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GRRRLS TO THE FRONT: The History of the riot grrrl Movement

By Alexis Bussell

From baggy jeans and crop tops to claw clips and Nirvana songs, many trends of the 1990s have come back in full force in recent years. The 90s were infamously full of angst, anger, and protest. Many influential social movements were born of this anger, and the impacts are still evident in modern society. One movement, in particular, called riot grrrl (stylized lowercase) has seen a resurgence beginning in 2020 due to TikTok.

Riot grrrl was a punk-feminist movement in the late 1980s to mid-1990s with bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Sleater-Kinney, L7, and Heavens to Betsy at the forefront. The movement’s formation is accredited to Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman, and Jen Smith. Based out of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, the group led meetings of women that aimed to discuss their feminist ideologies, the censorship of their art at ESC, and the deeply rooted misogyny of the punk-rock subculture. The name of the movement came from Jen Smith and is inspired by the race riots in the late 80s/early 90s, as well as an alternative to “girl” that does not come with the stereotypes and prejudices of the original word.

The founders of riot grrrl began creating fanzines that creatively expressed their feelings and wishes for change in punk music and distributed them to fellow female punk fans at concerts and events. The ‘RIOT GRRRL MANIFESTO’ was written by Kathleen Hanna and published in the second volume of the Bikini Kill Zine in 1991. It outlined the changes they hoped to stimulate and became the foundation of the entire movement. Hanna encourages girls and women alike to reclaim their culture by making their own music, art, and rules. Some notable lines include:

“BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.”

“BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.”

“BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.”

“BECAUSE we see fostering and supporting girl scenes and girl artists of all kinds as integral to this process.”

“BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

Eventually, the women that held the riot grrrl meetings decided to try to reach the punk community through their primary form of communication – music. Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail joined with fellow student Kathi Wilcox to form Bikini Kill, while Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman added Erin Smith to their band Bratmobile. They initially played locally, joining the growing Seattle grunge scene. In 1991, the International Pop Underground Convention took place in Olympia. It was a 6-day festival celebrating underground pop and punk artists, with the first night being an all-girl lineup that included many riot grrrl bands called Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now. It is historically an iconic night, now called by fans “girls' night”. The term “Revolution Girl Style Now!” then became the title of Bikini Kill’s debut album.

Grunge music was at its peak in the early 90s. The grunge scene was extremely physical and mosh pits were often sources of sexual harassment and sometimes even assault for many female fans, as well as some female artists. Some men would go to riot grrrl shows with the intent of attacking the band. In the very early, underground days of riot grrrl, security was not usually at the small and crowded venues they played. At the very beginning of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna yelled “All girls to the front!” at one of their concerts, urging all girls to come to the front of the pit. This not only formed a barrier of sorts between the band and the violent men that often tried to jump up onto the stage, but it also kept the women safe at their shows. “Girls to the Front!” became an iconic rallying cry for the movement and has maintained its impact for decades.

One of the main goals of riot grrrl was to reclaim femininity and female sexuality. They wanted to prove that being stereotypically feminine did not mean they were submitting to the patriarchy. Almost all riot grrrl band members wore dresses, skirts, bras, leotards, tights, and makeup on stage, as well as they made sexual gestures, references, and wrote things like “slut” on themselves in order to make their gender expression and sexuality their own.

In the mid-90s, girl power became mainstream due to the Spice Girls. Because they were not nearly as radical as riot grrrl and made a more widely listened to genre of music, they became the center of feminist music during this era while riot grrrl was labeled dangerous, violent, and man-hating. The media portrayed them as extremely harmful to young girls and disruptive to the political climate of the time period. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of the original riot grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, L7, and many more broke up. This signified the unofficial end of the movement.

The riot grrrl beliefs were pivotal in 3rd-wave feminism. Riot grrrl laid the foundation for reclaiming femininity and transforming feminism into an inclusive, body-positive, and sex-positive movement that set the stage for the 4th wave, beginning in the 2010s. As previously mentioned, the term “Girls to the front!” has remained powerful in feminist circles. It is used by many current artists as album titles, slogans, and is even the title of a series by NME. Many original riot grrrl bands, such as Bikini Kill, have reunited in recent years due to things like the #MeToo movement, the Trump administration, and attacks on reproductive freedom. There was an influx of new riot grrrl-inspired bands on TikTok starting around 2020, such as The Linda Lindas, VIAL, Dazey and the Scouts, The Regrettes, and The Coathangers. These bands are bringing riot grrrl values to a new generation with a platform that reaches a drastically wider audience, keeping the riot grrrl movement alive in a political climate that doesn’t demonize feminism in the way it was demonized in the 1990s.

Written by writer Alexis Bussell

Originally Published August 20, 2022

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