How the Riot Grrrl Movement Created a Revolution in Rock & Punk

The Riot Grrrl movement feels like one of the last real revolutions in rock and punk, and not just because of its feminist, anti-capitalist politics. As Polyphonic outlines in his short music history video, Riot Grrrl was one of the last times anything major happened in rock music before the internet. And it’s especially thrilling because it all started with *zines*.

Women in the punk scene had a right to complain. Bands and their fans were very male, and sexual harassment was chronic at shows, leaving most women standing at the back of the crowd. Some zines even spelled it out: “Punks Are Not Girls,” says one.

Alienated from the scene but still fans at heart, Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna, already producing their own feminist zines, joined forces to release “Bikini Kill” a gathering of lyrics, essays, confessionals, appropriated quotes, plugs for Vail’s other zine “Jigsaw“, and a sense that something was happening. Something was changing in rock culture. Kim Deal of the Pixies and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth were heroes, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex was a legend, and Yoko Ono “paved the way in more ways than one for us angry grrl rockers.” Another zine, “Girl Germs,” was created by Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman.

Bikini Kill the zine led to Bikini Kill the band in 1990, and their song “Rebel Girl” became an anthem of a new feminist rock movement focused mainly in the Pacific Northwest, around the same time as grunge.

Wolfe and Neuman, joined by Erin Smith, formed Bratmobile in 1991. K Records founder Calvin Johnson had asked them to play support for Bikini Kill, and out of necessity—Wolfe first admitted they were a “fake band”—they grabbed rehearsal space and became a “real” band on the spot. “Something in me clicked,” Wolfe said. “Like, okay, if most boy punk rock bands just listen to the Ramones and that’s how they write their songs, then we’ll do the opposite and I won’t listen to any Ramones and that way we’ll sound different.”

The burgeoning scene needed a manifesto, and it got one in “Bikini Kill” issue #2. The Riot Grrrl Manifesto staked out a space that was against “racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism” as well as “capitalism in all its forms.” It ends with: “BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”

The manifesto (and the very healthy Pacific Northwest live scene) spawned a movement, even bringing with it bands that had been around previously, like L7. Riot Grrrl set out to elevate women’s voices and music, without capitulating to male standards, and return to the DIY and collective energy of the early punk scene. It also brought feminist theory out of the colleges and onto the stage, and with it queer theory and dialog about trauma, rape, and abuse—everything mainstream culture would rather not talk about. Like the original punk scene in the 1970s, it burned brightly and flamed out. But it inspired generations of bands, from Sleater-Kinney to White Lung, as well as non-rock music like the Electroclash movement.

Read a zine from the time, or listen to the lyrics of Riot Grrrl bands and you will hear the same discourse, and recognize the same tactics, as today. In some ways it feels even more radical now-—that humble, photocopied zines could affect a whole scene and not be atomized by social media.

To delve deeper, check out the New York Times‘ Riot Grrl Essential Listening Guide.

Related Content:

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Download 834 Radical Zines From a Revolutionary Online Archive: Globalization, Punk Music, the Industrial Prison Complex & More

How Nirvana’s Iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Came to Be: An Animated Video Narrated by T-Bone Burnett Tells the True Story

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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