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I was born and raised in South Texas, about 15 miles from the Mexican border. This area is its own little world. San Antonio, the nearest metropolitan city, is a 3.5 hour drive north of here. Suffice it to say, before the Internet revolution, it felt like trends didn’t trickle their way down here until about 3 years after the fact. I was also a hopelessly nerdy kid who was raised on a steady musical diet of Garth Brooks and Chicago, so there was little hope of me ever learning about Riot Grrrl.
And yet I did. It took me a while, but I did.
I was a few years too young to have ever participated in the Riot Grrrl movement. It wasn’t until I was in high school or college that I first learned of a movement in which women were kicking ass and totally rocking out. That’s what Riot Grrrl was to me at first: a feminist musical revolution where female musicians were sick of the sexist bullshit they had to put up with, then formed bands and wrote empowering music in response. I remember the first time I heard Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” Swooooon. It was love at first listen. I was desperate for more powerful music by women who were rocking out in ways that Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey weren’t. I only wish that I’d known of this music when I was still a young teen; I know it sounds a tad melodramatic, but I think I would’ve had an outlet for my angst if I’d had Riot Grrrl music back then.
In the years since discovering Riot Grrrl, I’ve learned that it was more than a music revolution. There was some activism, there were lots and lots of zines. Sometimes I’ll come across an article or an interview that will give some me insight about the history of movement, but up until Girls to the Front was published, there was never any kind of major text available to shed some light on the Riot Grrrl revolution.
So what was Riot Grrrl, exactly? I think the easiest way to describe it is a feminist punk movement in the early 1990s started by young women in Olympia, WA that later extended to Washington, D.C. It reached other large cities–mostly on the East and West coasts–from there, making its way into more rural areas as well, but its influence was felt the most in the Northwest and D.C. areas.
The 90s were a rough time to be a young woman. Feminism was supposedly over, but the Anita Hill hearings were all over the news, as were the murders of countless abortion providers. In the punk scene, the men had all the fun onstage and in the mosh pits, while the women were forced to stand around on the sidelines, lest the be groped or harassed while trying to participate in the audience. In their personal lives, so many women were also dealing with abusive relationships, rape, sexual harassment, and incest.
Though they’d probably be loathe to admit being the leaders, Riot Grrrl was largely the brainchild of Bikini Kill members Kathleen Hannah and Tobi Vail. They envisioned Revolution Girl Style Now, organizing consciousness-raising groups and activist sessions where teenagers and young women in their early twenties could talk to each other about their personal struggles as well as become active in changing the scene. They began learning instruments and forming bands to give a voice to their frustrations. This being an era before blogging, the women spread their messages through zines, concerts, word of mouth, and writing on themselves with a marker.
As the movement grew, so did the attention it received. The success of Nirvana put the underground music scene in Olympia under the spotlight, and the media was eager to exploit any new trends it could find. Riot grrrls suddenly found themselves being courted by reporters from major outlets such as Newsweek and The New York Times, but almost every article that was published about Riot Grrrl made it sound like the movement was a nothing but a fashion trend or a cutesy lifestyle choice being made by angry teens in combat boots. None of their radical beliefs or their political views were given consideration in the articles; the media made them sound ridiculous. Not surprisingly, many riot grrrls began to distance themselves from the movement. They eventually attempted a full media blackout, but disagreements from within the movement and all of the outside scrutiny took its toll. By late 1994, Riot Grrrl had imploded.
Girls to the Front is both gripping and aggravating. Sara Marcus was enamoured by Riot Grrrl, and it shows; she makes history come alive by incorporating fascinating interviews, photographs, and pages from zines. I could hear the music in my mind as I read the book, and everything was meticulously researched. I particularly loved reading about Heavens to Betsy’s Corin Tucker, since her last band, Sleater-Kinney, is my favorite band ever and I still listen to them at least once a week. However, Girls to the Front is far from a gushing love letter to Riot Grrrl, and for that I am grateful. It was painful to see how a movement that had so much potential could implode the way it did, but there are important lessons to be learned from the mistakes that were made.
My one gripe with the book is its lack of insight regarding the women of color who were riot grrrls. I was always under the impression that Riot Grrrl was a white, middle class movement–and for the most part, it was–but at one point in the book, Marcus mentions that there were some women of color who also showed up to the meetings and participated in the movement. At various points in the book, Marcus touches on the failings of the movement to reach out to minorities and working class people; at one workshop on race and class, for instance, many of the riot grrrls got angry at the presenters for trying to make them feel guilty about their privilege (which…ugh). It would have been fantastic if Marcus had included a few interviews with some Riot Grrrl women of color to get their perspective on everything.
Still, I am so, so glad that this book was finally written. Riot Grrrl is a part of contemporary women’s history and third wave feminism, and I don’t know what feminist blogging would look like today without the proliferation of all those zines that were written in the 1990s. To riot grrrls everywhere: rock on!
This giveaway has now ended.
This review is cross-posted on my book blog.