Monday, January 17, 2011

Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution

While doing my Christmas shopping last month I found this new book Girls To The Front by Sara Marcus. I thought maybe it would be a cool Christmas present for my cousin Shannon or my sister Mae, so I bought it. Then I sat around trying to figure out which one I should give it to - my alternative hilarious and gorgeous sister who's in her first year of college, or my amazing cousin who will some day rule the world and was off at a semester at sea (somewhere in China hanging out with Desmond Tutu at the time). Who could benefit more from a book on the history of Riot Grrrls? Yea, so sorry Mae and Shannon, I ended up keeping the book and reading the whole thing cause it sucked me in and hopefully I can just lend you my now really worn out copy.
Girls To The Front is a totally thorough and inspiring history of the Riot Grrrl movement compiled by Sara Marcus, who has written for Slate, Time Out New York, and Artforum among other places. I thought I knew about riot grrrls and I think I thought I was too old to be reading this book but honestly it sucked me right in and not only informed me but was one of the most inspiring books I've read in ages. Like, honestly, reading it was the most I've ever felt like learning how to play guitar. And by the end of it I wanted to start a revolution.

One of the main plights of Riot Grrrl, a movement concentrated around bands and zines fronted by mostly teenage girls, was the issue of controlling your own image. When bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear started hitting it big and the movement was getting big media attention it started to get filtered through media institutions into a movement of baby barrettes and combat boots. As someone who was from a younger generation, who only really got the media filtered version, I actually had no idea that it was a real movement - the political was personal. However, born out of the Washington D.C. and Olympia punk scenes, Riot Grrrl was actually an activist movement comprised almost entirely of young girls. They held actual meetings, especially in DC, but then eventually in cities all over the country. Girls who felt motivated would meet, usually once a week, to talk about forming bands, recording albums, printing zines, or about the issues effecting their lives like bad home situations, sexual abuse, violence, and sexism. It was a movement that had true punk anti-capitalist motives at heart and was not afraid to question its own place in punk, hence the "Girls To The Front" mantra which was about creating a safe space at punk shows for girls to mosh or sway without being kicked in the head or out of the way by punk guys. Many of the riot grrrl bands stayed true to their political beliefs by not signing to major labels - like Bikini Kill who is still to this day on the indie label Kill Rock Stars. When they eventually did feel their image being co-opted into only an image, a nationwide Riot Grrrl policy of not talking to the media was adopted. They instead formed Riot Grrrl Press to distribute their own modes of communication, primarily zines, making it much easier for girls all over to still get the unfiltered message. There are few things in our culture that are looked down upon as much as teenage girls. Without legal power over their bodies, cultural importance given to their voices, or physical strength to pose much of a threat, girls have historically and even still today been one of the most objectified and yet marginalized groups out there. By resisting commodification and refusing to be quiet or complacent Riot Grrrls threw a wrench in the system and forged a path that while still rough is at least visible for girls who are looking for other options.

One of the great things about Sara Marcus's book is that she shows so many different sides of the story. Like while, it sucked that such a strong activist group would be reduced to baby doll dresses and shaved heads by magazines and newspapers, there was a lot of good done by making the movement visible at all. I entered 9th grade in 1997 and actual Riot Grrrl was pretty much over by then, but even getting the filtered down version was helpful to girls like me. Sara Marcus talks about this in her book, citing girls who lived in small obscure towns who wouldn't have known about riot grrrl without the big media institutions. As she points out, if a 14 year old can feel like there are loud wild girls out there, kicking ass and playing instruments - and feel like part of them by putting baby barrettes in her hair - then is that really so bad. Personally, I had never known about the meetings or the activism involved in Riot Grrrl, but I think I owe a lot of my outlook on life to the fact that they immediately preceded my high school years. I think the fact that at 18 and 19 I felt like I could wear ripped up baby doll gingham dresses that half of the time showed my butt, that I felt like I could enjoy my sexuality without fearing its power or being guilted into sexual acts - I really feel like I owe that to knowing about Riot Grrrl.

Another belief of Riot Grrrl that both girls and society still need to remember is that we need to allow ourselves to make mistakes. To be in a terrible band or hold an opinion you'll change your mind on, to sleep with the wrong person, or get too loud and annoying.....the freedom to make mistakes is one that's allowed to teenage boys but can often be used to silence or negate decisions of a girl. The goal of perfection is part of what proliferates eating disorders, depression, and inequality for girls and the women they become.

One aspect of the actual history of the movement that I found interesting was that, while Riot Grrrl mainly came from a middle class, white set of girls- they were aware of the mistakes of second wave feminism and not wanting to repeat those exclusionary blunders, many of the leaders of Riot Grrrl worked to open up awareness- including girls of other races and classes. One of the inspiring things is that by the end, while still in their true angry and loud fashion, Riot Grrrl was able to genuinely integrate in diverse ways. Some of the most vocal leaders towards the end were girls of color, or who came from working class backgrounds. Overcoming the 'bisexual, but with a boyfriend' riot grrrl tendencies that frustrated many of the lesbian members, the crew of Riot Grrrl New York ended up being one of the most queer and politically active groups out there. It wasn't easy or peaceful in the beginning or ending manifestations but that was the beauty of it - that was the mode of operation of Riot Grrrl.

So props to Sara Marcus for being able to write about the group. As anyone who has ever tried to herd cats or get activists to agree on one topic or one history will know - it is not easy. Yet, I think Girls To The Front is a treasure of history for any of us - I wish I'd had it at 16 or 20, but I'm glad I have it now. Please go read it yourself, cause there are so many awesome stories that I'd never have time to share them all! Now here are some selections from the girls themselves.

Its pretty hard to resist loving Kathleen Hanna. You could try, but then she'll break you down by talking about the desire to be a rollerblade model and the burdens of "horizontal oppression" all in a one minute time frame.

Tobi Vail on Riot Grrrl

Huggy Bear on The Word

On being in a band

and more

Emily's Sassy Lime

Emily Sassy Lime from Sadie Shaw on Vimeo.

The Frumpies

Kim Gordon reading Riot Grrrl Manifesto from the first Riot Grrrl zine.

Bikini Kill "Suck My Left One"

The next generation

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