From baby-dolls to bedrooms: our 26-letter shrine to the grrrls who owned the 90s
“Not a girl because of the easy cook rice and the late bedtimes. Not a woman because of the pre-pubescent dresses, the messy bedroom and the toys” – Kay, co-author of Intimate Wipe
They defied the tedious restriction of gender stereotypes. They confused perceptions about what it was to be female, choosing instead to forge their own identities. Who were they? They were the howling members of Babes in Toyland and The Frumpies, the angry fans that screamed the lyrics back, and the activists that pasted and penned the zines. Led by Queen Kathleen, these third-wave feminists tackled issues ranging from reproductive rights and workplace sexism to rape and domestic violence.
A IS FOR ALLISON WOLFE
The Bratmobile musician was not only a feminist trailblazer and key figurehead but also the person who coined the term “riot grrrl”. According to grrrl legend Jen Smith (of Rastro! and later The Quails) wrote to Wolfe proclaiming a desire for a “girl riot” in the DC underground music scene. Soon afterwards, the term was born and used as the title for the zine Wolfe and her friends created.
B IS FOR BOYS
Grrrl by name, but not strictly girl by nature. It’s a myth that the movement only involved women. Lest they be forgotten, there were men heavily involved, as well as those that sympathised. Leading grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear had male musicians. In fact, Huggy Bear (who had two male members, guitarist Jon Slade and vocalist Chris Rowley) called themselves “boy-girl revolutionaries”.
C IS FOR CINDY SHERMAN
The infamous feminist photographer was a fan of the movement in general and the punk rock trio Babes in Toyland in particular. She provided the images for their album Fontanelle and EP Painkillers, and many of the band’s stage banners and other covers were based on Sherman’s work. The video for “Bruise Violet” was shot in her SoHo loft, as she even makes an appearance as Kat Bjelland’s doppelganger. “Cindy Sherman is totally, completely punk rock,” said Lori Barbero, fellow Babe in Toyland. We’d have to agree.
D IS FOR DOCUMENTARY
The Punk Singer, a new documentary about Kathleen Hanna’s life, is released March this year. Directed by Sini Anderson, it features candid interviews with feminists like Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon and Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson. One premise of the documentary was that the number of men interviewed should be kept to a minimum. In Hanna’s words, “I want women to be the experts.”
E IS FOR EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE
Forget Hogwarts. This exceptional school was the alt. place to be. The female-friendly liberal arts college spawned almost all the early movement big dogs, from Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy to Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill. Hanna studied photography. Brownstein was taking sociolinguistics. Tobi Vail was DJ of an Evergreen College radio show. Evergreen served as the environment that brought them together as likeminded individuals. While there, many of the grrrls volunteered or interned with SafePlace, a local shelter for women affected by domestic violence. This had a big impact on their blossoming movement.
F IS FOR FINLEY, KAREN
“The first time I saw her it was like watching Patti Smith turn into Evel Knievel and then stunt cycle all around the room,” Kathleen Hanna once said of Karen Finley. Obscene, intimate, polarising: the work of feminist performance artist Finley was one of biggest political and creative influences on Hanna, who credits it as the reason she was able to continue playing with Bikini Kill when things were tough. Finley’s early work included provocative monologues played over disco beats.
G IS FOR GIRL GERMS
“Spread as many girl germs as you can” was the tagline. Unite womyn everywhere was the mission. Started in 1990 and created by Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile, the five-issue series identified feminist role models and documented the beginnings of their band. Girl Germs was also one of the only zines to feature African-American women.
H IS FOR HUGGY BEAR
Over in London and Brighton, bands like Skinned Teen, Coping Saw and Pussycat Trash emerged at a similar time to their Washington counterparts. But it was punk quintet Huggy Bear that showed riot grrrl wasn’t West coast exclusive. They were the UK answer to Bikini Kill and occasionally worked closely with them. The band rose to notoriety after reportedly starting a riot post-performance on The Word. Their shenanigans made a Melody Maker cover story and the event compared to the Sex Pistols’ Bill Grundy incident.
I IS FOR I WAS A TEENAGE SERIAL KILLER
Mary was a good girl. That is, until she decided to kill all the “sexist pigs”. I Was A Teenage Serial Killer is the title of the underground film written and directed by Sarah Jacobson, the "Queen of Underground Film". The budget was non-existent and the premise was simple: feminist revenge. It will forever have an important place in herstory due to its angsty soundtrack, provided by Heavens to Betsy.
J IS FOR JIGSAW
The DIY offering heralded the birth of grrrl zines. Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill made Jigsaw back in 1988. before the movement kicked off. Interestingly, in Jigsaw #4, released in 1991, the term “grrrl” is crossed out, presumably as a protest against its popularity. The zine lasted for years, continuing until 1999.
K IS FOR KILL ROCK STARS
This queer and trans positive, feminist, independent record label produced most of the grrrl rock bands of the movement. The spin off record released by the label, also called Kill Rock Stars, has since become a cult classic, featuring tracks by Bratmobile and 7 Year Bitch as well as Nirvana and Courtney Love.
L IS FOR LISA DARMS
A woman on a mission. The feminist-cum-archivist recovered many of the seminal zines and manifestos in 2009 to make The Riot Grrrl Collection. Darms might have only been loosely connected with the movement back in the day but without her dedication, much of the history would have been lost to the depths of the 20th century.
M IS FOR MOSHPITS
Throbbing with testosterone and masculine posturing, thrashing moshpits were a staple of the growing hardcore scene. Hanna, however, decided they excluded women and would be banned. At Bikini Kill shows, Hanna would accommodate the women to ensure they could enjoy the gig at their will. “Girls to the front, men to the back,” she orders in The Punk Singer footage. “For once in your life be cool.”
N IS FOR NOFX
Haters will always hate. And one band that took a particular dislike to the movement was NOFX. Their song “Kill Rock Stars” – named after the indie label - slated Hanna and her feminist movement. Lyrics included: "Just cause I don't know the reason you're so pissed / Don't dare tag me misogynist." Gold star for the rhyme.
O IS FOR OLYMPIA
The Washington capital was the place to be. Famously a hub of activism and creativity, the female-friendly city was where Vail, Hanna, Wolfe and others met and a movement was born. As Wolfe put it: “The girls ran this town. You didn’t even think about the boys… They didn’t do anything really, you know?”
P IS FOR POSITIVE FORCE
When this DC-based activist organization was started by punk rockers in 1985, the seeds were sown for the riot grrrl movement. Positive Force later worked alongside Fugazi, Bikini Kill, Girls Against Boys and others to put on benefit concerts. It even ran a communal house that opened its doors to needy grrrls numerous times over the years.
Q IS FOR QUEERCORE
A similar offshoot of punk, queercore worked alongside riot grrrl, often overlapping in message and artistic strategy. Grrrl bands like Team Dresch, Slant 6 and The Butchies often explored and criticized society’s disapproval of the gay, bisexual, lesbian and trans communities. With songs like “Sex (I’m a Lesbian)” and “The Galaxy is Gay”, The Butchies were at the forefront of promoting gay themes. With much cross over of band members and messages, in many ways, riot grrrl and queercore were impossible to separate. Queer Youth TV documented elements of the movement. In the short film, you can catch an interview with a younger Beth Ditto who moved to Olympia from Arkansas to be involved with the queercore scene; a move that Ditto described as the best thing that ever happened to her.
R IS FOR REKO MUSE
The answer to restrictive arts censorship? Set up your own art gallery, naturally. That’s exactly what Hanna and friends did while at college with Reko Muse in downtown Olympia. Between exhibitions, they would put on shows there with bands like Nirvana.
S IS FOR SHARPIES
The mighty marker was a political tool in itself, allowing the grrrls' personal labeling of their bodies. “Slut” and “whore” were amongst the words frequently chosen. By doing this, they pre-empted derogatory words that might be hurled at them mid-gig. In lieu of marker, words were sometimes scrawled in lipstick.
T IS FOR TAMMY RAE CARLAND
Queen of the scene, all-round creative Carland was involved with the movement on every level from being zine editor and writer to filmmaker and artist. She was a member of the band Amy Carter and later penned the fanzine I (heart) Amy Carter. Perhaps her biggest contribution was the creation of independent feminist-lesbian record label, Mr. Lady Records, which she ran with her girlfriend, Kaia Wilson of The Butchies, releasing a wealth of grrrl and queer material. Carland is even the namesake of the Bikini Kill song “For Tammy Rae” off the Pussy Whipped album.
U IS FOR UNIFORM
Think Meadham Kirchhoff 2012. These womyn championed the baby-doll dress, nighties and Mary Janes – but the kinderwhore look demanded a punk aesthetic. Other grrrls preferred 90’s grunge with a splash of colour. Regardless – fashion was central to the political statement.
V IS FOR VALLEY GIRL
Like, totally, girl power. Kathleen Hanna often put on this accent – one she’d studied in suburban Maryland - at shows to ironically undercut the messages being made.
W IS FOR WOMEN OF COLOUR
One enduring criticism of the movement was its disregard of women of colour. Its “whiteness” was apparent at the time and since has become a topic of slight embarrassment for key figures. Speaking to Dazed back in the August 2013 issue, Hanna admitted: “I should have made better decisions in terms of making sure the movement was more accessible to women of colour who wanted to be involved. That always really bothers me – it’s a massive regret.”
X IS FOR X RAY CAFÉ
The community orientated music venue was grunge central in the early nineties. It played a large role in nurturing Team Dresch and Bikini Kill and opened its stage for anyone who wanted to perform. The café attracted major media and police attention in 1994 when an anarchist riot in downtown Portland ended there.
Y IS FOR GENERATION Y
No movement exists in a vacuum. After Bikini Kill folded, Hanna formed electroclash trio, Le Tigre, and continued dealing with issues of feminism and LGBT rights. The likes of earlier bands such as Team Dresch and The Frumpies started a later welcome wave of girl bands with similar messages like Veruca Salt and Jack Off Jill. Arguably, the influence of riot grrrl is felt to this day in bands like White Lung and Wild Flag– some of which include members of the original riot grrrl bands. Beth Ditto, singer of The Gossip identifies infinitely with the movement. “Until I found riot grrrl, or riot grrrl found me, I was just another Gloria Steinem NOW feminist trying to take a stand in shop class,” she once said. “Now I am a musician, a writer, a whole person.”
Z IS FOR ZINE
It’s rare that a social or musical movement genuinely comes as a result of zine culture. But in this case, the community gathered around them, reading, collecting and sharing them. Dozens of zines were in circulation besides those mentioned here, including Donna Dresch’s queer-girl zine Chainsaw and Laura McDougell’s Sister Nobody. From guitar lessons to how to deal with eating disorders, they were the vehicle for the grrrls’ socio-political messages as well as an artistic outlet. It’s doubtful riot grrrl would be recognizable as the phenomenon it is without them.