Revolution Girl-Style Now!

How the Riot Grrrl Movement Scandalized America and Launched Third-Wave Feminism

Since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, feminist advancement has faced aggressive opposition. From hunger-striking female suffragists being force-fed in prison to anti-choice activists firebombing abortion clinics, women’s rights activists have met violence and resistance at every turn. The third wave of feminism, which began in the early 1990s, was no different. Against the backdrop of a brutal, specifically feminist-targeting massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique that claimed the lives of fourteen women, Anita Hill’s testimony of sexual harassment in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, and the Christian Coalition’s crusade against the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case that had legalized abortion twenty years earlier, a third wave of feminism began to develop. Unlike the earlier feminist movements, which were largely led by educated but dissatisfied housewives, this third wave was predominantly spearheaded by students and artists from the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. Also unlike the prior movements, this third wave was reliant on artistic innovation, specifically music, to an unprecedented degree as a result of the close interrelation of the art and punk scenes in Olympia at this time. This combination of intellect, artistry, and feminist theory gave birth to what quickly became known as riot grrrl. Riot grrrl was a short-lived but highly influential musical and social movement that addressed the societal expectations and injustices inherent in being a young woman. Though the movement gained fervent, nation-wide support through its music and distribution of zines, riot grrrl also faced significant backlash from those who opposed riot grrrl’s radical feminist agenda and the controversial nature of their music, performance, and approach to the mass media. This paper is largely founded on interviews with Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, from the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna, directed by Siri Anderson. In the documentary, Hanna gives her firsthand account as a lead participant in riot grrrl, discussing the movement’s history, her motivations for starting riot grrrl, and the hardships she faced as its most central figure. Based on the primary source of Hanna’s interviews, this essay seeks to discuss how the riot grrrls were revolutionary in their approach to promoting feminism, how the nature of their feminism and the techniques they used to promote it captivated and offended the mainstream public, and what that says about societal expectations for women’s behavior both politically and as performers.

Like numerous other movements, riot grrrl began with a manifesto. In the vein of the Italian and Russian Futurists before them, the riot grrrls understood the value of enumerating their objectives and motivations. The primary author of the manifesto was Kathleen Hanna, the front woman of one of riot grrrl’s most important bands, Bikini Kill. The Riot Grrrl Manifesto was published in Bikini Kill’s eponymous zine, Bikini Kill. She describes the thought process behind zines as, “We just tried to take feminist stuff we read in books and then filter it through a punk rock lens.”1 The manifesto is written in the form of many answers to the same question: “What (or why) is riot grrrl?” The answers speak to the violence and the injustices faced by young women and the ways they can be stopped and subverted. Hanna writes, “BECAUSE we will never meet the hierarchical BOY standards of talented, or cool, or smart. They are created to keep us out, and if we ever meet them they will change, or we will become tokens,” referring to how women in music are always its subjects, never the creators of work with social and cultural significance; “BECAUSE in every form of media I see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked, and killed,” speaking of the pervasive, normalized violence against women on television, in the movies, and on the news. Hanna then segues to the ways to fight back against such misogyny, writing, “BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit;” “BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy;” and “BECAUSE every time we pick up a pen, or an instrument, or get anything done, we are creating the revolution. We ARE the revolution.”2 By all accounts, the manifesto and the zines it appeared in were essential to the dispersion of the riot grrrl ethos and how they, “… with their DIY aesthetics, humor, and raw truth telling, were a crucial counterpart to the urgent and infectious music associated with riot grrrl.”3 The key to the effectiveness of zine culture was the agency it gave to young women in terms of writing their own narrative. Zines were entirely “do-it-yourself,” meaning girls could control the content, the imagery, and who their readership would be. They could treat their zines like journals or editorials or letters. They could include poetry and song lyrics and personal stories. Taking inspiration from those in the bands they loved, girls wrote about the injustices and abuses they had suffered purely for being female, like rape, molestation, incest, and domestic violence. In short, zines were essential because they gave teenage girls a platform for self-expression that ensured they were in charge of how they would be perceived.

The visual aesthetics and lyrical content of riot grrrl’s music and performance were essential both to their innovativeness and to their ability to draw attention. Their juxtaposition of female innocence and female sexuality was evident in certain song lyrics, which spoke eloquently of topics like rape, abuse, and the general alienation that came with being female in a patriarchal society. One song by Bikini Kill, “Feels Blind,” addresses this outright with lyrics that include, “What have you taught me? Nothing / Look at what you have taught me / Your world has taught me nothing.”4 Hanna is speaking of how the patriarchal systems that dictate her world have not taught her anything except for the expectations for her behavior as a woman; she has not learned anything that would lead to her self-actualization. Visually, the riot grrrls embraced the aesthetics of young girls while counterbalancing them with more adult aspects, wearing t-shirts with Disney princesses on them one day and dresses with images of men wearing nothing but Speedos another. The riot grrrl aesthetic can be interpreted as a form of bricolage, construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. In his seminal work Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige argues that members of subcultures, like riot grrrl, “function as bricoleurs when they appropriate another range of commodities by placing them in a symbolic ensemble which served to erase or subvert their original straight meanings.”5 The riot grrrl aesthetic works as bricolage because the riot grrrls appropriated images associated directly with young girls, like Disney princesses, and juxtaposed them with overtly sexual behavior and punk ideology, successfully turning something directly associated with female innocence and its profitability into a symbol of the disconcerting disparity between how women are treated as children versus how they are treated when they have sexual value.

This contradiction was also evident in their stage performance. The core goal behind riot grrrl, in the words of Lynnee Breedlove, a queer artist and musicians, was to get girls to “[go back to] their girlhood and reclaiming that girlhood, that had been taken away from them… where they’re like, ‘I’m actually gonna be a little girl that has power now; I’m gonna relive that part so that I can then direct my whole growing up experience from there, from point A.’”6 This focus on childhood and preadolescence was counteracted by their bold stage behavior. Kathleen Hanna would turn around and pull her dress up, showing her backside to the audience, and then turn around and pull the front of her dress down, showing her breasts. Another interesting thing Hanna did at shows, one that was far less sexual but far more symbolic, was her practice of calling all “girls to the front.” All the women in the audience were to come right up to the stage while the boys hung back. This was important because Hanna was going out of her way to create physical safe spaces for young women at punk rock shows, something that was necessary because punk shows were violent and young women’s bodily safety was often endangered but had never been done before. As riot grrrl got more and more attention, the bands, including Bikini Kill, started to attract negative attention. Hecklers, mainly men who felt threatened by the unapologetic feminist rhetoric of riot grrrl bands, would attend concerts and spit beer on and throw shoes at the band. The possibility that this harassment could turn more explicitly violent was Hanna’s other reason for calling “girls to the front.” She claims, “We wanted girls to stand at the front of our shows a lot of times just because we needed to be protected and I felt like if there was a row of girls in front, I would be safe.”7 Though riot grrrl was clearly having a significant, positive impact on young women, their growing notoriety turned out to be a mixed blessing.

In the fall of 1991, when Nirvana, the soon-to-be iconic Seattle band, gained a generation-defining hit with their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” alternative music experienced a massive boom in popularity, increasing record label interest in the alternative music scenes in Washington State, including riot grrrl. Before long, the general public began paying attention to riot grrrl for their radical rhetoric and brash performance style, prompting significant media coverage. However, many in the movement felt that their aims and objectives were being misrepresented. Kathleen Hanna described the situation as, “A USA Today reporter came, and then wrote this really condescending thing about what we were doing and focused on what our clothes looked like and what our bodies looked like, and, we must all be sexual abuse survivors, because we’re singing about rape, and therefore, nobody has any imagination or knows anybody that’s had things happen to them; we must all have had these tragic histories. It was really frustrating to a lot of us, especially that another woman would write something that we thought was so stupid. So we just decided to stop talking about it and thinking about it and stop answering the phone when journalists called.”8 Ultimately, the most visible members of the movement, including Hanna, declared a media blackout. This decision spoke to the riot grrrls’ willingness to protect the purity of their ideology. Instead of allowing it to be misinterpreted by the masses, they simply continued to produce zines and songs that accurately depicted the kind of feminism riot grrrl wanted to promote. This choice allowed them to maintain their agency instead of rescinding it in order to convert more young women with a diluted, less radical, more palatable version of female empowerment. By rejecting to compromise their ethos, the riot grrrls were able to maintain the ideological purity of their movement in the face of obvious efforts to discredit and trivialize it.

Though the riot grrrl movement fizzled and was declared dead by 1997, its impact on third wave feminism cannot be understated. In terms of separating the second and third waves of feminism, riot grrrl was key. While the first and second waves of feminism were significant for their campaigns against misogynistic laws and policies—among their victories were the women’s right to vote, legislation legalizing abortion at the federal level, and laws pertaining to sex-based discrimination and harassment—the third wave focused more on the social attitudes towards women. While there were no laws stopping women from speaking openly about the difficulties of being female in what was still a male-dominated society, the general public opinion was that women were, to an extent, still lesser beings who were expected to accept the abuse they faced at the hands of men and never try to do anything about it. While there were no laws about women exercising sexual freedom to the same extent that men did, it was largely considered unacceptable for them to do so. Though the change has been gradual, riot grrrls’ impact has been undeniable. It has inspired creativity in women of all ages, like Tavi Gevinson, a young feminist writer who has been talking about the impact riot grrrl has had on her work since she was thirteen, and sexual freedom in others, like Miley Cyrus, but the most obviously important impact the movement had was on Pussy Riot.

A punk Russian feminist art collective, Pussy Riot received international attention when they stormed the altar of a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow and performed what they called a “punk prayer,” wearing neon balaclavas and praying to the Virgin Mary to drive Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, out of power. The women were tried and sentenced to hard labor, but not before they gained massive public support for their cause. The comparisons between Pussy Riot and riot grrrl start with the visual, but it is the ideological comparisons that are key. Pussy Riot became recognizable by their neon-colored balaclavas. Though Pussy Riot largely wore their balaclavas to shield their identities from the Russian government, they can easily be analyzed as a reference to riot grrrl. During the media blackout of the mid-nineties, Kathleen Hanna conducted an entire interview while wearing one in an attempt to undercut her growing reputation as the “leader” of riot grrrl. The members of Pussy Riot who managed to escape prison reference the riot grrrl movement as one of their biggest influences. In an interview with Vice from 2012, one member, Garadzha, when asked about their influences, said, “-in terms of feminist musical acts, activism, and community building we do give credit to the Riot Grrrl movement.”9 In a 2012 interview with Pitchfork, Kathleen Hanna noted the similarities between riot grrrl and Pussy Riot in terms of their shared use of the balaclava, and voiced her support of the group, saying, “Anybody can be Pussy Riot. We are all Pussy Riot.”10 Pussy Riot’s acknowledgment of riot grrrl emphasized the connection between feminist movements of different eras and the essential nature of female-led protest art.

The riot grrrls were scandalous because they were totally unapologetic in their intentions, ideologies, and identities. They channeled their feminist academic training into a medium specifically intended as a voice for the oppressed and the disenfranchised, punk rock. The offensiveness inherent to punk rock and its disregard for acceptable social behaviors and conventions was the perfect vehicle to communicate the righteous anger that women could feel, but could not always articulate. The backlash they faced revealed how the mainstream public reacts to many things, including to women in traditionally male positions, like the front person of a punk band, to women openly rejecting the expectations set for their actions and opinions, and to the open subversion of accepted social system. In this way, riot grrrl was not just innovative in terms of punk rock, but also totally revolutionized how people viewed young women and how young women viewed themselves. Riot grrrl’s most scandalous act was convincing girls that what they thought, felt, and said, mattered.

  1. The Punk Singer. Dir. Sini Anderson. Perf. Kathleen Hanna. Sundance Selects, 2013. Film.
  2. Hanna, Kathleen. “What Is Riot Grrrl?” The Riot Grrrl Collection (compiled by Lisa Darms). New York: Feminist at CUNY, 2014. N. pag. Print.
  3. Fateman, Johanna. “My Riot Grrrl.” Preface. The Riot Grrrl Collection (compiled by Lisa Darms). New York: Feminist at CUNY, 2014. N. pag. Print.
  4. Hanna, Kathleen. “Feels Blind,” Revolution Girl Style Now! Bikini Kill. Bikini Kill, 1991. CD.
  5. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Print.
  6. The Punk Singer. Dir. Sini Anderson. Perf. Kathleen Hanna. Sundance Selects, 2013. Film.
  7. The Punk Singer. Dir. Sini Anderson. Perf. Kathleen Hanna. Sundance Selects, 2013. Film.
  8. The Punk Singer. Dir. Sini Anderson. Perf. Kathleen Hanna. Sundance Selects, 2013. Film.
  9. Langston, Henry. “Meeting Pussy Riot.” VICE. N.p., 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
  10. Pelly, Jenn. “We Are All Pussy Riot”: Kathleen Hanna Speaks on the Jailed Feminist Punk Group.” Pitchfork. N.p., 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.