you and me and riot grrrl
In 1992, I read in the LA Weekly about a revolution in a million pink bedrooms. But where, I wondered, whose bedrooms? The revolutionaries were described as punk rock musicians and music-lovers and feminists. And they made zines, something I had been doing since my undergraduate days at NYU’s film school 5 years earlier. They were riot grrrls.
riot grrrl is a third wave feminist, music, and art movement. It began in the mid 1980s, gaining national media attention in the early 1990s. Riot grrrl’s do-it-yourself infrastructure allowed grrrls and women to create their own art and music scenes, unfettered by the institutionalized gender roles that have long oppressed, exploited, and excluded girls and women. Making zines, forming bands, and holding meetings, benefits, rallies, and national conventions are legendary riot grrrl actions that have had lasting impact. As my mom has said, the impact of riot grrrl is herstorical, with art as overt action.
I called my best friend. “Where can I find the revolution?” I asked. “Do I need to paint my bedroom pink?” I could hear the smile in his voice. He said he’d keep his eyes and ears open, and advised me to do the same. I was very lucky to have such a gentle and radical best friend.
And even more lucky when he rang a few days later. “Quick! Turn on the TV! Those punk rock feminists with the pink bedrooms are on TV!” he shouted. I almost fell over my bed to get to the TV nestled near it. It was an old TV, one he found for me at a yard sale. All I could afford, and I changed the stations by hand. And he was right! There they were, on a public television show! They looked angry. Unsmiling. And not very punk rock. They all looked like regular people with uncomplicated hairstyles. A white 30-something blonde with 1970s skinny-plucked eyebrows and a hard expression, in clean blue jeans and a bright white t-shirt; a black teen-ager wearing a 1940s style gray dress; and a 20-something white brunette in loose clothes and librarian glasses. They reminded me of misfit stereotypes. Of the me I tried to hide. This was riot grrrl? This was punk rock? This was strange, and not what I expected. I expected Cherie Curie and Lita Ford and Sandy West and Jackie Fox and Joan Jett in backless glitter tops, strapped-on guitars, and platform boots. Cherry bombs. Or Fanny, with their long straight hair and their long guitar necks, bending notes as they bent gender expectations. Intimidating with their badass prowess and bared flesh, their slender bodies and clothes that fit perfectly.
But the riot grrrls looked awkward. Their clothes weren’t fancy, and their bodies weren’t emphasized. And their words were words I longed to hear from someone besides me, someone beside me, all about the male-dominated music scene and patriarchy’s exploitation of women and that girls and women can rock. The uncool girls from the 1970s became cool in the riot grrrl of the 1990s.
There was a contact address. Thankfully! I wrote it down, and wrote the riot grrrls right away.
My first riot grrrl zine arrived in the mail a few weeks later. It was a rainy Los Angeles night and I had a good movie on. I felt so cozy. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the career my BFA with honors once promised, or any kind of job at all, or money for the rent. I knew I didn’t want to move back to my hometown, a small town in Kentucky where I never fit in, so I was determined to stay in LA, no matter how hard it got or how poor I was. And it had gotten so hard. And I was so poor! riot grrrl olympia zine seemed like a true friend reassuring me. The zine was the size of my palm. The cover was a black and white copy of two pre-adolescent girls in pretty dresses holding hands. <3s were drawn all over, and the handwriting was intimate and hard to read. Endearing and irresistible, with a note inside folded like a password. I felt hugged.
My first riot grrrl meeting was a bummer. It was in snazzy Silver Lake. The white and voluptuous host had burnished hair with hardwood floors to match. To me she felt patronizing and contemptuous, as bad as any real or imagined boss, evidence of her colonization — those who want power too often imitate it instead of sharing it. She made it seem we missed the revolution, that riot grrrl was over. She showed us a flyer with a screaming face and an outthrust fist that looked very cool, and she said she knew the artist and the model and that they had been at all the previous riot grrrl meetings and now had moved away. Had the revolution moved away, too? She made it seem so.
But also at that meeting were cool girls, girls with dyed hair and goth make-up and torn fishnets, the teen girl from the public access show, girls I met up with later outside. A couple of the grrrls spoke Spanish. As we passed each other to get to our cars, I just had to say something. “What did you think?” I called over the hood of her car. “I don’t know, it was okay. It wasn’t what I expected,” she replied. “Me neither!” I exclaimed, but softly, careful not to scare her away because I really needed this revolution grrrl style now. “But I know of another meeting,” she said, “I saw it on a flyer at a show, and I will call Dawn and find out when and then call you and let you know,” she said, efficient as she got her keys out and unlocked her door and got in and started to go. I knew I could trust this grrrl-woman. I could tell by her sure-spoken declaration, and intentional tone.
When Sisi called me a few weeks later with the date and location of the next riot grrrl meeting, I was thrilled! She had done what she said she would. People who didn’t even know each other were putting their names and numbers on flyers and zines and calling each other on the phone and making and distributing zines to continue the revolution, a revolution that had been emerging since long before we were born.
I liked this grrrl-woman. And I knew the next meeting would be better. And it was. And so were all the ones after that, until they weren’t, and we left. We met monthly at grrrls’ houses or at coffeeshops, on rooftops and in basements. Many riot grrrls met at shows, and we held benefits. We made art. The riot grrrl Los Angeles zine several of us riot grrrls co-made has a title page with the image of a Sheela na gig, the artful carvings of female forms whose vulva opens with insistence, suggesting the transformation of. power and the ability to confer it, and the origin of life. Sheela na gigs were often built over doorways and windows of churches or castles as protection. Looks a lot like Cherie Currie onstage with her band, The Runaways, legs bent and spread like an unashamed rock star as she sings loud.
Zines are do-it-yourself mini-magazines of collage art and text. Rape, eating disorders, incest, domestic. abuse, self-mutilation, reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, veganism, feminist film and music theory, self-protection, and self-empowerment are some of the issues fearlessly addressed in zines. I made my first zines at New York University in 1987. I was a senior in film school and I thought it would be cool to start a group dedicated to ending genderism. I made my first zines because of the group. I co-founded the group Support Against Sexism with an art student, and we applied for funds from the university that we excitedly won! We decided to spend the money on creating and distributing a monthly newsletter of art and social critique we called newsletters. My co-founder and I fought so much she left the group, and at most meetings I was alone; no one showed up. I made the newsletters by myself for the duration of my senior year in college. It wasn’t until I joined riot grrrl Los Angeles in 1992 that I learned the newsletters I’d been making for a few years were called zines. And I like that name so much more!
After I graduated from NYU in 1988, I moved to Los Angeles. On my own in another big city — and this time without a syllabus — making zines again helped me process experience and perception: Newly sober and abstinent from an eating disorder that had plagued me since my early teens, writing, drawing, and the physical act of cut and paste for the collage of each page of my zine helped me deconstruct literally what disturbed me emotionally and mentally. I called my new zine The Meat Hook when I made the connection that the treatment of women is like the treatment of animals, something I realized while reading author Margaret Atwood. At California Institute of the Arts, where I earned my MFA in Critical Studies, I began my first novel as a thesis in the form of a zine. Like the Dadaists who employed collage as social critique and catharsis, so too do we who make zines. The following is a list of zines I have created or co-created:
Some Girls Riot, 1 issue
with my mother
Touché, 1 issue
The Groupie Gospels, 1 issue
Ghost Author, 1 issue
Absolution, 1 issue
with my mother
Revolution Rising, 4 issues
as a co-contributor
1993 — 1995
eracism, 1 issue
as a co-contributor
TVI, 4 issues
with Lucid Nation
1993 — 1995
riot grrrl, 1 issue
as a co-contributor
The Meat Hook, 4 issues
1990 — 1994
Support Against Sexism, 9 issues
Living in a culture where girls and women are defined by physical appeal and approval has long felt dismissive and devaluing, and sometimes violent. Watching my family objectify and exploit girls and women made me sick. This same objectification and exploitation was mirrored in the cartoons, comics, TV shows, books, magazines, movies, music, advertising, and billboards that surrounded me as I grew up. They surround me now. The violence is not only from boys or men, but also from girls and women. And from the self against the self. Living up to impossible ideals might not be something one can live through. One time I wrote a suicide note on a sticky because I was too depressed to write more.
Change is slow, and change is possible. Maybe it is inevitable. Writing and making art and listening to music while I make my zines have given me artful and often joyous purpose, building self-esteem and a productive sense of autonomy and community. Reading a zine from someone else felt like hope, and like I finally found a feminist friend. riot grrrl olympia zine seemed girlish and friendly and radical with its scribbled and determined power. It felt like an ally.
Many zines and flyers have the heart shape scattered around on them. Feminist and Ms. Magazine co-founder, Gloria Steinem, says hearts are the symbol of female genital procreative power, trivialized by centuries of patriarchy. riot grrrl is about sharing power as we each find our own. I heart riot grrrl. And I heart my friend Sisi. Who signs her name with hearts over the “I”s.
Sisi is one of my best friends over 20 years and scads of mixtapes later. We shared zine collections, including flyers and stickers. All the riot grrrl music I know about, I know about from her. Sisi’s compilation tapes for me include the following bands: A Dick Did, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Calamity Jane, Courtney Love, Fifth Column, Fugazi, Heavens 2 Betsy, Honey Bane, Huggy Bear, Kreviss, 7 Year Bitch, Lois, Los Crudos, Lucy Stoners, Lumihoops, Mecca Normal, Mizzery, Sue P. Fox, Premarital Sex, Propaghandi, Sleater-Kinney, Spitboy, Suture, Team Dresch, The 3rd Sex, Tribe 8, Tummyache, Velocity Girl, Witchypoo, Yeastie Girlz. With her variously colored pens she doodled hearts and circular flourishes and writing all over, neat and artful and happy! Sisi wrote inside the cassette covers all the band or performer names and song titles, and for the labels she wrote “Grrrls” and “Sisterhood” and “Hope you enjoy this tape” and “with <3” and “Pussy Sounds” and “It’s about respect” and “Stay Empowered!” One tape cover Sisi made is a picture of her mom walking on the street, unescorted, miserable from the leering attention of men as she goes. Zines and cassette tapes compact and portable and filled with art and songs and rage and secrets shared. Encouraging and motivating. Reasons to live.
That so many people were making music and art about the traumatizing experience of misogyny made me feel that I had allies in a very specific and personal area where I most often felt alone. Because the art and music being made in riot grrrl were accessible and DIY made me feel that revolution was happening, and that I was part of it. It meant that my zines — filled with the art I’d been making and the writing I’d been doing and the memories I’d been expressing for so long, alone in my own bedroom, about how I felt so bad as a girl and as a woman — had revolutionary and transformative meaning for other people, too. riot grrrl is a social movement, and at its essence, riot grrrl is personal. As the Second Wave feminists proclaimed: the personal is political.
It is has been a sometimes struggle to maintain my friendship over the years with Sisi, with. painful separations and mutually hurt feelings. I think riot grrrl is feminist and activist friendship with girls and women, riot grrrl is making art and music and zines, and riot grrrl is not giving up. Sisi and I have not given up on each other, or on revolutionary creativity, or on riot grrrl. riot grrrl’s not dead! As she has written in the riot grrrl census on tumblr, “Once a riot grrrl, always a riot grrrl.” Recently, we merged our riot grrrl collections. We laughed as she observed about so many of my zines and stickers and flyers: “Hey, didn’t I lend you that?!?” Together we have over 900 items! My grrrlfriend Debbie, whom I met when she was 16 and I was 26 and we were in riot grrrl together, is entrusting me with her riot grrrl collection, too.
I appreciate primary resources. Representation of riot grrrl in the media is confined to a few famous figures, some of whom never attended a riot grrrl meeting or event, and do not actually identify with or as riot grrrls. Because there was distrust of the media, riot grrrls had a media blackout. That secrecy felt like safety then. Now it feels like loss! I wish I’d kept notes on each meeting but I remember so well the day I began to do so I felt like a traitor so I put lines through all my words: I wanted to be true on all levels to the media blackout. Current social media is so prevalent and virtually inescapable that our secrecy then risks a misleading revisionism now. So that is why I began to write about my time with riot grrrl and as a riot grrrl. This essay you are reading now is a primary resource, as are my zines.
riot grrrl’s social impact has been officially recognized. Prestigious and not so prestigious libraries collect riot grrrl materials, especially zines. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University houses my zine The Meat Hook. New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections will hold my entire collection of zines in my name, accessible to the public. Diaries, flyers, stickers, news articles, photographs, and videos related to riot grrrl are also collected by these and other libraries. The collections provide primary resources for scholars studying feminism, gender theory, art and music history, and punk rock ideology.
Premier museums also recognize riot grrrl art: the Museum of Modern Art includes an essay devoted entirely to zines in a recent book on women in art! (Butler, Cornelia H., and Alexandra Schwartz. Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Print.)
Excerpts from my zine The Meat Hook have been published in:
Gender in the Music Industry: Rock Discourse and Girl Power by Marion Leonard. Vermont: Ashgate, 2007. Print.
Girls Make Media by Mary Celeste Kearney. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures under “The New Girl Geographies” by Tracey Skelton and Gill Valentine, eds. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over the World: Writing from the Girl Zine Revolution by Tristan Taormino and Karen Green, eds. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.
Zines! Vol. I by V.Vale. San Francisco, CA: V. Vale, 1996. Print.
I’ve conducted an oral history on cassette tapes of riot grrrl Los Angeles called the riot grrrl mixtapes zine. My art, A Grrrl’s Diary: Oh God I’m A Grrrl, began as my contribution to the 1993 riot grrrl Los Angeles zine, Sheela na Gig. A Grrrl’s Diary evolved as I added more and more panels. My stepmother asked me to turn the panels into a poster, and so I did! A limited edition print of the poster was recently shown at Los Angeles Punk Museum. And in the last couple of years, over 20 years after my first rg meeting, several riot grrrl art exhibitions and documentaries are happening, proving what my mom said — riot grrrl’s impact is herstorical, with art as overt action. The Meat Hook, Revolution Rising, and eracism are currently included in Carnegie-Mellon’s Miller Gallery travelling riot grrrl art exhibition, Alien She, the first riot grrrl art exhibition of its kind.
Maybe I saved everything because my moon is in detail-oriented Virgo! I’ve kept a diary since I was a girl. Also, I’m a believer in archives, art, and accuracy. riot grrrl materials tell the truth, and the materiality of them is cool. I like the tangibility. Primary resources add a more believable, comprehensive, and immediate dimension to popular portrayals in the media.
I’m so glad I saved all the zines I’ve made, and all the zines, stickers, flyers, phone lists and cassette tapes I collected back then.
riot grrrl’s impact has been one of infiltration rather than usurpation, and one of revolution rising rather then revolution squashed. As has been our banner, waving for more than 20 years: REVOLUTION GRRRL STYLE NOW. And although I was a woman when I joined, older than many of the girls in riot grrrl, and wondered why the word woman is so often a dirty word, I understood the idea that girls tended to be more anarchic than women, not yet shaped by a biology that is as much culturally informed as it is genetically described. So all these years later, I’m not afraid of the ‘f” word — feminist — and not afraid to be called grrrl, either — as long as the word grrrl is prefaced by riot.
Legends for Modernism, PostModernism, and Contemporary Culture!
First Wave Feminism: late 19th and early 20th c American and UK effort to equal rights de jure, e.g. suffrage and property ownership
Second Wave Feminism: 20th c effort in America to equal rights de facto as well as de jure in the 60's and 70's, including but not limited to family, workplace, and reproductive rights
Third Wave Feminism: 1980s and 1990s global effort to equal rights via art and sexual expression, emphasizing multiples (races, economics, philosophies and orgasms)
Fourth Wave Feminism: 2000's effort to freedom of expression physically and linguistically; sexual orientation and language are explored as genders can be blended, and language can be gender-neutral, in a technologically advanced and interactive climate.