It’s an interesting political moment for women and girls as we enter the countdown to the election. Outrage around the shooting of 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai is still going strong and I want to be hopeful the outpouring of reaction will serve as an impetus for change. The story of the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot is still unfolding and just a week ago was the International Day of the Girl. It was deeply heartening to see how widely this was celebrated although each rallying cry highlighted the gross injustices and discrepancies girls still suffer.
Awhile ago I had the chance to interview Sara Marcus whose book Girls to the Front chronicles the Riot Grrrl movement. It was a different sort of revolution, but one whose effects are still rippling forward. Here is my review and conversation with her.
Sara Marcus’s history of the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, was published in 2010 by Harper Perennial. Since then, the book has been widely praised, and Marcus’s nerve in taking on the famously controversial 1990s punk-feminist movement has been noted as well. A Los Angeles Times critic prefaced an admiring review by stating, “I wouldn’t go near that hot mess of brilliant idealism and tragic dysfunctions with a 10-foot publishing contract.” As reviewers note, Marcus does go into this cauldron – with meticulous research, engaging narrative retellings of what it was like to participate directly in the Riot Grrrl movement, and reflections on her own experience of stepping into the fire as a teenager and realizing she had found her people.
Her portrayal of the tumult, excitement, breakdowns, and revolutionary zeal that rollercoastered through the movement in the early to mid-90s also includes, as she writes in the epilogue, “the unfortunate parts of the Riot Grrrl story — the parts I didn’t expect to find, the parts I would have preferred never to write.” But, she concludes, “I had to tell the truth as I saw it.” The result is that Marcus wraps her head (and arms) around the complicated, messy, yet passion-filled highs and lows of a span of years that left a lasting mark on the history of feminism. Girls to the Front offers an admirably complex, nuanced view of a movement both from inside a writer’s lived experience of it, and from outside, through a researcher’s honest view.
As more writing comes forward about the Riot Grrrl years, it’s exciting to think back on a movement that is both recent and still revealing its legacy. New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections now houses a Riot Grrrl Collection, and Kathleen Hanna has endorsed Girls to the Front on her blog, writing that since she was on tour through much of the movement, she learned a lot from reading the book. At the book’s New York release party, Hanna also gave a first-person tribute back to Marcus, (which can be viewed on YouTube), in which she mentions the way Marcus captured the split responses to the movement. In an eloquent review published last fall in Bookforum, Hanna’s Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman offered her own acknowledgment that Marcus addressed the thornier sides of Riot Grrrl’s legacy: “Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous,” Fateman wrote. Riot Grrrl’s distrust of mainstream media’s representation of the movement, along with the splinters that unsmoothed its potent rage for change, make writing about any of it a tricky feat. In a phone interview Marcus addressed some of these challenges, discussing her process and Riot Grrrl’s legacy.
Here is my conversation with her:
EL: What was the most radical thing about this movement? What do you think is its legacy?
SM: One of the most radical things was that it was really fully youth-led, and not created along the model of services or programs designed by adults. It was not without its shortcomings and drawbacks, but we were crafting a movement that exactly conformed to our needs, our passions, and our strengths.
The legacy [it left] is partly a recognition of the need for communication and critique as activist activities. New feminists place blogging at the foundation of their activism and move outward from there, creating communities with each other.
EL: How is this different from creating zines?
SM: There are ways it’s better and ways in which it’s worse. The loss of the handmade thing and that intimacy is different.
Blogging is not a detriment to political organization, but when it comes to personal relationships, it pales in comparison with zines — it’s not as intense. Within the Riot Grrrl movement there was an utter entwinement of politics with really intimate community building. There’s this aspect that you see running through Riot Grrrl literature, of people needing to take care of each other, and these things can’t be disentwined: political action, self-actualization, and taking care of each other.
EL: In your introduction, you mention the parts you wish you hadn’t had to write. What were these difficulties?
SM: Not everybody had the blissful experience with Riot Grrrl that I had. The mainstream media attention really wrecked it for some people, even as it drew new people in, and so some new people felt judged—“What, I’m not cool enough for you?” This dynamic played into some people’s preexisting insecurities about fitting in, even as for other people the movement absolutely allayed these anxieties and was tremendously healing and empowering and led to lifelong friendships. Later on, some girls used radical politics as a pretext to treat each other pretty terribly. Radical one-ups(wo)manship is not unique to Riot Grrrl; any time you have people assiduously staking their identities on elaborating a political philosophy, there are going to be competitions about having the correct line, or about occupying the optimum subject position from which to claim authority on an issue. Even the nastiest behavior here, though, came out of a truly sincere desire to move feminist thinking forward, to incorporate thinking about multiple differences (race, class, ability, sexuality, and so forth, in addition to gender)—which as any student of feminist history and theory knows is no easy job. We were very young women with little to no training in political organizing, some of whom were recovering from significant childhood trauma, all of us just making everything up as we went along: It’s no wonder that we didn’t get everything right. I still think it’s to everybody’s great credit that we tried so hard to change our lives and change the world and build communities that would support us in these endeavors.
EL: How do you see the Riot Grrrl movement tying in to issues that were raised around girls in the 1990s, such as the prevalence of the Reviving Ophelia “girls in crisis” story? Did Riot Grrrl serve to counter this or to work with it?
SM: What was going on in the mid-’90s [when Reviving Ophelia was published] was the result of a renewed attention to adolescent girls’ lives, an attention that had already borne fruit in terms of media hunger about Riot Grrrl. But we were living these things — they were our lives. We were putting things into our zines about it, but it wasn’t as if the books and articles were waking us up to this crisis.
EL: Why do you think Riot Grrrl arose when it did?
SM: Riot Grrrl emerged in tandem with—and, I suggest in the book, rather as a cultural vanguard to—a renewed passion for feminism in the US that was coming about in response to some serious attacks on women, attacks that are looking pretty familiar right about now. When Riot Grrrl was getting started, Susan Faludi was just finishing up work on Backlash; that book was published in October 1991, two months after the first Riot Grrrl meeting, and it became a massive best seller. The Anita Hill hearings took place that same month, sparking a new wave of feminist rage. By the following spring the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey and the feminist movement as a whole was bracing for the end of Roe v. Wade. Although of course Roe was spared, restrictions on reproductive freedom for girls under 18 were widespread. Then in the summer of 1992, you had three conventions: the Democratic National Convention, nominating Bill Clinton and gearing everybody up for the so-called Year of the Woman in Congress; the Republican National Convention, declaring a culture war and labeling Bill and Hillary’s politics “radical feminism”; and the first Riot Grrrl convention. It was an intense time.
And in the midst of all of this, you had the aggravating fact that girls of my generation were growing up with the promises of the women’s liberation movement—promises that we could do anything we wanted, be anything we dreamed of—while sexist stereotypes and double standards, objectification of women in the media, and rigid gender roles were all still as powerful as ever.
EL: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Riot Grrrl during the process of researching and writing this book?
SM: The most surprising thing to me was, as I mentioned, how young we all were. When you’re 17 and tapped into this revolutionary movement psyching people up so that you can change the world, you don’t feel young, but we were. It’s amazing how much we did with so little. We just gathered up whatever we could within reach and we made something beautiful of it. It had its flaws and shortcomings, but it also had its accomplishments.
EL: What do you think was responsible for the end of the Riot Grrrl movement?
SM: People just grew up. It was pegged to a certain point in development and the creation of the self. We took what we had gotten and we moved forward.