The Riot Grrrl movement is an international underground feminist movement that emerged from the West Coast American alternative and punk music scenes of the 1990s.
Initially, women played a marginal part in these male-dominated punk scenes. But the gender balance began to change in the early 1990s through the formation of feminist, all-female and mainly-female punk and new wave bands.
Bands like Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile and Bikini Kill led the way in creating a safe space for women at punk shows which could often be dominated by violent mosh pits – encouraging girls to come to the front of crowds and poking fun at the patriarchy* in their song lyrics.
These bands called for Revolution Girl Style, confronted music scene sexism head on and upheld the anti-consumer do-it-yourself ethic of punk.
Despite what I’ve just said, Riot Grrrls weren’t just musicians. Music was the starting point of the movement (and still a huge factor) but the Riot Grrrl ideology ran a lot deeper than that.
A super common form of Riot Grrrl expression is zines. This is how many of the earliest punk bands formed.
For example, Bikini Kill started with Kathleen Hana – she participated in a small collective art gallery which would host gigs, which inspired her to start her own band called Amy Carter. When on tour with the band Go Team, she met Tobi Vail (their drummer) and they started working on a fanzine together, which they called Bikini Kill. After recruiting some more pals, Kathi and Billy, they all later became a band.
They held regular meetings and national conferences similar to the feminist discussion and support groups of the 60s and 70s.
These forums allowed women to meet and discuss music as well as their experiences of sexism, body image, and identity. The movement even had its own manifesto:
“Riot Grrrl is more than just a branch of the punk scene – we come from all sorts of backgrounds, like all sorts of music, dress in all sorts of styles… Riot Grrrl is open to everyone.”
However, the movement did have its faults. It received a lot of criticism for being too exclusive.
While Riot Grrrl bands worked to ensure their shows were safe spaces for women to find solidarity the movement was sometimes seen to exclude trans women from their events. It was accused of focussing on middle-class white women.
A reason why it did begin to die out…
But now with the rise of the internet and a more welcoming societal mindset, the movement has been making a comeback as the ideology still speaks to countless female creatives today.
It’s important to note that the movement isn’t exclusive to punk music in the modern day scene. It may inspire plenty of punk bands like Kitten Forever and Skating Polly, but you can also hear its influences in the likes of Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé.
And with organisations like Girls Against being set up to ensure women can safely report groping in gig crowds you can see the Riot Grrrl ideology thriving inside the modern day music scene.
Essentially Riot Grrrl is a network of women and men who want to change society through active and creative means – it started with American punk bands but has now evolved into more than just a branch of the punk scene. It’s an ideology that inspires people in creative industries across the globe to this day.
* patriarchy – a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.
By Seonaidh McGuire