Riot Grrl began as a feminist movement in the early 90s. In a society where inequality still exists, it’s important to honour past movements and strive to embed them in our everyday lives to build a better world.
I’ve always been interested in the foundations of punk and grunge music that became known as Seattle sound and was popularised by bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. However, after learning more about the Seattle scene I discovered the impact that the band Bikini Kill had on Kurt Cobain’s artistry. Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill famously came up with the phrase, ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’, which was turned into the well-known Nirvana song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Despite having a huge influence on grunge, I feel Bikini Kill’s importance has been downplayed.
After reading articles and watching the documentary, ‘The Punk Singer’, which is about the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, I came to understand the impact Hanna had on the music industry and the third wave of feminism.
The third wave of feminism started in the early 1990s by those born in Generation X (between the 1960s and early 1980s). This wave sought to refine what it means to be feminist and used theories on intersectionality and sex-positivity. Intersectionality is the idea that women are oppressed not only because they are a woman, but also because of elements such as class and race. The third wave of feminism built off of the second wave, which had an elitist approach. The second wave of feminism excluded women of colour and those from a lower-class.
Hanna combined her talent, passion and artistry to create a safe space for women in the punk scene and sparked a movement that has affected us today and forever.
Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill
Hanna pioneered the path for female punk groups through her creation of the first girl punk band, known as Bikini Kill. Through their music, they sought to create a space for women and encouraged them to unleash their emotions without any fear of backlash. Their concerts in the late 80s and 90s were unconventional for the time because women were at the forefront – men weren’t even allowed to stand near the stage. These concerts revolved around women, which is fitting since Bikini Kill aimed to encourage women to unapologetically own who they are and immerse themselves in male-dominated punk culture.
By creating a space for women in punk culture, Bikini Kill gave women an opportunity to find their voice, whether in art or ordinary life. They showed the world that women can unite together and rely upon each other despite the world being built off of gender inequality. For this, we owe women in history a lot, and we definitely owe Kathleen Hanna for founding the Riot Grrl movement.
The Riot Grrl movement began as a response to the sexism in punk music. In the early 90s punk was enmeshed in sexism as seen through the fact that women were excluded from the scene. It was seen as a place for men to express themselves and let loose, however, it was taboo for women to be involved.
Therefore, many girl bands in the US responded to this and in their shows, fliers and fan-zines highlighted how they wanted to change the structure in which punk music was built. They wanted women to celebrate their ways of expression and include themselves in this scene. As many bands took place in this, it sparked a worldwide movement where they would solemnly recite and believe in the Riot Grrl manifesto.
“BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticise-applaud each other” – Riot Grrl manifesto.
When I first read the manifesto, I was touched. Firstly, I felt warmed by it because it serves as a way to unite women. This manifesto doesn’t care about your background, wealth, religion, ethnicity – this manifesto just wants to hold you by the hand and empower you.
It aims to create a sense of comfort and remind us that women should help each other out. It was created to make us feel like we have space anywhere in the world and we shouldn’t be afraid of anything, no matter what’s thrown our way.
But I also feel a sense of anger because despite the Riot Grrl movement being perceived as mainstream, it is still very much underground.
The third wave of feminism is still relevant and important, so I wonder why are we not taught about it? Why aren’t we told about these powerful women who came before us? Why aren’t we taught about the women who created this movement for us?
The patriarchal society we live in has benefitted from downplaying important parts of feminism such as this manifesto, as fewer women are aware of this movement. Therefore, they are less likely to feel inspired to stand up against inequality – which allows the patriarchy to take advantage of women in places such as the workplace. As seen through the fact that from 2019-20 the gender pay gap in the UK was 15.9 per cent.
Society likes to blare out the names of movements but doesn’t dig deep into the substance of them. The bleak reality of it is that we still live in a patriarchal society that acts like it’s inclusive, but in reality, it’s benefitting off of placing unrealistic expectations on us. For instance, women are expected to act and look a certain way to please men and feel inclined to align by this ideal in order to feel good about themselves. However, this shouldn’t be the case, we should be living to feel good about ourselves without seeking validation from others.
Why we need Riot Grrl now more than before
Gossip sites, tabloid-culture and social media are a huge part of the dark capitalist world we live in today and unfortunately, they’ve made it a lot easier to criticise and marginalise women. Increasing amounts of women are being put on the pedestal and are pressurised to perform a certain way, act a certain way, eat a certain way, pose a certain way and behave a certain way – otherwise, they have to deal with tonnes of backlash. For instance, Lizzo, the singer/song-writer receives backlash for being outspoken on the body positivity movement. The body positivity movement believes that everyone deserves to have a positive body image, regardless of societal pressures to be a certain size.
However, there are women who feel inclined to abide by these societal pressures in order to avoid negativity, so, they invertedly pass these expectations to younger women who are influenced by them. Therefore, this creates prejudice and disagreement between women because there are women who succumb to these pressures created by society, and there are women who don’t. As a result, women are separated rather than united.
This shouldn’t be the case. We should accept each other for who we are and understand the inequality that exists in the world. We need to all work together for a better world. We should lead the lives we want to, not the lives we feel we are expected to lead.
We need to feel comfortable enough to express ourselves in the way we want to without fear of how our expression will be perceived – the way Bikini Kill did when they first started out as a punk band.
We need to address the issues that our patriarchal, capitalist society has placed on us and safely express ourselves. We need to create safe spaces of warmth and comfort. We need to praise and acknowledge all the powerful women who came before us.
We need to ensure that the women who come after us live in a safer world.