Historically and into today, the music scene has been a male-dominated sphere. Since the emergence of rock-n-roll in the late 50s, male performers have had the freedom to challenge social standards, sexual stigmas, and political fallacies through their performances. Though they’ve undoubtedly received sharp criticism from conservative onlookers for “vulgar” displays (think of everything from the Pelvis and Robert Plant’s orgasmic screeches to Bowie’s lifelong attack on sexual norms and Black Sabbath making every middle-class white American dad afraid his kids were going to Hell in a hand basket), the social barriers male performers broke through were compounded when it came to their female counterparts.
Up until recent decades, women who pushed to be in the music scene were limited by stereotypical roles. Don’t get me wrong, we all love the desperately unhappy, alluring Penny Lane but do we actually want to be her? With the exceptions of Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and other “greats”, many female artists were limited in their ability to create during the developing years of rock and popular music because people simply believed that women couldn’t “rock out” hard enough.
Then Riot Grrrl happened. To be fair, it didn’t change everything. However, the movement fundamentally changed the views surrounding female artists in the music scene.
Riot Grrrl encouraged women to stand their ground and make a place for themselves in the male-saturated punk rock scene. Showgoers said that these girls would rock harder, mosh harder, and often fight harder than any of the other musicians out there. The movement was shocking and divisive – purposefully so. In challenging the expectation for women in the punk rock scene, members of Riot Grrrl opened up the door for discussions on all of society’s beliefs about women’s rights, abilities, and freedoms.
Riot Grrrl’s abrasive demand for change not only shifted the public’s view of female artist, it changed the way many women saw themselves. They challenged the traditional views of women in an aggressive way that pushed the boundaries. These women were angry and they weren’t afraid to show it.
The Riot Grrrl Timeline
The band Bikini Kill is formed in Olympia, WA by Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail. They become a fixture in the underground punk rock scene, encouraging female show goers to come on stage and handing out lyrics of their songs so women could sing along.
Bikini Kill spends the summer in Washington, D.C. where Hanna collaborates with members from the band Batmobile. They begin working on a zine called Riot Grrrl and the movement is born with the goal of increasing female activity and legitimacy in the punk rock scene.
Bikini Kill releases their demo cassette titled “Revolution Girl Style Now” and the first “Girl Night” event is organized in Olympia, WA. It features both Bikini Kill and Batmobile along with 15 other female-fronted or all women bands. The performance, which kicked off the first night of the International Pop Underground Convention, causes waves in more than just the underground punk scene. By the mid 1990s, the Riot Grrrl movement would become a nationwide fixture as that country battled to pass laws on reproductive rights, women’s equality in the workplace, and more.
Riot Grrrl chapters sprout up in cities nationwide to provide groups where women can discuss and support each other in issues regarding sexuality, gender equality, artistic expression, and female empowerment.
Perhaps in the most telling media quip about the Riot Grrrl movement, journalist Kim France expresses the fear of many conservative Americans when she writes,”They do things like scrawl ‘SLUT’ and ‘RAPE’ across their torsos before gigs, produce fanzines with names like Girl Germs and hate the media’s guts. They’re called Riot Grrrls, and they’ve come for your daughters.”
Bikini Kills makes an appearance on Roseanne, showing the dynamic yet still divisive force the Riot Grrrl movement had come to play in mainstream culture.
By the mid 1990s, many of the original Riot Grrrl bands – including Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear – split due to feelings of misrepresentation in the media and frustration that more focus was placed on their radical antics over their dedication to bringing women together creatively.
Though many of the original Riot Grrrl members are no longer playing music, they continue to play integral roles in developing collaborative female communities and encouraging women to positively view themselves and their artistic abilities.
Riot Grrrls of the Past and Present
Heavens to Betsy
Babes in Toyland
Love them or hate them, Riot Grrls made (and are still making) some serious noise. They’ve done just what the name says – they create a riot; a purposeful disruption of the status quo that forces people to listen, to think, and to decide whether the way things have always been are the ways things should be.