‘I’d like to think that you could go out there and show your tits and hold a fucking chainsaw at the same time’
Back in the early 90s, riot grrrl was a middle-finger raised to ‘beer-gut-boy-rock’. It was an underground social movement that grew out of fanzines in which feminism and punk-rock became happy bedfellows. Partly a reaction to all the macho bullshit – moshing, mansplaining music, etc. – its coming was both vital and groundbreaking. And of course the media took notice. Suddenly bands were characterized as the “sassy new breed of feminists for the MTV age”. Put simply, the spotlight of hype changed everything.
Today, there’s plenty to learn from this one-of-a-kind cultural explosion. And thankfully some people had the foresight to arm themselves with cameras and chronicle the scene in all its fuzzy VHS glory. So, to celebrate the news of Carrie Brownstein’s upcoming riot grrrl TV series – which is described as being “about a young woman, a band, and a community learning how to be unafraid of their own noise” – we put together a handy guide to riot grrrl on screen.
NOT BAD FOR A GIRL (1995)
Co-produced by Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, Lisa Rose Apramian’s doc celebrates female musicians of the 90s, in grunge as well as riot grrrl. Naturally, Hole are featured, as are Lunachicks, Babes in Toyland, Joan Jett, Calamity Jane, Bratmobile, and Bikini Kill. Watching Lesley Rankine sing “fuck you asshole” accompanied by pounding drums is a standout moment. As is hearing from Sydney ‘Squid’ Silver: “You don’t wanna be thought of as a fucking sex object but I’d like to think that you could go out there and show your tits and hold a fucking chainsaw at the same time.”
“You don’t wanna be thought of as a fucking sex object but I’d like to think that you could go out there and show your tits and hold a fucking chainsaw at the same time”
DON'T NEED YOU – THE HERSTORY OF RIOT GRRRL (2006)
Don’t Need You traces the origins of riot grrrl in Olympia and Washington DC. Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker and others talk about the role of feminism in the movement, while Ian MacKaye remembers how girls were driven away by violence in the male-dominated DC scene. Madigan Shive from Tattle Tale chimes in, remembering how girls were left holding the boys’ jackets in the corner and were even called ‘the coat-hangers’. Featuring Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Heavens to Betsy, this is about the female creatives that carved out their own space. As one zine put it: “Us girls crave records and books and zines that speak to us, that we feel included in and can understand in our own ways.”
ALL OVER ME (1997)
“In a world that expects you to fit in, sometimes you have to stand out.” Director Alex Sichel’s lesbian love story set in NYC isn’t explicitly about riot grrrl. Yet it has the movement written all over it. Sichel originally received a grant to make a film about the riot grrrl scene that would “fuse the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock with in-your-face feminism”. But when the director's sister Sylvia stepped in as writer it became less about the scene and more about the relationship between two 15-year-old girls who live on opposite sides of a park in Hell’s Kitchen. Then of course there was the soundtrack stuffed with riot grrrl bangers, boasting Babes in Toyland, Sleater-Kinney, The Amps, and Helium.
LOST GRRRLS: RIOT GRRRL IN LOS ANGELES (2015)
Most people think of the Pacific Northwest or DC when they think of riot grrrl. Yet its waves reached LA too. This short explores the diverse feminist punk culture’s impact in LA, specifically the bands that came up in Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Orange County. To name a few: Red Aunts, Oiler, Fleabag, The Makeshift Conspiracy, Bonfire Madigan. It also addresses the reputation of early incarnations of riot grrrl as the preserve of white middle-class girls. You hear from people of color, LGBT and animal rights activists, all of whom reclaim the scene. If you don’t get inspired by the DIY stories of these motivated women, maybe check your pulse?
THE PUNK SINGER (2013)
“Girls to the front! All boys be cool, for once in your lives,” Kathleen Hanna coolly purrs into her mike. She’s the titular punk singer in this doc about how she bulldozed the male-dominated scene with Bikini Kill. Featuring talking-head appearances from Adam Horovitz, Tavi Gevinson, Carrie Brownstein, and Kim Gordon, you learn everything from how zines mentioned feminism and punk rock in the same sentence to how Hanna became the poster girl for riot grrrl – whether she liked it or not.
“Girls to the front! All boys be cool, for once in your lives”
BABES IN TOYLAND (1995)
Though this 1995 doc is brief, it’s a perfect time capsule of the scene at its mid-90s zenith. In the spotlight are Babes in Toyland, the all-girl band that was inspirational to the riot grrrl movement despite not directly associating themselves with it. Quick-fire MTV editing splices clips of the band on stage, flipping the finger to the cameras, with an interview promoting their record Nemesisters. Lead singer Kat Bjelland describes it as sounding “like all our mutated brains put in one big pot of soup”. The highlight? Hearing their distortion-drenched cover of We Are Family.