A history of riot grrrl, from “Rebel Girl” to “Racist, Sexist Boy”
In 1991, Anita Hill testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee about being the target of sexual harassment from African-American judge Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. The hearings were televised, and Hill’s lurid testimony sent bolts of shock and disgust across an America yet to become completely tabloidized. When this all-white, all-male committee seemingly chuckled and sent her on her way with a pat on the head, then turned around and ratified Thomas to SCOTUS Justice, it made bile rise to several American throats.
The most articulate reaction came from writer Rebecca Walker. She composed a manifesto, “Becoming the Third Wave,” for Ms. Magazine’s January 1992 issue. It named the newest generation of feminism, and effectively communicated its rage:
“So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas' confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman's experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don't prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.”
Across the country, needles dropping on a 12-inch vinyl record also expressed this mood over a burst of guitar feedback, and in fewer words:
“Is it supposed to be doing that? OK, sorry. We’re starting now…we’re Bikini Kill, and we want revolution grrrl style now!”This is the story of how riot grrrl was conceived in punk’s grooves and cracks, bursting across the front end of the ‘90s, bringing third-wave feminism to a scene that had developed too much testosterone poisoning.
“Girls invented punk rock, not England”: Riot grrrl’s ‘70s roots
Bernie Rhodes, the Clash’s controversial manager and one of early punk’s most astute theoreticians, recently remarked to MOJO Magazine that an oft-overlooked aspect of the culture he helped develop was “how punk helped liberate women.”
“It got rid of men in tight satin trousers, groupies, all that Led Zeppelin shit,” he continued in typically incendiary fashion. And while that makes for a choice sound bite, it also isn’t wholly true. Five seconds of any Mötley Crüe concert should break land speed records in dispelling that notion. Though initially filled with revolutionary, “we’re changing the world” zeal, the adjustments punk rock made in the world were small, only sinking into the mainstream over time.
The chief effect punk had was introducing the idea that anyone could do it. This didn’t just mean anyone with basic chord knowledge and a crappy pawnshop guitar. This meant neither gender, sexuality, nor ethnicity came into play. And no one thought anything of it, as long as you had something valid to say. This was a truly radical notion.
You didn’t need to be a demure pop artist to make music or bemoan the hedonism of Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones – you could be Patti Smith, affecting a gender-transgressive, Keith Richards-like front as she declaimed her poetry about how Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not hers over screaming electric guitars.
You could be Poly Styrene in her plastic clothing and teeth braces, intoning at the start of X-Ray Spex’s debut single, “Some people say lil’ girls should be seen and not heard, but I say Oh, Bondage! Up Yours!” You might be teenage Penelope Houston fronting San Francisco’s Avengers, snarling over three-car-pileup guitars, “I am the one who brings you the future/I am the one who buries the past/A new species rises up from the ruins/I am the one who is made to last.” You could be Alice Bag fronting the Bags alongside her proto-goth bassist pal Patricia Morrison at L.A.’s Masque club, snarling a "Babylonian Gorgon." Better yet, don’t be them — be yourself. Be something unique and new, something that hadn’t been seen before.
This was certainly the case with England’s the Slits, the closest punk’s first wave came to a proto-riot grrrl act. They scandalized England and the punk scene both, teenagers with ratty hair, wearing Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee knickers over ripped tights and barely bothering to learn their instruments before walking onstage. They flaunted their inexperience, singer Ari Up walking over to Tessa Pollitt mid-song to tune her bass guitar. As they gained control over their instruments, they went from a raw, irreverent punk amateurism to a spiky post-punk steeped in the deepest dub reggae. The closest they came to a hit single was "Typical Girls," which thumbed its nose at female stereotypes.
Post-punk, with its more intellectualized rebellion, went even further in dismantling macho rock ideals and injecting feminist critiques into underground music. Think of no-wave queen Lydia Lunch, effecting a femme fatale look while shrieking her song “Baby Doll” before her first band Teenage Jesus And The Jerks. Then there were the Slits’ clearest U.K. heirs, the Raincoats, who’d even inherited original Slits drummer Palmolive. Over a scratchy Velvet Underground-esque dirge filled with violin-work that would’ve given Jascha Heifetz an aneurysm, they viciously parodied standard romance on "In Love." If punk was meant to destroy rock ‘n’ roll, post-punk came closer to that ideal with its deconstruction and sheer negation.
“I don’t give a damn about my reputation”: Punk feminism in the ‘80s
With Ronald Reagan firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, American punk had no choice but to go hardcore. Unfortunately, while the earliest hardcore bands were a welcome, pleasingly unorthodox lot, all that amped-up aggression also meant an unwelcome amped-up machismo entered the scene. The jocks shaved their heads and took over the scene, with their mindless violence and slam dancing (as moshing was originally called). It turned a lot of people off as men in the pit mindlessly shouted “faster/harder” at the stage. There were a few exceptions, such as SIN 34, with their skating singer Julie "Jules" Lanfeld ferociously bawling against the nuclear family on "War At Home," or mocking the idea that punk was destroying the suburbs from within on "Do You Feel Safe?" But again, they were not the rule.
More welcome was the rise of Joan Jett as the first U.S. mainstream punk star after the Clash, 13 years prior to Green Day’s "Longview" exploded all over MTV and Top 40 radio. Her first band the Runaways were as influential upon Los Angeles’ first punk generation as the Ramones, but Svengalic manager Kim Fowley browbeat them into playing up to the lowest of chauvinist sexual fantasies. Jett kicked back against such machinations and smarmy “women can’t rock” stereotypes with her new band Joan Jett And The Blackhearts.
They rocked up the charts with tough, leather-jacketed singles with a glam-rock heart such as "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and her defiant signature tune "Bad Reputation." Then there was her raspy-guitared revival of Tommy James And The Shondells’ psychedelic bubble-gum classic "Crimson And Clover" – Jett didn’t change the gender on this teenage love song: “Oh, now I don't hardly know her/But I think I could love her.” A subtle move, but one as revolutionary and punk rock as anything the Sex Pistols pulled.
As the ‘80s progressed, they coughed up a number of all-female underground bands who wed Jett’s intuitive feminist defiance to a noisy, metal-influenced punk sound that became highly influential upon the budding grunge scene. San Francisco’s Frightwig (who shared more than a little noise insurrectionist DNA with Flipper), Los Angeles’ L7 and New York’s Lunachicks all clear-cut much late decade rock turf with their energetic abrasions.
“Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world”: Riot grrrl arrives in the ‘90s
As alternative rock invaded the mainstream and dominated aboveground music, it brought a number of all-women or women-led bands with an aggressive sound and feminist mindset. Think of Hole’s Courtney Love snarling “When I was a teenage whore…” over thermonuclear sludge guitars or her friend Kat Bjelland enacting similar rockin’ corrosion on such Babes In Toyland goodies as "Bruise Violet." Even more important to what was coming was the Vancouver punk duo Mecca Normal, featuring painter Jean Smith’s confrontational feminist critiques growled atop Dave Lester’s dissonant guitar work. Then there was Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, who proved as influential a figure as Jett with not-so-quiet statements like her “Girls invented punk rock, not England” T-shirt. Still, Bikini Kill were about to break the whole thing wide open.
Bikini Kill are the original riot grrrl band proper. Singer Kathleen Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox, drummer Tobi Vail and guitarist Billy Karren met at Olympia, Washington’s ultra-alternative Evergreen State College. They formed the band in October 1990, an outgrowth of their fanzine of the same name, which published Hanna’s "Riot Grrrl Manifesto" in its second issue in 1991: “BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings. 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.”
This, alongside Walker’s “Becoming The Third-Wave,” was Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the church door. Bikini Kill’s music just served up these ideas/ideals atop some of the most crucial punk rock ever created. The rhythm section slammed hard, underpinning Karren’s enormous Steve Jones chords. The musicians laid down a line of fire for Hanna to graphically depict incest on “Suck My Left One,” or mock a "White Boy" for his cro magnon sexuality. Most important was the single "Rebel Girl," an anthem of sisterhood and empowerment produced by Jett and featuring her guitar, underlining her enduring cruciality.
Bikini Kill opened the door for all manner of new bands who sounded like the Slits’ and Raincoats’ daughters — Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy and the Frumpies to name a few of America’s most prominent examples, with England contributing Huggy Bear, Pussycat Trash and Skinned Teen, among others. But the riot grrrl ethos bled into other bands who were not part of the movement, be they punk standard-bearers the Gits, garage upstarts Red Aunts or such vanguard queercore collectives as Tribe 8 and Team Dresch. Mainstream alt stars such as Garbage’s Shirley Manson and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani also dragged the ideas kicking and screaming into FM radio playlists with such hits as the latter’s "Just A Girl." The decade ended with England’s Spice Girls dominating the world by grafting the veneer of riot grrrl atop conventional dance pop, just as Bikini Kill called it day.
“Straight Outta Vagina”: 21st century riot grrrl
From the moment singer/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss’ self-titled debut album appeared in 1995, Sleater-Kinney felt like the ultimate post-Bikini Kill riot grrrl band. They carried the standards into the new century as they became indie-rock royalty. Brownstein even leaked the influence into television, as her and Fred Armisen’s long-running Portlandia became a critical hit. But riot grrrl continued as a factor in the musical and cultural universe, especially with Hanna’s electro projects the Julie Ruin and especially Le Tigre, both of which transformed her philosophy into bright, danceable pop. Then there was the rise of Beth Ditto via commercial garage behemoth the Gossip. She changed the way people thought about body image, beauty and LGBTQIA+ rights as she roared onto MTV2.
Early in the ‘10s came the first news of Pussy Riot, who viciously critiqued Putin’s Russia via a series of punk-informed guerrilla performance art pieces, clad in fluorescent ski masks. The most notorious, the "Punk Prayer" conducted at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, netted three members two years’ imprisonment for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” They became an international cause celebre, even as their music became less punk-influenced, adopting more the musical language and production techniques of electro-dance music and hip-hop. From the middle of the decade to the present, a new generation of riot grrrl acts came screaming seemingly out of nowhere, even as Bikini Kill roused themselves back into action.
Behold the bright indie pop of the Regrettes, the Coathangers’ sawn-off feminist garage and Fea’s Jett-endorsed rowdy punk formalism. Most encouraging was the rise of the Linda Lindas in 2021, especially via their appearance in Netflix’s riot grrrl-themed film Moxie. The fact that they performed an infectious original, "Racist, Sexist Boy," live from the Los Angeles Public Library proves they are the most punk-rock band in the world these days. Riot grrrl lives as long as aggregations such as the Linda Lindas still abuse their guitars and drums.