But What of Us? UK Riot Grrrl – Part 2
The second part of Cazz Blase's 3 part series looks at the political aspects of UK Riot Grrrl; how it brought awareness of feminism to a new generation, encouraged female friendship and solidarity, and how gender politics entered the music scene. First published in the zine "Real Girls".
More Than Just Girls With Picks
If the term Riot Grrrl referred only to a particular ‘style’ of music – to a brief spluttering of angry, loud, yet ultimately quaint homage’s to punk rock – those involved would have, understandably, felt rather cheated by the experience.
However, just as the music created by Riot Grrrls was imaginative and diverse enough to be new and inspiring, as with punk, the phrase can be viewed in terms of its belief systems and impact upon individual lives. Riot Grrrl was/is – as Madi wrote – about considerably more than just girls with picks.
Within these interviews lay numerous examples of
emotional support and networking between girls/women.
There was an overwhelming sense of the positive, of friendship and solidarity, and of empathy. As Angel
“I was thirteen when I first became involved with Riot Grrrl and I’m still to this day living by its rules. Underground music is the purest and most heartfelt ever, underground publications still speak the only truths and the politics will forever motivate my cause. I have never met people nicer and truer than those involved in Riot Grrrl.”
Natasha Morris, writing in My Little Fanzine in 1995, brought these ideas of friendship and support to life when she wrote:
“We went up to complete strangers and handed them our thoughts on an A5 format. We talked with each other all night or all day simply because they were standing alone too. We felt it was O.K to smile just cuz she’d smiled. We formed friendships that would make us glad to be alive.” (1)
With these new friendships came a new kind of confidence, not just for the girl at the gig, but for the girl in her bedroom too. She no longer had to feel isolated and along, she no longer had to sit for hours wondering is she was normal because she didn’t have a boyfriend. She made friends, and even if these friends didn’t live in her home town and she could only write to them, or speak to them on the phone. These friends mattered because they helped her to believe that there was something better.
“It (Riot Grrrl) has given me more confidence to an extent because sometimes I feel proud of knowing and kind of being involved with a ‘movement’, whereas most people I know aren’t part of anything” wrote Madi, an artist, musician and music technology student from Bridlington. “Their life revolves around themselves and going out drinking on a Friday and Saturday nite, so… I’m not really a confident person, maybe I keep myself to myself too much, but it makes me feel stronger on the inside”
Casino echoed this sense of confidence “I won’t accept shit I did before” she wrote “and I guess I’ve grown a lot more aggressive. That came from the way I came to deal with shit following my discovering riot grrrl. I became more aware of the troubles of women in music I s’pose and women in general, but as a cynic I just sighed and shrugged my shoulders. Now I sigh and put my boot in”
Angel was more philosophical:
“Yes it (Riot Grrrl)
changed the way I saw the world in a very big way. Firstly it made me feel accepted in a scene that was liberating and exhilarating and I wasn’t required to change anything about myself to be involved. Secondly and most importantly it made me aware of what a twisted and manipulative society we live in. It made me realise that to succeed in this male dominated world I would either have to work twice as hard for half the wage or sell my body and soul. It made me aware of how women (predominantly) are used and exploited by hierarchies, media and other profiting industries. These two combined have subsequently taught me that with unity, honesty and support women can break free form these restrictions as can anyone else who wants to follow. So I would say that Riot Grrrl revealed the evils of the world to me but has given me the strength and determination to change it.”
As Angel’s story reveals, the friendly counterpart to this new found confidence was inspiration. All of those interviewed were inspired in some way by Riot Grrrl, whether on a creative level or on a purely personal level.
As with punk, some of these individuals had been waiting for years for an outlet for their ideas. Some of them were encouraged to look inside themselves for their inspiration, whereas others took what they wanted and moved on. As Rachel Slampt:
“Riot girl gave me the space to fuck up in public. If I hadn’t got over that initial stage of being in a band I might’ve not carried on. Because of the popularity of Riot girl and how it affected women, and jumpstarted the underground (music scene) U.K it meant that Avocado Baby, Pussycat Trash and Slampt in general had a bit of interest. Like people wanted to see opinionated often shambolic kids on stage.”
Madi reinforced this view “I sometimes feel very inspired through just listening to riot grrrl bands” she wrote “I kind of think that if they can do it, then so can I. It inspired me to start playing guitar ‘properly’, write my own music etc. I think it’s had some influence over my artwork as well.”
For Maxine, a DIY publisher from Bromley, Riot Grrrl “provided an outlet for all these creative thoughts I had swimming around my head for years. It became a stepping stone for my own DIY publishing venture.”
Whereas for Glasgow’s Manda Rin, Riot Grrrl was: “The whole reason that I wanted to be in a band. It gave me
the determination and courage to get onstage.”
Within this growing confidence, inspiration, and awareness there was a sense that what was happening, indeed, what was driving these girls was feminism. Feminism applied to everyday life rather than feminism in the form of academic debate.
As Kate from Manchester wrote: “The theories I was studying at university were now being echoed to a certain extent in Riot Grrrl. I loved to see discussions in mainstream media – even if ideas became twisted – at least discussions were entered into which before were not given the time of day.”
Rachael from High Wycombe had a very personal take on this:
“I’d always been a feminist on most issues, but the riot grrrl movement opened my eyes to how much I was ignoring. It also changed al lot of my opinions – I went to a Catholic school, and although I wasn’t Catholic, I was against abortion, but when I got into riot grrrl, I discovered more things about men and women and everything that goes on, and now I’m pro-choice. The riot grrrls just made me see through things and get my own mind. I started to get really, really angry every time a boy would insult me or when I thought something was sexist. The riot grrrls woke me up. When you’re young, you just brush some things off and ignore them, but I stopped doing that.”
She wasn’t the only girl for whom Riot Grrrl challenged standard received ideas.
“Riot Grrrl to me was a way of discovering feminism through music” wrote Angela, a fanzine writer from Glasgow “I never realised I was feminist until I discovered Riot Grrrl.” She later added: “I did go through a completely man-hating phase but then soon realised that not all men were complete sexist bastards! It got me more into feminism and that changed my political ideas a lot – I think my sociology noticed this! I stopped being so passive and uncaring and realised that life isn’t fair if you are a female today, especially if you’re considered ‘overweight’ or ‘ugly’.”
If Riot Grrrl, as Angel wrote, “revealed the evils of the world” to a new generation of feminists and then gave them “the strength and determination needed to change it”, that is, empowered these girls by arming them with
The Truth, it went beyond and above the functions of the
average youth subculture.
Cressida Miles, writing in 1997, believed that the fundamental difference between Punk and Riot Grrrl was that Riot Grrrls were aware of their context. They were aware of being a community of women within a patriarchal, white orientated, middle class, straight world. Punk women, on the other hand, did not form a separate sub community within punk. Punks were punks.
Miles argued that class was just as much an issue as gender for many punks, and that working class female punks often felt more of an affinity with male punks of the same class than with their middle class, female counterparts.
This could allow, in part, for what Lucy O’Brien, writing in 1999, saw as a lack of solidarity between women on the punk scene. A scene that, despite its radical basis, only allowed a few women to succeed. Not because they were any less talented, but because girl bands were not taken as seriously or encouraged to the same degree that male bands such as the Sex Pistols and Clash were.
For every Siouxsie, Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, Slits and Raincoats there was a Beki Bondage (Vice Squad), Snatch, Essential Logic, Poison Girls, and Vital Disorder. Yet these are not the bands that we associate with punk today.
As Miles and O’Brien both agreed, the punk scene was far from equal. For every enlightened, free thinking male, there was an unreconstructed misogynist. For every man who enjoyed the Banshees or the Adverts for their music, there were just as many who had pictures of Siouxsie Sioux and Gaye Advert tacked to their walls. Suggesting – although in a fairly inoffensive way – that it wasn’t just the music that they were interested in.
Although punk was a particularly creative and innovative subculture that provided space for anger, reflection and inspiration. It wasn’t perfect. Neither, many would say, was Riot Grrrl.
Well aware of the criticisms leveled at Riot Grrrl by its detractors, in 1995, Natasha Morris wrote this response:
“So I haven’t made my area safe to walk late at night through. I haven’t put an end to sexism, labelling or abuse. And as hard as I’m trying I’ve a whole world
against me. But as insignificant as it may seem, I have helped to unite girls and fight (physically when the situation needed it) against the prejudiced, the threat- makers, name callers and attackers whose very existence are living proof that womyn aren’t as equal as this male dominated society would often have us believe.” (2)
The link between punk and Riot Grrrl is an important one. The often unreconstructed nature of relations between male and female punks reflects an ambivalence that infused the musical underground worldwide after punks ‘death’. Throughout the eighties, the punk and post punk related scenes in Britain and America were characterised by their whiteness, heterosexuality, and middle class college boy mentality. A dangerous, if perhaps unconscious, set up, it nevertheless rendered those with a different set of chromosomes invisible.
Alien She: Separatism, Otherness, And The Isolation Of The Female Fanzine Writer
“The fanzine world was extremely boy orientated in 1987” wrote Karren Ablaze!, a fanzine writer and singer from Leeds, in 1994. “There was little sense of girl – consciousness then, (that I was aware of/in touch with) so the few girls like me who were doing zines did them in a very boyish way, with little in the way of gender consciousness. And it wasn’t really until Riot Grrrl ‘happened’ here (Autumn 1992) that I changed the way I wrote stuff in my fanzine.” (3)
The degree of isolation that Karren describes here may seem surprising, yet her solution does not. As a girl operating within a boy orientated space, her unconscious solution to the ‘problem’ (the ‘problem’ being her femaleness, the thing that – consciously or not – marks her out as different to those around her) was to make herself invisible by imitating the approach and writing style of the male fanzine writers she surrounded by.
This dance of self denial and imitation was something that Rachel Slampt, a couple of years after Karren, was hoping to avoid.
“For a long time I’d noticed I was pretty much the only female around making zines” she wrote, echoing Ablaze!’s sense of isolation “I wanted to work out why, I wanted
company, I wanted to make music even though I couldn’t
play, I wanted to find out more about other women and why they did/didn’t seem to be so into teen culture and why
She summed up the frustration beautifully later when she concluded that “I was trying to get to a place where my tits weren’t an issue.”
Sadly, the sense of frustration, isolation and alienation described by Karren and Rachel would appear to be symbolic of a wider pattern within society. It would seem from their experience that not only are women positioned as Others within the job market and education, but that they are also cultural Others.
The girl or woman is tolerated within culture, yet she must not overstep the confines of her designated territory. She can consume culture but not create it, she can watch a live band but if she chooses to mosh or stagedive, she runs the risk of being flattened or assaulted.
In an attempt to place pre Riot Grrrl gig going antics into some kind of context, I refer here to a debate on stagediving (or crowd surfing) held by Melody Maker in early 1992.
The debate centered around the various pros and cons of hurling oneself through the air towards the crowd, having seconds earlier used the stage, barrier, shoulders of another, bands amps, scaffolding or other as a launch pad.
Stagediving was a common phenomena in the late eighties/ early nineties throughout the world. It was enjoyed for the sheer death defying and thrill inducing factor, and for the element of surprise.
However, as the resulting Melody Maker article pointed out, there were many pitfalls to this particular gig going activity. Not only could stage divers get hurt as a result of “missing” the crowd and instead colliding with the scaffolding or landing on the floor, but innocent bystanders could get flattened or booted in the head. There was even an anecdote within the article of a tuning peg from a guitar going up someone’s nose as a result of stagediving.
In a sense, stagediving helped to maintain – if only briefly – a “survival of the fittest” mentality amongst
certain sections of the crowd. Not that all stagedivers
were male of course, but of the few girls who stagedived
many were groped on the way down.
Even if girls chose not to stagedive or mosh, they still ran the risk of being groped, for in the same way that a girl who is dancing alone in a club will be eyed up, so too is the girl in the moshpit (the area directly in front of the stage) seen as fair game. From here leads the road to separatism, and the engineering of female space to counteract the stifling confines of male space.
In terms of Riot Grrrl, this came about in the form of grrrl only meetings and picnics, the reclaiming of the moshpit at gigs, and girl only gigs (although the latter occurred very rarely in Britain) and through this deployment of space, girls were able to hatch strategies, help each other, and learn from one another without interruption.
Whilst there are now more women and girls writing fanzines in Britain than there were ten years ago, there are still areas of underground and mainstream culture that remain either awkward or out of bounds to women and girls.
In the Sichel Sisters 1996 film All Over Me, the scene depicting Claud (Alison Folland) as she steps inside the male bastion that is the guitar shop rang hideously true. The viewer sees a young girl step inside a room of staring, hostile men, and is at once aware of the ordeal this painfully shy character is about to be subjected to in order to secure a replacement string for her guitar.
“Many guitar shops are still quite intimidating places for girls” wrote Sophy, “and we’re made to feel unwelcome there. I’m not saying they should be wholesome, family retailers, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be totally sleazy, either. Girls are often leered at and patronised. A while ago a friend of mine went into a guitar shop and asked to see the plectrums, and the guy behind the counter automatically passed her the tray of pink ones. He was surprised when she asked to see the others and was reluctant to pass her the tray of black plectrums or the ones with little skull logos etc. That kind of two dimensional sex stereotyping is just ridiculous. It’s shit like that that got me into Riot grrrl in the first place.”
Sophys anecdote was not uncommon. Girl bands, even today, are still portrayed almost as a gimmick or a novelty act. If buying instruments, strings, plectrums and other paraphernalia is still a trial for girls, there
is little reason to expect attitudes to change just because you happen to be stood on stage, as Manda Rin discovered:
“I’m fed up of male technicians at gigs, treating me as if I know nothing.” She wrote in her fanzine Popgirls; “They never ask me how many ‘outputs or channels’ we require, its always the boys. I’m fed up of men labelling the area where I stand on stage with gaffa tape and writing ‘babe’ on it. I’m fed up of being in dressing rooms, obviously catering for male groups, with sexist pictures on the walls. I’m fed up of monitor guys moving my monitors for me, telling me where I’ll hear them best, without even asking. After four years of touring, I think I have a rough idea. This list of events could go on forever!” (4)
As the girl keyboardist/singer in a band with two boys, Manda was particularly aware of the kind of double standards taking place. Whilst the behavior of the male technicians was patronising at best, as Pete Slampt wrote, it is not only male technicians, employed to ensure a bands sound, who are not always receptive to the presence of a woman on stage:
“Only two weeks ago I heard some prick shout ‘Get your knickers off!’ at Amelia Fletcher of Marine Research whilst she was on stage. Whilst I’m sure that she has heard plenty of the same bullshit whilst walking past building sites, it is depressing that people replicate that behavior at gigs.” He concluded, “I guess all you can do with that kind of person is the same as what you can do any other time you are in the presence of an openly bigoted person: Confront them.”
Although the heckling of bands by members of the audience can often have more to do with viciousness or boredom than gender, the example illustrated above is plainly a comment that is shouted out to almost any woman in a band as a matter of course. Most women would be hard pressed to take such a comment as a compliment.
Although the male equivalent of the phrase is often screamed at pop boy bands by pre pubescent girls, it is a good deal harder to be offended by a ten year old with a banner than says ‘Point your erection in my direction’ or (for teenage fans) the more X-rated ‘Wine me, dine me, sixty nine me’ than it is to be offended by the inevitable and unoriginal male cries of ‘Get yer tits out’ or ‘Get yer knickers off’. In the former case, these are pleas on the part of a smitten fanbase, whereas the latter are nothing more than the kind of aggressive
demands also shouted out to strippers.
Although the mistreatment of girls and women off stage is something that I have already touched on, I was interested to see if any of my interviewees felt this situation had changed since the arrival of Riot Grrrl. Were they more likely to enter the moshpit now and dance without fear?
“For a while women were treated with more respect” wrote Rachel Slampt, “partly cuz bands like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear made a big deal of blokes molesting girls at gigs, or just generally being too violent and thus disrespectful in their dancing. But the female audience was also saying to the guys not to rub up against them without permission etc. I think women felt they had the permission to make a fuss. Like now, if I’m on stage or at a gig and people are dancing roughly I often question it. But I don’t think that this happens in general. Like much of the time things are back to how they were before. If anything like that were to carry on happening people would have to maintain it, like Fugazi does, but if the audience don’t wanna, they don’t wanna and changing someones mind takes a lot of concentrated effort. Which we don’t all always have.”
Jane “Shag Stamp” Graham, a writer/performer from Bradford was rather scathing in her summery of moshpit etiquette. “Gigs are still full of men both in the bands and in the audience, pushing and posing and acting like dicks” she wrote, adding more optimistically “But maybe its entered a little into women’s consciousness that it doesn’t always have to be like this.”
Rosie was more philosophical. For her the issue of gig behavior seemed to be less black and white than first appeared. “If you are at a gig with a band that has girls in it you seem to be treated far better” she wrote “maybe that’s because more girls are in the audience, but if you go to see an all male band, women are pushed to the back and laughed at.”
The re-emergence or continued presence of ‘laddish’ attitudes obviously rankled with many gig goers. From reading these interviews and fanzines, it seemed to me that girls were all too used to being felt up, shoved into others or into/onto the stage, and generally being manhandled. All had had enough, and some – such as
Rachael from High Wycombe – had really had enough.
“I think what bands like Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill did was fantastic” she wrote, “making boys stand at the back of gigs. At first, gigs were O.K. Men didn’t constantly grope you or push you, but since crap like ‘ladism’ has been re-introduced, things have changed. I think women on stage are treated a bit better, but there are still cries of ‘get your tits out’ at gigs. Men presume it’s O.K to grope you or push you or punch you if you get in their way. It’s usually girls that spend hours queuing for their favorite band, so we shouldn’t need to put up with pissed up lads groping us.”
She referred back to a female only gig in 1993 that the Brighton band Huggy Bear had played at London’s Rough Trade shop with U.S rock band Hole.
“Courtney Love (Hole) said she felt safe. She had no fear of being digitally raped while crowd surfing. I wish we could all have that feeling of safety at gigs, but it won’t happen unless men are made to stand at the back or just completely banned, full stop.”
Because the safety of women within venues is so often met with a “If you can’t stand the heat – get out of the moshpit” mentality, Rachael’s view – although radical – is perhaps understandable.
For whilst Riot Grrrl has had an undoubted impact in terms of the number of girls writing and producing fanzines, it appears to have only temporarily eradicated violence and sexual harassment at gigs.
Whilst this is sad, it is unsurprising, for the kind of behavior described above is not unique to live music venues, rather it mirrors societal attitudes to women generally. Whilst it would seem that you cannot change the moshpit without first changing society, Riot Grrrl appears to have at least given girls the impetus to fight back. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day.