Mar 21, 2012

Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus

Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus

I began to hear people talking about Riot Grrrl in the past tense. Some spoke of it as having been a radical feminist movement of young women, but most people thought of it as a music scene, an expired trend: at best, a period of openness to strong female performers; at worst, an ideology of bad musicianship or a style of dress. Girls playing guitar sloppily were referred to as riot grrrls, as if it were a genre like rockabilly or grindcore. A “Riot Grrrl” Halloween costume for sale online (child sizes eight to ten) looked like a Goth cheerleader outfit with moon boots. Even feminist books on gender and rock music downplayed the movement’s political aspects—because, I suspect, people didn’t know how to treat the lives of teenage girls as if they mattered. The truth about the movement was getting buried. I longed for someone to set the record straight, or at least tilt the balance in the right direction. Then I realized that I could pull everyone’s stories together, and I devoted myself once again to finding the riot grrrls.
Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution is a cultural history of the feminist movement that spread among teenage girls in the early 1990’s, mainly in the US, and that mostly found its expression through rock music and zine making. Sara Marcus writes about the origins of major Riot Grrrl bands such as Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and of course Bikini Kill, but her main focus is on the teenage girls who took Riot Grrrl into their hands and made the movement their own. Through their stories, Marcus explores the very real application the feminist principles behind the movement had to their everyday lives.

Girls to the Front opens with a preface in which Marcus explains the impact Riot Grrrl had on her own life as a teenager. This section alone told me right away I was going to adore this book. Marcus writes:
Talking to these girls, I began to understand that I didn’t have to be miserable. Maybe being a teenager was always going to be a bloodbath to some extent, but it did not have to be this particular bloodbath. Its severity and the specific tone of its miseries were political, which meant they were mutable. I felt powerless not because I was weak but because I lived in a society that drained girls of power. Boys harassed me not because I invited it but because they were taught it was acceptable and saw that no one intervened. These things weren’t my fault, and we could fight them all together.

For the first time in years, I knew that I was going to be okay.
I was too young in the early 90’s to have been aware of Riot Grrrl, and didn’t find out about the movement at all until much later in life. But once I did, I always thought of it as missed opportunity. I felt like I had just missed out on something that could have been huge and life-changing for me; that could have helped me immensely in the exact same ways Marcus describes in her preface.

Much of what Girls to the Front deals with has to do with how crucial becoming aware of the political dimension of personal struggles can be, particularly for teenage girls. A huge part of what Riot Grrrl did for these girls was help them join the dots and identify the different ways in which sexism affected their lives. Once you name a problem and identify it as something that can be fought, you’re at least one step further away from losing your mind; you at least know that the problem isn’t you and that you’re not alone. That doesn’t make it go away, of course, but the difference can be lifesaving.

What the Riot Grrrl movement did for these girls really reminded me of what several different Internet communities did for me as I was growing up. What homemade zines were for them, particularly in terms of community and self-expression, Internet forums were for me. A lot of the dynamics described in the book were recognizable too, particularly the girls’ struggles to make sense of the ways in which sexism intersected with race and class issues, the difficult conversations that followed, the hurt feelings, but also the genuine personal and political growth. It surprised me to see how familiar a cultural history of something I missed out on turned out to be. I can actually easily imagine similar books being written about blogging and other online communities some years down the road.

The Riot Grrrl movement was strongly connected with the early 90’s music scene in Olympia, WA: this was where the first Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, was formed, and the way the town’s arts scene operated played a huge role in the inception of Riot Grrrl. The Olympia music scene was all about learning and progressing in public: anyone with a newly formed band and a couple of songs in their repertoire could play a show in someone else’s basement, and instant be met with receptiveness and feedback. Seeing other people get better at what they did in public helped demystify art – it let anyone watching know that perhaps this was something they could be doing too. The early Riot Grrrls were aware of this: Bratmobile in particularly deliberately played showed before they were ready (by most people’s standards, anyway) because they wanted to help make girls who wanted to start bands not feel too intimidated to do so.

These principles of public growth and progression also applied to zine making, in ways that tied in not only with art but also with political development. One of Marcus’ interviewees tells her:
Grrrl zines were the coffee-table reading and the father for dinner conversation in his house of punk rock schoolteachers—“the main texts of our lives,” he said. One of his favorite things about the zines was that the writers weren’t pretending to have all the answers; they were making visible the process of figuring things out. Mary and Erika, in particular, constantly included calls for dialogue and feedback. “They claimed the space to be wrong,” Abram said, “and I found out to be very powerful intellectually.
As I was saying the other day, this process of “making visible the process of figuring things out” and “claiming the space to be wrong” is something I have experienced when it comes to blogging and have only recently come to fully embrace. It was reassuring to see that no matter what the medium, other young women have been there before.

Another thing Girls to the Front explores in detail is the relationship between art and political activism. The Riot Grrrl movement came into being in a very specific political context which was leaving young people deeply unsatisfied – a context not at all unlike today’s:
To be young in 1992 was to feel that the world’s fate could be determined in the next seventy-two hours, and that the outcome might not be favorable to human survival. With the September 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear annihilation had finally faded, but other terrifying forces, seemingly more cosmic and geologic than strictly political, had come to light. AIDS was painting everybody’s sexual awakening with somber mortality; global warming and skin cancer meant that the sun was suddenly deadly as well. Magazines and newspapers printed ominous maps of North America striped with creeping red fever-rashes. Temperatures and sea levels were rising; incomes and standards of living were plummeting. For the first time in the nation’s history, young people told pollsters they expected to do worse than their parents had done.
Marcus describes how Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, wanted to start a band specifically because she had a mission: she wanted to spread feminism to teenage girls, she wanted to tell them they weren’t the problem, she wanted to address sexual abuse, and she wanted to do so from a platform that would reach as many people as possible. Like most other people, I believe that good art should not be didactic; but I also believe that this idea is sometimes taken too far. People mistake any kind of political intervention whatsoever for didacticism, and therefore frown upon it almost by default and worship an dubious ideal of complete political neutrality. Bikini Kill was a band with a political mission, but this didn’t make them any less powerful on a purely artistic level. They combined music with unapologetic activism, yet this was not a hindrance but rather something that made them a better, more resonant band.

As you can probably tell by now, Girls to the Front is many things, and one of them is a plea for young women’s lives to be taken seriously. One of the major obstacles the Riot Grrrl movement had to face was the increasing interest from the mainstream media. Articles about Riot Grrrl started to pop up in several publications, and if on the one hand they helped spread the word about the movement, on the other hand they invariably condescended to it and portrayed it as a fad. This kind of media coverage
confirmed what many of [the girls] were reading in school, about how mass media turned real-life into spectacle in order to sell it back to people as a meaningless, glammed-up, depoliticized version of their own lives.
The more I read about the media’s tendency to depoliticise and patronise these girls and what they were doing, the more I was reminded of today’s laments about young people’s lack of political engagement. I suspect that much of it also comes down to this generalised tendency to discount the lives of young people, particularly young girls, or to dismiss forms of activism that don’t take the exact shape we happen to be familiar with. Young women’s bodies continue to be the objects of political struggles, but we don’t often allow them room to be subjects or to speak for themselves. The Internet has made the mobilisation and community involvement at the heart of Riot Grrrl much easier, but I’m not sure how much progress has been made when it comes to treating youth-led political initiatives seriously or acknowledging their legitimacy.

Girls to the Front is an absolutely amazing book, and I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t end up in my top five non-fiction reads of the year. Highly recommended to anyone interested in feminism, music, pop culture, politics, or the experience of being a teenage girl.

Other interesting bits:
The girls were furious about things like parental-consent abortion laws, bikini-clad women who hawked beer and cigarettes on billboards and TV, and archaic gender roles that pervaded the cartoon section of the Washington Post. They are ready to revolt over things like hallway gropes and sidewalk hecklers, 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. These 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.
They were mustering for battle against the idea that to be a girl was to be in grave danger that you could never fully escape, only manage by narrowing your life, your range, your wardrobe, your gaze. The end of the summer was here, but the girl revolution was just beginning.

If all the articles that were to follow White’s into print over the next year had been a smart and sympathetic as hers, maybe media coverage of Riot Grrrl wouldn’t have become the huge problem that it did. But for whatever reason, most adults find it tremendously difficult to take teenage girls’ life seriously. Even when girls’ lives and bodies constitute a major political battleground. Even when girls are speaking truth to power in clarion, prophetic voices. Even when girls are right.

“Signing to a major label was not just a matter of ‘integrity’ or ‘purity,’” Tobi said. “Our vision was of creating a feminist youth culture that was participatory and would change society. We wanted all girls in all towns start bands. We didn’t just want to be the ‘feminist punk band’ that people would come and see on tour.” But that was what they were becoming. They played more shows, wrote more songs, took breaks when they could afford to. They were becoming better musicians, better songwriters, better performers. At the same time, audiences were starting to see them as stars. “Pretty soon we were all over twenty-five, and our biggest fans were under sixteen,” Tobi said. “Selfishly, I wanted stuff to change and for there suddenly to be all these women in bands around my age who could be peers. Instead there would be a long line of kids at a DIY show making us sign autographs.”
Yet at least young listeners now had the option of idolizing an overtly feminist, majorly-female band. This was progress. Even if it wasn’t exactly what the musicians had wanted, it was changing the soundtrack of adolescence for good.
They read it too: Serendipitous Readings, Reading Through Life


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Sometimes I am positively astounding with the breadth of my ignorance. This is one of those times. How could I have never even heard of the Riot Grrrl movement? I'm really hoping the library has this book available when I go today. Regardless, I will be reading this...both to help lessen my ignorance in some small way and because it simply sounds fantastic!

  2. For some reason blogger hates me and I believe my last comment didn't go through. Love the sound of this book and of your review. Must. find. this. book. when I'm allowed to purchase books again.

  3. Riot Grrrl is something that's been floating on the side of my mental road for quite some time; with my interest in fanzines, naturally homemade zines are often discussed in sources that talk about them. I was much too young to even know about the movement, but I had stupidly not connected the dots between Riot Grrrl and feminism.

  4. I remember wanting to read this when it came out a few years ago and I was like what the heck was Riot Grrrl? Great review it definitely sounds interesting.

  5. I remember the bands from this movement at time ,I did think babes in toyland were part of this movement I saw them at time ,all the best stu

  6. This book and topic is completely new to me. I'm really curious about this movement.

  7. Debi: I hope it does and that you enjoy it :)

    Amy: Gah, I'm so sorry about that :\ Anyway, yes you must! I'm pretty sure you'll love it as much as I did.

    Clare: I wouldn't say "stupidly"! Marcus repeatedly draws attention to how the movement's connection to feminism and its political dimensions were erased through media coverage. It's not surprising that the general pop culture perception of Riot Grrrl today is one that doesn't reveal the connection.

    Amy: I know you're interested in music, so I think you'll find much to enjoy here. PS: This book was step one of the "Ana teaches herself how to write about music" crash course. To be continued :P

    Stu: Yes! How great that you had the chance to see them life.

    Mrs Q: No better place to start than this, then!

  8. I got really into the Riot Grrrl music scene during high school in the late 90s. Although I was never a fan of Bikini Kill (something about Kathleen Hanna's voice is like nails on chalkboard for me). I never got fully into the culture and dress of a Riot Grrrl, but I appreciate the music and it was actually fun to like something that was the exact opposite of the growing pop music scene (Britney, N'Sync) etc. I'll have to add this to my list. Do you remember if it discussed the band Babes in Toyland at all?

  9. I never heard of Riot Grrrl, either. Just the Gorilla Girls, and only after they'd disbanded.

  10. It's interesting to compare the history of rock with the history of early electronic music: while early rock 'n' roll accepted a small set of roles for women, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire and many others appear as founders and innovators of electronica. The same is true about the later crossover of electronic pop with conceptual music, a line that goes from Laurie Anderson to Karin Dreijer. And all the idea of electronic-punk sounds comes from the all-girl band Malaria. Strangely, the situation of electronic dance music is completely different: all of the "top 100 DJs" of DJ Mag are men. But, well, most of the things DJ Mag likes are awful anyway.

  11. I graduated from high school in 1992 and have no memory or knowledge of any of this. These young ladies were ahead of their time.

  12. I graduated from high school in 1992 and have no memory or knowledge of any of this. These young ladies were ahead of their time.

  13. I am not all that familiar with the Riot Grrrls, and this would probably be a really eye-opening book for me to explore. It seems like a shame that I missed out on this!

  14. I'd heard of the Riot Grrls but didn't realise it was a movement by teenage girls. How amazing is that? I wish I too had known about them in the 90s but I guess I was too caught up in my changing life. Wonderful post, Ana.

  15. Narineh: Sorry, I don't think it does, or at least not more than in passing. Also, I'm with you about not being a fan of Hanna's voice. I admire her so much as a person, but could never really get into her music.

    Tasha: It could be that we were too young at the time (I think you're only a couple of years older than me), or simply that this was something that existed outside of mainstream culture. It's almost strange to think about this now, but obscure could really be obscure before the age of the Internet.

    Nicolás Diaz: I know very little about what has happened outside of my own area of musical interest (indie rock), and so I had no idea about early electronic music. But it is indeed very interesting to compare what happens in different genres and their associated cultural movements.

    Caroline Starr Rose: They really were! And as I read the book I kept thinking about how relevant their concerns still are today.

    Zibilee: My feelings exactly :P

    Sakura: It really is amazing - especially if we consider that this was a generation that the media characterised as completely politically apathetic. And thank you!

  16. Talking about pioneers in electronic music, Laurie Spiegel recieved some attention from mainstream media this week, because of her 1970s track included in the film The Hunger Games:


    If you are interested in the subject, you can follow Geeta Dayal and Laurie Spiegel on Twitter. Geeta Dayal articles are priceless.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.