In the Riot Grrrl Archive

Punk and the limits of individualism

Rachel Greenwald Smith

As a teenager in Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s, I saw them everywhere: on the bus, in coffee shops, and in record stores. They had dyed hair and wore miniskirts and thrifted men’s dress shirts and boots. They handed out zines at shows and stapled fliers to telephone poles. And they always seemed to be clustered together, sharing a secret.

Riot Grrrl was a short-lived but important 1990s punk feminist movement with chapters all over the United States. Started by singer Kathleen Hanna and her band, Bikini Kill, the movement emerged as a response to the masculinism of punk. It was based on the belief that not only should girls and women have a place in the scene, but that the perils and indignities of girlhood were particularly apt for the expression of rage and refusal at the core of punk aesthetics and politics.

Riot Grrrl bands were female-fronted; their vocals experimented with what a woman’s voice could do. Sometimes this meant full-throated singing, sometimes this meant guttural yelling, sometimes high-pitched screaming. And sometimes, in the songs I liked the best, it meant layering a sassy Valley-girl lilt over thunderous drums and growling guitars. Not all Riot Grrrls were in bands, but the music and the shows were important sites of shared identification, linking the movement’s art directly to its political purpose.

I, too, dyed my hair and wore combat boots and thrifted clothes, but I had no one to share my secrets with. Instead, they were written in my oversized sketchbook, clichéd and clumsily lineated, adorned with thick black line drawings of girls with black hearts at their feet or in their upraised hands. I lugged the sketchbook around in an army-surplus shoulder bag, opening it wherever I went, waiting for someone to notice that my drawings looked just like theirs.

Nearly three decades later, I am at the NYU Fales Library, still trying to figure Riot Grrrl out. But this time, I have clear direction: Kathleen Hanna has donated a large number of papers from the movement’s early years to the library. My plan is to read through them chronologically. I want to understand something about my own loneliness, my failure to join a group I revered, how collective movements are formed and maintained.

The story of Riot Grrrl would always be told through collections of private papers; the movement had instituted a total media blackout in 1992. After a few early articles in which they felt betrayed and misrepresented by journalists, Riot Grrrls committed themselves to self-representation, eschewing all major media outlets and communicating directly via leaflets, flyers, zines, and the liner notes of their records. Eventually they started Riot Grrrl Press, a distribution center for the increasingly large number of zines written by Riot Grrrls all over the country.

Hanna was a savvy cultural critic. As a student at Evergreen College, she studied photography and feminism and quickly learned that if she wanted artistic freedom, she’d need to take control of art institutions herself. She cofounded Reko Muse, a feminist art and performance space in downtown Olympia, Washington. Soon after, she and Tobi Vail, a feminist zine-writer and musician, formed Bikini Kill and published the first issue of the Bikini Kill zine, Riot Grrrl’s most widely circulated publication.

The more I read, the more I find myself wondering if the rejection of hierarchical power . . . ultimately contributed to a missed opportunity for action.

Hanna knew that she could not trust corporate media to do anything other than exploit and appropriate a revolutionary movement. But more than that, she and other Riot Grrrls worried that any univocal representations of the movement in the press would lead to limited definitions of what Riot Grrrl was or could be. “The whole point,” writes Sara Marcus in Girls to the Front, her history of the movement, “was no compromise.” Riot Grrrl, Hanna and others believed, should be broad-based and inclusive, open to anyone and their ideas. And yet there had to be a balance, one they struggled to find, between staunch individualism and what Marcus calls “movementness.”

In one of the early folders in Hanna’s archives, I find a pink notebook with RIOT GRRRL TEST PATTERNS written on the cover in bold Sharpied letters. It is undated, but it contains set lists and letters written, in part, during a 1991 Bikini Kill tour. The first handful of pages include Hanna’s big-picture brainstorming about the movement.

The notebook’s opening page reads:

Some important questions facing girl-punks in the 90’s . . . .

  • – How can we make our scenes less white in both numbers + ideology?
  • – How can we best support/educate + draw from non-punk feminists? Should we?
  • – How can we draw up a program (fluctuating) that encompasses race class + gender relations (species too?) w/out having any be seen central or MOST PRESSING

Essentially, Hanna was asking how to cultivate a movement that could be intentional while still being as inclusive as possible. She wanted an art movement that could shape without silencing.

These questions only become more acute in later pages, in which Hanna begins to think about group organization and policy. Her belief that mass media is to be treated with suspicion (“self representation rules!”) immediately leads to a conundrum: “*must est. what is meant by RG + we.” If “self representation” is the goal, in other words, then the self—the collective “we” to be represented—has to be defined in some way.

But that definition is difficult if one is committed to a kind of radical democratic pluralism. “How ‘collective’ will RG be???” Hanna asks. Her answer is surprisingly hierarchical: “(idea) The RG Elite fed. of non square girl punks will be formed in DC + Olympia + will be resp. for all policy decisions + business transactions (getting shit done +/or allocates shit getting done).”

In a possible later revision, Elite is put in parentheses and scratched over with a different pen. A question mark is written above it. On the next page, Hanna uses the acronym RGEFNSPG, presumably standing for Riot Grrrl Elite Federation of Non Square Punk Girls. Here, too, the E is scratched through.

All this suggests that Hanna eventually thought better of her use of the word elite, with all the hierarchical baggage it contains. But the structure she describes—a formation that envisions a governing body advised by a larger group of participants (“all girls who rec. RG mailings”)—does have leaders and followers, the rule makers and the ruled. Whether or not the E in RGEFNSPG stands, it remains there in structure if not in name.

Hanna is aware of this tension. “Unless there is enough rep. among the vegan, Black, young, lesbian etc . . . community NO decision will be made till ALL PEOPLE will be considered,” she writes.

But then, at the bottom of the page, a question. One that has still not been satisfactorily answered. Not by Riot Grrrl, and not by any democratic structure: “What const. enough?

An RG (elite) fed.of nonsquare punk girls never materialized in the form that Hanna imagined. Riot Grrrl did have an elite, but not an organized one. Instead, the members of Bikini Kill, along with the members of a handful of other bands and creators of the other most-read zines, served as de facto mouthpieces of the movement. They were the ones whose words could travel.

In her foundational 1971 essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” Jo Freeman observes a similar phenomenon in the feminism of her moment. Second-wave feminism also attempted to do away with leadership—the idea being, as Freeman sees it, that patriarchy is baked into any hierarchy. But when there are no official spokespeople for a group, Freeman writes, “women of public note are put in the role of spokespeople by default.” Stars and celebrities fill the vacuum when there are no leaders.

Hanna was a star by virtue of her position in Bikini Kill, but she also did imagine for herself, at times, a political leadership role. Some of her writing indicates a strong desire to lead; in other moments she expresses concern about the strength of her influence or just plain exhaustion. But she never pretended not to have the power she had, nor did she ever get too comfortable with it.

Over the course of five days, I read my way through the archive chronologically. For the most part, it’s not the narrative you might think you know; it doesn’t follow the trajectory of male bands of the ’90s Pacific Northwest scene: from relative obscurity to overexposure; from underground promise to depoliticized commodification. (Hanna, having been close friends with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and witnessing the way fame destroyed both his art and his life, was set on avoiding that fate.)

Rather, the Riot Grrrl story is of a collective vision dissolving into a muddle of passionate voices without direction. The more I read, the more I find myself wondering if the rejection of hierarchical power, grounded as it was in a righteous critique of capitalism and patriarchy, ultimately contributed to a missed opportunity for action.

As early as the second issue of the Bikini Kill zine, Tobi Vail expresses concern that “in this environment it is too easy for our doctrines to turn into dogma.” She writes, “I encourage girls everywhere to set forth their own revolutionary agendas from their own place in the world, in relation to their own scenes or whatever, rather than to simply think about ours.”

This was a general idea in Riot Grrrl zines, that each girl could define revolution for herself. The aim of Riot Grrrl was to smash through received definitions, including definitions of what it meant to be a girl, definitions enforced quietly, through cultural norms, and loudly, through physical and sexual violence.

In practice, the result was often simply confusing. There were calls to action, but little instruction on what to do. It was possible to start a Riot Grrrl chapter anywhere, but there were few directions on how, or even how to find an existing one.

On my final day in the archive, I am presented with a large box. It is full of letters that were sent to Riot Grrrl Press when it was housed at Positive Force, a Washington, DC political cooperative that provided space for a variety of leftist groups throughout the 1990s.

The letters have been opened, but they are not catalogued. They are stacked horizontally in alphabetical order by the last names of their senders. This box ends at K, and there are two more identical boxes waiting on a pushcart nearby.

The letters are handwritten in black Sharpie or blue ballpoint pen or multicolored markers. Some are typewritten. A few are printed out on dot-matrix printers. Lower case i’s are dotted with stars and hearts. There are line drawings of girls in miniskirts and combat boots. They come from small towns, suburbs, and big cities. Their authors proclaim their passion for feminism and punk music. They want to be part of what Bikini Kill has called Revolution Girl Style Now. They tell stories of being mocked by their peers, bullied by boys, ignored and berated by friends and strangers. They are ready to take action.

After a while I have to stop. I feel as if I’m reading letters from my younger self, multiplied into a staggering chorus. Were there five hundred letters in that box? A thousand?

Read "Start a Fucking Riot" and "We'll make the nicest neighbors"
Riot Grrrl letter response. Courtesy of the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library at New York University.

And then, at the back of the box, I find a single Xerox master of the form response sent to these girls. “START A FUCKING RIOT,” it says, in bold letters on top.

HOW? I plead silently, for a moment thrown back into my awkward thirteen-year-old body.

Some general instructions follow: “find some other interested girls in your school, your neighborhood etc. if you don’t know any, make flyers and talk to other girls. i bet there are some riot grrrls on your very street, even if they don’t know it yet.”

Reading this on my library-issued foam mat, I find myself fighting back tears. Because I know, at least for my part, that if any of the things the flyer suggests had seemed possible to me, I wouldn’t have been writing the Riot Grrrls for advice in the first place.

Hanna and Vail were concerned about hierarchy and exclusion. They were probably right to be. But the you-do-you individualism the movement settled on instead meant that participation became idiosyncratic and often a matter of whom one already knew, which is a recipe for homogeneity, something that Hanna never wanted. And if I, raised in a white, middle-class, coastal liberal household, felt at a loss as to how to participate in Riot Grrrl, how would someone without any of those advantages find access to it?

In her reflections on Riot Grrrl, the feminist scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen writes, “I truly believe that riot grrrl was—and is—the best thing that ever happened to punk.” But she also argues that the “rugged individualism” of punk is part of its white masculinist ideology, and that Riot Grrrl, against all of its intentions, carried that ideology forth. For Nguyen—who was born in Vietnam and raised in the US—Riot Grrrl rested on “a generalized ‘we’ that primarily described the condition of mostly white, mostly middle-class women and girls.” I can see that in the overall corpus of Riot Grrrl writing. But I believe the root of that problem was less the development of a general “we” and more the lack of a specific one. I think this having read Hanna’s notebooks, knowing that she desperately wanted an intersectional “we,” that she was willing to entertain a structure like the elite federation to get there. My sense is that the “we” of Riot Grrrl was mostly white because the participants in Riot Grrrl were mostly white, and each of their individual voices was elevated as an expression of Riot Grrrl identity.

Hanna wanted pluralism. Vail wanted pluralism. They wanted Riot Grrrl to be broadly inclusive, to shut no one out. But based on the history of the movement, it seems that less “do your own thing,” and more limitation and structure, could have allowed the movement, paradoxically, to appeal to more people. While Riot Grrrl, like all punk movements, fashioned itself as radical, not incremental, it shared with liberal centrism an insistence on freedom as a fundamental value, a privileging of the individual over the collective. This ultimately limited the movement’s revolutionary potential.

While Riot Grrrl is now historical, enshrined in the archive, the perils of assuming that liberalism is the only vehicle to pluralism remain. The alternatives are often perceived to be dangerously rigid. The center-left has expressed this anxiety in screeds against so-called “cancel culture,” such as “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2020. The letter cautioned against the onset of “ideological conformity” on the left at the very moment antiracist movements were gaining real ground. As many public intellectuals would have it, there are only two options: liberal individualism or moral dogma.

But in practice, things are not so simple. Black Lives Matter, which touts itself as an antihierarchical organization, is actually closer to the federation structure Hanna once imagined for Riot Grrrl. Individual chapters are subject to rules established by the national Movement for Black Lives, and local groups, wary of infiltration, surveillance, sabotage, and the dilution of messaging, often have an unapologetically strong—and limited—core group of organizers. Given the success of this strategy, it is not a surprise that activist leaders such as Cori Bush have risen to national prominence, and that the movement has supported, rather than questioned, that ascendence.

But if political movements have moved productively toward structured organization, art movements have done the opposite, further embracing the anything-goes liberalism that limited Riot Grrrl’s reach. If anything, US culture has become even more entrenched in the belief that art is primarily a matter of self-expression, and that personal authenticity is the measure of artistic quality. Few artists identify as members of collectives, political or artistic. And yet, the individualism touted by contemporary art is limited: most artists are not fully autonomous. Support for the arts comes primarily from large institutions such as publishing conglomerates, foundations, and universities, which, while extracting their own political compromises, benefit from their apparent commitment to free expression.

And so, despite the historical problems with punk’s masculinism, its whiteness, and even its own individualism, I’m convinced that it continues to provide an important example of how art, especially in its most illiberal variants, can insist upon the role of the collective, draw lines, and force its audience to publicly choose sides—in short, to make politics visible. And I still believe that art can be the site for the cultivation of a “we” like the one Hanna strove to define. Which is to say that I still believe art can be a site for political change.

Rachel Greenwald Smith is the author of On Compromise and Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism. She teaches at Saint Louis University.
Originally published:
July 19, 2021


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