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Riot Grrrl: A 20 Year Retrospective By Petra Davis
Petra Davis , January 28th, 2013 04:54

Petra Davis looks back across two decades at the liberating musical and political movement and assesses what its legacy is today

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In the spring of 1993, 20 years ago, Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill toured the UK to promote the release of their split album Our Troubled Youth/ Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (Kill Rock Stars/ Catcall Records 1993). Already heralded by a wave of pieces in the music and mainstream press, the riot grrrl movement had emerged into popular culture as a strident call to women and girls to break their silence on sexism and misogynist violence through zine writing, performance, consciousness-raising and political activism. A couple of weeks before the tour began, Huggy Bear had made an appearance on Channel 4's infamous late-night show The Word, offering 3m 22s of situationist abandon in the form of third single 'Her Jazz' and later angrily detourning a show segment about pneumatic models Shane and Sia Barbi, better known as the Barbie Twins. When the moment of disruption ended with the band and friends being violently ejected from the studio and the carefully mediated pseudo-chaos of late-night programming resumed, my little group of friends, watching our tiny TV in the kitchen, found ourselves inexplicably on our feet.

...there's a sense of urgency in the air right now it's been growing for some time like we're all starting to get it i mean REALLY GET IT things are burning collapsing we are watching rome fall...
Fix Me zine, Joanna Burgess & Erika Reinstein, 1992

Hello Petra,
My name's LUCY and I'm 13. I am a RIOT GRRRL because I believe punk girls can should change the world for real!

Excerpt from BM Nancee letter, 1993

The UK tabloid press reacted with predictable derision to this emergence of the Real into mainstream discourse. Though Huggy Bear had long attracted the interest of the music weeklies, this was national attention on an unprecedented scale. Many dates on the tour attracted audiences far outside the imaginable demographic of a radical feminist punk rock/queercore soul hybrid. The tour is best memorialised by the excellent short film, It Changed My Life, by Lucy Thane.

Bikini Kill in the U.K. 1993 from Lucy Thane on Vimeo.

Thane's documentary approach captures the excitement generated among young women hungry for feminist self-expression and a way into a punk/hardcore scene too long dominated by moshpit violence and sneering exclusivity. The film also hints at something of the atmosphere of violence that surrounded the tour following the tabloid press interest in Huggy Bear. After similarly inept coverage in the US by Newsweek and USA Today, Bikini Kill had become used to verbal and even physical sparring with men in the audience who resented their unapologetic grrrl-centricity, and many US riot grrrl chapters had a policy of media blackout for that reason.

Bikini Kill's US shows were subject to frequent misogynist heckling and threats, and band members engaged their audience directly in the task of tackling any violence, asking cadres of girls to point out and eject abusers in the audience, or guard the band and van during loadout to prevent further confrontation. 'Girls to the front' meant more than a view of the band, or even a joyful reclamation of the moshpit for safer self-expression; it was a political strategy aimed at subverting the oppressive gender dynamic of punk shows, and a security policy for managing the violence that often resulted. The girls at the front were riot grrrl's S1Ws, a response to colonised space and an open challenge to privilege (riot grrrl has often been criticised for its appropriation of critical race theory and the overwhelming whiteness of the movement, perhaps never quite so aptly).

The tour's most rapturous dates were in Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, where Ablaze! zine had most effectively prepared the way. Karren Ablaze, its editor, published an editorial in 1990 written by Terry Bloomfield entitled 'New Voices, New Guitars', arguing for punk as a feminine form of expression. Issue 10 featured Huggy Bear on the cover and Ablaze's own Grrrlspeak Manifesto for Girl Power International. "Girl Power intends to destroy the whole 'civilized' world, with all those dominant cultures based on corrupt, damaging gender roles - and replace it with something far better," she wrote. "The transformation: through catalytic noise-sounds and inflammatory literature, previously 'impossible' possibilities are unleashed. After a period of extreme energization a vision of the necessity and practicality of removing oppression in every sphere becomes apparent."

"For me it was a political movement," says Ablaze of her work at the time. "Feminist ideology was foremost; whatever kind of creativity or action that inspired was secondary. Personally I was reading radical feminists like Daly and Solanas; I understand that bell hooks was a big influence on the first riot grrrls.

"The key element for me was that girls could get together and change things. I put on the [Huggy Bear/Bikini Kill] show in Leeds and the venue, the Duchess of York, filled beyond capacity with more people trying to get in. Myself and other riot grrrls were overwhelmed by the numbers, particularly of girls in the audience, and several of us clambered onstage between bands to grab the mic… both bands had a great deal of power, they were on a mission. Huggy Bear live was like a hurricane, and explosion of energy and anger. Bikini Kill had a clear message to deliver, they wanted to empower all the girls in the room."

(Bikini Kill zine, issue #2)

The origins of riot grrrl are contested, its lineage blurry. For some, it's adequate to say that the movement coalesced around the appearance of a handful of feminist punk bands (Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy) and zines (Jigsaw, Girl Germs) around Olympia and Washington, D.C. in 1990-91, and the simultaneous, though less notorious early UK riot grrrl scene in the form of Lungleg, Skinned Teen, Huggy Bear, and the Girlfrenzy and Ablaze! zines. Others point to a feminist musical continuum stretching back through Mecca Normal and the Runaways to the Shaggs in the US, or argue for UK riot grrrl as an offshoot of the joyfully shambolic C86 scene of the 80s. This riot grrrl YouTube playlist, guest-edited by Leesifer Frances of Riots Not Diets, gives a sense of the breadth of the form.

Photograph courtesy of Larrybob

But riot grrrl was far more than a musical movement: its project was to radicalise a generation of girls into direct action against sexism and misogyny, and to form a new slew of women artists, performers and writers who would drive sex-positive first-person feminist expression into the grassroots of everywhere. The by-now international Ladyfest tradition continues to place women's creativity at the centre of feminist organising, but it's the political provenance of riot grrrl that reveals its true legacy. DIY is a strategy, not just a sound, and riot grrrl's impact has spread far beyond music culture. Though Girls Rock Camp is an honourable estate, and women's representation in music still a thoroughly defensible goal, it is in the more explicitly political current feminist movements - Slutwalk, Pussy Riot, the prefigurative feminism of Occupy - that riot grrrl's defiant mix of performance, direct action, and belief in the power of first-person experience to unite and liberate women and girls, echoes most strongly.

Young women at the New York City Slutwalk, 2011

I’m marching because my body is MINE and I can wear what ever I chose to. I’m marching for all those girls in abusive relationships that never leave and never call it rape and never report it. I’m marching for all those ignorant men out there who blame women for men’s vile actions. We blame ourselves anyway. We judge ourselves and chastise ourselves and hurt ourselves. Every day I am angry. Even in my dreams I am livid.
'Why I Am Marching,' Slutwalk London participant, 2012

(Jigsaw zine, issue #3, 1991)

Riot grrrl emerged in 1991 from the gender politics of the Bush administration, the Washington D.C. race riots and the Clarence Thomas hearings; it represented a widespread re-engagement with feminism as a survival strategy at a time of political peril for women, girls and other queer genders. Just so now, populist forms of feminist resistance are sorely needed here, as the UK reels through the coalition's madcap programme of upwards redistribution. Austerity measures are aimed squarely at women and girls; our reproductive rights are once more under threat; domestic violence has risen by 19% over the past three years; around 2/3 of women in the UK have experienced mental health issues. Trans people and other gender minorities, whose liberation is intimately linked to any feminist project, are also facing similarly epidemic levels of mental illness linked to their experiences of discrimination and abuse. 2012 saw bruising public debate over rape culture and sexual violence in the form of the press furore over Julian Assange and Jimmy Savile.

Folded into these phenomena are the differences between us: between women in the global north and south; between cis women and trans* feminine spectrum people; between white women and women of colour; between disabled and non-disabled women. The movement materialising at this crucial political moment draws heavily from riot grrrl's populism and performative strategy, but is aware of its legacy, its shortcomings and failures - its whiteness, its insularity, its failure to engage practically with queer and post-colonial feminisms - as well as its strengths. These new feminisms must dare to demand justice and liberation for all women, whatever our complex identities and experiences; not only to resist psychic death but to disrupt all oppressive systems. With this as its project, the Revolution Grrrl Style Now may finally have found its horizon.

Karen Ablaze is the author of The City Is Ablaze! The Story Of A Post Punk Pop Zine published by Mittens On

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Jan 28, 2013 4:47pm

So the response to colonized space is to colonize it? And in other news, an eye for an eye gives everyone super sight.

As for slutwalk, it needs to A) acknowledge evolutionary biology and male sexuality, and B) that people have the right to make moral judgements upon another's behavior. Which isn't to say that women bring rape upon themselves, but if a man sees a woman dressed like a prostitute - there's a reason they dress as they do - he's going to make assumptions about her based on the visual cues she is sending out. Dressing in a manner that suggests promiscuity and then being upset about people thinking that is akin to wearing a CCCP t-shirt and then being pissed that people think you're a Communist.

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John Doran
Jan 28, 2013 5:00pm

"Which isn't to say that women bring rape upon themselves" - No, this is exactly what you're suggesting.

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Jan 28, 2013 5:23pm

In reply to Steve:

Evolutionary biology teaches us that the glory of our species is the human brain, a realtime decision-making machine more complex than any other structure in the known universe - and the reason we, unlike other animals, can resist and even overwrite our instincts.

It offers no excuses for actions. Admittedly, yr thoughts are yr own business. But they're pretty grim.

Also: "dressing in a manner that suggests promiscuity" is culturally relativistic in the extreme, which seems a problematic fit if you're invoking caveman logic.

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Jan 28, 2013 5:39pm

In reply to kicking_k:

Also - now that I think about it, surely THE WHOLE POINT of Slutwalk is precisely to challenge what exactly "dressing in a manner that suggests promiscuity" IS - and who gets to define that.

PS: I should have said "...more than any other animal".

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John Doran
Jan 28, 2013 6:03pm

In reply to Steve:

I know what you're saying about the way people dress however. I came in from work just now to find my 21 month old son dressed like Batman. I immediately broke down crying and confessed several minor narcotics transgressions to him and offered to go quietly with him to the nearest police station, until he took off his hood and I realised my grave error.

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Jan 28, 2013 6:11pm

Good article, my outsider view of riot grrrl was that it was women trying to be men, whereas this 2000s era of boring hipster irony has the men trying to be women.

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John Doran
Jan 28, 2013 6:29pm

In reply to Dan:

The most depressing thing about this comment is the fact I don't even think it's trolling, merely stupidity.

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Jan 28, 2013 7:57pm

I remember Tattle Tale being particularly powerful back then. That KRS cassette was amazing.

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Jan 28, 2013 8:00pm

I see the logic here:

"You are dressed as a prostitute, therefore I am given leave to violently seize the goods placed on sale without compensating you. Now I am hungry and must assault a grocer."

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Jan 28, 2013 8:35pm

In reply to Steve:

Steve I have no problem with him making assumptions - "he's going to make assumptions about her based on the visual cues she is sending out" - lord knows everybody does, but his ignorance (what's the old saying about 'never assume') isn't the fault of the gal dressed as she is. In my many wonderfully happy years as a single man and also taking into account the many female friends I've had (and still do have) it's often the conservatively dressed gals who look like a librarian who were the most sexually 'hungry' (for lack of a better word) and/or sexually active. I'm not sure that means I should be chatting up the gal behind counter at my downtown library 'cos I'm making assumptions about some of my past experiences.

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Jan 28, 2013 8:46pm

Thanks for the article Ms. Davis - a good friend of mine was pretty tight with the gals from Bikini Kill (back in the day) and it's been fun to hear bits and pieces of stories - the gals sounded damn cool.

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keith serle
Jan 28, 2013 11:44pm

I know this sounds corny but I can't believe all that happened 20 years ago.

Had never seen that Lucy Thane film, which was really well put together and great idea to film in the toilets to keep blokes from trying to hog the camera. I recognise everyone filmed in the toilets at that Glasgow gig. As a guy I think its quite hard for me to access how much the movement impacted on how girls felt about their space / place within music and society. I do remember a lot of excitement and an increase in girls in bands but to be honest there had always been quite a strong female presence in the Scottish scene.

I think, in Scotland at least, part of the joy of this movement was because it was seen as a way for the local music scene to become local again after the mass invasion of previously sparsely populated clubs and gig venues when the whole grunge thing happened. By this I mean the wee indie clubs had suddenly gone from being a fairly gender / sexuality liberated safe space to being massive clubs with gangs of lads moshing around the pit. The arrival of BritPop 2 years later ended any revival of that safe space Riot Grrrl had maybe ushered in.By then I was approaching 30 and preferred dance music so maybe lost touch with reality in more ways than one so don't really know what happened,however by the looks of things like slutwalk and the on-going argument over women being taught how to avoid rape rather than more emphasis on teaching men that rape is intolerable, things haven't really improved.

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Jan 29, 2013 3:55am

can you use yr magick powers and find out WHERE IN THE WORLD Huggy Bear's CHRIS ROWLEY IS?

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Jan 29, 2013 4:15pm

In reply to Detroit:

Where are any of Huggy Bear, for that matter? every fucker from the '90s seems to be bubbling back up but there's no trace of them anywhere. Which is fitting, and right, because they were always determined to be absent from the media but watching that clip of Her Jazz at about 10:45 on the Lucy Thane video reminded me exactly why they're still the best live band I ever saw in my life. And as with all the other Riot Grrl anniversary stuff, the voice I really want to hear again is Jo's; she was always the best talker in the whole movement.

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John Doran
Jan 29, 2013 6:34pm

In reply to jim5et:

I run into Jon Slade all the time. Beautiful man. Still hanging in Brighton and occasionally playing with Comet Gain as far as I know. He's just putting his long running Born Bad night to bed, so I guess he'll have something else up his (fine vintage) sleeve.

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Jan 30, 2013 12:11am

In reply to Detroit:

that Element of Crime single was amazing. remember that one?

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Feb 4, 2013 4:40pm

In reply to Steve:

"...people have the right to make moral judgements upon another's behavior." no, steve, they do not have that right.

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Feb 24, 2013 3:52pm

" Which isn't to say that women bring rape upon themselves, but if a man sees a woman dressed like a prostitute "

" Dressing in a manner that suggests promiscuity and then being upset about people thinking that "

Consent is still part of promiscuity.

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Mar 1, 2013 3:53pm

i'd love to say riot grrrl changed the world but since i received death threats for challenging the mysoginy of another artist and since my friends defended him saying that women deserved to be raped because they treated men badly i'd have to say that we're back at square one.

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Mar 1, 2013 3:54pm

In reply to Steve:

which is basically saying 'if a woman dresses like a slut i'll rape her and she's to blame'


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rob jessup
Mar 8, 2013 8:15am

In reply to Steve:

You animal Steve. Steve slut walk is a protest movement - it protests upon behalf of vulnerable women who havent received protection and justice from the courts and have often been made to feel as though it was their fault - only an animal would suggest and uphold " She was asking for it " you trog - just google slut walk london and watch the video on their tumblr site and then have a think after you have watched the survivors recollections

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Apr 8, 2013 8:12am

To everybody who thinks girls who wear few clothes are asking for rape here is another was of looking a this problem; I am biologically driven to like and want the shoes, every time I try on a pair I get a terrible urge to run as fast as I can and have hem when I have not worked for to buy them. If that was true you wold say I deserved to go to court and have some sort of punishment, you may blame a bad upbringing or think I was a weak person. Let's turn shoes into women.

You see a stunning woman wring very little at a club, she dancing sexily. I touch her without earning that right, or even talking to her. If I steel those shoes the shoes don't care, they are an object. Isn't touching a woman without earning the right to worse? That woman may be upset, hurt and violated, steel shoes and a shop has lost some profits. I would be massively insulted if I was told I walked around going by every biological drive I have, men should be too. So that's what the slutwalks we're about, telling men just because they can see the goods doesn't mean they can take them for free. Another point, I'm on the beach with my kids on a hot day, I'm single so I don't have a husband/man with me. I am wearing less than at club, I'm enjoying the sunshine not out for sex Thanks to magazines everywhere wearing a bikini means I'm up for sex, I'm not. The fat that women's bodies look up for sale like a car doesn't help matters.

Think about it boys, make the world a little dangerous and don't take things you don't deserve.

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