In the years leading up to 1991, mainstream magazines and radio had all but declared feminism dead. Coincidentally, punk rock was receiving a similarly grim diagnosis. The experts weren’t sure it’d pull through. For a group of young women at the time, it was Riot Grrrl—a radical feminist explosion in the underground—that injected both with new, transformative possibilities.
But what was Riot Grrrl? While most could separate it from the bubbly “girl power” appropriation that’d surface a few years later, many have trouble pinpointing an air-tight definition. Was it a girl gang, a movement, a mess, a revolutionary force or a musical subgenre? Sara Marcus’ new Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution suggests, at moments, it was all of the above.
“Riot Grrrl always existed first and foremost as an incantation,” Marcus writes, describing an organic series of self-connecting dots, firing like synapses around a constellation of shared experience and support. Her assessment breaks from most other attempts to document the phenomenon, discarding the formal, encyclopedic approach in favor of a character-driven story about the lives and activism of a dozen or so young women.
From a Who’s Who perspective, some readers may be surprised by the omission of a few big names. The words “Team Dresch” do not appear at all in the 350-plus-page book. Meanwhile, three incidental sentences (if you’re in a hurry, they’re on page 134) mark the entirety of the author’s coverage of Carrie Brownstein, who paired with Riot Grrrl early adopter Corin Tucker in 1994 to form the gargantuanly popular Sleater Kinney. This was intentional, says Marcus, and necessary in order to zero in on her quarry.
“A lot of what I was doing was trying to reclaim the specificity of what Riot Grrrl was,” Marcus explains in between stops on her current book tour, which doesn’t make a stop in Philly, but will include a discussion about her book and its topic at Kelly Writers House on Feb. 8 with movement heavies Kathleen Hanna and Katy Otto. Marcus, a Philly writer, will also read selections of Girls at the Nov. 6 Sugar Town event at the Tritone. “The term has come to claim a lot of different interpretations of feministic punk rock. A lot of those who saw themselves as Riot Grrrls in the moment, including teenage girls, felt their experience had been written out of the histories of the movement.”
So, while L7, Hole and Tribe 8 may have been on your mixtape alongside Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, Marcus says the “true story” called for more precision. “It was college girls in Arcata,” she clarifies.
Allergic to the “grand statements” and celebrity spectacle plaguing most attempts to capture Riot Grrrl, Marcus’ story tracks the very personal narrative of young women who were involved in the movement in different ways and at different times. While grown-ups and outsiders all have last names, the grrrls themselves are addressed novelistically by just their first, giving the readers a sense that they know these characters. Throughout the course of the book, we are privy to these young women’s emotional landscapes as well as their daily-do, from in-jokes and giddy dancing down to the signature hum of one girl’s typewriter. Of course, as an older feminist adage reminds us, it’s in the personal details where the fabric of politics are weaved, and Marcus wants us to understand Riot Grrrl through this lens.
She starts this process with the first character she introduces: herself. Growing up in suburban Maryland, Marcus was only miles away from D.C., where some of Riot Grrrl’s first shots were fired. But as a 14-year-old theater geek in 1991, she hadn’t yet discovered this revolution in her own backyard. One thing she was intensely aware of was the alienation, invisibility, anxiety and thoroughly warranted paranoia attending a teenage girl’s daily life. And while her book is not a memoir, it is always this reality of the individual that drives the narrative—a bold but largely successful choice. After all, if a reader’s not convinced of what it’s like to get cat-called, dismissed or harassed in a department store dressing room, they’re not liable to see much point in dyeing your hair, writing “slut” on your arms and stomping out to trash a frat house, are they?
“My number one responsibility was to write a book that was as engaging as possible to the reader,” says Marcus. “In early drafts that I workshopped, the grad students reading them would take a real high horse, saying ‘How are these people so naïve? Why are they so demanding of the world?’ So, what was most important to me was to create a narrative for the reader that put them in the minds of the people involved, so they weren’t standing over them in a place of judgment or condescension.”
We follow these characters up front at early Bikini Kill shows, at the back of interminably long workshops, in conscious-raising sleepovers, through the manifestos of their fanzines, across national political forces that seemed to not care if women lived or died, and the sensational press that found them crazy, catty or as cute-as-a-button when they got angry.
“What it meant to the teenagers and young women who took this message of empowerment and ran with it has been completely erased from historic record,” Marcus says. “Our culture doesn’t know how to take young women seriously. So, I set out with this task of insisting on the importance of these young women’s lives. That was something I hadn’t seen any account do. They were mentioned as fans, which is such a belittling way to refer to the cultural activity of young girls. I was very deliberately out to reverse that.”
Some readers are bound to be disappointed with her approach; anyone hoping for a Please Kill Me oral history will be. Marcus smelts some five years or more of interviews and research into an adamantine sculpture. Often it’s unclear exactly who’s being paraphrased or where first-hand accounts blend in with interpretation—a tricky business when documenting such an intimate revolution, especially one so oft misrepresented. And yet, this is what makes Girls to the Front work.
From a historical public relations standpoint, all the sonorous chatter about the all-caps MOVEMENT has often only further mystified what Riot Grrrl was all about—and what it might mean to young women discovering its legacy today. Obscured and rattled as it was by the media spotlight, Riot Grrrl’s reality is perhaps best found in the shadows.
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