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Washtenaw Flaneurade
19 February 2011
A Poor Judge Of A Great Masterpiece
Now Playing: Blur--"Sunday Sunday"

From the outset, it should be made clear that today's title was my college friend Will's opinion of my take on the 1961 film epic El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the starring role. The most unusual slice of 90s nostalgia that's resulted this week from my furious fit of memory-gouging, inspired by what follows...

 Sara Marcus, Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010): Riot Grrrl was a feminist movement for political, social, and cultural change that began in the early 1990s and linked the myriad concerns of many disaffected young women. It expressed itself most famously through the music of a variety of performers, most notably Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and later Sleater-Kinney (itself the product of earlier Riot Grrrl bands like Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17), but also through instances of social connection and political action--Riot Grrrl chapters were set up in the movement's hubs of Washington, DC, and Olympia, Washington, as well as a number of other cities throughout the country. Though enormously influential on both the development of third-wave feminism and independent music, it foundered for a time on both hostile mainstream media attitudes and the internal tensions which were largely inevitable among so many passionate, intelligent, and talented individuals. Though Riot Grrrl chapters as such had gone their separate ways by the late 1990s, the movement remains a powerful inspiration and example to a great many women (and not a few men, myself included).

That, at, any rate, is a relatively neutral portrayal of a protean phenomenon that lay beneath the pop culture mainstream of my own young adulthood like a simmering fault line. I started the 1990s as a teenage boy intellectually and idealistically sympathetic to feminism but riven by the same hormonal tug-of-war that can make life at that age such a glory and a hell for young people. This conflict arguably helped to reinforce, to some extent, the same patriarchal norms that some (at least I) tried desperately to escape. I didn't encounter Riot Grrrl in any obviously discernible guise until I read a piece on Sleater-Kinney in Rolling Stone, a chance encounter from which they would proceed to become my favorite American band of the 90s, but in reading Sara Marcus' superb history of Riot Grrrl's life and times, I was struck at how many times my own life had nearly intersected with, if not Riot Grrrl, the same problems and concerns it faced.

At sixteen or seventeen, I was involved in a counterdemonstration against Randall Terry's grotesque "pro-life" Operation Rescue outside Baton Rouge's now sadly defunct Delta Women's Clinic. The rise of groups like Operation Rescue had been a major catalyst, along with the tortured Supreme Court tale of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, for pro-woman action and organizing, as well as the much-ballyhooed declaration of 1992 as "The Year of the Woman." In college in Virginia, I had a number of female friends who held Sassy magazine in high regard, and caught a few echoes that way; Sassy, being a young women's magazine with a relatively "alternative" approach, was one of the primary media battlegrounds for Riot Grrrl. The rise of zines and DIY publishing was another prominent feature of the movement, and I remember quite a few friends and acquaintances of mine who started their own in senior year--one of them a friend of my friend Annie's (whose name I sadly can't remember), whose concerns and pieces were squarely addressed in opposition to the dominance of patriarchal culture (reading them, I felt a profound helplessness, which was fairly educational in itself). Then there was our college's inaugural Take Back The Night rally, at which I remember hearing people I knew muster their enormous courage and take the stage to describe their rapes or abuse; I'm pretty sure the organizers were familiar or had links with the movement. Much of the movement's activity, even during its alleged decline, was centered around the DC area and Northern Virginia, and it's sad to think that the only time I ever managed to get up there during my time at Roanoke was for NORML's National Marijuana Day in 1996. All this blather is by way of expressing how tantalizingly close many of these events, discussions, and issues came to intersecting my own life and possibly changing it for the better, and this is all coming from someone--a straight white male of middle-class background--who arguably needed the movement's help the least. I think it would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to make any personal claims on its background or development, and I'm not trying to do that here. Its ideals, though, still point a way towards a better world where much of the bullshit that's negatively impacted my life in many ways (and may have done the same to people I knew who I cared about or loved, and perhaps still does) is no more, or at least has been shown to be vulnerable to challenge. I also love the music (even if the stuff I was listening to while Riot Grrrl was in the ascendant was closer to my "now playing" selection on today's blog post).

Sara Marcus, a writer and musician who had been a Riot Grrrl (and arguably still was), came to the University of Michigan to give a talk on her book (she gave a reading the next day, but I had to work). It was with all the aforementioned in mind that I went to hear her speak, on the origins of Riot Grrrl, its historical context, and its complex relations with an often hostile mainstream media. The room, a fairly decent-sized one in Lane Hall, was packed with people of many ages, which was good to see. It was an excellent talk (with great musical samples), all the more so for the questions and discussion that followed--these latter ranged from the ability of music to be political, the necessity of physical tangibility to revolutionary messages (i.e. zines vs. blogs), and some of the undercurrents that helped to fracture and change the movement. I was completely unprepared for the rush of 90s nostalgia that hit me while listening, and though I didn't need to be sold, I bought the book (a little surprised I didn't buy two), and looked forward to reading it (in between Hawthorne and Maupassant--it was an interesting time for reading) all week. I got done with it a couple of days ago, and it's fantastic.

It's great both as an even-handed, wideranging narrative of an important historical moment and as a piece of nonfiction literature. Marcus draws her personal experience into the book from the very first, describing her hellish adolescence in suburban Maryland, what Riot Grrrl meant to it, and how it changed it. The narrative runs from 1989 to 1996, examining how Olympia, with its alternative mecca of Evergreen State College, and DC, with its political and cultural resources and legendary punk and DIY scene of the 1980s, became the movement's twin nodes. Bikini Kill, achieving popularity in its Pacific Northwest scene, developed the concept of "Riot Grrrl" as a way to help young women faced with the same conflicting messages that they were, especially those powerless in a legislative sense (under 18). They, and their fellows such as Bratmobile, migrated to DC in the early 1990s as a way to harness the potential inherent in such a scene (with the help of established musicians like Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi). By 1993, Riot Grrrl had become a national phenomenon, commented on (and more usually caricatured) by major media outlets. Young women everywhere conducted meetings, went to rallies, formed bands, demonstrated, and carried out the occasional act of "culture jamming" (in one such described, a couple of Riot Grrrls went into a magazine section and slipped self-affirming, body-neutral messages into fashion rags like Cosmo or Vogue). 

By 1994, though, a number of conflicts had arisen. Bikini Kill's success put distance, however unintentional, between the movement's founders and the very women that Riot Grrrl was supposed to help. The movement's ideals, too, formed a paradoxical obstacle. Riot Grrrl was all about subverting the media, but there were times when some kind of media presence was the only way to reach women without the often privileged communication networks on which the movement had started. Privilege also played a role in the complex relations the movement explored with women of different races, sexual orientations, body types, and economic backgrounds, with a number of arguments and divisions arising therefrom (it should be mentioned that Riot Grrrl's approach, with all its faults, was a lot more self-aware in this regard than previous feminist movements). It didn't help that most interactions with the wider media resulted in grotesque misintepretations, the result of simplification and stereotype. The end is left as something of an open question--the Riot Grrrl "movement" ended in whatever "official" sense it had existed, but there are still plenty of Riot Grrrls out there, and thank everything for it.

Marcus' work has risen to one of my all-time favorites in non-fiction. It's hard to tell whether this impression will last, but it's also hard not to admire the often seamless way in which she integrates political, social, and cultural history, having to focus in one instance on the electoral politics that produced the legislative climate of the early 90s, and another on a close reading of songs like Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" (as well as my favorite, "Alien She"), and then the same on a striking piece of confrontational art in which activist Angela Seguel posed naked with a pro-Riot Grrrl message written on her body--the mini-history of that one statement is marvelous. That particular instance also serves as a great example of how the movement influenced and helped create, to a certain extent, third-wave feminism, a more inclusive, sex-positive discourse than its occasionally puritanical predecessor of the 1960s and 1970s. Marcus sometimes makes that point directly, but more often wisely lets it arise naturally through the actions and examples of the Riot Grrrls themselves. Her style is breezy yet authoritative, with colloquialisms employed much more deftly than other writers I could name (and admittedly love, like Sarah Vowell).

I also find it remarkable how non-judgmental it all is throughout (although this tendency--constructively criticizing one's fellows without the negativity--is fairly appropriate for a history of Riot Grrrl). Nobody stands out as a "hero" or "villain," and even the most rigorous of popular histories that I've read on nearly any subject tend to get that one wrong. The only ongoing obvious villain of the piece is the patriarchal culture that made (and make) Riot Grrrl's struggles so necessary in the first place. As for heroes, Marcus makes quite clear that they all are in one way or another. Kathleen Hanna arose early as a representative figure of both Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill (both names the brainchild of bandmate Tobi Vail), but her own frequent disavowals and colossal misgivings regarding this common human tendency effectively scuppered any claim to traditional hero status. Teen maverick Jessica Hopper, whose celebrity-seeking and association with movement-bashing Courtney Love made her a suspicious figure to many Riot Grrrls, comes across rather sympathetically, as a confused young woman trying to make the best of her situation. The links with the nearby Seattle grunge explosion of the time are interesting to note, too; Kurt Cobain was friends with the Bikini Kill members, habitually plugged the band in interviews, and was Tobi Vail's ex-boyfriend (only one reason for Love's hostility, and Vail was disappointed in what she saw to be Cobain's selling out), and his own internal tensions (DIY purity vs. rock megastardom) hold an interesting mirror to what would happen with Riot Grrrl later down the road.* It's a very understanding yet clear-eyed lens through which these stories are seen, and the difference is enormously refreshing. Marcus conducted numerous interviews with movement veterans throughout the country, and the result is a bracingly collective recollection of a transformative time in many lives. It's a marvelous work and I anticipate rereading it with pleasure.

It's really served to inspire me, too, in rather alarming ways. This year's been a pretty shaky one already, both abroad and at home, and my own resolutions to do something about lingering and negative issues in my life (obliquely described above) have only gotten stronger both through observation of the world scene and the examples provided throughout Girls To The Front. Listening to the discussion at Marcus' talk earlier this week made me wonder what's keeping me from doing what I need to do. It's a wonderfully frightening, liberating feeling and I hope it stays with me for a considerable time to come.

*As someone who largely couldn't have given two figs for Cobain or his music (and who only remembers where he was when the news came that he'd killed himself--at college one morning via the primitive pre-Internet IRC--because of the national youth freakout that promptly ensued), I came away from Girls To The Front feeling more than a little sympathy for the guy. Still not into the music, though.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 19 February 2011 12:27 PM EST
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19 February 2011 - 11:48 AM EST

Name: "margot"
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This sounds great. I'll have to pick it up sometime this summer.

I grew up just slightly too late for the Riot Grrl movement--I liked, but didn't love bands like Sleater Kinney. And more broadly, by the early 2000s when I was making my peace with the word "feminism," Riot Grrl  culture seemed kind of cool, but also just dated enough to seem slightly naive or hysterical. But I knew (and still know) very little about the history of the movement. Glad someone has given it such fine treatment!

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