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Charles Peterson

Seattle Met

Anger Makes me a Modern Girl

How Riot Grrrl Taught me to be Angry

December 14, 2018

  My mother was the one who taught me how to be a feminist. From the time I was small, she’d proudly place me in front of the television to watch speeches by Emma Watson at the UN or to tune into the Rachel Maddow show. In 2016, I wore her Hillary Clinton t-shirt to school on election day, and together we teared up at a recent documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

  My mother was the one who taught me what a feminist was supposed to be — measured; precise; respected; respectful.

  So when I was called a “feminazi” for the very first time, it cut through me like a knife. I had my pencil skirts and my essays and my arguments and my facts — how could I be too radical? My whole life, I’d considered feminism to be a transaction; my respect for your respect—- sometimes, erring on the side of my deference for your ear. But in that cutting moment, I discovered that no amount of cordiality would win me anything. In this landscape, it never won anybody anything.

  What followed was the result of a beautiful confluence of this conflict and general teenage angst, catalyzed by a late-night binge-watch of “Portlandia.”

 

I’m the woman, I was taught to always be hungry

Yeah women are well acquainted with thirst

Well, I could eat just about anything

We might even eat your hate up like love

— “Feels Blind”, Bikini Kill (1991)

 

  One late night while binge watching “Portlandia,” I decided to Google the lead actress Carrie Brownstein. I discovered that she was in a band called Sleater-Kinney, and then I was greeted by a plethora of information about the larger Riot Grrrl movement.

  Riot Grrrl is a genre of punk rock music focused on women and women’s rights. It is heavily associated with the Pacific Northwest during the ‘90s, but it is definitely not confined to this setting. Some describe Riot Grrrl as a genre, some as the larger social movement which the music inspired.

  Born in 2001, I was not well acquainted with the culture of the ‘90s. I’d known about a general atmosphere of “girl power” that floated around in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but (aside from an undying admiration of Lindsay Lohan’s rockstar character in the 2003 “Freaky Friday”), I’d been completely blind to a genre of music largely credited with spearheading what some historians call third-wave feminism: Riot Grrrl.

  Riot Grrrl is brilliant for its appropriation of a largely male field. The anger, aggression and confrontational nature of punk led to the early punk scene being male-dominated. When women took to the mic, it was not only unprecedented — it was radical. By appropriating a male-dominated scene to talk about women’s issues, the women of the Riot Grrrl movement allowed themselves to be as crass and crude as they wanted to be. This was the nature of the punk scene. Feminism no longer needed to be pretty. It no longer needed to be contained in board meetings and press conferences and essays. This was the front line of the fight for women’s social rights, and ideas about those rights could finally be conveyed with the same pain in which women’s oppression was bound to be received. Women could say what they really felt. And it was not pretty. It was messy; it was raucous; it was loud.

When she talks, I hear the revolution

In her hips, there’s revolutions

When she walks, the revolution’s coming

In her kiss, I taste the revolution

— “Rebel Girl”, Bikini Kill (1993)

    My mother was the one who taught me how to be a feminist, but nobody taught me how to be angry. Nobody taught me how to scream.

https://now.uiowa.edu/2012/03/riot-grrrl-finding-voice

University of Iowa

  I’ve always considered myself to be an emotional person but never an angry one. Like a lot of women, I don’t get angry. I get sad. I don’t scream. I cry. Resigned from the first step forward, tepid and cynical and always disappointed, I was a feminist. I ironed out the wrinkles in my best pencil skirt and pasted on a false smile. I pretended that I thought the world might care about what I had to say, and I packaged it as neatly as I could so that this dream might one day come true.

  Then the 2016 election happened.

  I found myself in a new America. Trump’s America. Sexists and racists and homophobes alike came out of the shadows as the political paradigm of the country shifted right, and the alt-right extreme became no longer so extreme. I’ve become aware a lot of things in the past two years — including but not limited to real Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville — all of which have capitalized upon prejudices which I’ve known to have existed in America since its inception. And for the very first time, I became angry. Really angry. So I went about learning how to scream.

Don’t tell me it’s not relevant

Don’t tell me it’s not relevant

‘Cause we’re still oppressed, we’re getting paid less

Judged by our looks and the way we dress

I don’t wanna bring you down, man

I just want us to meet in the middle

“Feminazi,” Fea (2016)

  In an interview with Rolling Stone, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney said: “Another white guy with a guitar comes along to save us, ‘thank God!’ But where are all the girls? What happened to them?”

  The present moment almost needs Riot Grrrl more than the ‘90s did. Today’s women and girls need influences who are not pantsuited political superstars — they need to be told that they are allowed to feel what they’re feeling and that they are allowed to express it. Yes, we can name our anger and institutionalize the solutions to our problems— and we should— but this is not in lieu of being angry. Efficiency, though it may seem a lost goal at this moment in our government, does not mean the sacrifice of passion. As a generation, we have a collective apathetic persona. Maybe that’s because none of us ever learned how to scream. We cannot let apathy win. We need to know how to scream.

https://pitchfork.com/features/article/6171-sleater-kinney/

Pitchfork

  Riot Grrrl’s influence can be found in the likes of Pussy Riot, a Russian band that prides itself on political performance art, openly rebelling against the administrations of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In 2012, some of its members were jailed for “hooliganism.” The fact that Riot Grrrl music is still too radical proves that we still need it — women should be allowed to speak their minds, and they should also be allowed to be angry. When women are allowed to be messy, it means that they are being seen as fully human instead of as an object. By being loud and angry, we prove to the world not only that we are real, living humans with tangible ideas and emotions, but also that we are not afraid to confront those ideas and emotions.

I just want to be one of the boys

I just want to be your little fashion toy

Let’s hang and be cool, all right

Let’s go watch the girl fight tonight

Cool schmool

“Cool Schmool,” Bratmobile (1993)

  A mainstay of the lyricism of the Riot Grrrl movement was sarcasm — it dripped from the microphones of people who’d been told time and time again that they could not make a mark on the punk scene. This sarcasm was a choice; it expressed ideas about the female experience in an accessible, relatable way. Ideas that could’ve just as well ended up in a diary or a conversation over Messenger. But instead, they found their place before a live audience at top volume. These grievances were no longer hidden in their own world.

  The Riot Grrrl movement was not a cry for change or even a platform so much as a genuine picture of what life was for these women and still is for women and girls everywhere. What makes Riot Grrrl so important and so volatile is that it didn’t try to be anything. In just being natural and honest, it called out problems that needed to be solved. Paradoxes; double standards; contradictions— the everyday of feminism. The front lines.

  He said “Tell me baby what’s wrong?”

It’s not what you want it’s everything

It’s not what you want it’s everything

It’s not what you want it’s everything

It’s not what you want it’s everything

“Not What You Want,” Sleater-Kinney (1997)

  Many Riot Grrrl bands, Sleater-Kinney included, tried to distance themselves from the label of “feminist rock” because that category was inherently limiting. Women in rock should be a norm, not a deviation. And that has taken

https://library.rockhall.com/riot_grrrl

Gayle Wald Riot Grrrl Collection, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

hold — current popular bands like The Regrettes are woman-fronted, and the division between ‘normal’ rock bands and ‘girl’ bands is dissolving every day. But for the time in which it existed, Riot Grrrl presented a new idea. A new feminism.

 

 

  These women of rock did not live like their hyper-marketed contemporaries (think Spice Girls and a lip-gloss-stained ‘90s). They dressed in t-shirts and button-up blouses just as often as they donned dresses. Their major marketing arm was handmade fan zines often inclining readers to “smash the patriarchy,” and a number of Riot Grrrls belonged to the LGBTQ+ community. Openly. Loudly.

  They were not the idols of feminism that my mother had cleanly presented to me. They were not Emma Watson. They were not Hillary Clinton. They were not in the business of making compromises. They simply had things to say and said them.

 

My baby loves me

I’m so angry

Anger makes me a modern girl

Took my money

I couldn’t buy nothin’

I’m sick of this brave new world

My whole life

Was like a picture of a sunny day

“Modern Girl,” Sleater-Kinney (2005)

  Riot Grrrl taught me to be angry. It taught me that being a true feminist was not only about following politics and reading essays but also about recognizing my personal experience as a woman, and expressing how that makes me feel. It taught me that social change is not about being correct; it’s about being right. Being true. Correctness happens in data and spreadsheets and indisputable facts. People do not. People happen in truths. In lives, complex and emotional, complete with contradictions and feelings we can’t explain.

  But we can try to.

Thanks to Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker, Allison Wolfe, and Carrie Brownstein (among others), I know how to scream. And I will.

 

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