She Came to Riot

The memory of riot grrrl deepens the divide between cultural and material feminism, hobbling critiques of inequality by mistaking self-improvement for revolution.

What, exactly, constitutes a girl riot? An examination of the historical precedents for female-fronted uprisings reveals, to name a few: women’s bread riots during the French Revolution; the 1917 general strikes on International Women’s Day in Russia, in which women workers threw rocks through factory windows and dragged their male colleagues into the streets; and the 1929 “Women’s War” staged by thousands of Igbo women in Nigeria against tax collection by British-appointed colonial administrators. History has also more recently recorded scores of college-age women in the UK rioting against rising tuitions in 2011, and, just this year, the predominantly female garment workers of Bangladesh who, following the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed over one thousand workers, took to the streets in a wave of fury and unprecedented popular resistance, effectively bringing both the industry and the government to a standstill.

These are all powerful instances of women — and in many cases, girls — rioting. But it’s a specific cultural moment that never quite materialized into a full-scale storming of the streets that today holds the designation “riot grrrl.” A youth subculture that bloomed in the nineties and is remembered for its vibrant DIY ethos, riot grrrl employed the language of militancy, calling for a revolution in gender inequality through a punk arsenal of music, zines, and activist meetings. This cultural insurrection, built around the demand for “revolution girl style now” was a much-needed spark in a moment of mainstream feminist malaise and a catalyst for the feminist organizing that would come to be known as the third wave. In addition to providing a model for young women’s consciousness-raising around issues such as rape culture and slut-shaming, riot grrrl left an indelible mark on indie music — members of Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy, for example, would go on to form the critically acclaimed but still explicitly feminist bands Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney. But more than twenty years after the zine Riot Grrrl #1 protested the “general lack of girl power in society as a whole,” the social and political conditions that necessitated the movement feel largely unaltered, and the riot curiously sanitized.

Though riot grrrl as a nineties phenomenon was relatively ephemeral, its specter has taken on a mythic quality. Over the last few years, a steady stream of riot grrrl histories, documentaries, archives, and online effluvia has emerged to enthusiastically compile and comment on the artifacts of the movement. Riot grrrl’s high-profile apostles range from the incarcerated members of Russian dissident group Pussy Riot to Tavi Gevinson, the fashion-blog wunderkind and editor-in-chief of Rookie magazine. Documentaries like Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl and The Punk Singer, and books like Marisa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, and The Riot Grrrl Collection — a new compilation of reproductions of the riot grrrl zines housed at the NYU Fales Library — attempt to chart the genesis, trajectory, and lifespan of this singular feminist subculture. The resurgence of interest in the nineties in general has helped to fuel a riot grrrl revival. So has the coming-of-age of young Rookie-generation feminists in a world where sexual assault and legislative threats to reproductive rights loom as ominously as they did twenty years ago.

The June publication of the new Riot Grrrl Collection was heralded by a bevy of glowing reviews, New York Times slideshows, and book signings — most notably at Bookmarc, the high-end, fashion-centric bookstore of the Marc Jacobs label. It’s good to see mainstream outlets embracing the opportunity to highlight explicitly feminist materials for a wider audience. But as we celebrate expanded access, it’s also crucial to understand exactly how our nostalgia for riot grrrl’s aesthetics operates within contemporary feminism, especially in this particular moment of capitalist crisis, rapidly disintegrating social safety nets, and vicious austerity measures. Mainstream feminism today, ostensibly organized in response to the theoretical gaps of the second wave that ignored the subjectivities of women of color, working-class women, and queer women, continues to reproduce a key structural deficiency of its predecessor: inadvertent collusion with neoliberalism.

Though the third wave purports to aspire to radical inclusion, this effort usually goes no further than encouraging as many women as possible to identify as feminists. Twenty-first century feminism has devoted significant energy to destigmatizing the word “feminist” and cataloguing public figures’ self-identification (or lack thereof) as feminists. In her 2011 bestseller, How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran blithely instructed, “So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. A. Do you have a vagina? and B. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.” Outlets like Jezebel, Slate’s Double X, and xoJane make a habit of praising celebrities who call themselves feminists (Tina Fey), chastising those who don’t (Katy Perry), and wringing their hands over the significance of both for young female fans. Though this impulse, which we might interpret as a kind of low-stakes, large-scale consciousness-raising, is undeniably well-intentioned, the result has been an overly wide umbrella that shades both Audre Lorde and Margaret Thatcher, and runs the risk of diluting feminism to bumper-sticker banalities, rather than constituting a serious political force, let alone revolution.

The third-wave fixation on tallying the numbers of self-identified feminists is symptomatic of a larger historical shift in the feminist movement. In her 2009 New Left Review essay “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” Nancy Fraser elaborates upon this sea change, documenting the cooptation of the once-radical movement by post-Fordist capitalism. According to Fraser, under state-organized capitalism, the core of the second wave was an intersectional, emancipatory movement that “extended the purview of justice to take in such previously private matters as sexuality, housework, reproduction, and violence against women,” advocating for a three-dimensional understanding of equality that encompassed economy, culture, and politics. The transition from state-organized capitalism to neoliberalism in the seventies, Fraser argues, resignified many feminist ideals and truncated feminism’s goals. “In this period,” Fraser writes, “claims for justice were increasingly couched as claims for the recognition of identity and difference. With this shift ‘from redistribution to recognition’ came powerful pressures to transform second-wave feminism into a variant of identity politics. A progressive variant, to be sure, but one that tended nevertheless to extend the critique of culture, while downplaying the critique of political economy.”

The tendency to value visibility over livability has extended to contemporary feminism, sealed into place alongside the neoliberal policies of the Thatcher and Reagan administrations. Though socialist feminists have always attempted to bridge demands for redistribution and representation, the mainstream movement has placed a disproportionate amount of focus on media images, glass ceilings, Bechdel tests, and a numbers game in which organizations like VIDA and prominent feminist commentators like Jessica Valenti meticulously track the underrepresentation of women in politics, arts, and corporate boardrooms. While these projects highlight and provide valuable insight into still-egregious gender imbalances in specific fields, they should not be mistaken for a broad social critique. In fact, the prioritization of representation overlooks and even perpetuates several areas of gender inequity that can only be addressed by a call for radical redistribution. For instance, mainstream feminism glosses the proliferation of unpaid internships on which an alarming majority of cultural institutions depend for cheap labor — including hundreds of organizations ostensibly working in the interest of women. Though an estimated 75 percent of unpaid interns are women, feminist projects from VIDA to Bitch to Jezebel to WAM! routinely enable the troubling (and more often than not illegal) exploitation of interns, a practice that prevents those financially unable to work for free from joining their ranks while simultaneously exerting downward pressure on wages for all workers. Writing recently for Dissent, Madeleine Schwartz traced the connection between this relatively new form of exploitation and the historically undervalued labor performed by women, such as domestic and care work, and in particular, unwaged housework. “Compliant, silent, and mostly female,” Schwartz wrote, “interns have become the happy housewives of the working world.”

It’s in this current state of affairs that the nostalgia for riot grrrl has arisen. Although the original nineties movement contained anticapitalist gestures, the commodification of punk (“From chaos to couture!”) and the focus on individual rather than social freedoms have rendered the present revival of riot grrrl a form of feminism that neatly dovetails with neoliberalism. Contemporary riot grrrl projects like the Le Tigre documentary Who Took the Bomp? and The Punk Singer, a new biopic about riot grrrl’s breakout star, Kathleen Hanna, have enlisted unpaid interns without a hint of criticism. In 2010, when Le Tigre called for an intern to help with “internet research, web maintenance and odd jobs,” Flavorwire declared they were “bouncing up and down in [their] seats” about the prospect of working uncompensated for a band they liked, enthusing, “Where were these opportunities when we were in college? (Honestly, if we didn’t love our job, we might quit to do this for free).” To borrow from Schwartz again, the eager exchange of one’s labor for nothing but passion eerily echoes the long-held societal assumption that housewives perform domestic labor out of love.

The way that riot grrrl histories are packaged and produced also tends to sanitize their feminist politics even as it presents them to a new audience. Retrospectives of riot grrrl, for example, are nearly always introduced with a personal story: a narrative of an author’s intimate connections to the movement, whether that connection happens to be one of direct participation or of distant admiration. It’s inevitable: riot grrrl itself was characterized by intimate social networks; an elision of life, art, and politics; and an embrace of the confessional through zines and music exploring the most verboten details of sexual violence, misogyny, and girl love. But as revelatory and compelling as personal stories are, they have the result of narrowing the scope of feminist critique.

In a recent piece on riot grrrl and race for the journal Women and Performance, Mimi Thi Nguyen investigated the pitfalls of the intimacy that shaped the movement, pointing out that situating one’s politics within the story of self-transformation leads to neglect of structural critiques of inequality and oppression. “Working on” one’s own racism and privilege via written confessionals became a primary mode of antiracist activism for many riot grrrls, and often configured racism as one big miscommunication rather than institutional violence. As Nguyen points out, this sort of personal revolution comprised of “everyday work on the conscious self, especially through therapeutic techniques of self-examination, confession, and dialogue” is an aesthetic form very much in line with “neoliberalism and its emphases on the entrepreneurial subject.”

If contemporary feminism is to pose the kind of threat to the status quo that riot grrrl attempted to evoke, it desperately needs to recoup the demand for redistribution of wealth alongside the ongoing battles for expanded representation and personal evolution. Though a book of riot grrrl zines or even a summer spent at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls might inspire young women to pick up guitars and pens, without the financial resources to sustain these creative pursuits, fewer and fewer women will be afforded the opportunity to make art. In 2011, Le Tigre’s JD Samson published a widely-circulated article detailing her precarious financial situation despite her status as a well-known musician. Describing her lack of steady income, health insurance, and guaranteed work, she concluded by imploring, “Another reason to occupy Wall Street.” Similarly, earlier this year, Kathleen Hanna spoke out in support of Guitar Center employees’ efforts to unionize, noting that without access to a living wage, “Only the trust-fund kids, who don’t have to pound the pavement all day, end up being the ones in bands. This makes for a scene that isn’t diverse or interesting.” As austerity tightens and public funding for arts programs vanish, the possibility of a punk, DIY, arts-based girl riot diminishes, even as new books and films herald its legacy and continuation.

The launch of the Riot Grrrl Collection was accompanied by a capsule collaboration between Bikini Kill and VFiles, a New York City-based social media platform and clothier. Among the objects produced to celebrate the book, the band, and the revamping of riot grrrl were Bikini Kill-branded Chapstick, framed posters of punk rock cheerleaders, and a black shirt-dress proclaiming “KILL ME” — a reproduction of a dress that Kathleen Hanna had worn to shows during her Bikini Kill days. “The point of the KILL ME dress,” Hanna explained, “is to raise questions about violence against women and, specifically, what constitutes a woman ‘asking for it’? If she gets drunk at a party? Calls a guy a jerk? Wears a dress that says ‘KILL ME’ on it? It also states the obvious, whether you wear a dress that says ‘KILL ME’ on it or not, as a woman you always have a bullseye on your chest.”

A conceptually admirable provocation, to be sure. Outlets like Refinery 29 and New York magazine celebrated the limited-edition paraphernalia as the potential birth of a neo-riot grrrl revolution. Meanwhile,the feminist blogosphere remained silent on whether the women garment workers rioting for increased wages and safer working conditions in the streets of Dhaka were “feminists.”