‘RIOT GRRL EVOLUTION! GIRL STYLE NOW’

Rebellion, masculinity, and violence. Anger fuels their rage as they push against a culture of isolation and rejection. A subculture of aggressive rock forms with even harsher messages, shouting words of hate, rape, lust, and blood. The punk scene in the late 1980s held a dominant cis-white male attraction fueled by violence and misogyny. A dark-lit venue covering itself in a dose of sexual harassment and force. Women, especially those who were interested in the music and bands, came out and were horrified and bruised by the experience. It served as a collective manifestation of angst and built-up issues men faced, songs by iconic punk bands such as ‘Black Flag’ and ‘Circle Jerks’ focusing on commentaries of social and political issues. This is a genre of protest, an order for retribution with physical force being its headliner. Toxic masculinity took center stage at these shows and pushed out any women or girls in their presence. It was seen as a place for ‘men’, a place where women weren’t safe and shouldn’t be allowed in. With lyrics like “You’re loose, put your brain in a noose..the next day you regret it, but you’re still loose”, of course, this was a physically dangerous situation for women. When out of nowhere came a movement with a message of creating an atmosphere for women in this cis-white male-dominated scene. An underground network not even focused on a message of generalized ‘feminism’ at first or following the rules of the “punk ethos”, but a place for women to enjoy music, connect, dance, and not be constantly overtaken by the growing sexist tones which surrounded them. ‘Bikini Kill’, a roaring girl band that stood above them all, brought the beginning of the third wave of feminism to society in 1990; and its involvement and importance in the punk rock music scene stood its ground to empower femininity. 

The 1970s saw a rapid change of style and character in the musical mainstream. It was a time of leading rock legends beginning to rise with unapologetic self-expression and sensuality. Sounds focusing on the sexual taboo quickly turned into music that objectified and targeted women. It promoted ‘old-fashioned’ sex roles. Songs like ‘Under My Thumb’ by The Rolling Stones not only reflected the era’s sexual taboos but also perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes, setting a troubling precedent for mainstream music at the time. This proved to be one of the first daunting examples of a change in sound and a change in message. Not only were the sounds popular in society at the time, but it was promoting a harmful and damaging view that began to seep through the holes of the previously ‘liberated’ women. The message of the feminine body as a sexualized object to please men. So what then comes from this message? Whether direct influence or not is up to debate, but what we see happen in this early time of music history is a state of complete chaos, which switched from the previous melodies before it. This modern aesthetic enters around the start of the sexual revolution and the feminist-hippie movement, a time of societal freedom and ‘flower power’ and a rise of counter-culture identity, and exploration of each other’s bodies and minds. Women began feeling freedom from the youthful revolution, a ‘breaking of chains’ from the conservative 1950s America before it. But the sounds which followed this carried a harmful ideology, and ultimately set back the course of the first and second waves of feminism, especially for those in music-centric scenes. It stole the ideas of love and harmony, and spun them on its head; with men using this vulnerability and trust to prey on young girls, and what they had in mind is overtly shown in the lyricism of their ‘rock-n-roll’ anthems. 

‘Bikini Kill’ served as the first and the leading call to action for women in the punk scene. They pushed against the 1970s and 60s sexualization and disruption of feminist waves before it. It reclaims the traditional male-centered bigotry of the punk scene, and we get the yell of riot grrrl anguish against the pains and sorrows felt by them in their daily lives. Starting as a poetic commentary on the personal feelings and problems she faced, lead singer ‘Kathleen Hanna’ took her anger and hurt and created a punk tune from it. With her booming voice and large stage persona of women empowerment, she took back the spotlight. She empowered the room with a conversation on the unthinkable, often singing in her underwear with a typical ‘valley-girl’ voice while screaming words of fierce abuse and misogyny. Kathleen sang her emotions, inviting women to the front of the stage, pushing men to the back of the venues, and speaking on issues of sexual assault, rape, incest, and more. The songs “Daddy’s L’il Girl” and “White Boy” take these problems and shoves them right in your face, with lyrics such as “My world is so full of rape, does that mean my body must always be a sense of pain?” and “You profit from the rape lie baby, you eat meat, hate blacks, and beat your wife”. These words faced societal taboos with harsh lyrics, it gave a chance for women to challenge the norms given to them and reclaim their identity. Realize that at this time in history, these types of lyrics were never heard, especially not from a woman on the stage who was angry, who was powerful, and who was confident. It fueled the ‘Riot Grrl’ movement and led to the inspiration and legitimization of women and the struggles of how society systematically viewed and mistreated them. 

Built upon “redefining” the issues of gender identity and sexuality, Bikini Kill catalyzed its emergence and its growth in the punk music scene. The movement of ‘Riot Grrl’ worked on the foundations brought on by the women before them, focusing on their lost pathway toward complete comfort in identities, especially in social and commercial scenes that surrounded them. The term Riot Grrl came from the female ‘Zines’, or poster-like punk magazines, which spread the voice of politically conscious and involved women. Drummer for Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail,  worked with lead singer Hanna, by using zines to connect with other women in the scene to vent, rant, and eventually work to give them a space to RIOT. Tobi came up with the term ‘riot grrl’, with inspiration to their fueled passions of rioting against society’s standards, and ‘grrl’ as a play on ‘grr’, as in they are feral and angry. With their connections and voice, they focused on ‘intersectionality’, the blurring of lines between the layers of oppression faced, creating a space for different races and sexes which were targeted and abused before them. Bikini Kill’s raw and unapologetic lyrics, as seen in songs like ‘Rebel Girl’ and ‘Double Dare Ya’, challenged the status quo and provided a platform for women’s voices in a male-dominated space. 

A clash of other bands, such as ‘ Bratmobile’ and ‘Red Aunts’ followed the call to riot, fed up with their subjection to misogyny, you can feel the energy of angst pulsating from the cosmic-sounding screams and chords of anguish. These bands worked together to resist the music industry’s sexism and the male hecklers whom they continued to face at their shows. You can still find live recordings of all these bands’ ’90s shows, men would climb on stage to take

pictures of a half-naked Kathleen or touch another audience member inappropriately in the crowd. Riot Grrl successfully led a girl revolution of power, refusing to play the role of quiet and delicate; they were loud and feminine, declaring, “ALL GIRLS TO THE FRONT”! What the previous second wave of feminism was founded on was the sexual revolution, but as stated before and in my previous article, we see mostly white men in positions of power take this vulnerability and a newfound sense of self and abuse it. The third wave of feminism was a reaction to this, and it took back the power of women’s bodies, of sexual freedom and love, and it took it back for themselves to be the women in positions of power. An audience of allies and women brought together, Bikini Kill created that space and audience attraction to their shows; they created a sound of passion and refuge. Not only are their lyrics painful and loud, but they also speak of the hard truth. 

Bikini Kill’s revolutionary approach to punk music, spearheaded by Kathleen Hanna’s unapologetic activism, continues to inspire generations of women to challenge patriarchal norms and reclaim their autonomy within the scene. Sexual assault is still an issue for women and other minority groups today, but thanks to the influential and strong riot grrl punk femmes before us, we now have a place in the scene. We have individuality and dominating roles in society, we are at the front of the venues, cheering and continuing to preserve the space in venues for us. Riot Grrl lives on!

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