Riot Grrrl and the Genre-ing of Punk Women

The following is an op-ed style paper I wrote for my Media and Social Change class Spring 2020.

Special thanks to Amy Smith and James Gilbert for chatting with me on the topic, as well as to Professor Sean Leavey for his guidance during the project.

Just before I finished high school in May 2019, I discovered the band Destroy Boys. I can’t really remember if I was legitimately angry about anything specific (possibly motivated to, ahem, destroy boys) or simply full of post-high school/pre-college angst. There may have been some projecting going on when I immediately loved their song ‘I Threw Glass at My Friend’s Eyes and Now I’m on Probation,’ but I digress. Admittedly pretty late to the party I began listening to their entire discography, from ‘Sorry, Mom,’ to ‘Make Room’. Loving their sound, I did what I usually do when I get into a new genre and made a playlist with similar sounding songs — that’s when I became aware of riot grrrl.

For those like me who have never heard of it, riot grrrl was a movement of punk music that started in the United States’ Pacific Northwest during the 1990s. Generally agreed to have been kickstarted by bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile, riot grrrl was not only a subgenre of punk, but a feminist movement. Much of the movement’s focus was on the diversity of female expression and identity, which gave reason for its close ties to third-wave feminism. Through art and zines, the history of riot grrrl was documented; the movement’s raison d’être is outlined in the ‘Riot Grrrl Manifesto’ which was published in the Bikini Kill Zine 2 from 1991. Some of these reasons were:

BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.

BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticize-applaud each other.

BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings.

BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.

BECAUSE we recognize fantasies of Instant Macho Gun Revolution as impractical lies meant to keep us simply dreaming instead of becoming our dreams AND THUS seek to create revolution in our own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things.

BECAUSE we want and need to encourage and be encouraged in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of “authorities” who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and

BECAUSE we are unwilling to falter under claims that we are reactionary “reverse sexists” AND NOT THE TRUEPUNKROCKSOULCRUSADERS THAT WE KNOW we really are.

BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.

BECAUSE we hate capitalism in all its forms and see our main goal as sharing information and staying alive, instead of making profits of being cool according to traditional standards.

BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.

BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girltype behaviors.

BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can and will change the world for real.

The Manifesto is direct: activism and empowerment are clearly the cornerstone of the movement’s goals. If the music of riot grrrl — loud and unapologetically blunt about the female experience — wasn’t enough to grab my attention, then the message sure was. I listened to Bikini Kill’s iconic 1993 album ‘Pussy Whipped’ and added “Alien She” and “Blood One” to the growing list of songs. Tossed down a musical rabbit hole I hopped from Bikini Kill, to Bratmobile, to 7 Year Bitch, to Babes in Toyland. Each sounded somewhat similar, but I couldn’t help wondering if the similarities I saw were merely surface level. Bikini Kill and Bratmobile are known for spearheading the riot grrrl movement with frontwomen Kathleen Hanna and Allison Wolfe as pioneers, but where do Kat Bjelland (Babes in Toyland) and Selene Vigil (7 Year Bitch) fit in? Stepping back from it all, I fell in love all of these female artists who seemed to be cut from the same cloth, but were they all really that similar?

Above is a riot grrrl zine-inspired collage I made featuring photo clippings of the frontwomen of Destroy Boys (Alexia Roditis) and Starcrawler (Arrow de Wilde), as well as lyrics to their respective songs. Behind I do not own the rights to either photo used here, nor do I own the rights to their lyrics.

In 1987, Babes in Toyland was formed by Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, and Michelle Leon (later replaced by Maureen Herman). Punk and noise rock to the bone, Babes in Toyland’s in-your-face music style is found throughout their albums ‘Fontanelle’ and ‘Painkillers.’ Their sound is similar to 7 Year Bitch — a punk/rock band that formed three years later in 1990 — as evident when in songs like “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “The Scratch.” More similarities come when looking at their social commentary, which was mainly focused on female sexuality and disdain for sexual assault and the patriarchy (e.g. “Sweet ’69” by Babes in Toyland, “Dead Men Don’t Rape” by 7 Year Bitch); the two also headlined the benefit concert Rock Against Domestic Violence together in 1994. One could ask: “so, since Bikini Kill and Bratmobile have very similar ideals and sounds to these two, aren’t they all female punk? Aren’t they all riot grrrl?” As previously stated, Babes in Toyland formed in 1987, before what is recognized as the 1990 beginning of riot grrrl. Babes in Toyland is actually recognized for inspiring definitively riot grrrl bands, never categorizing themselves as such. 7 Year Bitch was in a similar boat, considered grunge, rock, and punk, more “riot grrrl adjacent” as poet Tracie Morris says. When listening to all four bands, it becomes quite clear that each has their own distinct sound: Bikini Kill with yelling and loud instrumentation, Bratmobile with more subtle dancier tones, Babes in Toyland heavy and full of guitar, and 7 Year Bitch with a heavy and slow, almost blues feel. So, if we can establish these differences, why exactly should we be trying to put each band into a specific category?

Recently, I decided to reach out to a few people who would have something to say on the topic of riot grrrl and punk music: Amy Smith, a family friend and artist who lived in Washington state during the riot grrrl scene, and James Gilbert, a writer and major contributor for the music and culture publication Nippertown. After speaking with both Amy and James, I found that their ideas were quite similar. During my conversation with Amy, she stated that she didn’t have any direct experiences with the riot grrrl scene because of children coming into her life, but that didn’t stop her from listening to the music. “I loved the band Hole,” she wrote me, “but I don’t know if they’d be categorized that way [as riot grrrl].” Hole was an alternative/punk/grunge rock band from California that formed in 1989. Fronted by Courtney Love, Hole would most accurately be described as “riot grrrl adjacent” — Love has a history with both Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill, albeit one that was rather problematic. Amy made the same statement about singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, saying that she didn’t know if the English punk rocker was “official riot grrrl status.”

This confusion in defining female punk music extended into my conversation with James Gilbert, actually shifting gears a bit into the irony of placing rebellious music by women into such small boxes; “Who even defines anti-establishment punk?” There is a ridiculous irony in dubbing bands like Bikini Kill or Babes in Toyland ‘female punk’ bands. It’s like how saying “she was pretty badass for being a chick” simply doesn’t make sense — “No, she was just badass.” While riot grrrl is a signifier of a specific type of punk music tied to a social movement, what exactly does ‘female punk’ mean? The third-wave feminism followed by riot grrrl bands differed from second wave in that it focused on exploring the ‘female’ identity, moving away from the idea that “Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.” Use of the word ‘female’ ironically (but somehow expectedly) applies the idea that women’s music is inherently different from that of men. This can be true in a sense: the experiences of each gender have not been the same for thousands of years. But if the entire point of punk music is to rebel, if the entire point of feminism is equality of all genders, then an important message is being missed somewhere along the line.

So, what exactly does all of this mean for a band like Destroy Boys? Just like Babes in Toyland in the 90s, Destroy Boys is not a riot grrrl band. In an interview with Elena Childers of BTRtoday, frontwoman Alexia Roditis said “I don’t wanna just be complimented for being like [Bikini Kill] just because we’re both women, that doesn’t really make sense.” Women in punk is just as complex an idea as men in punk. Can there really be such a genre that perfectly describes all anyone can offer? There are countless musicians working out of the feminist groundwork laid by movements like riot grrrl that aren’t and shouldn’t be confined by the term associated by the movement. As Lindsay Zoladz titled her 2011 Pitchfork article, “not every girl is a riot grrrl.” GRLwood, Candy Ambulance, and Starcrawler are all bands that could be labelled by the title riot grrrl but are not. GRLwood describes themselves as ‘scream-pop’, Candy Ambulance is audibly grunge rock, and Stawcrawler is heavily inspired by classic rock sound and imagery. The look and conduct of each of these bands and their fronts may be more than reminiscent of riot grrrl, but there is much more than meets the eye. As is noted in the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, reviewing the work that’s been done is crucial in figuring out how to disrupt the status quo.

Works Cited

Belzer, Hillary. Words + Guitar: The Riot Grrrl Movement and Third-Wave Feminism. 23 Apr. 2004.

Childers, Elena. “Despite Their Name, Destroy Boys Wants Equality.” BTRtoday, 26 Nov. 2018, www.btrtoday.com/read/musicmeetup/despite-their-name-destroy-boys-wants-equality/.

Marrone, Louis. “GRLwood Isn’t Here for Your Labels | Post-Trash Feature Interview.” POST-TRASH, 27 Dec. 2018, post-trash.com/news/2018/12/27/grlwood-isnt-here-for-your-labels-post-trash-feature-interview.

McDonnell, Evelyn, and Elisabeth Vincentelli. “Riot Grrrl United Feminism and Punk. Here’s an Essential Listening Guide.” The New York Times, 3 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/05/03/arts/music/riot-grrrl-playlist.html.

“RIOT GRRRL MANIFESTO.” HISTORY IS A WEAPON, www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/riotgrrrlmanifesto.html.

Zoladz, Lindsay. “Not Every Girl Is a Riot Grrrl.” Pitchfork, 16 Nov. 2011, pitchfork.com/features/article/8710-not-every-girl-is-a-riot-grrrl/.

Further Reading

Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. New York, HarperCollins, 28 Sept. 2010.

Wiedlack, Maria. Queer-Feminist Punk: An Anti-Social History. Vienna, Zaglossus e. U., 2015.

English and Linguistics student @ Northeastern U. Passionate about activism, music, film, and language.