How the Riot Grrrls taught me all about feminism

Feminism: it’s a word that means different things to different people. It garners a lot of strong opinions, and rightfully so. And while it’s not a new ideology, it does take on a new life with every generation. Today’s youths have Emma Watson, Amandla Stenberg, and Amy Poehler to look up to, as well as a bevy of social media platforms with which to receive and share information. Me? I had the Riot Grrrl movement and a bunch of handmade fanzines.

The early ‘90s was a pretty rad time to be a teenager. The music industry was booming, and I was there to watch it next to all the other kids who were obsessed with a tidal wave of flannel-wearing grunge gods. AOL was a new and exciting thing, and we had those awesome Delia’s catalogs, which contained the surefire secret to having the best school-year ever: ankle-length denim skirts. If you were lucky enough to live in a town with a hip, well-stocked record store, you could find all the best new music before it hit the airwaves, and it was in one of these dimly-lit dens of rock that I first discovered Hole, Babes In Toyland, and Bikini Kill.

While Hole and Babes didn’t necessarily associate themselves with the term Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill is largely accredited with starting the movement. Lead singer Kathleen Hanna started out doing spoken word, angrily stomping her feet to punctuate her points, then moved on to music after one of her best friends was assaulted by a man who broke into her apartment. Her outrage at what had happened to her friend needed an outlet, and, she later said in The Punk Singer, people won’t show up to see a spoken word show, but they’ll come see a band.

Hanna and her bandmates, Toby Vail, Kathi Wilcox, and Billy Karren, set out to make a safe place for women at their shows, which wasn’t always easy. Guys who were used to dominating violent mosh pits at other concerts tried to assert themselves in the same way, only to be swatted back — sometimes literally — by Kathleen. Watching them play live was truly an eye-opening experience for a teenage girl who had grown up in a small Southern town, and suddenly I realized that there was another choice: girls didn’t have to stand back and let the male-dominated world of rock and punk push them into the corner. We had voices, and we were allowed to use them.

Along with this new attitude came a very specific style: babydoll dresses, bright red lips, baby barrettes. Meant as an ironic take on the roles we had been relegated to, this look was adopted by females who were tired of being seen as less-than, weak, and unable to take care of themselves. An important lesson was embedded in those short dresses: our bodies were our own.

Besides learning that I had some measure of control over my body and well-being — and that I could speak up about anything that might be on my mind — I also took comfort in finding like-minded girls who weren’t letting age get in the way of ambition. One standout was Jessica Hopper, who started writing about her favorite bands in her own fanzine, Hit It Or Quit It. Hopper — who still writes about music and was the first music editor for Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Mag — said recently that it all started with an article she felt demeaned one of her favorite all-female groups.

“When it began for me was being obsessed with a band called Babes in Toyland when I was about 15 years old…I read a piece in one of the local monthlies, in which the writer was talking about how caustic and shrieky they were, these aesthetics that were really empowering to me. I called this magazine and said, you’ve got this wrong. I’ve never written before, I’m in ninth grade, but I think you should have somebody do another story, and it should be me. Nobody called me back. But I knew what fanzines were, and all it took was me going to Kinkos,” Hopper told Time.

Fanzines — handmade magazines about a particular passion — were a staple of the Riot Grrrl movement and, in fact, Bikini Kill began as one before the band was formed. For many girls at the time, the whole DIY aspect was one more appealing factor (oh, what we could have done back then with a Pinterest board!). Young women were taking control of their interests, and the world was starting to sit up and take notice.

Everything I learned from Riot Grrrl culture, I still apply to my life today. Feminism can’t be narrowed down to one or two paths; there are a lot of facets, including a woman’s rights to autonomy, her own voice, and the way she is treated in social, political, and economic structures — not just by men, but also by other women. I’m so glad I was exposed to those ideas at a time when I was at my most vulnerable/open minded, because they paved the way for me to get through bad relationships, amazing friendships, and the strange, rocky, joyous path that is motherhood.

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