Mention the term “riot grrrl” and you’ll probably get a lot of different responses. ‘Zines, Doc Martens, punk bands, feminism, baby barrettes, Kathleen Hanna, and writing “slut” on one’s stomach are just a few words that may come to mind. But to write a history of the riot grrrl movement and how it shaped a generation is one hell of an intimidating task. Thankfully, writer Sara Marcus has the ovaries to do just that in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s young women and girls were sick and tired of the sexism they found in their beloved punk music scene. Girls were to be seen, not heard. They were also furious about a country that seemed to be eroding the rights their feminist foremothers fought for. But instead of withdrawing, these brave women and girls decided to fight back through music, activism, ‘zines and support groups. And they called themselves riot grrrls.
In Girls to the Front, Marcus writes how the riot grrrl movement got its start in the Pacific Northwest and the Washington, DC area and soon grew throughout the country uniting like-minded girls (and some guys, too). Some of them of these riot grrrls became well-known names and were considered the leaders of the riot grrrl movement.
But many were just young girls who finally found something they could believe in, themselves.
Marcus doesn’t solely focus on riot grrls as a whole movement; she focuses mostly on the grrrls themselves the most famous probably being Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail and Erin Smith. She describes in vivid detail how a lot of young women formed their own bands and many produced their own zines. And there were riot grrrl meetings where budding young feminists discussed abusive families, rape and the sexism they dealt with on a daily basis, often for the very first time.
Though the riot grrrl movement turned out to be a positive thing for most involved, it did have its share of problems, and Marcus isn’t afraid to discuss them. The riot grrrl movement was often looked upon as too white and middle-class. The sexism the bands had to deal with at shows was beyond appalling. When the mainstream press finally decided to examine the riot grrrl movement, it simplified it to a bunch of silly girls in vintage frocks and Doc Martens, writing slogans on their bellies and boobs.
But most disheartening was the infighting among the women in the riot grrrl movement. I must admit I cringed when Marcus described how Bratmobile broke up at a gig while playing on stage. And sadly, by the mid -1990s the riot grrrl movement as it was known splintered and imploded.
However, in a follow-up, Marcus tells us what the women profiled in the book are doing with their lives. Some continue to play music. Some are professors, writers and artists. Many are activists. As short-lived as the riot grrrl movement may have been, it turned out to have a long lasting effect on countless women.
Girls to the Front is tirelessly researched, empathetic to its core and brutally honest. At times it can be a daunting read, but it’s also empowering and enlightening whether you were a riot grrrl or not.