Next month, The Feminist Press at CUNY will publish "The Riot Grrrl Collection," a new book of selected zines, posters, flyers, journals and letters housed in NYU's Fales Library Riot Grrrl Collection. And on May 29th, Lisa Darms (editor of "The Riot Grrrl Collection" and Senior Archivist at the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU), Ramdasha Bikceem (GUNK Zine), Johanna Fateman (Le Tigre) and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill/Le Tigre) will be discussing the book and their perspectives on the movement at the Fales Library. We've gathered some of our favorite ephemera pictured in the book, from zines like Hanna's Bikini Kill and Fateman's Artaud-Mania, to the flyers and prints of Bratmobile/PeeChees/Frumpies drummer Molly Neuman, artist Becca Albee of Excuse 17 and Heartless Martin, and artist/Mr. Lady Records founder Tammy Rae Carland. We've also posted Fateman's opening essay from "The Riot Grrrl Collection" below, with permission. Make sure to click on each image to see it full-size.
by Johanna Fateman
"The Sylvia Plath story is told to girls who write," Kathleen Hanna sings on "Bloody Ice Cream." It's a fast, noisy track on Reject All American, Bikini Kill's final album, released in 1996 -- the year the meteoric riot grrrl phenomenon seemed to have run its course, and the year used as the approximate end date for the Fales Riot Grrrl Collection. Kathleen and I had been friends for a few years then, and in a few more we would start the feminist band Le Tigre together, but to me, the burst of anguish on "Bloody Ice Cream" marked the end of an era. As riot grrrl chapters dispersed, and the militant youth movement receded in the public imagination, the short song reiterated the high stakes of girl revolution. Kathleen -- an iconic figure of riot grrrl from the beginning -- switches between enraged shout singing and talking, settling on a menacing, and maybe hopeful, singsong delivery for the final line. "We are turning cursive letters into knives," she proclaims, suggesting a radical alternative to Plath's grim fate.
By 1996, the use of girlish script as a subversive weapon was not just a feminist fantasy; Kathleen's lyric alluded to a literary and visual style that she had helped to innovate. Riot grrrl, in a conscious response to second-wave feminists' rejection of the word "girl," reclaimed it with pride -- and also in parody. Songs, performances, and fashion statements mocked the depictions of feminine innocence and compliance served to us in the face of discrimination, exploitation, and endemic sexual abuse. And in a new tradition of self-publishing, girls used loopy cursive, hearts, stars, photo-booth portraits, and kitsch images (of housewives, superheroes, schoolgirls, and cheerleaders) to set off type or handwritten communiquÃ©s, cultural criticism, fiction, and philosophy. The feminist punk zines of the '90s, with their DIY aesthetics, humor, and raw truth telling, were a crucial counterpart to the urgent and infectious music associated with riot grrrl. They were also instrumental to the pre-Internet formation of local scenes and an international network of angry-girl punks.
As I sifted through my personal collection of zines, flyers, videotapes, and correspondence to donate to the Fales Collection in 2009, I discovered a few gaps in my archive. Some of my own disavowed young work was missing, as were a couple of the zines that I recall vividly -- I must have given them to other girls -- but mostly I had carefully saved this stuff: my documentation of the secret art world that defined my late teens and early twenties. The consciously ephemeral material of riot grrrl, like the movement itself, was mythic in its day. Zines, photocopied in small batches and informally distributed, were made to address a moment or to build a scene -- not to stand the test of time. Mostly, their young authors let them fall out of circulation quickly. This book, as a sampling of riot grrrl's feverish output, demonstrates the difficulties that have accompanied attempts to define the movement since its heyday -- "riot grrrl" was a self-designation available to anyone, and a label shrugged off by some girls who appeared to be at the center of its activities. I've used the term loosely, to encompass a broad strain of third-wave feminism that took root in punk scenes. In retrospect, it's the best descriptor for the scene that radicalized me, and shaped my enduring attitudes toward collaboration, activism, and friendship.
Whatever riot grrrl became -- a political movement, an avant-garde, or an ethos -- it began as a zine. Titled in the blown-up type of a cursive typewriter, the collectively produced riot grrrl first appeared in July of 1991 in Washington, DC, where the Northwest-based bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile had convened for the summer. With like-minded discontents in the male-dominated scene, band members tested the waters for feminist action with this weekly newsletter. The first issue establishes a signature mix of passionate and pragmatic content, capturing the frustration of the time, and the allure of a new feminist counterculture. A casually written but serious statement of intent bemoans "the general lack of girl power in society, and the punk rock underground specifically," promising the mini-zine will keep readers apprised of the nascent girl scene's coming events. "Maybe," it continues, "we'll spotlight 1 or 2 special girls who make our lives a little easier to stand." By the end of the month, a meeting at a nearby punk activist house heralded the start of the DC chapter of riot grrrl. And at the end of the summer, the bands brought their new strategies for grassroots organizing back to Olympia, Washington.
That fall, I was seventeen, and left my parents house in Berkeley, California for college in Portland, Oregon. As I shook off the sexist indignities of high school, I drifted into punk and found the women's center on a campus dotted with fluorescent Queer Nation stickers. I was unaware then of the waves feminists were making in the underground music scene just a two-hour drive away, but the emergence of feminism's third wave was palpable, and the events that set the stage for riot grrrl's ascendance quickly unfolded. In October, Anita Hill's testimony in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings galvanized students around the issue of sexual harassment (my college had no policy to address complaints). By Thanksgiving, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a hit, putting a spotlight on the band's Northwest punk origins; and for Christmas, I gave my mom Naomi Wolf's feminist best seller The Beauty Myth. Its argument -- that escalating standards of female beauty constitute an insidious cultural campaign to undermine women's political gains since the 1970's -- supported my growing conviction that the progressive establishment of my childhood had congratulated itself prematurely on the arrival of a post-feminist era.
The next summer, I got the lease for an off-campus house in Portland and waited for my friends to return for the fall semester. One of them excitedly brought with her a copy of a Seattle Weekly newspaper featuring a cover article about riot grrrl. I studied it with incredulous pleasure before cutting it up to make a flyer for our girls-only back-to-school dance party. That house, with its roomy basement, rose bushes, possum infestation, and view of the neighboring cemetery, came to be called the Curse.
We went to see girl bands play when they came to town, and ordered music from the Olympia-based labels Kill Rock Stars and K Records -- Mecca Normal LPs, the first Bikini Kill EP, a Heavens to Betsy cassette and their split seven inch with Bratmobile. Teen pixelvision filmmaker Sadie Benning (who would later also become my bandmate in Le Tigre) stayed with us after her screening at the Portland Art Museum, and so did her friends, the Toronto queercore band Fifth Column (who were then touring with musician and Chainsaw author Donna Dresch). Miranda July and I, best friends from high school, made a short zine called Snarla in Love during winter break back in Berkeley, and gave it to girls at a show at 924 Gilman, the local all-ages punk club.
I think at that time we had never seen a riot grrrl zine -- that is, one that identified itself with the movement -- and so Snarla, in the beginning (the zine became a six-issue collaboration) reacted to the zines, mostly by boys, that we did know about. It was punk-by-association and in style, but Miranda and I were determined to present our own content distinct from what we viewed as standard zine fodder. In the place of scene reports, records reviews, and travel diaries, we asserted a more abstract world of memory and self-reflection, filtered through our new, unforgiving feminist analyses. We'd soon learn, though, as we came into contact with the confessional writing associated with riot grrrl, that we weren't alone in our introspective approach.
When I met Kathleen, she was collecting zines for Riot Grrrl Press, an ambitious new girl-run distributor that carried a small catalogue of feminist zines. She made an announcement about it after a Bikini Kill show at the X-Ray Cafe in Portland, and I handed her a copy of Snarla. We became friends, and while Bikini Kill was on hiatus for a year, she moved into the attic of the Curse (the flyer on page 165 is for a party we threw in the basement). The zines in her collection -- like her band mate Tobi Vail's Jigsaw, and Girl Germs, made by Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile -- included ardent, funny reportage on other girls' projects, and tackled serious issues in a conversational style.
Vail's essay in the first issue of Bikini Kill (the band's eponymous zine), which exposes the subtle sidelining of girls in the author's underground milieu (and debunks the popular parable of Yoko Ono and the Beatles's break-up), is exemplary of riot grrrl's social critique, while another trajectory of the movement's political thought was particularly self-reflexive: It emphasized the need to confront one's own participation -- material and psychic -- in the diseased parent culture. Grrrls put the colonized mind under the microscope, from the imperatives listed in Kathleen's handwriting on the early "Trust" flyer ("Resist the internalization of capitalism, the reducing of people + oneself to commodities meant to be consumed") to Nomy Lamm's unflinching analysis in her influential zine I'm So Fucking Beautiful. Lamm's acutely vulnerable critique of fatphobia in society extends to her punk feminist community, and most profoundly, to her own inner dialogue. Such challenges to cultural conditioning were a constant in riot grrrl's oeuvre, but their tone took a turn after the first years. In a flyer for the Seattle Girl Convention of 1996 the welcoming language of the early "Girl Talk" flyers (which publicized feminist discussion groups) is gone. It's replaced by a warning: During the convention there will be "no hiding under safety blankets and privilege," the text demands, "cos being safe = not having to recognize or take responsibility for yer/our own privilege and ways you/we oppress others."
The examination of privilege within riot grrrl grew out of a fundamental question that many of us would grapple with: How could girls -- drawn from punk's predominantly white demographic, who relied on that scene's resources and aesthetics -- forge a truly inclusive, revolutionary agenda? The movement was sharply critiqued in its day for failing in this regard. Riot grrrl was not, however, all white: punk girls of color were also in the scene, making art grounded in their experiences, and providing a crucial counter to white grrrl's often solipsistic discussions of race.
Frustration with the white-centered culture of riot grrrl was very apparent by 1995. Mimi Nguyen, in a call for submissions to her zine Evolution of a Race Riot, writes pointedly of the need for "taking back the conversation @ race & re-centering it around ourselves, not as voiceless victims or objects-to-be-rescued of white punk antiracist discourses." Some narratives attribute the dissolution of the movement to such rifts, and indeed, challenges to racism and class bias within riot grrrl did prompt existential crises for some local chapters. But these necessary growing pains were paired with fatigue: From early on, distorted portrayals of riot grrrl in the mainstream press drew converts as they narrowed its image -- showing the movement as both homogenous and hierarchical, always focusing on a few predictable "leaders." Complicated and seemingly intractable personal-political dynamics arose in part from this disconcerting attention. For many of the young women initially involved with riot grrrl, the result was their unsentimental shedding of the term "riot grrrl."
In 1994, I escaped the Northwest to attend art school in New York. My first friends in the city were Ramdasha Bikceem, author of the zine Gunk, and some of the women who had been active earlier in Riot Grrrl NYC. In this new circle of artist friends, I felt a post-riot grrrl sense of possibility -- a shared drive to make politically engaged work in a DIY spirit, but not only for an insular punk scene. From this came my zine Artaud-Mania...the diary of a fan, in 1997, a work indebted to Kathleen's My Life with Evan Dando Popstar for its conceptual confessional tone, and its use of ironic fandom as a vehicle for cultural critique. Artaud-Mania is evidence that, by this time, even if my commitment to radical feminism hadn't faded, I approached my riot grrrl past with a measure of self-parody.
Reading through this collection, though, I'm brought back to the time when each girl's photocopied missive was a revelation, and much of riot grrrl's meaning was derived from the simple fact of its existence. As a teen, it astounded me to discover that girls were organizing to fight their exclusion and silencing, and that they were doing it with intoxicating subcultural style. Two decades later, the imprisonment of members of the Russian feminist band Pussy Riot, who -- also astoundingly -- cite riot grrrl as an inspiration for their punk music and guerilla performances, drives home the breadth of the movement's influence. For those who love riot grrrl for its music, or know it only from journalistic accounts, this book will give its legend some missing detail: Here are some of our souvenirs from a bold experiment, the cursive letters we turned into knives in the '90s.
Bikini Kill no. 1, Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox, 1990. The Kathleen Hanna Papers.