Before the Spice Girls were proclaiming “Girl Power” as the ultimate female mantra, there was Riot Grrrl, a powerful underground feminist movement. Riot Grrrl’s origins are usually traced to Washington, particularly Seattle, in the early 1990s where the associated grunge movement was underway. Riot Grrrl was a response to the 1980s backlash against feminism and “a pervasive rhetoric of equality alongside clear evidence of persistent sexism, racism, and homophobia” (Piepmeier 44). It emerged as a cultural, grassroots movement alongside, and as a branch of, third wave feminism, which emphasized intersectionality, DIY, and freedom of self-representation.
For Riot Grrrl, the personal was certainly political. The female body has long been a feminist battleground and Riot Grrrls recognized their own bodies as potential sites of resistance and subversion. Women’s bodies have long been used to define and enforce patriarchal constructions of female gender (McCarthy 71) and Riot Grrrl reclaimed the right to the body as a space for self-expression rather than a commodity. Artists and bands associated with the movement, such as Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, and Bratmobile, use their bodies as props in live shows, scrawling “bitch” and “slut” across their bodies, and gesturing sexually to the audience. This use of typically masculine aggression parodies this type of behavior, normally accepted when performed by men, and rejects the notion that femininity has to be soft, gentile, and passive. This is a powerful method of resistance that rejects mainstream standards of beauty and doesn’t shy away from “sensitive” subjects that directly affect women’s lives, like rape and abortion. Riot Grrrl asserts the right for females to be angry, loud, and unapologetic and anything else they want to be, whenever and wherever they want to do it.
The Riot Grrrl music movement was grassroots and anti-authority. It was closely tied to other Riot Grrrl DIY practices like zines. This created a functional network of Riot Grrrls and a system of communicating and advertising that didn’t include the mainstream media. The unwillingness to cooperate or at least participate in the mainstream media machine was an important component of Riot Grrrl’s resistant practices, but probably also led to its eventual dismantling and co-option. Without input from the musicians themselves, the media was able to portray the movement any way it saw fit, and unsurprisingly, Riot Grrrl was made out to be extreme, dangerous, and unpleasant. While Riot Grrrl was able to maintain its revolutionary integrity, this allowed for an almost seamless rebranding of Riot Grrrl as feminism-lite in the form of manufactured girl groups like the Spice Girls and Pussy Cat Dolls. While this may have haulted the momentum of the movement, it maintained the integrity of the message and simultaneously proved their point of patriarchal anxiety. What happens to females when they are outspoken, aggressive, and unapologetic without conforming to mainstream standards? They are first demonized, and then erased from the public eye.
Riot Grrrl may have been enjoyed a short-lived hayday, but offshoots of this movement are still alive today. Ani Difranco’s career is surely informed by the political aims of Riot Grrrl and though she takes a softer approach to activism, her ideals are essentially the same. Riot Grrrl managed to reject heteronormative standards of femininity and reclaim and revive the same notions in a redefined space that promoted social change, activism, and equality. The Riot Grrrl movement, put eloquently by Andi Zeisler, one of the founders of Bitch magazine, “documents feminism’s ability to transform itself to respond to a changing culture and to help girls and women construct firmer social identities and innovative political interventions” (Zeisler 21). While Riot Grrrl may have vanished from the cultural lexicon, their contributions to feminism have not gone unnoticed.