Sara Marcus's Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution is a history of a group of young, punk women who refused to shut up. And if you listen, you can still hear them.
As Johanna Fateman writes in her review, "any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous." For those unfamiliar, then, let's call Marcus's book the story of a group of young women in the early nineties, some of whom played in bands, some of whom produced zines, some of whom went to meetings, some of whom identified as riot grrls or grrrls, and all of whom were angry about the way the world devalued them and their gender. Here Marcus explains (some of) their ethos:
Riot Grrrl would later be spoken of as girls challenging sexism within punk. [...] Punk wasn't really the point, though. The problems with the scene burned the girls up precisely because it echoed the way the world at large treated them.
The girls were furious about things like parental-consent abortion laws, bikini-clad women who hawked beer and cigarettes on billboards and TV, and the archaic gender roles that pervaded the cartoon section of the Washington Post. They were ready to revolt over things like hallway gropes and sidewalk heckles, leering teachers, homophobic threats, rape, incest, domestic violence, sexual double standards, ubiquitous warnings against walking certain places or dressing certain ways ... The affronts were neverending. The girls couldn't block these things out and they didn't want to; they wanted to stay acutely aware of the war against them so they could fight back.
Of necessity, Girls to the Front is more about "the girls" themselves than about a cohesive Riot Grrrl movement, especially since the identity and even the existence of such a movement are matters of debate. What's not up for debate is that girls of the era were inspired by bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, whose lyrics Marcus smartly and intently analyzes (she writes that Bikini Kill's "Double Dare Ya" casts "feminist self-assertion as something one might do to avoid being shamed by a cooler, tougher girl. This was how girls spurred each other in youth to take dangerous risks; in adolescence, [...] it might move girls to save their own lives"). They attended meetings where, sometimes for the first time, they had a venue to tell "stories rang[ing] from extremes of rape, incest, and child sexual abuse to those widespread indignities of female adolescence, so common that the girls seem to be expected to take them in stride." And they made friendships that Marcus describes with acute understanding — three DC grrrls, she writes, "luxuriated in that magic late-teenage summer spell, when your friendships are so intimate and unbearably real that they define you, consume you."
In Marcus's telling, Riot Grrrl was always heterogeneous, with groups in DC, Olympia, Omaha, and elsewhere, and had its fair share of ideological disagreement. But the mainstream media frequently wanted to tell a simpler story, and the conflict of whether to talk to the press got bitter as Riot Grrrl's public profile grew higher. Then, too, individual groups of grrrls began to splinter over issues like race and class — many of Riot Grrrl's earliest and most visible proponents were white and middle-class, and efforts at greater inclusivity didn't always go well. The book's saddest moment comes at a 1994 concert when Bratmobile, riven by arguments over "insufficiency of radicalism," breaks up onstage:
Molly, at the end of her last nerve, threw down her drumsticks and stood up. "That's it!" She shouted. "I quit!" She shouldered her way out of the room and stomped onto the street. Erin got on the mic and said to Allison, "I'm not going to play with you anymore."
Riot Grrrl started out with young women coming together to speak out against issues that affected them all, and so it's pretty heartwrenching — especially if you also try to speak out against these issues — to read about its implosion. But what makes Girls to the Front somewhat difficult to read at times — its lack of a concrete timeline, its focus on individual grrrls rather than the "movement" as a whole — may also be a source of hope. The easy, perhaps media-friendly narrative of Riot Grrrl would be that of a radical group destroyed by infighting — a favorite story of all those who seek to downplay the influence of radicalism. But if Riot Grrrl was never one single group or movement, then maybe its implosion was actually an explosion.
Marcus writes that by 1996, the last Riot Grrrl chapters (in DC and New York) had closed. But in a postscript, she updates us on the current activities of all the girls profiled in the book. They are professors, students, writers, artists, and activists. They are making music and zines, and working with girls, women, and the elderly. One is at work on an oral history of Riot Grrrl; another is involved with a summer rock camp for girls. For these grrrls-turned women, Riot Grrrl wasn't the end of their drive to make a difference in the world — it was the beginning. And so maybe it makes sense to think of it, not as a movement with a defined birth, life, and death, but as a fertile period in American history when a lot of smart, angry young women learned how to make noise. And maybe we should rejoice that despite the supposed end of their supposed movement, they're still making noise today.
Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution
Her Jazz [Bookforum]
Reconsidering Riot Grrrl [NY Press]
In the Beginning There Was Rhythm! [Jigsaw]