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Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from within
Author(s): Jessica Rosenberg and Gitana Garofalo
Source: Signs, Vol. 23, No. 3, Feminisms and Youth Cultures (Spring, 1998), pp. 809-841
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3175311
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Jessica Rosenberg
Gitana Garofalo
Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from Within
Everybody has girls, every country has girls,
every group in the world has girls as a part of it.
– Lailah, age 16, Brooklyn, New York
ery few self-proclaimed Riot Grrrlsl would, if asked, like to explain ex-
actly what the term means. Many call it punk rock feminism, even
though Riot Grrrl has moved beyond punk circles. When a group o
girls in Washington, D.C., started Riot Grrrl in the summer of 1991, their
intent was to make girls and women more involved in D.C.s predomi
nantly white, male punk scene, in which girls participated mostly as girl-
friends of the boys.2 In the late 1970s, punk initially had been very profem
inist (the ideals of feminism fit in with punk’s do-it-yourself [DIY] ethic o
self-empowerment and independence from authority), but as it becam
commercialized around 1977, its ideals became assimilated into the main
stream patriarchal belief systems.
The name Riot Grrrl was chosen to reclaim the vitality and power o
youth with an added growl to replace the perceived passivity of “girl’.
was most popular initially in the lively punk scenes of D.C. and Olympi
Washington, where Riot Grrrl had one of its first defining moments.
the summer of 1991, K Records of Olympia held the International Pop
Underground Festival, and the first night was designated Girls’ Night. As
In the spring of 1997, Pennsylvania Riot Grrrl Jessica Rosenberg and Signs Program Assistant Gitana Garofalo convened four conference calls with ten Riot Grrrls from around th
United States to discuss the movement in general and their own experiences in particular.
These discussions, in conjunction with an E-mail survey administered by Rosenberg, reveale
Riot Grrrls’ resistance to hegemonic interpretations of themselves and the Riot Grrrl mov
ment(s). Rosenberg and Garofalo selected and edited excerpts from the conversations an
correspondence. The following forum represents a multifaceted and open-ended exploratio
of Riot Grrrl.
1 Also known as Riot Grrl (or Girl). The name is a feminist reclamation of the wordgir
with a less polite and more assertive political stance. Riot Grrrl/Grrl refers to a very loose
connected group of punk feminists who publish zines and play in bands. The coinage of th
termgmr l is frequently attributed to Kathleen Hanna, a member of the band Bikini Kill.
2 For a more detailed history of Riot Grrrl, see Klein 1997.
[Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1998, vol. 23, no. 3]
? 1998 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/98/2303-0010$02.00
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810 I Rosenberg and Garofalo
the zine Girl Germs noted, “The idea was formulated by several Olympian
who saw an opportunity to demarginalize the role of women in the co
vention and in punk rock.” Led by bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmob
and Heavens to Betsy and zines such as Girl Germs, Jigsaw, and Chainsaw
more bands and more zines came into being and a network of Riot Grrrl
was created, based largely on those zines. Chapters were started across th
country. Girls held conventions where Riot Grrrls met and exchang
zines, bands performed, and workshops were held on topics such as e
ing disorders, rape, abuse, self-mutilation, racism, self-defense, and zine
When Riot Grrrl received press coverage in magazines ranging from
Sassy to Newsweek, the movement grew even further from its punk rock
beginnings. Many girls became acquainted with the movement through
the mainstream media rather than the punk rock underground. Some girls
have felt that the press coverage has distorted the message of Riot Grrrl,
while others have felt it is just another tool to let people know about the
movement. Regardless of how they learned of it, for the girls involved,
Riot Grrrl has changed the way they think and act and how they see themselves in their everyday lives.
Perhaps because it was based on the punk scene, Riot Grrrl is much
angrier than was the second wave of feminism of the 1970s. Riot Grrrls
are loud and, through zines, music, and spoken word, express themselves
honestly and straightforwardly. Riot Grrrl does not shy away from difficult
issues and often addresses painful topics such as rape and abuse. Riot Grrrl
is a call to action, to “Revolution Girl-Style Now.” At a time in their lives
when girls are taught to be silent, Riot Grrrl demands that they scream.
To most girls, Riot Grrrl means a community and emotional support.
Madhu, of Massachusetts, says, “Through Riot Grrrl, we can get with
people with similar problems and interests, and constructively try to
change our world. It’s a community, a family.”3 While other feminist move-
ments have been geared more toward political action, Riot Grrrl, although
remaining staunchly political, also pays attention to the personal and the
everyday. It focuses more on the individual and the emotional than on
marches, legislation, and public policy. This creates a community in which
girls are able to speak about what is bothering them or write about what
happened that day.
The most common means of communication in the Riot Grrrl community is the zine. Across the country and even internationally, girls produce
3 E-mail questionnaire response, April 26, 1997.
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S I G N S Spring 1998 I 811
countless zines. Riot Grrrl sees zine writing and publishing as
method of empowerment; zine production is self-motivated, poli
tivism that a girl can do entirely independently. Zines subvert s
patriarchal mainstream media by critiquing society and the media w
being censored and also give girls a safe place to say what they f
believe. Through ads in other zines, distributors, and word of mouth
have created a network of Riot Grrrls, which Emily White (1992) ca
underground with no Mecca, built of paper.” Lisa, of Olympia, e
“Zines are so important because so many girls feel isolated and don’t
other girls to support them in their beliefs. Zines connect them to
girls who will listen and believe and care if they say they’ve been ra
molested and harassed. Zines provide an outlet for girls to get their
and lives out there and share them with others.”4
More recently, Riot Grrrl has formed a community on the Internet.
Although discussion topics range from racism to music, from zine promo-
tion to company boycotts and legislative politics, girls write most often
about their days – something small that has upset them or something great
that has happened. In that environment, what they create is genuine and
accessible. Because the feminism of Riot Grrrl is self-determined and grassroots, its greatest power is that it gives girls room to decide for themselves
who they are. It provides a viable alternative to the skinny white girls in
Seventeen and TM (Young and Modern) magazines. The fact that the vast
majority of girls involved in Riot Grrrl are white and middle- to upperclass has caused outsiders to deride the movement and some of those in-
volved to dissociate themselves from it. Although there has been much
discussion recently of race as an issue within Riot Grrrl and society in gen-
eral, no one seems to have conceived any viable solution to the racial homogeneity of Riot Grrrl. Most of the problem lies in the fact that Riot
Grrrl travels primarily through punk rock, a very white underground,
zines, and word of mouth, which tend to go from white girl to white girl
because of racial segregation. For many, Riot Grrrl is a community in
which girls can transgress and challenge something they don’t believe in
and still feel comfortable; when girls feel alone because they disagree with
the cultural majority, they have a network of people they can turn to and
rely on. Riot Grrrl empowers girls to become angry and speak and provides a community in which to do so.
-Jessica Rosenberg
4 E-mail questionnaire response, April 27, 1997.
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812 I Rosenberg and Garofalo
A declaration by the band Bikini Kill outlines Riot Grrrl philosophy:
BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak
to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.
BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s
work so that we can share strategies and criticize-applaud each other.
BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to
create our own moanings.
BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriendspolitics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how [what]
we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.
BECAUSE we recognize fantasies of Instant Macho Gun Revolution
as impractical lies meant to keep us simply dreaming instead of be-
coming our dreams AND THUS seek to create revolution in our
own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to
the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things.
BECAUSE we want and need to encourage and be encouraged in
the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that
tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of “authorities” who
say our bands/zines/etc. are the worst in the U.S. and
BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.
BECAUSE we are unwilling to falter under claims that we are reac-
tionary “reverse sexists” AND NOT THE TRUEPUNKROCKSOULCRUSADERS THAT WE KNOW we really are.
BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival
and are patently aware that the punk rock “you can do anything” idea
is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution that seeks to save
the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.
BECAUSE we are interested in creating non-hierarchical ways of
being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on commu-
nication + understanding, instead of competition + good/bad
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S I G N S Spring 1998 I 813
BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that val
and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of
munity that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like ra
able-bodyism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism,
semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.
BECAUSE we see fostering and supporting girl scenes and girl ar
of all kinds as integral to this process.
BECAUSE we hate capitalism in all its forms and see our mai
as sharing information and staying alive, instead of making profi
being cool according to traditional standards.
BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl=D
Girl=Bad, Girl=Weak.
BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid ang
diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexi
witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self-defeating girltype behav
BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls c
tute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the wo
for real.5
Lailah Hanit Bragin
i’m sixteen and am growing up in brooklyn, new york city. i’ve
volved with riot grrrl for about two or three years now. i wanted to
pate in [this discussion] for a couple of reasons. the first is that i t
important that riot grrrl as a movement is documented as a “youth
nism” of the 1990s. riot grrrl has made really significant contribut
the lives of many girls and should be recognized as a valid form of f
and youth resistance. that said, i [also] think that there’s a lot o
and growth that needs to be a part of riot grrrl. [the second r
COMMUNICATION! any opportunity girls have to talk honestl
openly with each other about our experiences and ideas is total
able … i hope reading the conversation will give you something
about and inspire you to continue in your struggle, whatever it ma
5Bikini Kill (Olympia, Wash.), n.d., no. 2.
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814 I Rosenberg and Garofalo
Kim M. Garcia
I cannot say that I’m a Riot Grrrl, because I will not classify or label mys
I identify with many of the beliefs and understandings the Riot Gr
movement presents, but I do not want to be thought of as only involve
with this one movement. I help those that I know need to be helped, an
I do understand what it is to be discriminated against. I am a gay, h
asian and half-chicana girl. I feel I have to face the ignorance of oth
every day of my life, but I am proud of who I am at the age of sixteen
My main interest in participating with this discussion was to somewh
show what the Riot Grrrl movement is supposed to be. Many peo
do not know what the significance of Riot Grrrl is, and society seems t
be publicizing the movement to those that were never exposed to
Jake Greenberg
I’m eighteen. I got the name Jake by scaring away some scary
Israeli discotheque by telling them I was really a man. It w
SUNY Purchase. I play bass and write poetry, songs, and t
short story or play. I got involved in Riot Grrrl through hear
Kill song and really liking it and looking for more music like
got on-line, I found a B.K. [Bikini Kill] bulletin board and
R.G. [Riot Grrrl] board from there and somehow went fr
there were going to be any conventions on the East Coast
helping organize one in Philly a year later. I write for the zin
Jessica Farris
i’ve been involved with riot grrrl or the so-called riot grrrl “scene”
about three or four years now. i published/put out two zines: Ballr
Etiquette and Reject Gene. i also do a self-run distro-type thing of stick
patches, and probably more fun stuff soon, and that’s called Geeke
i was interested in participating in this discussion because i’ve always
felt that it’s important to get the idea of “riot grrrl” out there and not even
necessarily that as much as the idea of “hi, we’re girls and we’re doing cool
things and we’re here. we’re alive.” y’know? gosh i could go on and on. but
to get this out to girls that may have not been subjected to it previously
and maybe make some sort of impact or difference is a major part of partic-
ipating in [a discussion] like this.
Madhu Krishnan
my name is madhu, which is sanskrit for “sweet” and other such w
with sugary connotations. as my name may suggest, i am an india
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S I G N S Spring 1998 I 815
american descent. my parents are both immigrants, who hav
derfully well, by any standards. my ethnic background has add
esting element, as well as conflicts, to the usual teenage rebellio
well as added to the generation gap.
i discovered riot grrrl when i was a little grunge-girl-teen-an
alone kid in junior high, through books i’d been reading and
been listening to. my perception of time is always off, but i th
around 1994. (has it really been that long? time is frightening.)
out as a musical attraction of “hey! i can do this!” and grew fro
i acquired more knowledge of other aspects of riot grrrl, namel
in the form of fanzines. i think the main thing about riot grrr
so attractive is how it made me feel connected with all thes
hundreds of miles away.
feminism was nothing new to me, but riot grrrl was, and sin
interest in it has grown, as have my perceptions of it. i probab
call myself a riot grrrl per se, because i don’t think that you ca
grrrl, although you can be part of the MOVEMENT of riot g
see something like riot grrrl as separate from other struggles a
ments for equality, as to gain equality in one area means it is ne
gain it in all others.
right now i do a few zines. soiledprincess is my own zine that
year ago. it’s about the personal as well as political. kittybrat
friend becca, and about everything imaginable. secret language i
on self abuses. CxVxBxNxMx is my attempt to universalize what
i’m also working on another zine more like soiled princess in sty
has no name, as of now, and have started a fanzine on the
with my friend melissa, which is unnamed and won’t be don
Erin A. McCarley
I am an eighteen-year-old girl who has been involved with riot grrrl since
I was fifteen. I have done numerous zines, including GlamourQueen, Room
Double Zero, Rome Wasn’tBuiltin aDay, and Racecar. I played drums for the
bands Catcall and The Volateens. I’m presently in three bands: I drum for
Lucid Nation and The Makeshift Conspiracy. I also play bass in a
band with four of my guy friends, and I am tentatively planning to do an
acoustic solo project titled Steaknife. I have a record label, Kill Cupid
Lindsay Oxford
Lindsay Oxford was born in 1981 and is a junior in high school. When
not studying, she plays guitar and bass guitar and writes.
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816 I Rosenberg and Garofalo
Jamie E. Rubin
I am sixteen years old and have been involved with Riot Grrrl since I w
thirteen, although at the time I didn’t understand exactly what it was, on
that it was a bunch of girls like myself who were tired of the laws soc
has forced on women for … well, forever. I’ve done a few zines includin
Spitshine, Pressure Points and am now working on a new one titled Kiss
Make Up. The first zine I actually did was called Baby Fat, and I almost
suspended from middle school for passing it around. I’m currently
punk band called Pavlov’s Dogs…. We play shows a lot, including pla
the Philadelphia Riot Grrrl convention last summer…. Last year I l
high school to home school and am currently attending Montgom
County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
Tamra Spivey
I play guitar, bass, and drums and sing in the band Lucid Nation; we ha
a cd: “The Stillness of Over” on my indie label, Brain Floss Records. I ed
or coedit the zines Lucid Nation, Tvi, and Eracism, which are distribute
by Pander and The Way Sassy. Eracism is distributed to gang truce offi
and prisons. Writing from these zines will appear in the book Zine Scene
Hillary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block. I recently had my first one-pers
art show at Luckdragon in Venice, California, consisting mostly of auto
stamp mandalas and free-standing surreal assemblages. I’m a twenty-tw
year-old blue-eyed blond with african american and cherokee ancest
Riot Grrrl goals and politics
Jessica Rosenberg: What do you think Riot Grrrl is?
Jessica E: OK, Riot Grrrl–it’s f …
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