September 22, 2015 (Happy birthday, Joan Jett!)
We’re back for the occasional history of feminist theory. Earlier posts are here:
In the early 1990s, it was clear there was something going on with feminism. As the second wave became an established voice in academia and the media, things begin to change. There was a wave of books finding a new audience of young women and men, like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991), Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), and Camile Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990). No one could figure out if Paglia, for example, was a feminist or an anti-feminist. She wrote about patriarchy and sexuality in a way that pissed-off established feminists, like Germaine Greer (but got her on a lot of talk shows). Was this a new kind of feminist voice?
At the time I was teaching my signature class at Emory University called The Sociology of Youth Subcultures (which I continued to teach at Portland State). I had a young graduate student named Lauraine LeBlanc in the class. Lauraine was a Canadian with a Mohawk and deeply involved in the punk subculture. A big part of the class was the exploration of link between music and youth and I made the students several compilation tapes, mixing everything from Minor Threat to the Sugarhill Gang (and violating countless copyright laws). Lauraine told me about a new scene coming out of Olympia, Washington called Riot Grrrl.
Born at Evergreen State College, the Riot Grrrrl movement built on the failed promise of punk rock. In the 1970s, punk emerged as an androgynous subculture that rejected the beauty myth and the macho bullshit of mainstream hard rock (with Alice Cooper hacking up female mannequins and all). In 70s punk, females had a place on the stage or in front of it. But by the 1980s, punk had devolved into “hard core” and females bands faded out and females being groped in the pit at Corrosion of Conformity shows faded in.
So the radical kids at Evergreeen and in other scenes across the country began to create pro-women punk rock. There was an explosion of bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Bratmobile. What the bands lacked in musical chops, they made up in passion. Most bands had only female members and the songs were about things like rape victimization and menstruation, stuff you were not going to hear Ozzy Osbourne singing about (although allied male groups, like Nirvana did take up the banner). They drew on influences like Patti Smith, Joan Jett and Yoko Ono and even the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. It was so exciting that something new was happening in music and it was coming from young women who were sick of being told that if they wanted to be in band, they had to be the sexy lead singer.
I got a first hand lesson in Riot Grrrl ethics when I went to see the band 7 Year Bitch in Portland in May 1996. I will always be the guy who wants to get as close to the band as possible. I was a huge fan of 7 Year Bitch. The four women from Seattle rocked full on, so I pushed my way to the front of the stage at EJ’s, the tiny punk club on Sandy Boulevard. Within seconds a young woman said, “Hey man, you guys always have the space in front of the stage. How about tonight letting us have it?” I got it. I’m a tall view-blocking guy and guys who look like me often want to get rough in the mosh pit. Female fans usually get pushed farther and farther away from the action. I got how much that must suck for a young woman who just wants to rock. I smiled and watched the show from bar. Man, those riot grrrls were in heaven.
Lauraine brought me tapes, CDs, and lists of bands I needed to seek out. She also supplied me with zines, homemade magazines, made by young, pre-internet, women who didn’t want to be told by Cosmopolitan or Glamour how to do gender. They re-appropriated the dismissive term, “girl,” as the angry “grrrl” and wrote it across their chests. Boys who didn’t get it could fuck off. I learned a lot from Lauraine LeBlanc that semester, including how to think about gay and lesbian subcultures. Lauraine ended up turning her interest in the voices of young women in punk into her doctoral dissertation and one of the best books ever written about gender and youth culture, Pretty in Punk: Girl’s Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture (1999). It is required reading in my Subcultures class.
The Riot Grrrl scene was part of a larger trend that became known as Third Wave Feminism. The Third Wave took a cue from black feminists, like bell hooks, and rejected the monolithic voice of mainstream feminism. There wasn’t one feminist position, there were millions. And the voice was local. Like postmodernists, who love to deconstruct all things social, third wavers deconstructed what it meant to be a feminist. Supposedly, wearing lipstick and a short skirt made you a sex object and potential rape victim. Third wavers asked why can’t you be a feminist AND dress how you like? Can’t you be for the eradication of sexism and enjoy silly pop culture?
So it’s not surprising that by the late 1990s, “grrrl power” had morphed into the girl power tag associated the Spice Girls (more on them next chapter). Any female in music was being called a riot grrrl, including Madonna and Gwen Stefani. But any girl power is a good thing, right? But the ethics of the subculture survived its diffusion into the mainstream, with institutions like the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, based here in Portland, Slut Walks, and the continuation of much-revered band, Sleater-Kinney. Sara Marcus’ 2010 book, Girls to the Front The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, is now required music history reading. The 2013 film, Punk Singer, about Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna has brought the message to a whole new generation of girls who weren’t even alive in the 1990s.
We’ll discuss next about how Third Wave Feminism is about a lot more than a punk rock position statement, but the call of the wild attracted a lot of kids (and a few older sociologists) with the battle cry, “Revolution, grrrl-style now!”
I got to see one of the first Sleater-Kinney shows in 1995 and Andrea recently went to their reunion show here in Portland and got a T-shirt for our daughter Cozy. Cozy will grow up with this music in her house and be her own rebel girl. I’m glad I live in a time with people like Kathleen Hanna and Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney (and Portlandia) and all the other strong young women who rocking out on their own terms. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and it sounds damn good.
The following books mentioned in this post are available at Powell’s by clicking on the covers below.