The battle cry of punk women emerged as a DIY underground movement in the 90’s, pioneered by groups such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and a horde of rough and tumble female-led groups that changed the rock scene for women. The Washington-based movement was dubbed Riot Grrrl — and yes, it is spelled with all three r’s.
So what does a Riot Grrrl make? If you already have some knowledge of this word and the music scene, you might picture Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Kathleen Hanna, or even the infamous Russian protest group “Pussy Riot.” Riot Grrrl, at its core, was a movement that shoved women to the forefront of a male dominated punk rock scene — literally. Bikini Kill famously ordered all female attendees of their shows to move to the front of the audience in the spirit of creating a women-centric environment — something extremely rare not just in the punk scene, but for rock music in general. The book following Bikini Kill’s role in the genre is aptly titled “Girls To The Front.”
Riot Grrrls are (predominantly) women who participate in the music scene by supporting female rock groups, making art/zines, organizing, or performing in groups themselves.
Zines were a primary mode of spreading the message and you can check out some of the original pages in The Paris Review’s collection. Themes of Riot Grrrl music and underground literature included addressing rape culture, patriarchal norms, domestic violence, sexism, sexuality, anarchy and more. Contrary to popular belief, many bands of the Riot Grrrl scene occasionally included male members, such as Bikini Kill’s guitarist Billy Karren, and drummer Tobi Vail.
Much of the core values of Riot Grrrl are associated with the rise of third wave feminism—values such as reproductive rights, sexual liberation, gender-based violence. As a result, like much of third wave feminism, a valid critique of the movement should be noted — it was populated overwhelmingly by white middle class women. However, Riot Grrrl does have distinct ties to its sister genre queercore and prominently featured queer women of varying sexual identities. So while the scene did shed light on gender-based issues and the intersection of sexuality and gender identity, there was (as always) a level of privilege involved with the women who were able to participate in this movement. If you’re interested in queercore, check out groups such as Team Dresch, Pansy Division, and The Third Sex.
While they weren’t as numerous, there were still some kick ass lBack Riot Grrrl groups who came later to the scene, most of which are modern bands keeping the movement alive such as, a personal favorite, Big Joanie. For some more black-fronted punk, check out contemporary groups Meet Me @ The Altar and The Txlips.
The sound characterizing this social movement turned genre is exactly what characterizes punk, but with female voices at the forefront. Gritty, occasionally out-of-tune electric guitars hooked up to shitty amps with frayed cables, raw vocals, and an animalistic energy. Little about Riot Grrrl is clean cut until you get to more contemporary groups such as Sleater-Kinney, who were still actively touring this year. But even more “polished” Riot Grrrl bands bring the edge the genre is known for.
It’s a subculture, a scene, a genre, a movement, and it can even be an individual. While some believe Riot Grrrl ended with the 90’s, many believe it’s still thriving today. Just ask founding group Bikini Kill. Their would be reunion tour was planned to kick off this past March, so when post-Corona time comes around, go get your riot on.