Host and She Shreds Media founder Fabi Reyna introduces us to the movement known as riot grrrl. It started in Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s and it was more than just music – it was zines, feminism and community. Riot grrrl kicked open a door that women had been prying open for decades. But the histories of riot grrrl that have been told before haven’t felt fully representative of BIPOC and queer people. We’re leaning into that gap and listening to people on the margins, people who felt left out, people who insisted on being part of the conversation anyway.
Our theme music is by Ray Aggs.
Special thanks to Jerad Walker, JT Griffith and Casey Parks
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Fabi Reyna: Do you remember the first time you saw live music after the pandemic started? For Kirsten Studly, it was at the Crystal Ballroom – one of the larger music venues in Portland Oregon.
Kirsten Studley: We’re just mega stoked to be doing this and to be able to be here tonight. It’s hard to kind of balance between like the fact that they’re sort of a DIY-level band – at least, that’s how they started. But also the fact that, to me, they feel like royalty. I mean, it’s just, it’s really, really epic to be able to be here.
Reyna: The band she came to see was Bikini Kill.
Studley: I really connected with them when I was going through a really tough time in my life and they really became like, and I’m getting emotional, like an outlet to get me through that time. It was really Impactful to me and I’m very excited to be here. Yeah, I didn’t think this would be possible. They broke up when I was 11 years old, so it’s very, very, very cool to be here today.
Reyna: They originally formed in Olympia, Washington in 1990. And they helped to start a subculture that would see its effects seep into the mainstream and continue today. The movement came to be called riot grrrl. That’s “girl” spelled with no “I” and three Rs. It’s meant to be pronounced with a sort of growl. Bikini Kill might be the most well-known band associated with the movement. But this isn’t a podcast about Bikini Kill. This is about riot grrrl. The whole movement – what it is and what it isn’t. I’m Fabi Reyna, founder of She Shreds Media.
For me, live music is like going to church or ceremony. As a performer, I understand the need to hold space for people to feel like they belong, like things make sense. It’s an energetic exchange between the people on stage and the audience, and for a long time, women — or anyone who wasn’t a cis man — were missing from that equation.
As a teenager, I was convinced that women didn’t really play music. I never saw anyone like me – a brown queer femme guitarist – on the cover of any magazines, or anywhere really. You can probably name most well-known women musicians before the 90′s on two hands: Joan Jett, Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, Heart. Most of them were white and recognized as singers, or singer/songwriters. It was actually rare to see a woman on stage with an instrument.
There were women playing in punk and rock bands before the early nineties, but they weren’t in community with each other. They weren’t a movement. In fact, they were often pitted against each other.
June Millington: It was like we were in a dark cave and there was not even a candle to reflect us back to ourselves, you know, nothing.
Reyna: June Millington and her sister, Jean, started playing music together as kids. This was in the 60s, after they moved to the U.S. from the Philippines. They formed their first band when they were still in high school. June played guitar. Jean played bass. Later on, the Millington sisters and two of their friends formed the band Fanny. Fanny was a really big deal. They were one of the first commercially successful rock bands made up of all women. And you’ve probably never heard of them. In spite of their musical talent, they were originally signed to a major label as a novelty act. That’s what a band made up of four women looked like to white, male record executives in the 70s. And when they got a write-up in the New York Times, the headline was “Fanny, a Four-Girl Rock Group, Poses a Challenge to Male Ego.”
Millington: The guy says, “oh yeah, they’re really good, but what’s it gonna do to the male ego?” Dude, did you have to say that? Did you have to say that? You know, it’s like he had the brakes on the whole time.
Reyna: Millington says that the only thing she felt like her band could do was to prove that women could play music on the same level as guys. And it just couldn’t go much further than that. So when she sees riot grrrl bands and all the women musicians who have come after them, she relishes watching them headline festivals and play to sold out crowds.
Millington: Yeah man, they, they are our revenge (laughs) and it’s not served cold. I’ll tell you that! It is hot. It’s warm. It’s far reaching. It’s gonna punch you in the chest, right where you need it. Yeah. (laughs) And you can quote me on that damnit.
Reyna: Riot grrrl started in the early 90s, twenty years after the New York Times insulted Fanny with that terrible headline. But even then, if you weren’t a cis man, there was no blueprint as to how to be a musician – no community, no shared language, nothing. Riot grrrl changed that.
This is Starting a Riot.
For me, music has always been a tool for self-awareness, expression, and connection. I was born in Mexico, and a few years later moved to the border of Texas: a small town named McAllen where I was gifted my first little toy guitar – the plastic kind that you get at the corner store. I couldn’t really play it but I just wanted to hold it all the time.
It wasn’t until I moved to Austin, Texas at nine years old that I started to actually play the instrument. At 13, I was studying classical guitar. But I wanted to be in a band and feel like I was a part of a crew. At that time, in 2007, even in a big city like Austin, it felt impossible to be taken seriously as a girl who played guitar. And honestly, being told that I couldn’t do something that felt so necessary to my wellbeing was discouraging. I wanted to give up.
Then my mom found an ad for the Rock n Roll Camp For Girls in Portland, Oregon. She drove us 2,053 miles where I found myself in a sort of broken down warehouse in the middle of North Industrial Portland. I had no idea this place would pretty much change my life.
If you’ve never heard of it before, the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls was just what it sounds like – a summer camp that encouraged girls, nonbinary and trans teenagers to play instruments, form bands, write songs and learn together. A big part of that was teaching campers the history of women in rock. At Rock Camp, I heard the riot grrrl band Heavens To Betsy for the first time.
Listening to these songs made me stop and say, “I want to play like that!”
A few years later I got accepted into the California Institute of the Arts for classical guitar … buuut instead I decided to go on a US tour with an all-femme punk band called Sexhair. It was then, at 18 years old, that I became part of a strong community of women, nonbinary, and queer musicians. Throughout the month-long tour across the country, playing basements and staying with people who came to those shows, I found myself repeating the words “she shreds” over and over. I was watching femmes on stage going, “she shreds.” After I got back from that tour, I started the world’s first and only print publication dedicated to women and nonbinary guitarists. I named it She Shreds Magazine.
I’m 31 now and I’ve realized that the history we know is purely dependent on the person who’s telling it. Riot grrrl kicked open a door that women had been prying open for decades. And the history of riot grrrl that I’ve been told just doesn’t feel representative of me, a brown, queer, soft butch femme. I want to explore the history of riot grrrl and really lean into that gap. I want to hear from people on the margins, people who felt left out, people who insisted on being part of the conversation anyway.
Wendy Yao was one of those people.
Wendy Yao: Discovering Riot Girl, I encountered people who were speaking truth about women’s lived experiences that we weren’t supposed to talk about and a feminist point of view, which I hadn’t really been exposed to.
Reyna: Wendy Yao and her sister Amy grew up in LA and found riot grrrl when they were in middle school.
Yao: They were articulating things and giving vocabulary to things that I had always been feeling deep in my gut but never really had the words for and didn’t even know I was allowed to talk about or think about.
Reyna: The sisters and their friend Emily Ryan started a band called Emily’s Sassy Lime. (Which is one of the best band names ever -- it’s a palindrome.) Wendy remembers that they wrote songs and practiced together over the phone.
Yao: We weren’t a band that was actively practicing or had the support or permission to be in a band from our parents. And so we were just making do with what we could. But then there were so many people who were just so accepting of that and really were totally okay with the fact that we were held together by scotch tape for real.
Reyna: That DIY spirit was a core riot grrrl value. For some, this meant forming a band while still learning to play an instrument. To others, it meant writing and stapling together their own zines. (We’ll have a whole episode devoted to zines later.) And part of the power of the movement was the way it changed the traditional relationship between fans and performers. Yao says seeing riot grrrl bands at small, all-ages venues made music feel accessible.
Yao: You’re not like 20 feet away from the band; you’re like right up against them. You can really stare at their fingers and see how they’re playing a bass or the drums or the guitar and just literally study how it’s happening, so then you go home and then you try to do the same thing.
Reyna: They went to see Bikini Kill and other riot grrrl bands that came through LA. And they made personal connections with bands, even opening for them on West coast tours. In order to go on tour, the Yao sisters and their bandmate convinced their parents they were going to math camp, which is pretty amazing if you ask me.
Yao: That was definitely because it was before social media and before GPS or any of those things and even cell phones and we’d go to a pay phone and call them from wherever we were and then say that we were at math camp.
Reyna: Emily’s Sassy Lime recorded onto cassette tapes using lo-fi equipment such as a karaoke machine. Yao remembers being inspired by an idea that Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail articulated in her zine “Jigsaw.” She called it the “impetus of imperfection…”
Yao: …talking about how by exposing all the cracks in the way that you make a record or record or like letting the mistake kind of stay there, it’s letting the people who consume that understand that like they’re all just people making stuff and that you could do it too, and you don’t have to be perfect and you can actually picture the real world circumstances under which people are producing culture instead of this kind of invisible, packaged thing that is only allowed to exist if it has tons of resources behind it and comes out perfect and shiny.
Reyna: All of a sudden, DIY didn’t mean doing things all by yourself. It was more like doing it together. Riot grrrl blurred the lines between music and activism. Coming up after a break, we’ll hear more about the riot grrrl origin story.
Sara Marcus: Riot grrl was a decentralized radical social movement before the internet decentralized everything.
Reyna: Sara Marcus is a writer and a scholar. And she’s the author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.” The title of the book comes from something that bands would shout out at shows. The idea was to try to make space for girls and women who wanted to dance close to the stage without the fear of being slammed into or groped by men. At the time, girls who came to punk shows usually didn’t jump into the mosh pit. They were more likely to stand on the sidelines, holding coats and jackets that belonged to the guys who came to slam dance. Riot grrrl bands set out to make more space for women and girls – both on stage and in the audience.
Marcus: In Olympia, riot grrrls would literally hold hands in a line and charge to the front of the stage at a show. And once they got there they would sort of plant their feet on the ground and hold that space in front of the stage and dance the way they wanted to dance and kind of dare anybody to come and mess with them.
Reyna: In her book, Marcus focuses on the U.S. bands at the center of the decentralized movement known as riot grrrl.
Marcus: You know of course Bikini Kill where, Kathleen Hanna was, I don’t know how she feels, how she would feel about being called the founder of riot grrrl, but you know, she definitely did a lot of the key early writing, a lot of the manifestos, called the first meeting. And so her band Bikini Kill was, at least in the early years, pretty inextricable from the idea of riot grrrl as a phenomenon, as a movement. The second major riot grrrl band is Bratmobile, where again, you know, Molly [Neuman] and Allison [Wolfe] especially were key figures in the riot grrrl scene in Olympia. And then the third is Heavens to Betsy, which is Corin Tucker’s band before Sleater-Kinney, and it’s a duo band – her and her high school best friend, Tracy Sawyer.
Reyna: Members of these three bands met in Olympia, Washington. It’s a small city on the I-5 corridor between Portland and Seattle. Nirvana is probably the most famous band to come out of the Olympia scene. They played shows in the same punk houses as riot grrrl bands. While Nirvana was riding the media-created wave that was “grunge rock” to super-stardom, riot grrrl stayed largely in the underground. They focused on the mission of empowering young women and girls. But the movement quickly expanded outside of the Pacific Northwest. Bikini Kill and Bratmobile spent the summer of 1991 in Washington D.C. It was there that Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna started the first riot grrrl meetings.
Marcus: Weekly meetings also began in Olympia at that point. And over the course of the 4, 5, 6 years that riot grrrl was really in full effect, there were probably meetings in 20 or 30 different cities around the U.S. as well as places in Canada and the UK, even some countries farther afield. All of them involved some element of sharing personal experiences with sexism. In a lot of ways, they were really an updated version of the consciousness raising groups that were the primary theoretical and political engine of, you know, the Women’s Liberation Movement in the U.S. in the late sixties and early seventies. The groups would also often put on concerts, put on art shows, read things and discuss things together, make zines as groups. So it was this combination of generating political theory together, generating political community together and then generating kind of aesthetic expressions of that theory and community out of that.
Reyna: Riot grrrl expanded beyond music. And it was much bigger than just a group of people in Olympia, Washington. It was a new form of expression for young women. And it came at a time that was tense politically.
Anita Hill: My name is Anita F. Hill and I am a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma.
Reyna: In 1991, Anita Hill testified in a public hearing alleging that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her when she worked for him at two different federal agencies.
Hill: After a brief discussion of work, [Clarence Thomas] would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.
Reyna: This was unlike anything anyone had ever heard at a Supreme Court nomination hearing before. It had a profound effect on a lot of people. Allison Wolfe, of the band Bratmobile, was in Washington DC around that time.
Allison Wolfe: I remember in DC that someone had written really big on one of the building walls outside “I believe her,” and I don’t even think they wrote Anita Hill but we just knew, like all women knew. We all knew. That inspired a lot of us I think.
Reyna: Sara Marcus points out that Anita Hill’s testimony in these nationally televised hearings raised awareness about sexual harassment in a new way.
Marcus: And coming out right around the same time are actually some studies showing that to a degree people really had not been aware of before, sexual harassment and sexual assault are affecting girls under the age of 18, that this is not just a workplace, grown women issue, but it’s actually affecting teens and young women as well.
Reyna: This was something that many young women were aware of because it was happening to them and their friends. Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail says riot grrrl made space for girls and women to talk about this stuff.
Tobi Vail: The people that riot grrrl and Bikini Kill appealed to most early on were people who were experiencing sexual abuse and violence at home.
Reyna: Teenage girls were facing another kind of threat as well. A 1992 Supreme Court decision reinforced the legal arguments for requiring parental-consent-or-notification for minors seeking an abortion.
Newscaster 1: In summing up today’s decision, Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe decision, wrote, “Now, just when so many expected the darkness to fall, the flame has grown bright.” However, it’s also true that that flame can be extinguished by one more vote.
Newscaster 2: The court’s ruling was an invitation to states to experiment with their own abortion restrictions, opening the way for years of legal and political wrangling.
Reyna: That same year, Heavens To Betsy released the song “Baby’s Gone.” It’s written from the perspective of a teenage girl who died after attempting to induce her own abortion. Corin Tucker is probably best known as the lead singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney. Before that, she was one half of the Heavens To Betsy duo. She says she was inspired by other political movements that fearlessly declared: lives are at stake.
Corin Tucker: I mean there was ACT UP. That was a huge influence I think on riot grrrl was like you know the kind of like really fierce gay activism that happened around AIDS in this country.
Reyna: ACT UP stood for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. It started in the late 80s and continued well into the 90s. This was a radical group that engaged in civil disobedience to draw attention to the AIDS pandemic. Their signature tactic was the “die in,” where protesters would lie down in public spaces. ACT UP members famously created a giant condom and placed it over a senator’s home. This was to protest legislation that restricted federal funding for AIDS education with references to “homosexual activities.” Like ACT UP and other radical movements, riot grrrl challenged the status quo. The women in bands would use black sharpies to write words like “slut” on their bodies before getting on stage.
Tucker: The most powerful tool of the patriarchy is shame, is to feel bad about your body and not want to talk about it and to be silent about things that make you feel shameful. And I think that was the greatest gift of riot grrrl and of learning to play music was that it was like this way of shaking all that off by talking about things that were uncomfortable. Music was this way of just kind of opening that up and having those conversations and kind of freeing yourself in a way.
Reyna: For many people, Riot grrrl made space for this kind of freedom. And it made space for women to talk to each other about issues that were affecting them – through meetings and zines and music. It inspired teenage girls like the Yao sisters to start bands. But Wendy Yao pointed out that it wasn’t always easy for young women, particularly young women of color, to navigate punk spaces.
Yao: People just projected so immediately that we were so cute because we were Asian and we were teenagers and we were girls. And we would get made fun of a lot. People made a zine, a racist zine about us – an anonymous, racist zine that was circulated in LA about us that drew us with like slit eyes and that we get eaten by wolves and stuff.
Reyna: Riot grrrl was this force that empowered women to stand up and literally scream about things that they had been taught to keep silent about for generations. June Millington said she couldn’t even imagine writing songs the way riot grrrl bands did.
Millington: They were saying the stuff that we wished we could say back then, although we didn’t even think of it.
Reyna: It was also a movement started by mostly white women that didn’t always feel inclusive to people of color who wanted to be a part of it. On this podcast, we’re embracing both of these aspects of riot grrrl. We’ll be digging into the hard stuff and shining a light on the contradictions within this powerful movement to see what we can learn.
In the next episode: Come with us to Olympia, Washington. This little town perched on the Puget Sound is known as the birthplace of riot grrrl. We’ll hear about what it was like in the 90s and what it meant for the movement to start there.
Katherine Paul: I don’t know. I don’t know if the land influenced their sound. And I know the land influences my sound. But that’s because I am the land. I come from the land. The land is in me.
Candice Pedersen: They were just so happy and so free and some were so angry, but like the freedom to be angry or emotional as an artist, that’s pretty rare. And so I just think it was pretty astounding.
Thelma Jackson: And it’s been an area very slow to catch up and to authentically embrace the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Everyone talks about it, but the more they talk, the more things remain the same.