991, and a movement, "revolution girl-style now." Not only was Riot Grrrl an important part of a third wave of feminism, blurry though it may be, it was also a youth movement. Riot Grrrl meetings were like 1970s consciousness raising, but instead of organizing around workplace rights or equal pay, this scene put art and sexuality in the foreground. Girls formed bands and wrote zines. They rejected the boy-dominated punk scenes and struggled to express themselves, to make their voices heard, to respect themselves and other girls. They reclaimed words like "girl" and "slut." The redefinition of insulting or infantilizing language reveals humor and irony that were integral to Riot Grrrl. Though Kathleen Hanna says she was inspired by 1970s feminism and grew up attending protests, the third wave looked very different. Riot Grrrls anticipated objectification and subverted it. The juxtaposition of lipstick, glitter, sweat, ruffly socks, cigarettes, Sharpie body graffiti, Peter Pan collars, and Mary Janes provoked and befuddled outsiders.

While the book is visually appealing, Darms wants us to look beyond the image to the meaning of the text. Riot Grrrl is sometimes known more for its punk, distressed babydoll look than its politics of identity and community and the intensity and creativity of the music and art. The collection documents the process of activism and art, the birth of a revolution through zines, set lists, letters, and lyrics. The immediacy and passion of the girls in the movement are clear from the writing, the errors, the stream-of-consciousness style, the bricolage look of the zines.

There is a temptation to portray the early '90s as a liberating time terminated by the death of Kurt Cobain, or the Spice Girls, or Monica Lewinsky, or Britney Spears and boy bands. Just because fashion models weighed a few more pounds and girl fashion was more covered up than it is today and we had Sassy magazine and My So-Called Life and there was no such thing as cyberbullying doesn't mean that girls didn't suffer. Riot Grrrl didn't die within girls' and women's hearts. In some ways it was prescient. Riot Grrrl's legacy can be seen in choice feminism, in myriad feminist blogs, the importance and deconstruction of fashion, Slutwalk, and the mainstreaming of DIY crafting. The 1980s promised corporate success for women, equality in a power suit. Riot Grrrls were fiercely against breaking into the boys' treehouse. They wanted to build their own tree houses and make it aspirational to be a girl, celebrating traits like empathy, vulnerability, and community. The archives of Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna, Ramdasha Bikceem, and many other feminist superstars should inspire creativity in girls and women everywhere.

The Riot Grrl Collection edited by Lisa Darms, preface by Kathleen Hanna, introduction by Johanna Fateman
The Feminist Press at CUNY
ISBN: 978-1558618220
368 pages