The DIY spirit of riot grrrl gave women and girls space to create their own version of feminism. They were making connections with each other through zines, music and riot grrrl meetings. And at the same time, they were exposing sexual violence and harassment as systemic problems. As more and more women felt empowered both collectively and individually, they faced pushback from mainstream culture and even within punk scenes.
Our theme music is by Ray Aggs.
Special thanks to JT Griffith and our riot grrrl manifesto readers: Deena Barnwell, Jenn Chavez and Prakruti Bhatt
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe: So, my name is Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe
Fabi Reyna: Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe grew up in the 1980s and 90s on the Swinomish Reservation in Washington State. As a child, she had three cassette tapes that she played over and over again.
LaPointe: It was “The Best of Blondie,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Janet Jackson, just the “Janet” album. Those are like the first femme musicians that I fell in love with and I remember walking around in the woods behind the trailer that we lived in in Swinomish like with my little headphones and my tapes.
Reyna: Those tapes left her with a very specific idea of what it meant to be a woman in the music industry.
LaPointe: They were very glamorous and beautiful and I remember at a young age being like, okay, so to play music, you have to have this, like, sugary sweet voice, this sort of pop voice and presentation. I remember finding that odd.
Reyna: A few years later, when LaPointe was 13, she tuned in to the college radio station and heard Bikini Kill for the first time.
LaPointe: Since we lived out in the middle of the woods, there wasn’t a ton to do. And I used to drag this crappy little Sony boombox into the trailer’s small bathroom just to get away from my siblings and have that little safe space. And I remember the first couple of songs I heard during that time – “White Boy” “Star Bellied Boy” and “Double Dare Ya.” And up until that point I hadn’t heard anyone talk about the things that I had experienced, let alone sing about them – things like sexual assault. And I just remember being really shook when I heard Kathleen Hanna’s voice go from this like sing-song kind of girl-like sweetness into this guttural screeching, all the while the content and the lyrics of what she was singing about just really connected to me and I have this visceral memory of hugging my knees to my chest and feeling really overwhelmed by it, like in all ways. I felt really connected to it. I felt really understood. I felt less alone. I was like, oh my gosh. I was so overwhelmed that I was crying but like also at the same time like, wow, where has this been my whole life?
Reyna: That experience unlocked something for LaPointe.
LaPointe: Unfortunately sexual violence and domestic abuse are really common in reservation communities. And I had seen the impact of that specific violence firsthand. And so when I heard this music and connected to these lyrics and everything that I heard about that was going on, it felt like this wakeup call like, oh wait, we don’t have to accept this. We can fight this. Like we can be angry.
Reyna: According to a national study from 2018, 81% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault. It’s difficult to find a comparable number from the 90s, especially because sexual harassment was not understood in the same way then as it is now. But it’s safe to say there were countless girls like Sasha LaPointe who felt a connection to Riot Grrrl because of their personal experiences with sexual abuse and domestic violence. The DIY spirit of riot grrrl gave women and girls space to create their own version of feminism. For some, that meant taking action in their own lives.
LaPointe: At 14, I started leaving home a lot and then eventually emancipated myself and got, I remember my first apartment when I was 15, I was with like eight other kids, like eight other people in this two bedroom apartment in Mount Vernon Washington. So that was like my first punk house.
Reyna: Women were taking matters into their own hands in a new way. They were making connections with each other through zines, music and riot grrrl meetings. And at the same time, they were exposing sexual violence and harassment as systemic problems. As more and more women felt empowered both collectively and individually, they faced pushback from mainstream culture and even within punk scenes.
I’m Fabi Reyna, founder of She Shreds Media and this is Starting A Riot.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “girl power?” As someone who was born in the 90s, it sounds pretty cheesy to me. It doesn’t feel powerful, and it makes me think of, like, bachelorette decorations sold at Walmart. And of course, I think of the Spice Girls. As far as we know, the first time ‘girl power’ was written down was on the cover of the Bikini Kill zine in 1991. That’s how drummer Tobi Vail remembers it.
Tobi Vail: At the time it seemed really interesting to put those two words together – “girl” and “power” – because it seems like two opposites coming together. It was like what if we brought those two words together and like what would that be?
Reyna: It was the second issue of that zine, the one that contained the riot grrrl manifesto.
Manifesto clip: …we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak. BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.
Like riot grrrl songs, the ideas in the manifesto were both empowering to girls and women and threatening to existing power structures.
Reyna: Vail says “Double Dare Ya” was one of the first songs the band wrote together – just talking through politics and things that were affecting their lives.
Vail: A lot of times at the beginning when Kathleen would write songs, some of it was like, we’d stayed up late the night before and then like the next day she’d written this song that had stuff that we talked about in it, you know? So just, it was very exciting. And I just, I do really love that song.
Reyna: When Bikini Kill said “Revolution Girl Style Now!” it was an invitation…
Vail: You know when you see all the footage of the Beatles and you see the girls screaming in the audience or you see [a] Madonna concert and there’s all the girls screaming in the audience? I remember having the thought of like what if we got those girls screaming in the audience to actually start a revolutionary subculture of young feminists and you know get them to all start bands.
Reyna: Throughout the nineties, “girl power” went from an underground punk growl to a sugary, sweet, less aggressive version of feminism. The Spice Girls focused on female friendship.
Reyna: The Spice Girls used vaguely empowering language, saying girls and women should “control their own destiny” and “take control of their lives.” At the same time, these pop stars embraced mainstream beauty standards and capitalism. The tall and slender Spice Girl dolls were the best selling celebrity dolls of all time. The first collection was, of course, called “girl power.”
Bikini Kill wasn’t willing to sign to a major label, though. And musicians who take the stage with words like “slut” written on their bodies are not exactly commercially viable. Historian and “Girls to the Front” author Sara Marcus says that, in certain ways, riot grrrl was still appealing to mainstream tastemakers.
Sara Marcus: The major labels realized that angry girls sell records and happy encouraging girls who are friends with each other sell records. And so then you got on the one hand, like Alanis Morissette as the angry girl. And on the other hand, you got the Spice Girls as the happy, encouraging girls who are friends with each other. And they did indeed sell records.
Reyna: It’s entirely possible that without riot grrrl, there would be no Spice Girls. And Marcus says there’s room for both.
Marcus: When my book came out, I gave a talk and I had this room full of gender studies majors who were like, “What do you think of the Spice Girls?” I was like, “Well did you all listen to the Spice Girls growing up?” And they were like, “oh yes.” “And I was like and you’re all our gender studies majors now?” “Oh yes.” I was like, well, you know, how can I say bad things about the Spice Girls? Like obviously it’s a completely watered-down version of what riot grrrl was. And at the same time it’s a, it’s an entry point.
Reyna: The commodification of “girl power” – and even girl anger – did make it more accessible to more women, but it also separated it from feminist politics and obscured the very real threats that young women faced.
Reyna: Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile was raised by a second wave feminist. Her mom, Pat Shively, opened the first women’s health clinic in the county that’s home to Olympia, Washington. Abortion was one of the services offered there. And that meant that Shively and her family lived with threats from anti-abortion activists. Wolfe remembers that her mom regularly wore a bulletproof vest to work.
Allison Wolfe: People sometimes threw rocks at our windows or house. I remember that. One time someone tried to, it seemed like they tried to set fire to our front door. It didn’t really work. One time all the pets were poisoned of everyone who worked at the clinic. I mean who knows? But everyone came to work on Monday and they’d all had to be at the emergency vet. And so they think that that’s probably what happened. People were really threatened by her.
Reyna: Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Allison Wolfe embraced her mom’s fearlessness but she also felt a strong need to pursue her own version of feminism. She was able to do that with riot grrrl. Wolfe met Molly Neumann at the University of Oregon and the two of them started the band Bratmobile and the zine called “Girl Germs.”
Wolfe: We wanted our feminism to be maybe more DIY punk, less academic, and we wanted our punk worlds to be more feminist, and also we wanted to be on the stage.
Reyna: Like her mom, Allison Wolfe found plenty of people were threatened by her feminism. She remembers an incident from Bratmobile’s second show in Olympia when they opened for a Seattle band called The Melvins. She says Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna was upfront cheering them on…
Wolfe: …and when we got off stage, I remember Kathleen coming up to me and saying, “hey are you guys okay, are you all right?” And I was like, “What do you mean? Yeah, I mean we just opened for the Melvins, I feel great!” And she was like, “oh no, because guys were yelling death threats at you the whole time.” So, I didn’t know that.
Reyna: The threats from within were very real. Riot grrrl bands tried to create safe spaces for people who came to their shows by shouting out “girls to the front.” The idea was to make space for women who wanted to dance close to the stage, and to create a barrier of protection for the women on stage as well. Team Dresch, another band from Olympia, would teach self-defense workshops before their shows. In the 80s and 90s, white supremacist skinheads threatened to take over punk scenes in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. Anti-racists within the scenes fought back. But Tobi Vail says sometimes it was just hard to tell what kind of threat they were facing when guys at shows would start yelling.
Vail: We didn’t know – are they neo-Nazis? Are they racist skinheads? Are they going to try and kill us? You know, like that kind of stuff.
Reyna: Vail says that, unfortunately, safety at shows is still an issue. Bikini Kill has been on a reunion tour over the past couple of years and they played a show in Tucson the night the news leaked that Roe v. Wade was likely to be overturned.
Vail: We were all very upset, and we went out to play the show and while we were playing a person was someone who was there to see us was assaulted in the audience and we were told about the assault right after it happened and Kathleen had to stop it basically and we’re trying to get the guy kicked out and then no one could find him. Another incident that happened shortly after that was someone got thrown out of one of our shows for allegedly messing with audience members and they waited afterwards for us and tried to run over one of our crew members with a car.
Reyna: Despite these kinds of incidents, Vail says that what Bikini Kill is doing on stage still feels incredibly important.
Vail: We haven’t added any new material to our live shows and we still haven’t even learned all the songs that we want to learn from our back catalog. So, you know, we’re doing the same songs and unfortunately, they still are very relevant.
Reyna: She’s focused on ways to make it easier for young people to create their own culture outside of corporate control. She says that that’s even more important now than it was in the early 90s.
Vail: Society is at a critical point like, you know, with the um fundamentalist right wing and the rise of fascism, Neo Nazis, that’s like all mainstream. Stuff that we are dealing with that shows in the early nineties that’s happening like to the culture at large.
Reyna: Some of the ideas that riot grrrl championed have also gone mainstream. The #MeToo movement offered women a new way to talk about systemic sexual harassment and abuse. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is a movement to raise awareness about the disproportionate number of Native women facing violence. And speaking out about subjects like sexual assault or abortion is no longer relegated to subversive subcultures like punk. The day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Grammy-winning pop star Olivia Rodrigo took the stage at the Glastonbury music festival before an enormous cheering crowd. She dedicated a song called “Fuck You” to the five conservative justices responsible for the decision.
Olivia Rodrigo: (crowd cheering) And I’m devastated and terrified. So many women and so many girls are going to die because of this and I wanted to dedicate this next song to the five members of the Supreme Court who have showed us that at the end of the day they truly don’t give a shit about freedom. This song goes out to the Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. We hate you!
Reyna: Riot grrrl was focused on making space for women to connect and collaborate with one another. As a musician I understand the therapeutic effects that live music can have on people – the connection that people feel to the lyrics, the vibration of the music and the actual physical energy that’s created in that space. It can be life changing, and it means that performers have to hold space for themselves and their fans. Tobi Vail remembers that sexual assault survivors like Sasha LaPointe were drawn to riot grrrl. She says fans would get vulnerable with lead singer Kathleen Hanna at shows.
Vail: To her credit, she had crisis counseling training and she would try to talk to them. She tried to talk to all of them, but that was really hard on her. She couldn’t get them all to a safe place or find them a place to live that was free from violence. So she tried to get them to meet each other and support each other and build community by encouraging them to start riot grrrl chapters in their own town.
Reyna: Riot grrrl chapters varied from place to place. Some made zines. Some were more focused on music. But most of them held regular meetings. The meetings started in Washington DC and Olympia in the summer of 1991 and spread to dozens of cities around the U.S. as well as Canada and the UK. These were spaces where young women could gather and talk about their own experiences with sexism, sexual assault and other struggles they were facing.
Raquel Gutiérrez: I absorbed all of it and felt like that was part of my sort of political awakening.
Reyna: Raquel Gutiérrez attended riot grrrl meetings in LA.
Gutiérrez: I was maybe 15, because I didn’t drive myself there, I was always going with another teenage friend who drove us in her [car], I think it was a Geo Storm.
Reyna: Sometimes the meetings were held in public spaces, like the basement of a coffee shop. And Gutiérrez remembers going to at least one meeting in someone’s apartment.
Gutiérrez: It felt like we had walked into a scene of a girl older than us just on the verge of tears, just whatever traumatic experience she had been narrating, I don’t know the details…
Reyna: You can imagine those details – a story about being harassed at school or at work, sexual abuse or coercion, self-harm, witnessing or being the victim of domestic abuse.
Gutiérrez: It was tense. It was a tense scene to walk into. There was no moderation, no facilitation, nobody sort of posing questions. It just was kind of a wild wild west of shared trauma.
Reyna: Gutiérrez remembers that these personal stories were mixed in with political topics that also came up in the meetings.
Gutiérrez: And the politics were really powerful because in some ways I did want to know about why, you know, what is the history of Roe v Wade? Why is the abortion still up for debate? Why are women being hunted? Why are women being raped and murdered?
Reyna: Gutiérrez ended up starting a band called Tummy Ache and a zine called Soda Jerk. They only attended a few meetings, but they felt like it made them a part of something bigger. Sasha LaPointe didn’t have access to riot grrrl meetings. But she started discovering more bands and she also found zines.
LaPointe: Seeing these zines and kind of consuming these images and these powerful things, like I remember seeing one about self-defense or how to get home safely and as an adult, I can look back on that and I wish that something like that had taken root in my Native community.
Reyna: LaPointe found older kids who would take her to punk shows, and she started making her own zines.
LaPointe: I grew up on the reservation, I went to alternative high school and dropped out in my junior year. And so I feel like other writing spaces could feel intimidating and did feel intimidating to someone like me, and so seeing the sort of DIY spirit of zines and punk music affirmed for me, or gave me permission to like, be like, oh, you can do this anyway. You don’t have to come from this strong academic background. You can just write, you can just make the thing, do the poem, make a zine by yourself, and that was really liberating for me. And I think that without that, I’m not sure I would have ever felt confident enough to pursue writing much later in life. My life would probably look a lot different.
Reyna: LaPointe is now a published author. Her memoir came out in 2022. It’s called “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk.” She also shares her poetry onstage as part of the Seattle band Medusa Stare. Her new book of poetry, “Rose Quartz,” actually started as a zine that she made to take on tour with the band. But even with everything she got from riot grrrl, her relationship with the movement is still complicated.
LaPointe: Riot grrrl happened here on Coast Salish territory and to my knowledge there wasn’t a single Coast Salish fronted band out of that entire movement. And I think that just in general, you know, riot grrrl kind of opening up this gateway into DIY punk and wanting to like seek out those spaces, I remember as I grew older, I definitely started to notice how, like, the whiteness of these spaces too, even in just like little venues or basement shows in Seattle. I was really drawn to what was happening but I also, I just remember taking note and starting to ask myself like, where are the other Native punks? Do they even exist? And that’s a really lonely kind of feeling like, where the Coast Salish riot grrrls?
Reyna: Raquel Gutiérrez definitely noticed that riot grrrl didn’t seem to include everyone in their community either.
Gutiérrez: It wasn’t the most diverse space, but there was definitely Filipina women, there was Latinas. There weren’t any Black women and it was a lot of white women.
Reyna: Gutiérrez says that the whiteness of the scene felt limiting to them.
Gutiérrez: I think even as a teenager, I just knew that there was a certain limitation in solidarity and I just didn’t feel like I could, you know, feel trustful of white girls in the scene to a degree.
Reyna: What Raquel is saying makes a lot of sense to me. For as much as the movement changed my life, I have a complicated relationship with Riot Grrrl, and feminism too. Of course I believe in equality across the gender spectrum, but there’s something about the culture of feminism that feels very binary and white. For me, it’s never really felt like home even though it’s supposed to.
In the next episode, we dig deeper into the experiences of people (like me) who felt a connection to riot grrrl but also felt like the movement was not exactly for them. We’ll talk about the missed opportunities to be more inclusive and what that means for the riot grrrl legacy.
Laina Dawes: I felt that it was a space for white women or non-Black women, I should say, because anti-Black racism is a whole different beast.
Kaia Wilson: And it’s not like riot grrrl was anti-queer, but it didn’t feel specifically queer in the way that I just, that’s what I needed at that time. The aesthetic was like maybe baby doll dresses and barrettes and stuff, which is wonderful, except not that’s not my that’s not my jam, and then it also, I think that like, the politics of it felt more straight for a lack of better word.
Ramdasha Bikceem: Being Black, it’s a marginalized identity that’s put upon you. So, you naturally have an affinity to punk. Like Black people are just naturally punk.