There is a list kept on the wall of the second-floor women’s restroom in Evergreen College’s library. A list of dangerous men who frequent Olympia’s punk shows, who drop little pills into the glasses of young girls just looking to listen to good music on a Friday night. The punk scene, and the music scene in general, has never been a safe space for women.
Riot Grrrl was born in a cold room in 1991 when a group of Olympia students decided that it was time to make a change. From this meeting spread the urge to be unapologetically feminine, the urge to create a space safe for women to be able to go out late at night and listen to music about themselves and the things they were going through.
Frontrunners of the Riot Grrrl movement are bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, and too many more to list, writing autobiographical songs about entering womanhood, sexual liberation, heartbreak, and more. The first Riot Grrrl shows created just what they were hoping to, a safe space for women to express themselves and mosh as they please. Bikini Kill’s lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, could be heard yelling “Girls to the front,” whenever the shows got too crowded, because of the violence that the few male patrons tended to bring with them. In an interview printed in a fanzine at the time, bassist Kathi Wilcox is quoted as saying “We [Bikini Kill] do encourage girls to the front, and sometimes when shows have gotten really violent we had to ask boys to move to the side of the back because it was just too f***ing scary for us, after several attacks and threats, to face another sea of hostile boy-faces right in the front.” In an act of reclamation, it was quite common for performers to write obscenities that were usually directed towards women across their bodies in protest.
A scene dedicated to women sounds great in theory, but in reality, it only extended its protection to a specific type of woman. As long as you were a white, cisgender, middle-class woman, you were safe; you could enjoy the music you wanted to and have fun without the fear of being in danger. For anyone that didn't fit these specifications, it didn't work. In her article Why I was Never a Riot Grrrl, Laina Dawes says, “I realized why I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn’t for me. It was for white women.” She goes on to say that as a Black woman, she was more fearful of being assaulted at shows because of her race, not her gender. This seems to be the same for many women of color who, as stated by Mimi Thi Nguyen in her article Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival, “wondered out loud for whom writing ‘SLUT' across their stomachs operated as reclamations of sexual agency against feminine passivity” because “racisms had already inscribed such terms onto some bodies.”
There was never any true recognition within the original Riot Grrrl scene about how the intersectionalities of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation come into play within the music scene. It was as if the founding women had decided that Riot Grrrl was only for women exactly like them, no exceptions. This unintentional exclusion created tense relationships between bands of white women and those of non-white women, which then further deepened the divide. “I distinctly remember the white women within the punk scene were capable of being just as exclusionary and bigoted as the men were,” says Laina Dawes. “Among the white women I knew who identified as feminists, there was a strong sense that there was little to no concern as to how ethnicity made my experiences as a woman different than theirs.”
This divide is what brought on the development of the Sista Grrrl Riots, a collection of shows thrown for the enjoyment of Black and non-white women who felt as if they had no place in the Riot Grrrl scene. Founded by Tamar-Kali Brown and Honeychild Coleman, two Black women and hardcore musicians, Sista Grrrl Riots brought together a counterculture of bands like Trash Kit, Big Joanie, The Skins, The Tuts, and Queen Crescent.
“I have to survive. I have to defend myself,” Brown said in an interview with Vice Magazine, “Riot Grrrl felt really playful, and I wasn't playing. I got what Riot Grrrl was about. I didn't think it was exclusive, but it didn't feel inclusive to me. I didn't see myself or my story, and so that's why Sista Grrrl came about later on--out of other women of color that I knew who were punk rock and navigated that scene and had similar feelings about it. Sista Grrrl was my response to Riot Grrrl because it just felt super white."
As Riot Grrrl moved more into the spotlight, it became less accessible to its original followers. Bikini Kill’s shows began selling out quickly, bands began breaking up, and the overall need for space separate from men slowly dwindled. It soon became a thing of nostalgia, maybe you could snag a ticket to a reunion tour here or there, but it was no longer a matter of showing up to a venue on a Friday night.
For about a decade now, there have been whispers of a Riot Grrrl revival. If you are someone well versed in the underground music scene, you would be witnessing it. Bands like Girl Friday, Dream Wife, The Coathangers, BEARAXE, The Regrettes, Margaritas Podridas, and even The Linda Lindas (whose song “Racist Sexist Boy” went viral, putting them straight into the spotlight) have been working to reinvent and redevelop these Riot Grrrl beliefs. Because of its modern spin, this new generation of Riot Grrrl feels more accessible to all, no matter your race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It has now become what it originally intended: A place for all who feel unsafe in the mainstream, cis, and heteronormative white man’s music industry.