How Has Riot Grrrl Informed Modern Feminism and Punk?

Noisey's Emma Garland gets deep with original riot grrrl Liz Naylor and teenage girl band Skinny Girl Diet.

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Nov 6 2014, 3:42pm

In the early 90s, riot grrrl arrived literally kicking and screaming its way into the music world. Inspired by the take-no-shit attitude of late 70s/early 80s female punk icons like Siouxsie Sioux and The Slits, the riot grrrl movement carved out a community for women in music by providing platforms and safe spaces through which to express themselves. And though iconic bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney may fit together in terms of musical style, the real definition and meaning of riot grrrl was its political activism and DIY ethics.

The knock-on effects of what the movement achieved can still be felt today. Whether it’s Tavi Gevinson creating a media empire for herself from blogging, Pussy Riot bursting into a church with guitars and a message of “oi Putin, do one”, or a teenager sitting in their bedroom customising a denim jacket, there is a new generation of young women putting their personal experiences and political opinions out into the world, unfiltered and uncensored. Not all of these young women would call themselves riot grrrls, but the uncompromising do-it-yourself attitude of the riot grrrl movement is, more often than not, listed as a catalyst or source of inspiration.

“Revolution Girl Style Now!” and “Girls To The Front” are loaded phrases that struck a chord in the 90s that hasn’t stopped vibrating since. But riot grrrl was unequivocally a socio-political movement, and now that the socio-political climate has changed we are in danger of using the term “riot grrrl” as a blanket description for anybody with an interest in DIY and feminism. So, the questions we should be asking now are less about what the riot grrrl movement did, and more about where it can go next. Ahead of London’s annual Fringe! festival this weekend, which features a whole day of celebrations revolving around queer grrrl power, we brought together three generations of women to discuss how the original riot grrrl movement has informed current waves of punk and feminism.

On one side we have Liz Naylor, an original riot grrrl who was involved in punk right from the get go and has lived through all its subsequent mutations. Between 1979 and 1983, she ran City Fun magazine in Manchester with Cath Carroll, with whom she also managed Ludus - most notable for being the musical vehicle for feminist artist Linder. Liz helped Linder construct the infamous “meat” dress for a performance at the Hacienda (approximately thirty years ahead of Lady Gaga). She then went on to work with early Sonic Youth as part of Blast First (a sub-label of Mute Records), formed her own label Catcall Records to release the joint Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear LP and organised Bikini Kill’s first UK Tour.

Repping Generation Y are Delilah and Ursula, two thirds of the London-based girl band Skinny Girl Diet. With the slogan “Girl Gang State of Mind” and a sound described as “a swaggering Runaways rewired by a seriously smoked out Breeders freebasing on the grunge grooves of Nirvana”, Skinny Girl Diet represent the direct result of riot grrrl two decades on from its inception.

Mediating the discussion is Emma Garland - Noisey’s resident grrrl enthusiast who made friends with Miley Cyrus after comparing her to Kathleen Hanna on the Internet.

Here is the result of their discussion.

Noisey: Liz, you lived through the original era of riot grrrl and I think the following generations all have their own ideas of what that would have been like. Could you maybe set the scene for us?

Liz: So I worked in the music industry for a long time, since about 1978. I started working for Blast First with some really cool people, but by the late 80s/early 90s music was really horrible in London. It felt really laddy and stale, and I got really angry. So I just fucked off for a year and lived in Portugal. But when I came back, I heard about riot grrrl and Bikini Kill, and I thought "this is it, this is my language." So I put out the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear 12” and at that point there wasn’t really much happening, I don’t think there was much of a scene and in a way that first Bikini Kill tour in 1993 created what then became, I guess, a very loose scene. But at that point it was Huggy Bear and me who were sort of protagonists in the UK.

Was it difficult to organise that tour with no built-in scene?

Liz: What Bikini Kill wanted to do was sort of an alternative tour in kids basements, but the UK doesn’t have that whole strata of kids with big houses and basements they can put shows on in. So the places they played were the kind that a lot of indie bands would have played, and I think it was a bit disappointing for Bikini Kill. I got an email from Kathleen not very long ago, though, saying she wishes she'd enjoyed that tour more because there were no expectations on who they were at that point. Nobody knew what to expect.

What were the crowds like? All the footage in The Punk Singer (trailer below) suggests that everyone was mad hyped, but I wonder if they only showed the most hyped people at the venue?

Liz: It was definitely exciting. It sort of felt like all these girls [at the shows] had been sitting in their bedrooms waiting for something and then it just turned up at their town and brought them all out. The show in Darby was a bit rough and Cardiff was a bit beer-y and bloke-y, but mostly they were full of young women I'd never seen before. It was like they'd all been locked indoors for ten years!

Skinny Girl Diet, have you had similar experiences playing shows?

Ursula: It's almost the same in that aspect of beer and blokes, but we get the odd girl gang that comes to our gigs and we get so happy about that. We want to expand our girl gang.

Liz: In theory it should be much more possible to create something more lasting now because you've got new ways of keeping in touch with people, rather than somebody writing their phone number on a fag packet in Glasgow and saying "let me know when something happens." It was so basic. I'm kind of amazed that riot grrrl still has such a lasting aftermath. What did you see in it that you liked?

Ursula: I think it’s still needed today, which is really sad, but there’s not many people doing what Bikini Kill did. They stopped in 1997 and I don’t think there has been anything that revolutionary since.

I think one thing that noticeably fell out of use was the whole “girls to the front” message. It’s like after riot grrrl died down the message disappeared. There are a few bands starting to push that message again at shows, but I’m interested to know what role you think the Internet plays in terms of sharing feminist ideas?

Ursula: I think it’s helped people realise how much riot grrrl groups affected our perspectives on feminism by inspiring young girls to research and get involved with it. It has made a difference, but we do also make an effort to organically do things ourselves through making zines and stuff.

Delilah: We’ve made a conscious decision not to use the Internet like other bands. We don’t have an Instagram account or post Twitter updates every second with what we’re doing. It just takes up so much time and we don’t think that’s what bands should be doing.

Ursula: Social media just runs the world now. There’s always a definite plan and you can see that straight away. I just don’t feel anything for it.

Liz: You can almost see the plan, can’t you? Like we’ll form the band, then we’ll do the social media campaign... and that doesn’t allow for things just to happen. When you look at bands like The Slits, it was all about making mistakes; social media doesn’t really allow for that. What I love about female musicians is that there’s always this sense that it’s going to fall apart any minute, but it doesn’t.

What would you say is the male place in riot grrrl? Billy of Bikini Kill kind of gets pushed out of the legacy a bit, like he’s the token dude. But was there much male involvement in the 90s and how was that negotiated?

Liz: Actually, it happened quite a lot. In a way, punk's 'round one' was a dog whistle for freaks. When I discovered it I thought oh wow, freaks! I’m one of them, I can fit in! The shows then were really dangerous and violent, but a lot of people were really helpful. All the Catcall stuff was done with the help of guys that had been involved with the first wave of punk. They were the ones who knew the business so I just kind of pulled in loads of favours. But they were also your freaks, your Billy Karren types. So my relationship to men wasn’t like oh, I don’t want men to do this. I would have died rather than have an all-female label. It’s not where I was at. People tended to make massive assumptions about who I was and how I worked and put me in a box, but actually men were really important to the whole scene.

So did riot grrrl change your relationship with feminism?

Liz: I get asked about my “feminist masterplan” a lot, and I hated feminism, because my experience of it was snooty, stuck up women who went to University and intimidated me. I had nothing in common with them. It all came from my own insecurity, but it wasn’t my language, and that’s where Bikini Kill came in. Suddenly somebody started talking to me in my language of anger, not academia.

Ursula: I think it’s the same for us. Obviously, Emma Watson is doing all her feminist stuff at the moment and it’s such a good thing that she’s using her fame to reach out and encourage equality, but at the end of the day it’s kind of hard to relate to someone at that level. A white, middle-class woman telling us all this stuff and we’re not like that. For me, it’s more accessible to put things into music. It’s an easier way of expressing an opinion or spreading a message as opposed to writing a long rant about it that people are going to get bored of. Anyone can write a long rant, but it’s music that you enjoy and feel strongly about.

When did you [Skinny Girl Club] first discover riot grrrl and how did you connect with it?

Delilah: I guess it’s similar to what Liz mentioned before about all the girls coming out to see Bikini Kill who had previously been locked in their rooms. When I was younger, I tried to go to gigs and didn’t feel that welcome as a girl, especially at punk shows, and it just pissed me off. But I didn’t stop going to those shows so the anger built up and that’s what pushed me to start a band and change things. We try to make our shows really inclusive to girls and write about things that girls can relate to.

Liz: The funny thing about the whole “girls to the front” thing at gigs was that people reacted as if we’d suggested something completely unreasonable, like we’d said okay you’ve all got to chop your left bollock off right now. It was basically just asking taller people to go to the back. That spatial territory felt like an enormous battle, but it was about creating a safe space. I don’t have kids and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be 18 now, but I think the world now feels quite frightening, for all its freedoms.

Ursula: When you’re a teenager you’re slowly starting to understand the world around you a bit more and you start recognising how strongly riot grrrl relates to what you see on a daily basis. It’s all about growing up and realising what kind of music really matters to you. I think, obviously, political situations change so our lyrics will be about modern politics as well as those base issues around women’s rights, catcalling and sexual harassment. So it’s mixing it together and keeping it updated.

Liz, what advice would you give to a young all-girl band?

Liz: People will hang a whole load of expectations on you. That’s what happened to Kathleen, especially - they held her up as the spokeswoman for all women. And feminism can tie itself in knots like that because it tries to answer to everybody and ends up imploding from within. So there’s a tricky thing where girls in bands don’t want to identify as a “girl band” because at the end of the day, you’re just musicians doing your job, but what you’re doing is kind of important. You’ve probably had this already, but you’ll be asked a lot of questions that it’s not your position to answer. Tell them to get fucked. Nobody would ask Sleaford Mods how they plan to represent gnarly old men.

Ursula: Yeah! It’s so broad to be like "oh what do you represent?" You represent women. All women. Like, no, there are so many women in the world. I’m a feminist, I represent equality.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Delilah: There’s nothing real happening yet, I don’t think, but something is definitely bubbling.

Ursula: I think people love to fantasise about riot grrrl and how they would’ve loved to be a part of it then, but they’re not doing anything now. They’re just on their laptops playing music through a computer. I know that feminism is more accessible now, but there’s not much action. It can be a throwaway term, for some people. I think you have to be optimistic, though. That’s why I like riot grrrl. You can look back and just feel happy that it happened.

Delilah: Our bassist gets pissed off about people writing about us as a riot grrrl band. As a group, we would say we’re not riot grrrls. We’re just inspired by it, but we’re not trying to resurrect it.

Liz: But what you’re doing right now is part of something and you’ve got to believe that is important. It’s important not to get tangled up in thinking about the meaning of things. I don’t think The Slits were worried about the meaning of anything.

Both Liz and Skinny Girl Diet will be making appearances at London’s annual Fringe! festival this weekend. Returning for a fourth year and extended from a weekend to a full week, the film and arts festival is rooted in London’s queer creative scene and features a whole day of celebrations revolving around Queercore and Riot Grrrl. The event - superbly titled “There's a Dyke In the Pit; A Day of Queer Grrrl Power” - takes place on November 8 and includes a rare screening of Jill Reiter's director cut of her lost riot grrrl gem In Search of Margo-Go, Frenzy: A Riot Decade - a short film programme originally curated by Dirty Looks NYC, followed by a panel discussion and live performances. For more information, visit the Facebook event page.

There will also be a bonus screening of Frenzy, Grrrl Love and Revolution and In Search of Margo-Go at Hotel Elephant in association with Wotever Film Festival on Monday 10 November.

Photo credit: Luca Giorietto and Dave Roswell
Follow Emma on Twitter: @emmaggarland