“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think ‘oh bondage up yours!’” X-Ray Spex, 1977
The “best” punk bands: the Rolling Stones, the Clash, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols. All regarded as the greatest punk bands. All men. That’s what a group of college students in the US (United States) state of Washington thought in the 1990s. A group of people who came together against one thing: bigotry, and so began the revolutionary movement known as: Riot Grrrl.
"There was a lot of anger and self-mutilation. In a symbolic sense, women were cutting and destroying the established image of femininity, aggressively tearing it down." - Liz Naylor, manager of Huggy Bear.
Born out of necessity, the movement wasn’t “created”. It was forced under the boot of an oppressive
society. It was about empowering women, bringing notice to rape culture, and screaming loudly about homophobia. It brought people together who had been torn down by patriarchy.
Music was the root. It started with music, and that was its voice. Through the words of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy, troops were rallied. That created a culture. A culture around music and DIY, around zines and activism. It was a revolution. The movement was more than its roots. It was society.
It was different. It was anger against what was dictated as normal, at what was “mainstream”. Riot Grrrl was not a conversation on legal obstacles or voting rights, it was pure rage.
Grrls got s*** done.
They used everything they had. They used music and published their own manifestos and they weaponised their clothing.
How to dress to overthrow the patriarchy
“Stop always worrying about what you look like and what clothes you wear, 'cause in the end it's not important. What's important is friendship and being creative” Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre.
With a subculture, comes a look. A fashion to go with values, but with the Riot Grrrl movement it was the very act of pushing against societal norms of femininity and consumerism that instead created a weapon: fashion itself.
There was no “Riot Grrrl” look.
The very idea of a specific “look”, went against the what the movement stood for. Grrrl’s didn’t have a style, they just expressed themselves, and how they were feeling.
But that didn’t mean fashion was completely void. Riot Grrrl’s used everything in their power, in their arsenal and that included fashion. More specifically how clothing made them feel.
In zines (small handmade publications handed out at shows which spread the movement) Grrrl’s wrote from their own experiences.
They wrote about the sexualisation of their bodies, and how the mainstream fashion industry relied on women being jealous of each other to sell their brands. There was an emphasis on self-expression, but also a move from reliance upon corporate industries and big brands in clothing.
Fashion to Riot Grrrl’s wasn’t just clothing, it was an attitude. It was the way clothes made you feel, and repercussions of male-dominated, female-focused industries. It was the use of clothing as policing of feminine bodies.
They wanted to dress how they wanted, it was as simple as that. Without the male gaze, without people telling them as feminists you “cannot dress sexy”.
It was gender expression. It was butch lesbians dressing without the risk of being attacked or called slurs. It was trans and non-binary people having a safe space at shows, to present their gender in any way they wished.
Riot Grrrl fashion is alive and well today
The Riot Grrrl movement has had a resurgence of sorts, mainly due to online platforms like TikTok. The rising alternative subcultures of E-Girls and E-Boys have taken obvious inspiration from punk subcultures, like Riot Grrrl. The mixture of harsh blush and soft baby-dolls, with chunky black boots reminiscent of the mixture of femininity and resistance of Riot Grrrl’s.
But it’s more than just clothing. As the original movement was, it’s a move from the male gaze. For people to control how they're perceived and to own their own sexualisation. The idea of girls and nonbinary people dressing how they choose to, it’s a political statement.
It’s a push for self-expression, and people making their own footprint in the world regardless of their oppression. It’s the girl on TikTok who made her prom dress from duct-tape. It’s punk and Riot Grrrl living on through them.
But we can’t ignore
The mainstream legacy of Riot Grrrls, is whiteness. It’s thin and cis-gendered.
With underground movements, there’s a curse. A curse of how the mainstream media represented you. For Riot Grrrls that was through the eyes of privilege, of focusing on the middle class, white, cisgender females in the movement.
But it wasn’t just the interpretation of Riot Grrrl culture, it was the culture itself. People of colour, trans and nonbinary people felt out of place in a domination of white cis women.
There are mistakes of the past with every movement, so, the new generation build on it, make it better. They learn from the original Riot Grrrls. They evolve through modern Riot Grrrl bands like Pussy Riot and The Regrettes.
Regardless of how the Riot Grrrl movement has continued and regardless of if you see yourself as “punk”, we can learn from them.
Grrrls put an emphasis on DIY clothing and making things yourself by reusing old clothes. Now more than ever, with the environmental crisis, we need attitudes of sustainability.
We can learn from them pushing against societies' expectations and how they fought misogyny, transphobia, racism, and homophobia by existing.
The issues that Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear shouted and sang about haven’t gone - we still have feminine bodies policed and sexualised. People still can’t wear the clothes they want and can’t love who they want.
So, we do what they did. We stand up, and we shout.