The XX Factor

Book of the Week: Girls to the Front

The Riot Grrrl movement was born in Olympia, Wash., at Evergreen State University, where Kathleen Hanna, a student with a growing feminist awareness and an internship at a domestic violence shelter, and Tobi Vail, a punk drummer who wrote a feminist fanzine called Jigsaw (and also dated a not-yet-famous Kurt Cobain) decided to start playing music together. The band that emerged from this partnership was called Bikini Kill, and its explicit, angry, girl-power songs set the standard for a slew of punk girl bands to come. As Bikini Kill toured the country, under the ambiguous slogan “Revolution Girl Style Now,” they began to dream of hatching a national feminist revolution. The revolution’s specific goals were not particularly well-defined. Creating space for girls at the front of rock shows, where an angry mosh pit of boys had long held sway, was part of it. Raising awareness about domestic abuse was a loftier part of it. Mostly, though, it seemed to be about getting young girls to recognize the ways in which they were oppressed, and to unite and mutually empower each other in sisterhood. During the summer of 1991, when Bikini Kill had temporarily settled in D.C. alongside members of another new girl punk band, Bratmobile, these vague ambitions finally coalesced into an actual movement, Riot Grrrl, which spurred an eponymously named ‘zine. As Sara Marcus points out in her new book, Girls to the Front , that “title created its audience of girls by naming them, radicalized them by addressing them as already radical.” The second edition of Riot Grrrl included a call to arms: “We don’t know all that many angry grrrls, although we know you are out there”-and the third announced a meeting time and place.

That is the jumping -off point for Marcus’ book, which tells the story of the Riot Grrrl movement, from its birth, that summer of 1991, to its slow fizzle in the mid-’90s. Despite Riot Grrl’s brief lifetime, chronicling its existence is a challenging task, because the movement meant-and continues to mean-so many things to so many different people:  It meant that girl bands could challenge the all-male order of ‘80s punk, or that girls could publish ‘zines to air their grievances about the sexism they encountered every day, or hold meetings that took the form of group therapy for women who had been physically or sexually abused. Riot Grrrl was a specific style-part grunge, part punk, part hippie-even as it called itself anti-style. Riot Grrrl refused to define itself, because doing so would limit its own possibilities. That refusal to impose any sort of order on itself, in the end, doomed the movement. That, and the fact that so many of the angry Riot Grrrls grew up.

Marcus asserts in the author’s note that the Riot Grrrl movement has been downplayed because “people didn’t know how to treat the lives of teenage girls as if they mattered.” Marcus-who attended Riot Grrrrl DC meetings herself as a teenager-has a view of the movement that is often overly compassionate, overly insider, too personal. I would have appreciated a more critical eye on the Riot Grrrls, as well as some perspective on how the movement was regarded by other, older feminists. But still, Marcus does an engaging job of turning so many dispersed and disorganized fragments into a compelling story. And Girls to the Front is not only a history of a fleeting cultural movement. It’s also a fascinating portrait of viral youth culture-a world of tapes and  ‘zines, fliers and letters, analog relics that our overly digitized world has already, 20 years later, begun to fetishize-in the last moments before the Internet started to change everything.