Welcome to Girls Rock! Camp, Iowa City's Breeding Ground for Feminists of the Future
Girls Rock! Camp is founded on the Riot Grrrl philosophy that you do not have to be technically proficient. You just have to be brave.
Photo courtesy of the Girls Rock! Camp Alliance
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On the first day of Girls Rock! Camp, I’m pleased to see that we are already exploring different methods of resistance. My ten-year-old camper Savanna holds up a scrap cut out from an old issue of Rolling Stone. We’re collaging for a zine-making workshop. “There aren’t any women playing instruments in this magazine,” she says, “Just this girl’s boyfriend.”
She points to a picture of a woman with her arms wrapped around her rockstar boyfriend. It’s a Levi’s ad with the tagline “Play Hard.” The other girls at Savanna’s table start to flip through the pile of magazines and find similar results; girls selling jeans, girls lying on the hood of a car, waifish girls looking longingly at boys on stage. This cut-out from Rolling Stone has incited a collective fury from my pre-teen campers. Savanna suggests a letter writing campaign and almost immediately, the other girls change the subject matter of the zines they’re making from cute animals to female representation in the media, or as they put it: “Girls play music too, you know.”
I promise to send their inquiries to Rolling Stone’s corporate offices. Some of the letters are heartfelt: “Dear Rolling Stone, I feel sad when you don’t show girls playing instruments in your magazine.” Others are threatening: “Rolling Stone: I hate your magazine. I will kick you in the face.”
This a day in the life at Girls Rock! Camp. While my particular chapter is based in Iowa City—a progressive college town with a decidedly liberal agenda—women all over the world are volunteering at other Girls Rock! outposts: Bahrain, Boise, Reykjavik, Brazil, and LA. The network grows every year, with each camp tailored to the specific needs of their community. Some branches of Girls Rock! even have the help of the actual Riot Grrrl idols that inspired them; Patty Schemel, Beth Ditto, Kathleen Hanna. No two camps the same, save for the fact that they are run by women who have not forgotten the heaviness of their own girlhood. Mine was lonely, but I find a kind of delayed comfort in the solidarity of an older girl promising her younger counterpart that she will make it out alive.
Photo courtesy of the "Record Remake Project"
My camp is small, with only 25 girls and a crew of counselors. All local musicians and card-holding feminists. All of them my friends. Before co-founding this specific chapter of Girls Rock!, I’d volunteered for Girls Rock! Chicago. The differences between the rural and the country campers are nuanced but crucial. Most of the Iowa campers go to school together. They’ve grown up in tight knit social circles where it can feel nearly impossible to meet a stranger. A few of the girls have come from nearby farming communities or one-stoplight towns: kinds of places where rock camps don’t exist and summers are spent in front of the TV. These are the girls who need rock camp most.
However, being geographically isolated in a place like Iowa City makes Midwestern rock camp feel particularly urgent, and in the truest sense of the word—punk. This stretch of the country that is so often forgotten in the annals of Riot Grrrl history has actually always been an active feminist punk community. Take for example, the influential proto-riot grrrl band Babes in Toyland. They moved from San Francisco to start fresh in Minneapolis. Present day all-girl punks outfits include Twin Cities band Kitten Forever and Iowa queer-heroes Lipstick Homicide, whose guitarist sits on the Church linoleum and teaches one of our campers “Cherry Bomb” on guitar. The younger girls sing along like it’s John-Jacob-Jingleheimer-Smith or something.
The state of Iowa has always been socially progressive, especially for the Midwest. It was one of the first states to legalize gay marriage and has also been extremely active in terms of women’s voting rights. The University of Iowa in particular is a hotbed for activism and creativity with it’s internationally recognized writing programs and innovative schools for journalism and education. It was also the first campus in the country to accept women on an equal basis. When Girls Rock! Camp was brought to the community, it was met with extreme support from the community, as one would expect.
The way Girls Rock! Camp works is simple: Each girl chooses what they want to play for the week: guitar, bass, drums, or keys. Hardly any of them have any prior instrument experience. Lessons take place in the church classrooms where eight year-old discuss learning punk chords on a cartoon Jesus rug. They carry their guitars by the necks and turn violently into each other, wrapping themselves in amp cords and injuring one another with their instruments. Meanwhile, their “band coach” (one of the counselors) tries desperately to redirect the chaos back into an activity. The goal is to teach them just three or four basic chords. The older girls will learn power chords and complicated strumming patterns, but the youngest girls will get by on Ramones-style simplicity. The camp is founded on the Riot Grrrl philosophy that you do not have to be technically proficient. You just have to be brave.
Photo courtesy of the "Record Remake Project"
At lunchtime, I find myself searching for a table of campers to sit with, like I’m back in middle school myself. They’re a motley crew. Some of the younger ones have dyed their hair pink for camp week and wear cat ears and studded bracelets. They’re embracing the pop culture’s soft perception of a rock rebel, like who they see in Katy Perry. The teenagers eat their lunch in the corner, wearing fishnets or ripped skinny jeans and shirts with phrases like “I mustache you a question” printed across the chest, a brand of humor ubiquitous in their world. I want them to like me, or at least to think I am cool. Even at 23, I fear rejection from other girls.
My campers range in age from eight to sixteen, spanning throughout girlhood’s most troubling years: puberty, a flood of body image issues, female competition, budding sexual attraction, unattainable femininity, etc. One of the ideas behind Girls Rock! is to eliminate some of these worries. If we can provide just one week out of the many where the emphasis of a young girl’s life is placed on all the things she can do instead of the things she feels she can’t, then at least we’re starting somewhere.
After lunch on the first day, the girls announce the lineups of their new bands. We call each girl’s name and the room erupts in cheers. It’s a ritual held in unconditional positive regard. My friend Rosie and I take the teen band as our own. They are self-directed, but don’t seem to feel the urgency of the end of camp performance the way the younger girls do. They plop down on the beanbag chairs in our practice room. Any suggestion of focus we might give is quickly derailed. “Who in here is queer?” asks Caroline, “I mean is anyone 100 percent straight?”
“Not me,” says Sage who blushes at her own admission.
“Well, I am,” says Paige, “and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Sometimes I feel like the only one at camp who’s just heterosexual.”
“Just wait until you’re in high school,” says Caroline, who’s lounging in the corner with one foot flung over the arm of a LazyBoy recliner. The teens are naturally more complicated than the younger campers, weighted with the looming task of coming into one’s own.
“Should our songs sound happy or sad?” Paige asks, always trying to keep her band mates on schedule. They all agree on sad.
“What if we wrote about loving someone who doesn’t love you back?” suggests Caroline, a topic that seems resonate with all of them, myself included.
By the end of that first band practice most of the bands have names already: SLARcamp, The Electric Girls, Neon Daisies, and The NERPS, to name a few. They have rock star demands that begin with better snacks and end in more effects pedals. By re-imagining themselves as rock stars, the possibility of it becomes attainable to them. Just this week, the Girls Rock! Camp Foundation launched their “Record Remake Project,” which reinvents iconic album covers from Blondie to Kendrick Lamar, with Girls Rock! campers in place of their idols. The message intended is clear: You’re next.
Photo courtesy of the "Record Remake Project"
Making music is only a small part of the camp week experience. The collaboration is what really counts, like the sense of community that comes from making band logos and show flyers together. The sentiment of D.I.Y. production belongs to them now. They’ve made something together, and they own that experience. Downtime is filled with impromptu dance parties that double as brief lessons in the history of Rock and Roll, via YouTube videos spanning from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Kate Bush to Miley Cyrus. The song choices are a split of counselor and camper requests. The campers choose want pop songs, but the counselors try to throw in riot grrrl throwbacks, like X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage” playing after “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift.
However, I have to admit that while gender ideals in pop music may be problematic, it provides us with many teaching moments during camp week. The rivalry between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift is a hot topic, and one they are all informed of. “Whose side are you on?” echoes every discussion, but the girls surprise us with their feminist ideologies, “I don’t care who they date,” a camper will eventually say, “Don’t we like them for their music?” I mean, don’t we?
For being so young, they already understand the nuanced complexities of girl hate, whether it’s something they’ve discussed out loud or not. Camp allows them to ask each other these questions. Provide them the space to think critically. We listen to “Rebel Grrrl” and talk about what it means to love and respect other girls instead of buy into the competitive nature impressed upon them by their femininity.
“My friend is trans,” says Caroline, “and she got bullied for wearing a dress to homecoming last year, so some of us are going to cross dress to support her this year.” They speak with such eagerness; they’re standing at the edge of radicalism.
Photo courtesy of Girls Rock! Camp Alliance
By the end of the week, several of the girls have cut their hair short, and declare themselves as tomboys. Self-expression is #trending. Between instrument lesson and band practice, camp feels like one long slumber party, the girls sprawled out on the social hall floor, heads resting on stomachs, legs over legs as they talk about everything.
“I wanted to go out for football this year, but my principal said girls couldn’t be on the team,” says a camper Ava who rarely speaks out.
“That’s messed up! It’s so…sexist!” says another.
We’ve just had our “Gender” workshop, aka an elementary rundown of stereotypes, the binary, the inequality it breeds. The girls understand this already whether they know it or not. It permeates every aspect of their lives, but rarely do they get to talk about it with other girls who in this empowering kind of way. Now they have a vocabulary.