I’m amusing myself with a bit of nostalgia. Care to join me? (Nobody said we had to be serious all the time.)Did anyone see this story from the New York Times about the Riot Grrrl movement? Well, it’s mostly about the unofficial riot queen Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame). But I’m okay with that. Actually, the part of the article that got me was this bit:
Ms. Marcus, the author of “Girls to the Front,” agreed that it was part of a 20-year nostalgia cycle. But she added that “people are flocking to these reminiscences because there remains a tremendous hunger” for the kind of liberated, don’t give-a-damn femaleness “that was in full flower in the ’90s,” with nothing quite as potent since.
20 years? 20 years?! Oh man, I’m old.
Oh wait, I’m getting sidetracked by feeling old and missing the point… what was the point again? Oh yeah, something about a hunger by the youth for accessible, in-your-face feminism free of the dogma and stereotypes of the past. Sigh. Isn’t that why we did the whole Riot Grrrl, Third Wave thing in the first place? Isn’t that how we got to sites like Feministing, Jezebel, et al? Um, you’re welcome?
Look, I get nostalgic like everyone else. I rock out to a little Bikini Kill in the car with my toddler in the back sometimes. But sometimes it seems like my fellow late-Gen-Xers (yeah, I just went there) have practically reinvented self-conscious navel-gazing. Was Riot Grrrl important? I’m not sure. Was it influential to a certain group within our generation? No doubt about it. And I think there’s a difference.
Here’s where I’m going to get into a lot of trouble with those readers out there who are my generation: I wasn’t a Riot Grrrl. Don’t get me wrong, I was very much a punk rock girl. And I think if there is an indie/punk kid of the 1990s check-list, I’m sure I hit a lot of them. Worshiped “college radio” (aka indie and local rock): check. Wore the 90s punk uniform (combat boots with everything, babydoll dresses, flannel, unnaturally dyed hair, etc): checkity check check. Ate and drank feminism like the convert of a cult: mega-check.
But then, as now, I would ask: Was all that because of Riot Grrrl? For me, it wasn’t. I went to high school in Anchorage, Alaska (and I graduated in 1994). Riot Grrrl didn’t make it that far. And believe me, my misfit crew of friends were hungry for anything remotely “alternative”! We read Spin and watched MTV’s 120 Minutes, but mostly we were on our own. There wasn’t a huge indie scene in AK back in the day. And I’m afraid Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and the rest didn’t make it on our radar.
What did make it to the Great White North was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Cure, Rancid, NOFX, Alice in Chains … Or to put it another way, the “boy” bands. So, even though most of my friends were girls, we emulated them. We raided Salvation Army’s (true story: I bought my prom dress there for $20). The dominant themes of the indie rock and punk movements were that of DIY and nowhere in America was it more necessary to Do It Yourself than in Alaska. And wasn’t that the spirit of the anti-commercial, anti-establishment indie movement?
I also liked The Pixies, Sound Garden and Smashing Pumpkins. I thought it was cool that they all had women in them. But for me, rock was never about the gender of the players. It was about the rock. When I got to college in Oregon, I did get a chance to expand my indie and punk horizons. I also got into the ska scene (which was inevitable if you lived in the Pacific Northwest and since my now-husband was in a ska-punk band). What I did notice was that even the all-male bands were starting to have feminist themes in the music or expressed during shows. Something I wrote about, yes, in my zines. (Sometimes I still miss the simplicity of cutting and pasting a master copy together and taking it down to the copy shop. Those were the days!)
When I finally did hear Bikini Kill, it was because I read something about Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love getting in some kind of fight at a show. And I was a big fan of Hole. I liked the female perspective, the feminist rage and the passion of those bands. I did relate. And they did kick ass! But I also chaffed at the idea of Riot Grrrl. Who the hell were they to put a label on me? It felt like another form of the establishment, something trying to peg me and covertly commercialize it. (I mean come on, exactly what is feminist or empowering about baby tees or babydoll dresses or wearing little-girl barrettes?) And for me that has been the most problematic element of the Riot Grrrl scene and its legacy. Just like so many indie hipsters who gagged at the mainstream media’s desire to figure out the alternative scene and what grunge was, I always have this feeling that what Riot Grrrl has become a symbol of and what it really was are two different things. Much in the same way that I suspect Kathleen Hanna probably chafes at the idea that Riot Grrrl gets reduced to being anti-makeup and just about girls with guitars.
Maybe that’s how it always is when you create a movement. Much like a piece of writing or art, it goes out into the world and it becomes what other people see in it.
But I’m not writing about this just for nostalgia’s sake. I am wondering about that line about the hungry young feminists out there. My first reaction is: Why are they so hungry? We’re right here! Come get it! But I’m afraid I’m the one missing the point this time. I am Third Wave. I’m in my mid-30s, married in the suburbs with a kid. But if some 30-something feminist would have walked into the copy shop when I was printing my zines and told me I didn’t need to do that because she and her friends had already created the wave I was riding… I would have probably have flipped her the bird and told her to fuck off. What the hell does some 30-something know about my life? My feminism?
Ah, yes. Now we’re getting somewhere.
With all due respect to Kathleen Hanna, Riot Grrrls — and even my generational friends in the local feminist movements I’ve been a part of over the years — we need to give the kids some air. Sure, it can feel like the next generation just keeps reinventing the wheel over and over again. But that’s not really true. Sure, we all have to cut our teeth on the fundamentals of feminism. But then each generation takes it to new places and explores new ideas. And that’s exciting!
But it can also feel threatening to those of us who’ve been doing this a while. It’s hard for me to think of another generation co-opting Riot Grrrl. That’s my generation! Even if I had an uncomfortable relationship to it, I still feel a sense of ownership over it. How is it that the anthems of my youth are now the “long ago” that today’s youth mine from to create their new scene? And to take feminism new places? What’s wrong with where my generation took it? Sigh. That’s the point.
In this, motherhood is helping me have some perspective. A couple days ago, I watched as my daughter put blocks into a bucket. This was the first time I have ever seen her put blocks into a bucket. Up until now, the only thing she did was take them out. And if I put any in, she had to furiously take them back out again! That was her developmental stage. But sometime last week, her little brain made a new connection. You don’t just take blocks out. You can put them in! This seems like such a small thing. And to an adult it is. But I have to tell you that sitting on the floor watching her figure this out was blowing my mind! It’s amazing to witness the first time in a person’s life that they do something; the first time they figure out an important stepping stone in life.
So, my feminist friends, I am doing my best to see this retro Riot Grrrl moment, this hunger by feminist youth, as a meaningful moment. We can’t keep complaining that the youth aren’t paying attention or that the youth aren’t engaging in feminism if they are flipping through the past and picking up something like Riot Grrrl to put in their buckets. What they are going to make of it… well, that will be for them to say. But maybe it’s a good sign for things to come.
Originally posted on The Sin City Siren.