Content warning: This article contains a mention of rape culture and misogyny, which may be triggering for some readers.
We have always been angry.
Ancient Greeks believed that psychological issues manifested in the female brain due to a “wandering womb” —an affliction wherein the uterus floated freely around the body, its pressure on other organs causing anger, depression, lust, and other fearsome emotions. From the Middle Ages to the Victorian era, “hysterical” women were thought to be suffering from demonic possession or sexual depravement; both phenomena were equally terrifying. While female hysteria diagnoses sharply declined in the early 20th century (Freud was good for one thing, at least), the idea persisted under many different names. Just look at the American housewives who underwent electroshock therapy — how could they have been unhappy with their perfect lives?
Now imagine a woman who lets her anger consume her. Although they’ve been written as synonymous for much of human history, anger is not madness or hysteria. She’s not crazy, she’s just had enough.
This is perhaps the central thesis of the riot grrrl philosophy: that women are angry and that we command you to hear us. Whether it’s anger at external forces—corrupt government, rape culture, the deep-rooted misogyny of just about every music scene—or even at the way your brain seems to be working against you, you deserve to be heard and understood.
The riot grrrl subculture, which harnessed and intertwined punk rock and feminist histories, caught fire in the summer of 1991. Springing from the massively successful DIY hotbeds of Olympia, Washington, and Washington D.C., it was a movement of unprecedented popularity and mass media coverage that offered a genuinely revolutionary lifestyle for many young women. Riot grrrl-ism rejected society’s ignorance, and mockery of everything adolescent girls did, said, or felt. It promoted the importance of solidarity among women and fiercely interrogated the blatantly sexist attitudes prevalent in the indie music scene. Riot grrrls organized political protests, created and published free zines and literature, and made music, unlike anything America had ever heard.
Courtney Love, the notorious lead singer of Hole (and arguably the face of riot grrrl, regardless of whether or not she hates the title), once said she wanted “every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming.” Certainly, while every riot grrrl band had their own unique sound, they were tethered together by the raw, almost primal, sound of their voices. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill announced that her body was a source of pain; Sleater-Kinney snarled about society trying to “socialize, purify, sterilize” young girls. Kat Bjelland, the frontwoman of Babes in Toyland, was famous for speaking in tongues onstage, no word in English good enough to express the depth of her rage.
Riot grrrls never shied away from taboo topics, covering everything from sexual violence to queer love to anarchism in their frank, uncompromising lyrics. Rising to a fevered wail above corrosive guitars and heart-shaking drums, their words often have a stream-of-consciousness or diaristic feel. These women had desires, and perhaps they were embarrassing, but they sang about them anyway. It was a new avenue for this kind of female self-expression, especially juxtaposed with the attitudes of female singers of the 1980s, who often seemed either completely needless or too melodramatic.
It’s important to note that although riot grrrls largely preached about unity and acceptance, the movement was far from perfect. Though any girl could be a riot grrrl, it was white, middle-class women who achieved icon status in the movement. While their politics were theoretically inclusive, they unconsciously catered to white audiences and experiences, thus alienating women and girls of colour. Moreover, several high-profile riot grrrls gladly performed at the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, militant in its exclusion of trans women. Courtney Love, Miss World herself, is a truly awful person, and I do not doubt that every single riot grrrl band is problematic in one way or another.
I’ve always felt a bit scornful of the “separating the art from the artist” idea—I usually hear it in the context of my dad explaining why he still watches Woody Allen movies or some boring man excusing his favourite rapper for being homophobic and abusive. I think that the vile behaviour of an artist often does inform their art, in ways I can’t pretend not to see. My enjoyment of Picasso’s paintings or Inglourious Basterds is certainly tainted with the knowledge that their creators are terrible people, so why don’t I feel the same way about riot grrrl?
Maybe it hits too close to home. Maybe I can’t relate to a stupid Woody Allen movie, but the unfiltered emotion in these women’s voices cuts me deep and precise. I can’t love riot grrrl without acknowledging its myriad flaws, but I can be grateful for the catharsis it’s personally brought me. I think every girl has that rage within her, or at least the capacity for it—a white-hot fury, buried deep but always burning. Riot grrrl spits at the label of “female hysteria;” it takes my anger and makes it real, makes it something worth singing about.
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