In the wake of second-wave feminism in the 70s, a lot of young women in the 90s felt lost. Although rights had been won, women still felt that they were in second place socially, sexually and financially.
The expectation to be submissive, polite and ‘nice’ that most girls were fed made them feel like they were passively waiting for change. Second-wave had also left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, with a stereotype that feminists were humourless, unsexy man-haters (thanks, Andrea Dworkin).
What’s a girl to do? Punk had an answer.
Of course, this all starts much earlier than punk. The roots of riot grrrl lie in the 1940s, when Simone de Beauvoir began writing about the “male gaze”: how the whole world looks at women from a straight, male perspective. Women are always being looked at, but never the people doing the looking.
If you’re a woman, maybe you sometimes feel objectified? That’s what de Beauvoir was talking about.
Riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear made a point of leaving no taboo unturned in their criticisms of a male-dominated culture – their music and art deals mercilessly with concepts like rape, domestic abuse and sexual double-standards.
Riot grrrl encouraged women not just with their lyrics, and created a female-centric environment at shows, urging women to come to the front of the stage and handing out lyric sheets to them.
Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill’s frontwoman, had been working as a stripper, volunteering at a women’s shelter and studying photography when she decided to found the punk feminist zine Bikini Kill, which evolved into the band. She embraced female sexual agency at a time when women were still viewed as the passive recipients of sex, before consent was an issue brought into the public consciousness.
And as far of ditching the feminist stereotype goes, riot grrrls were definitely sexy and didn’t apologise for wanting sex, and wanting it on their terms. Central to the RG ethos is ditching shame, particularly about female bodies and female sex drive.
To this end, riot grrrl music and art re-owned words like “slut” and “whore”. By reclaiming them and words like them, these words can’t be used as insults anymore.
SlutWalks is a contemporary manifestation of the riot grrrl ethos and DIY approach to protest. These world-wide protests took their cues from de Beauvoir, and antagonised the unfair victim-blaming used so often to explain rape.
Riot grrrl has had huge implications for third-wave and intersectional feminism, and paved the way for feminism to be cool again. It also embraces male allies and encourages them to get on board. As Molly Neuman, the drummer from Bratmobile, said:
“We’re not anti-boy, we’re pro-girl.”
You’re goddamn right. Just ask Beyoncé.