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The Herstory of the Riot Grrrl Movement

“Because I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”

-Riot Grrrl Manifesto


The Riot Grrrl movement emerged in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C. and Olympia, Washington as a response to the ongoing sexism, violence and gender exclusivity of the underground hardcore/punk scene of the time. The often violent and destructive nature of the punk music scene in the mid/late 80s was fueled by misogyny and made little room for women to participate. The Seattle/Olympia culture cultivated a very DIY ethos towards art, music and literature. DIY fanzines, pamphlets, fashion and punk bands were all formed around this established yet growing subculture. It became the perfect outlet, especially for young women to creatively express themselves and their political and social frustrations. The creative expression of frustration and demand for inclusivity developed into a full movement paralleled the renowned Seattle grunge scene that defined the early 90s, impacted modern feminism and punk music. 

The term “riot grrrl” comes from the growing conversation young women were beginning to have concerning their personal experiences of violence, sexual abuse, feminism and general sentiments towards society. The etymology of “riot grrrl” stemmed from phrases such as “riot girl” and “angry grrrl” that were used in fanzines before “Riot Grrrl” became the official term for one particular fanzine and consequently an entire movement. Jen Smith, Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of the band Bratmobile alongside Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail (who would later form the band Bikini Kill) decided to form their own fanzine called Riot Grrrl, ( the triple ‘r’ was to take back the passive and derogatory use of the word ‘girl’). 

  Riot Grrrl hosted local meetings and gatherings for girls to share and communicate ideas and their frustrations as well as show support for local artists and bands. These meetings and gatherings later turned into mass conventions and eventually spread worldwide. The first Riot Grrrl event was a benefit concert with an all-female lineup of bands including Bikini Kill, L7, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. 

The purpose of Riot Grrrl was to reclaim girlhood and the female identity. Riot Grrrl encouraged women to unapologetically create their own space and espouse their values and ideas. The movement celebrated and rallied behind normalizing female anger and often raised awareness to certain topics including reproductive rights, violence against women and body image issues. Kathleen Hanna has always been outspoken about how her own personal experiences with sexual abuse and assault and the experiences of her peers being the driving forces behind her music. During Bikini Kill’s shows, Hanna was notorious for calling all girls in the crowd to the front towards the stage and telling all the guys to move to the back of the venue. Hanna would do this not only to ensure the safety of the female show-goers but to ensure the safety of the band on stage as well. This was powerful and resonated with the punk music scene. 

Unfortunately, Riot Grrrl was heavily misunderstood. The female artists were far too often targets of hate. They received threats, were mocked relentlessly and dealt with violent attacks during their shows. The media portrayed the female Riot Grrrl artists as man-hating feminists and many other terrible labels. Even when mainstream media was more “forgiving” articles would focus on the artists’ appearances and not the political/social issues they were advocating for. However, despite the controversy surrounding Riot Grrrl, the movement and the music influenced much of the popular punk/grunge scene that Seattle became known for. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana spoke about how he was heavily informed by feminist-punk music in Olympia (fun fact: it was actually Kathleen Hanna who was behind the name of Nirvana’s hit song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which propelled Nirvana to the top of the charts and put Seattle on the map for mainstream music). 

Although Riot Grrrl was at times divided and not constantly collective unit, its foundation was the united effort to reclaim female identity and give young women a voice in what was to them a very male-dominated subculture and patriarchal society. Riot Grrrl became apart of the lineage of female artists in alternative music, influenced by female musicians who played roles in shaping punk rock such as Joan Jett. Incredible musicians and activists who are products of Riot Grrrl remain relevant to alternative/punk music as well as active advocates for women’s social issues that continue today. So even if alternative or punk music isn’t quite your style, I hope you find and embrace your inner Riot Grrrl. 

Zoë Skvarka is a senior MDS major at WVU. Zoë grew up living overseas, going back and forth between Turkey and Greece. Zoë is passionate about activism, fashion, alternative pop culture and art in all of its forms.