Riot Grrrl Activism

“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT MY BAD REPUTATION!” I screamed, mostly to myself, to the annoyance of my neighbors on my first few days of my sophomore year. I had moved out of the hellhole that was first year housing into Marsh and I felt ready for a new start. I wanted sophomore year to be something different. The old wooden mansion seeping with memories of deviants and artists past seemed to immediately aid me in my quest. Joan Jett, with her heavy eyeliner and unapologetic blush, her blurry music videos and blaring guitar, was exactly the soundtrack I needed.

I’ve never been afraid of any deviation
I don’t really care if you think I’m strange
I ain’t gonna change

There is a cycle to the activation that is the essential energy of activism. First comes pain. Often we narrow our understanding of pain to the firsthand experience, limiting pain to those who are the direct targets of violence or violation. However, we forget that the pain is contagious, expanding beyond the direct target of violence and aggression and making itself known in broader, less direct ways. Think, for example, as those advocates for sexual respect who are not survivors, but who “bear witness” to assault as an audience. Perhaps they have a friend, or a significant other, or family member who has had a more direct experience with the trauma of assault. Or perhaps the pain is even less direct, spreading to those who read, watch or stand by in cultures that condone the subjugation of women.

After pain there is anger. The second does not have to immediately follow the first. The move from pain to pain-and-anger can be slow. Scholars in trauma studies often noted the integral belatedness of feeling the pain from injustice and violence – the true origins of activism. For many, pain does not ever lead to anger. But in the path to activation, anger that has a source in pain functions as the activating energy; it is the push that takes a person from passive discontent with structuring systems and propels them forward into action against those systems.

The anger, as it builds, has the potential to spill over and cascade. Not everyone who experiences anger at injustice finds themselves activated. Some take that pain/anger and in turn use it to other ends; it can be used to produce more anger and more pain or it can be used as fuel to rage against the patriarchy. But then there are others who see a glimmer of hope on the horizon and a vision for a better campus, culture, or system. The last step in activism, simple (and cheesy) as it may sound, is hope for a better future.

This ‘better future’ doesn’t have to be a totally re-envisioned world; it could be as radical as an anarchist rejection of all hierarchy, as institutional as a shift in policy implementation, or as small as an educational workshop about an issue that hasn’t been fully addressed before. In fact, activism, under the large umbrella, can be as small as owning a personal identity, as microscopic and yet personally fundamental as garnering the strength to get out of bed in the morning despite all the force pushing you down and out. Healing or moving forward and moving with pain and anger is activism too.

I had felt the pain that a lot of first-years feel in a new place, with new or more acute forms of sexual violence, gender discrimination, sizism and heterosexism than I had experienced before. I was ready to feel something other than sad and scared. Joan Jett helped me find my anger. She had a “bad reputation” and didn’t give a damn. She was pissed. And I was pissed.

Joan Jett is the “original riot grrrl,” one of the prototypical models for what would become a mass movement in punk music in the 90s and early 00s. The riot grrrl genre is an “underground feminist punk rock movement” that addressed issues of sexual assault, sexism and racism in an effort to empower both female performers and audience members. More than just a genre of music, riot grrrl was a culture that existed in and around women’s only performance spaces, ‘zines, and feminist protests in the US and Canada. The mainstream punk movement (a contradiction in terms, I know) was often not particularly friendly to female attendees at concerts. Sexual assault and harassment were frequent issues at these venues. The riot grrrls performers and audience, therefore, attempted to create an intentional space, a place where women could be angry and could own their anger. Riot grrrl music was not meant to be sweet, or pretty. The riot grrrl manifesta, originally published in 1991 in the second issue of the Bikini Kill ‘zine reads:

BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock “you can do anything” idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours. BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.

In riot grrrl, and in connections with upperclasswomen at Amherst, I found my anger.

Bikini Kill, the band that inspired the riot grrrl movement and the first riot grrrl ‘zines, gave me hope. The marching flare-beat and grainy electric guitar became the soundtrack to my vision. I wanted to be a Rebel Girl. A rebel girl holds her head up high; she’s a queen; they say she’s a dyke and… maybe she is. Kathleen Hana, the band’s lead singer belts:

When she talks, I hear the revolutions
In her hips, there’s revolutions
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution

It was here, in this dirty 90s music that I was nearly two decades too late for, did I find my activating vision. Granted, to be a rebel girl was a fairly personal and small interest, but it had broader application. Listening to people like Bikini Kill and Joan Jett amongst other riot grrrl bands, helped me construct a larger vision: here was a world where it was acceptable to move forward with anger, to express pain and expect change.

And it was art. Riot grrrl music isn’t pretty but it is beautiful and breathtaking. These women were doing more than testifying to their pain in the hopes that their narratives would add; they were using their pain, anger and hope to create art and space that they could share with an audience and could produce pleasure.

For your listening pleasure, a few other recommendations:

Boogieman – The Hellfreaks
Vivica – Jack off Jill
Fagetarian and Dyke – Team Dresch

Some activating songs if riot grrrl’s aesthetic isn’t doing it for you:
Goodbye Earl – Dixie Chicks
Slut Like You – Pink

This article is the first in a series written for a special topics course in the Amherst College English Department called “Trauma at Amherst.” You can find the second and third articles here and here.

Photocred: Radar Productions