5. Riot Grrrl and the Feminist Punk Movement of the ’90s

As one of the last youth movements to exist before the advent of the internet, Riot Grrrl is an intriguing study of the power of connections between women and girls through the means of the written word, specifically Riot Grrrl zines of the early 1990’s. As discussed in my previous article, the punk movement of the 1970’s and early 1980’s was infused with pop, while still managing to retain its punk roots. The 1990’s bring about a resurgence of this punk phase, bubbling with an even greater ferocity and intensity than previous generations. The genesis of the Riot Grrrl zines reside within Olympia, Washington, where young female college liberals united to create small, politically charged “zines” to convey their thoughts, feelings, and messages.

The meaning of Riot Grrrl shifted over the years as it became more popular within mainstream culture, but its overall messages conveyed body positivity, female empowerment, a resistance to the establishment, an advocacy of punk rock, and an unapologetic confrontation of issues pertaining to young women such as rape and eating disorders. Riot Grrrl coincided with the rise of third wave feminism, arguably even starting it and most definitely proliferating it among the young female audiences of America. Directly defying other teenage directed magazines such as Seventeen, Riot Grrrl zines took pride in individuality and nonconformity, its characteristics increasingly overt, obscene, and crude to prove a point and convey a clear message of political defiance against traditional patriarchal order. While punk was heavily political in the 1970’s, Riot Grrrl introduced an entirely new level of activism, creating a nationwide, even worldwide, network of similarly minded youth who celebrated their femininity with the provocative styles of punk, yet defied gender norms and sought to bring down the Man. Riot Grrrl helped to connect young women together who were passionate about a movement, organize bands, and create a space for girls who felt ostracized by mainstream culture and ideals. While Riot Grrrl could never shield these young girls from the inevitable struggles of adolescents, it nevertheless provided the space for women to be angry, riotous, masculine, genderless, and tough. The punk movement of the 1990’s is stylistically defined by women and girls dressing akin to children, with babydoll dresses, collars, hairclips, and the abandonment of long hair. This hearkening back to girlhood is an attempt to celebrate the uniqueness of girls, commonly referred to today as the phenomena of “girl power.” The Riot Grrrl movement focused heavily on explicitly exposing the political issues of women in a blunt, “unladylike” way, and the childlike styles of the Riot Grrrl participants present a contrast loaded with meaning to prove a point to the media and audiences. As the Riot Grrrl movement increased in popularity, the media became an ever present nuisance, pinpointing the subculture as an intriguing story largely appealing to male audiences for its sexual, provocative appeal with its focus on oftentimes scantily clad young girls. The outrage of the punk scene at the constant misrepresentation by mainstream culture and media resulted in a gutsy complete media blackout from Riot Grrrl, slowly shrinking its influence over time, but still maintaining its networks between women, girls, and musicians. Although Riot Grrrl is directly linked to third wave feminism, it receives heavy amounts of criticism from both the music and feminist communities for its majority composition of middle-class white girls. Riot Grrrl advocated for the empowerment of women, yet to be involved in the punk scene required higher education and money for things to produce zines and purchase music equipment. Riot Grrrl is also criticized for its unorthodox and unprofessional methods that utilize profanity, violence, and heavy doses of anger. Trademark punk bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Courtney Love’s band Hole gained cult-like followings within the punk and Riot Grrrl communities, but the extent ends there. Without the support of the public and mainstream media, the messages Riot Grrl sought to portray traveled to their target audience but not much farther. Despite this lack of effectiveness as a result of the degree of subversive intensity of this wave of punk, the Riot Grrrl movement did create change through its small manipulations of the media and appealing to a specific group of teenage girls with unique sets of problems that remained unaddressed by the mainstream. Similar to the feminists of the 1960’s counterculture, as I discussed previously, the mainstream eventually adopted elements of the Riot Grrrl subculture that have persisted into modern society, specifically in the amount of feminist blogs aimed at young girls, especially the acclaimed Rookie Mag. Riot Grrrl is influential in facilitating the growth of the second wave of punk, the third wave of feminism, and in appealing to the distinct needs of a specific group of teenage girls whose voices would otherwise be overlooked and ignored.

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6 thoughts on “5. Riot Grrrl and the Feminist Punk Movement of the ’90s

  1. This was really interesting because I have never heard of the Riot Grrrl. That is cool that they had an influence on third wave feminism. I would have never known about them and their impact on feminism.

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  2. Great analysis. The Punk connection makes me feel some significant Seattle pride! (woot!) I appreciate this example of trying to mobilize/educate/enculturate younger girls/women– much of the focus of our research is on older women.

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  3. I love how you discuss the way Riot Grrrl has been subversively incorporated into popular culture. To some extent, they still have an effect. By opening doors to discussing some of these heavy issues, they provided access for modern artists to give their own commentary.

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