Maybe the girl revolution won’t take shape in the public world, the world of men. It certainly won’t happen out on the street, where girls aren’t safe. Maybe it will begin in a private, enclosed space men never enter, a generic space women enter and leave, often together, writing messages for each other on the wall: a restroom. That is where Nikki McClure believes the powerful future of girls lies, and her vision came to her when, as she writes, “in 1990-91 a list of men who date raped was kept on the wall of the 3rd stall, 2nd floor of the Library Building at Evergreen State College.” That year the restroom became a place where young women warned one another and memorized the names of rapists before they were painted over. McClure saw the potential there and started to dream: “Secret notes are passed back and forth through sanitary napkin catdoors. . . . I will recognize you in the crowd and will slip off to the restroom where I will leave you a secret package. If anyone else were to discover it, they would find a pearl necklace, each bead a time bomb added every year. We are going to explode one by one until the bathrooms are full and we have to wait in line to get in.”
McClure’s messages, however, weren’t written on a bathroom wall but in a small fanzine called My Super Secret circulating through the Riot Girl Network. Riot Girl (or Grrrrl) was started by a group of musicians and writers and friends who decided to aggressively co-opt the values and rhetoric of punk, 15 years later, in the name of feminism–or as they call it, “the revolution girl-style now.” Riot Girl was organized in the wake of the “angry girl” mood, which has overwhelmed the postpunk scene in the form of confrontational female-led bands (Bikini Kill, Hole, Babes in Toyland, Calamity Jane), and a flood of fanzines by and about women (Jigsaw, Sister Nobody, Chainsaw, Girl Germs, Bikini Kill). This anger didn’t feel like a fad, it felt like hope–compelling girls to organize weekly meetings, start calling themselves soldiers, messengers.
As of now there are approximately ten weekly Riot Girl meetings nationwide, more than 20 “girlcore” fanzines, and bands multiplying faster than can be counted. This summer Washington, D.C., hosted the first-ever national Riot Girl convention with workshops in fanzine making and surviving sexual abuse, and long, drawn-out jam sessions. The members of Riot Girl are quite young, ranging in age from about 14 to 25, although I once encountered a woman wearing a Riot Grrrl T-shirt who was at least 45. The unofficial centers of the girl revolution are the punk-rock meccas of Olympia, Washington, and Washington, D.C., but the movement keeps growing and dispersing, drowning itself out then resurfacing.
The Riot Girl manifesto (a rushed, two-page document that’s constantly being revised) declares “We seek to create revolution in our own lives every day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things.” They urge their members to “resist psychic death” and “cry in public.” Their goals include getting “all girls to be in bands” and making it so “girls rule all towns.” They teach each other to play guitar or drums, talk and write about sexism, even encourage women to arm themselves. Riot Girls are often accused of being separatist: they want to form a life away from men and invent “girl culture.”
The girl revolutionaries have a long way to go before they rule all towns. As they exist now, they are a self-proclaimed movement of very young, very angry women discovering their own power through frenzied productivity: fanzines, music, public-access shows, performance events. They meet in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania–in apartments, rock clubs, cluttered kitchens, pink bedrooms. Riot Girl Olympia meet Sundays in a white apartment-house laundry room, usually in the late afternoon. The world they are trying to change right now is the world of Olympia, an isolated small town with one main street, a few wide, clear alleys perfect for graffiti (“Your desires are reality”), a theater where movies are always a dollar. The bars are full of quiet regulars, who occasionally start short-lived, halfhearted brawls.
Riot Girl Olympia first met on a cold night last February when the sky was bright violet, an unreal light. Girls started drifting in around six o’clock, the room slowly filling until there were 17, sitting on the floor, waiting for something to happen. Most were dressed in traditional Olympia girl-style: short-cropped dyed hair; rumpled vintage dresses; bright Woolworth’s lipstick. Allison Wolfe, coeditor of Girl Germs and the unofficial leader, broke the ice: “OK, I mean this meeting is really figuring out what we want Riot Girl to be here. It’s a different thing in every city. I personally would like to see us rent out space and put on shows, just put on a whole bunch of shows and blow their minds.” Yes, almost everyone agrees, and we can pass out fanzines about sexism and rape small enough to fit in your pocket at the shows. Men can come, but they’ll have to wear dresses.
Olympia is an important stop on the underground, the birthplace of that quickly evolving cliche, the Seattle scene. Sub Pop and Nirvana both have their spiritual roots here. it’s also home to the dedicated indie label K Records, run by Candice Pedersen and Calvin Johnson, who’ve been instrumental in encouraging girl bands. In the summer of ’91 K hosted the week-long International Pop Underground convention. More than 50 bands came from all over the world, overrunning the town. The waitresses at the local diner were ruined, serving one table of broke, elated kids after another. The quiet sidewalks were suddenly crowded; people sat out on curbs and wandered in front of traffic, trying to find friends or idols. The convention opened with Girl Day, an event Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman, the editors of Girl Germs, like to call “prdct,” Punk Rock Dream Come True. For one night, only girls took the stage: Kreviss (eight ragged girls playing electric guitars), Jean Smith, Seven Year Bitch, Rose Melberg of Tiger Trap, members of Bikini Kill, one after another. Tracy, of the band Heavens to Betsy, who played their first show that night, said breathlessly, “It was the most incredible thing in the world.” Many Riot Girls see that night as a kind of beginning.
One of the most telling metaphors of the Riot Girls is their dramatic invasion of the mosh pit. In Olympia, bands don’t usually perform on risers, so only the people up front can really see, and, given the violent crush of the pit, those people are almost always boys. Most of the girls didn’t want to dance in the pit–it hurts your boobs. And for many girls getting touched by sweaty male strangers has all-too-familiar, nightmarish implications. Perhaps moshing is just another one of what Barbara Kruger calls those “elaborate rituals” men have invented “in order to touch the skin of another man.” But the girls wanted a space to dance, so they formed tight groups and made their way to the front, protecting each other the whole way. Any boy who shoved them had a whole angry pack to contend with.
Such acts had reverberations in Olympia, where the scene is very small and where in many ways life is sheltered, dreamy, idealized. Drummer Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, which formed in February ’91, says of those months early last year, “Everything changed. Like at first when our band started, men could hardly deal with it. A really short time later, they came around and realized what we were doing was totally valid. In a really short time all these girls were being inspired by each other.” Lead singer Kathleen Hanna tells how the punk ethic helped make their kind of feminism possible. “Something was happening in our community,” she says. “[We realized] how important the whole punk you-can-do-anything idea was for women.” It didn’t matter if what the girls said was politically correct, or if they were good at their instruments; the point was simply to make some noise.
Hanna’s energy and drive fueled much of the activity in Olympia, and she has been instrumental in organizing Riot Girls in D.C., where the band eventually moved. She’s a 23-year-old woman who sees everything she does as part of a movement, as a sign, and everything that thwarts her as part of a conspiracy. In Spin magazine, Hanna was deemed the “angriest girl of all.” She’s clearly a leader, and it’s around her that many young, impressionable girls have mobilized.
Maybe it’s because she has the feverish courage of an exhibitionist. When Hanna performs she might wear a halter and write “Slut” across her stomach–Madonna’s Boy Toy gone over the edge. But there’s nothing playful about her performance, nothing even resembling coyness. Her voice is a low, loud rave: “Your world not mine your world not mine.” Bikini Kill’s show is not just a vague, fuck-society punk diatribe but a focused critique of the punk scene itself: its own hypocrisy, its own glorification of rupture even as it promulgates the most basic patriarchal structures.
The same way Nikki McClure envisioned a pearl necklace, with each bead a time bomb, Hanna sees the conventional charms of femininity as potential weapons. In “L’il Red Riding Bitch,” she sings “Here are my ruby red lips / Better to suck you dry.” During performance she might take off her top screaming, “Suck my left one.” Such acts probably confuse and terrify the teenage boys in the audience who’ve been waiting for this moment, but they make more and more sense to a generation of young women who are coming to understand that contradiction might be the most powerful feminist tool yet, creating a kind of paralysis, or night blindness, in the man/boy imagination. As Hanna wrote in Jigsaw fanzine: “Because I live in a world that hates women and I am one . . . who is struggling desperately not to hate myself . . . my whole life is felt as a contradiction.”
Hanna grew up on the outskirts of D.C. and went to high school in Portland, Oregon. As ateenager she did drugs and hung out in punk clubs: “I was just the girlfriend of the guy in the band,” liking whatever bands he liked, waiting around for him at the edges of the club. She was sexually abused when she was quite young and says that was the point when she started seeing everything in terms of gender. Hanna ended up in Olympia at Evergreen State College, eventually getting involved with the K scene, opening a club run by women, starting bands (Amy Carter, Viva Knievel).
In the summer of 1991 Hanna and Bikini Kill went on tour and discovered that the larger design of the revolution was coming clear. Girls approached them at shows after reading their fanzines, ready to storm the mosh pit, vowing to start their own bands. When Bikini Kill returned home, there were letters from all over the country. Now, though they’ve only written a handful of songs, they’ve been written about in the New Yorker, Spin, Sassy, the New York Times. In Olympia, says Tobi Vail, they “had dreamt of all these things happening, and here they were happening.”
It was also on that tour that they found a new mecca, better than the safe haven of Olympia: Washington, D.C. Like Olympia, D.C. has a thriving, politically oriented scene. It’s the home of Dischord Records and the hero-priests of punk, Fugazi. There’s a punk activist collective there called Positive Force, which organizes protests and benefit concerts and raises money and food for the homeless. Many of the DC Riot Girls also belong to Positive Force.
D.C. Riot Girl started in the summer of ’91, shortly before Hanna and Bikini Kill migrated there. It’s a younger, more racially diverse group than Olympia Riot Girl, with most of its members in or just out of high school. Maybe because the meetings are now led by the emotional cyclone of Hanna, they tend to be more personal, less about political organizing: At one meeting a series of girls came out, and at others discussions have involved the members’ feeling, as do many 16-year-old girls, like they are disappearing.
It makes sense that Olympia and D.C. have become the sister capitals of the girl revolution: the two places have been trading ideas for years. It’s common to meet people in one city whose hearts are in the other. Singer Lois Maffeo, an Olympia transplant in D.C., says it has something to do with the “similar spirits of K Records and Dischord.” Both labels concentrate on documenting their own scenes and have a rigorous ethic of “fairness.” Both are undergrounds dominated by the “straight edge” ethic: no meat, no alcohol, no drugs. A cryptic manifesto put out by the Nation of Ulysses, a Dischord boy band and close friends of Bikini Kill, phrase the reasons for staying sober this way: “Illegal drugs . . . are part and parcel of a murderous commerce, chaired by the government, and will be used as an excuse to strip away our last vestiges of freedom.”
This avoidance of drugs and excess in both the Oly and D.C. scenes, this constant guarding of the body, is what sets these predominantly white, middle-class radicals apart from their 60s counterparts. (Those who occasionally partake of drugs tend to keep it to themselves.) There is a sense that “the system” is not only working on the body from the outside but is something you ingest. Power tries to enter your soul at every opening, so you must remain vigilant. Don’t even lapse into sleep, Nation of Ulysses advises their followers. On the back of their record Thirteen Point Program to Destroy America they write: “Remember now that visionaries (that is us) have historically allowed themselves only the faintest resemblances of a ‘full night’s rest.’ . . . While society sleeps, bound to this archaic ritual, we shall take over.”
At dinner with Fugazi and Bikini Kill, in a ramshackle house called the Embassy in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of D.C., the talk isn’t about taking over society, but about remaining outside it. Former underground heroes Nirvana have just made the cover of Rolling Stone. Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye stares at the cover: Kurt Cobain wearing a “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt. “Can you believe this?” MacKaye asks. “This is just so weird.” He riffles through the pages. “And here’s Henry Rollins. Fuck!” As they sit on sprung couches, drinking water and eating pale orange vegetarian mush, the idea of Nirvana hitting the Top 40 makes them lose their appetites.
“Everyone’s signing to major labels,” says a bewildered MacKaye, “except the people in this room.” “Yeah,” says Hanna, and she’s certain they never will. Maybe this room, with its glaring overhead light, broken clocks, and off-speed tape deck in the background, is the last holdout against the quickly advancing corporate ogre.
Over the past few months the media have caught wind of the Riot Girls too. After calls from USA Today, ABC News, Maria Shriver, and Maury Povich, they’ve instituted a “press block.” Striving to keep control of the way they’re represented, to keep the movement definable only within the terms of their own private language, they’ve steadfastly refused to become fodder for the mainsteam press–a sound bite from the underground or a heartwarming hopeful story about the youth of America.
Yet as the Riot Girls guard their integrity, “purifying” themselves against a sick society, they also isolate themselves. Everyone in the Embassy living room is white, as are most of the Riot Girls. Most come from upper- or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Like a religious sect, they huddle together, superior to the rest of the world but also somewhat afraid of it. Glorifying “youth rebellion,” they sometimes will themselves into a comforting naivete. While the Riot Girls talk in a cursory way about branching out, they haven’t. And until the Riot Girls address the socioeconomic basis of their movement–the way their somewhat privileged lives have given them the time and the freedom to express their rage, have given them enough economic power to desire other types of power–their force will be limited.
But what distinguishes the Riot Girls, and what overwhelms their political shortcomings, is their incurable idealism. It’s an idealism rare in the so-called postfeminist era, particularly among younger women. During the 80s, feminism diverged along two major courses: either into the academy, where it became increasingly mired in jargon, or into the pop-psychology industry, where every conflict could be resolved from within, every wound healed through therapy. The story of political oppression became the story of internal repression–a narrative that culminated in Gloria Steinem’s incredible cop-out Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. And of course now, with the Supreme Court chipping away at Roe v Wade, it doesn’t matter if we’re academically sophisticated or if we have high self-esteem. In the public world we are entering the darkest hour of the backlash. The Riot Girls’ rhetoric will enable them to face this dark hour because, like many teenage girls, they phrase every setback, every dream, in the language of crisis.
Feminist “girl groups”–from early British bands like the Slits and the Raincoats to Americans like the Avengers–are nothing new in punk. In the early 80s, Bush Tetras sang, “I don’t want to walk out on the street no more / Too many creeps,” and before that the Slits declared, “I don’t want to be no one’s little girl.” Women in bands had begun using the form of punk rage for their own purposes, focusing specifically on women’s experiences.
Yet female anger only surfaced in isolated, sporadic bursts, the occasional woman’s voice a novelty, not a sign or a threat. Talking in her narrow, half-lit Lower East Side apartment, as the afternoon outside grows hectic and damp, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon says she’s always felt like an outsider: “I always idolized male guitar players. It was exciting to be in the middle of it but also feel like a voyeur. There were isolated female musicians, but there was never any bonding or anything.” Though Gordon has supported bands like Hole and Babes in Toyland, she’s wary of becoming identified with any movement. So are bands like L7, who refuse to do interviews on the subject, or Babes in Toyland, who just want to be seen as musicians on their own terms. Yet the Riot Girls have adopted these bands as their reluctant mentors; they’ve realized that getting lost in a song or a show is fundamentally different when you’re getting lost in the sound of a woman’s voice. And if rock has built itself on the foundation of screaming girl fans, suddenly that fandom isn’t based on pent-up male worship but on recognition.
As Nirvana goes number one, some believe that boy punk is dying as an underground and the girls are rising out of their ashes. Independent labels (and majors too) are scrambling to sign girl bands, and it’s getting harder to find a show without a woman somewhere in the lineup. Yet it has taken years for it to be possible for a contributor to write, in Girl Germs, no. 3: “I hear these girls, girls I don’t know, girls I have never met, make these same promises and these same threats. They speak to me and I speak to you and I know our time has come.”
Jean Smith of Vancouver’s Mecca Normal has been touring with guitarist David Lester for nearly ten years now. Smith’s mixture of highly poetic lyrics and feminist subjects tends to put people off–and then there’s her voice: a high keening that wavers between beauty and monstrosity, a siren scream I can’t endure but I want to hear forever. She plays slow songs you couldn’t mosh to. She plays out-of-tune guitars with broken strings. She sings about Joelle washing a frying pan: “Her boyfriend / Around two corners / Watching TV.” Suddenly “the frying pan comes out of the water / And flies through the air . . . and hits the wall / All the energy / Of the history / Of the situation.” In “Twelve Murders,” a woman on the beach is approached by a rapist: “She pulled a knife from beneath the blanket / And shoved it in his body.”
Smith has drifted around for a long time and has yet to grow tired of drifting, sometimes staying on to live in the last town of the tour, sometimes not living anywhere. Mecca Normal has put out records on K, Matador, and Smith’s own label, Smarten Up. If and when they are reviewed, she is often compared to Patti Smith. “Which is kind of sad,” she says. “If you are a loud, aggressive woman singing this kind of stuff, she’s the one woman you’re compared to. I mean, think how many people men are compared to.” Like Kim Gordon, Smith sees herself in isolation and doesn’t identify with the rhetoric of girl revolution. Yet she’s had a profound influence on the emerging generation. Tobi Vail wrote of Smith in Jigsaw, No. 3: “I can’t think of anyone else who writes more powerful songs about what it feels like to be a woman in a world of violence against women.”
One of the more original spirits in the evolution of the punk girl scene is Stella Marrs, an Olympia-based artist and performer whose styles and theories can easily be detected in the work of Bikini Kill. For years Marrs has been exploring images of femininity, rummaging through patriarchy’s memory and building art out of the debris she finds there: ribbons, high heels, debutante dresses, old slips. “I grew up with a set of images,” she says. “They don’t make sense to me. They’re not my reality. So I take those images and reinterpret the meaning.” She’s used high heels as drumsticks in a performance and turned hundreds of old slips into canvases. She splits them down the seams and spatters paint across them. “I made a lot of lesbian separatists mad; they thought it was violence against women,” she remarks. But for Marrs it was a way to connect femininity and rage, in the same way the name “Riot Girl” does, in the same way Courtney Love of Hole does when she wears a lacy dress and screams, “Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly.”
Marrs was also one of the first women to organize collective punk girl activities in Olympia. Her Girl City store was a punk-rock collective where women sold clothes and artwork. Her remarkable 1986 performance piece 50 Girls 50 States, in which, she says, “I assembled 50 women and told them to make dresses based on a given state and the idea of world peace,” was a twisted beauty pageant, a punk debutante parade, where all girls in outlandish dresses marched down the streets of Olympia. One attendee said the spectacle was like a combination “political march and craft show.” The proceeds from the reception afterward went to Safeplace, a rape-relief shelter. Yet although she has been active in the community for years, Marrs, like many of the older women I spoke with, is suspicious of the hard-line ideologues of the girl revolution. She feels they may be taking their power for granted. “It’s all gaining momentum so fast. But they don’t realize how long it has taken. How hard it was.”
If the Riot Girls are grounded in the girl-punk past, they are also rooted in modern American feminism. It’s surprising how many are daughters of 70s women’s libbers–and the children of divorce. For all their anger and violence, many of these girls come from nurturing, healthy mother-daughter relationships. Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile and Girl Germs says, “My mom’s real cool; she was a 60s feminist.” D.C. Riot Girl organizer Erika Reinstein was first turned on to these ideas by reading her mother’s books: the “old school” Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem. For Christmas her mother gave her Susan Faludi’s Backlash.
The Riot Girls resemble the feminists of the early-’70s mainstream in their racial and economic isolation, in that they often fall into simplistic man-as-brute rhetoric, and in their weekly consciousness-raising meetings. Yet they depart from their mothers in important ways. Skilled creators of spectacle (Bratmobile with their baby-doll dresses, sweaty boy dancers, and bloody “Grrrl” flag), they’ve learned from ACT UP and MTV to manipulate imagery. Growing up in the Age of Madonna, they are, as Vail wrote in Jigsaw, prosex, “boy crazy modern girl revolutionaries.” Many express a fascination with sex-trade work, and Kathleen Hanna dances in a strip club when she’s low on money. She says it’s no more exploitative than working as a waitress. When people ask her how she can come away from stripping with a clean feminist conscience, she retorts, cracking her gum, “They don’t get deconstruction.” Vail clarifies, “That’s just a fancy way of saying they don’t get punk rock.”
The Riot Girls wish, more than anything, to be true punks: noisy, sloppy, offensive. In the endless crowd at the April 15 prochoice march on Washington, they caused pandemonium. Carrying a glittery Riot Girl banner, they refused to participate in the conventional chants–“What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Now!” Instead, they screamed at the top of their lungs, drowning out everyone around them. They were banging on pots and pans with heavy sticks, half running on the way to the Capitol lawn. My ears started to hurt–the sting of clanging metal. The crowd gave them plenty of room, these girls getting out of hand, screeching like loose, wild birds, like kids in a schoolyard.
If the girl revolution expresses itself in ear-splitting noise, it also happens through writing. Girl fanzines, or zines, are time bombs disguised as thick letters. They come with titles like G-Force, Fantastic Fanzine, Chainsaw, Sister Nobody. They are crazy mishmashes of politics, scene reports, top-ten lists, love and hate mail, blurry photographs. All across the country, girls wait to hear from the fanzine network, a phantom community they belong to but never see–it’s an underground with no nucleus, built of paper.
Tobi Vail says, “Until I was 20 my life was the mail.” For years her friends were people she’d never met, and only when she finally tracked them down did she give up the silent letter-writing and enter the social world. Ramdasha, 16-year-old editor of girlcore zine Gunk, focused on girl skateboarders, told me she doesn’t have many friends at school: “I just come home and go in my room as fast as I can and work on my fanzine and answer letters. . . . Sometimes I go skating down at the skate park. . . . I never hang out anymore.” She lives in Basking Ridge, a claustrophobic northern New Jersey suburb, and the fanzines are her dream of elsewhere. Donna Dresch, editor of Chainsaw, was a Navy brat and found the ‘zine network was the only constant in a life spent moving with her father from base to base. For two years she corresponded with G.B. Jones of J.D.s fanzine nearly every day, without ever meeting her or speaking to her. “I made my fanzine,” she says, “as a cure for isolation.”
In many ways angry-girl genre owes its existence to punk homocore zines, many of which originated in Toronto in 1985, after Jones put out J.D.s, a “combination hardcore music homosexual zine” with features like porno comics, the homopunk hit parade, and a long, loving bio of Kristy McNichol. Homocore was determined to expose the hetero bias of the punk scene and to document a buried world of gay rebels. If punk was the music of no future and nowhere, in America by 1985 that was a narrowly circumscribed “nowhere”–hardcore was dominated by straight white men. The homocore zines outed certain prominent members of the scene and broke the news “Sorry, dudes, but gay is rad.”
The angry-girl zines, coming in homocore’s wake, took advantage of an intact, politically fertile community to spread their own message. In the past two years the readership of girl zines has multiplied exponentially. This is largely due to their regular coverage in Sassy magazine. Five years ago, the teen-girl magazine Sassy came into being, offering a far more realistic, politically risky vision of teenage life than any other magazine on the market. Each issue features a “zine of the month” column, often girl zines. With a readership around 3 million, Sassy has been an effective means of spreading the word.
After their zine was reviewed in Sassy, Molly and Allison of Girl Germs say their mail multiplied overnight: “We couldn’t keep up with it. . . . We got hundreds of letters from teenage girls across the country.” The same happened when Riot Girl was covered there, and Bikini Kill. One of the most common sights in the apartments of fanzine makers now is piles of letters, often written on pink, flowery stationery, with circles or hearts dotting the i’s. “I want to start Riot Girl in my town,” they write from Oklahoma, Nevada, Alabama. “Your zine changed my life.” One fan writes, “I want to start a band now. Since I can’t really scream in my house, I know I belong on a stage.” These girls might be sleeping in canopy beds, but they dream of starting a hardcore band.
While the girl fanzines carry many different messages, from a long listing of the “myths of masturbation” to articles about “fat liberation” or “Why I hate Twin Peaks,” one subject that comes up over and over in their pages, and on every front of the revolution girl-style now, is rape. In Fantastic Fanzine, an unnamed girl recalls being raped by her father: “He finally comes into my room with that sad grin on. At least the waiting is over, at least.” For another fanzine writer, it’s a brother: “He touched me all over while I tried to sleep–actually I did sleep but my nightmare was real–and it woke me up.” Kathleen Hanna sees him as a stranger in Jigsaw, No. 3: “Me trying to figure out how not to get killed by the guy who’s harassing me. I dream of being stabbed like a bad guy in a movie. . . . And I run home scared shitless that when I scream nobody will come.” The continuous circling of these women around the image of the raped, violated body–whether in songs, writing, or conversations–makes their feminism very much of our time. Incest in particular has become a cultural obsession, our highest-rated horror the gothic violation of the “inner child.” Yet unlike the TV talk shows and the pop psychology books, the Riot Girls don’t wallow in “victimization” or even try to heal themselves. They don’t use confession as a psychological tool but as a political tool, a form of propaganda. They aren’t indulging their rape fear so much as identifying it as the ultimate oppression, a dictator that must be overthrown. The Riot Girls are reliving, or imagining, sexual abuse over and over as a way to bring their ranks together and to recognize each other as part of a subculture–a community sociologists have ominously labeled “rape culture.”
Here the revolution girl-style becomes a revolution not about spiritual freedom but about bodily freedom. When 424 women are raped in the United States each day and roughly half of those are under 19, it seems a logical focus for any feminism, particularly a youth movement. For the Riot Girls, the new world might be nothing more than a world where they can walk down the street at night, as far as they want, even into the early hours of the morning.
Recently psychologist Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice, published a ground-breaking study of young girls that concluded that as they enter the “feminine role,” somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13, their confidence plummets. Sensing the violence and injustice there, many girls derail on the verge of entering society. Brash and self-assured at 11, they become shy and insecure, even self-destructive. They feel the new limits drawn around their bodies. What’s interesting about Gilligan’s study is not so much her evocation of the familiar image of the masochistic teen as that earlier wild and unafraid girl who disappeared.
The girl revolutionaries, many of whom are too old and worldly to reasonably be called “girls,” take this name because they remember that loud, untamed figure, because their utopia lies in the past. The Bikini Kill girls often talk nostalgically about an early “girl culture” that is destroyed upon contact with boys. that’s when competition and jealousy interfere. Bikini Kill often chant, “Struggle against the J-word, killer of girl love.” If that seems rather innocuous, more interesting is their sense that this “organic” girl community allowed an unregulated sexuality. “Girls’ first erotic experiences are usually with each other,” says Hanna, “but we’re taught to forget that.”
The girl revolution looks back to a peaceful female prehistory; they romanticize the past, much like some new-age goddess groups. Yet there’s another quality of this vanished girl that comes across, most strikingly in the performances of bands like Bikini Kill, Hole, and Babes in Toyland, and that’s the inherent anarchy of little girls. When Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, wearing a sweet velvet dress, sings, “Vomit my heart / Pull my legs apart,” she seems both to be reviving that anarchy and bringing to it an immense exhaustion. It has taken a long time to return to this first self and discover not an innocence but a violated, tantrum-throwing, terrifying girl hero. She is as far from the self-sacrificing, nurturing woman as you can get, and she implies that beneath this daylight woman’s surface there is another dark, powerful life. The Riot Girls refuse to cross the threshold into womanhood and lose that ferocious child. They don’t want her to recede. They want her to ascend.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Hannah Sternshein, Yael Routtenberg.