Riot GRRL (2011)

Doctor of ethnomusicology Elizabeth K. Keenan came to Brooklyn College last Monday to discuss the historical importance of the Riot Grrrl movement and its influence on political activism.

Riot Grrrl was a political and artistic movement during the ’90s, which inspired a generation of girls to create their own music and literature. Riot Grrrl carried an underground, do-it-yourself ethos giving a voice to those white middle class women who felt alienated by pop culture.

“[Riot Grrrls] seek to create revolution in our own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit Christian capitalist way of doing things,” according to the Riot Grrrl manifesto.

The Riot Grrrl movement fought for women’s rights and opposed capitalism. Their lyrics were about sexuality, gender roles, domestic and sexual abuse, reproductive rights and sexist portrayals of women in the media. The movement wanted women to express themselves on their own terms and not conform to the standards set by society.

By remembering this feminist punk-offshoot movement, Keenan explained, people develop an idealized view of political activism, which motivates rather than deludes.

“Nostalgia of Riot Grrrl is a backward glance that creates hope for a utopian society and can lead to change,” said Keenan.

Riot Grrrl grew out of the Olympia, Washington punk scene and then moved to the Washington DC punk scene. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heaven to Beatsy are some of the period’s most well known bands.

“We are interested in creating non-hierarchical ways of being and making music, friends, and scenes based on communication, understanding, instead of competition and good/bad categorizations,” reads the Riot Grrrl manifesto. This ethic seems to contradict the often elitist label applied to Riot Grrrl.

“Most scholars separate Riot Grrrl from other third wave feminists music, like hip-hop and Latin music,” said Keenan, “Riot Grrrl was elite. Women needed the money and resources to seek out information, instruments and print their own zines.”

Viewing Riot Grrrl in retrospect helps to eliminate this elitism through self-censorship, leaving behind only the message of empowerment. For instance, Bikini Kill member Kathleen Hanna created a band archive filled with lyric sheets, flyers and zines, but later removed naïve and embarrassing materials from the archive.

Although nostalgia can change how history is recorded, Keenan believes that nostalgia of this kind can have a positive influence on political activism.

“Nostalgia needs to be used for inspiration for current activism,” said Keenan. “Idealism and bravery of the 1990s is something we need to get back.”

While some students acknowledged the positive political attributes of the often-overlooked Riot Grrrl movement, they questioned the contribution that participating artists made to music.

“The movement itself is empowering for young women, but the music isn’t good,” said music major Jean Hunte, pointing out that most Riot Grrrl rockers weren’t musicians in the typical sense of the word.

“Being a trained musician, the idea that any one could pick up an instrument is insulting,” said Hunte,”[But] It is a male dominated industry and society, so I understand where they coming from.”

The act of performing became a form of activism within itself. In an interview played by Keenan, Bikini Kill member Toby Vail stated that people in the punk scene either loved or hated the fact the women were playing instruments. Occasionally, angry crowds would turn to violence.

“The mainstream media including Rolling Stone Magazine, criticized Riot Grrrl by labeling it as ugly angry girl music,” said Keenan.

Ironically, while the entertainment media bash Riot Grrrl for its political activism, they later embraced the Spice Girls and “Girl Power,” because the group supported feminism without activism.

“DIY is needed more these days,” said student Xavier Gaskin, supporting the self-starting nature of the movement. “It gives people a platform for their voice. It helps people get started.”

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One comment

  1. Hi there! Elizabeth Keenan here. Thank you so much for writing about the talk I gave at Brooklyn College–it’s really a nice surprise to find this after so long. Just a few notes: 1) the talk was in 2011, not 2010; and 2) there are a couple of places here where I’m quoting others in my paper, and I’d like to be able to give them proper credit; it’s their views on nostalgia that give it a positive gloss (I’m much more of a pessimist). Thanks again!

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