Girls to the Front

Prediction:  by the end of this summer, you will have read more than your fair share of press about the 20th anniversary of the release of Pearl Jam’s Ten album (which came out in August of 1991). And you will have read about twice that amount of stuff about Nirvana’s Nevermind (which may seem like Ten’s mature-but-rebellious older brother, but it actually came out a month later). I’m also predicting, with a great deal of sadness, that you will have read almost nothing about the twentieth anniversary of the first official Riot Grrrl meeting, which happened on Wednesday, July 24, 1991 in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of punk activist group Positive Force.

My guess is precious few people are going celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Riot Grrrl this summer and to barely begin to rectify that, I want to tell you about a book that you should read. It’s called Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus and it’s a beautifully, insightfully, and passionately written history of Riot Grrrl that sheds much-needed light on both the music that came from that movement and its political aims, which were nothing less than the total obliteration of sexism (for our purposes, let’s define “sexism” as the following: “creating arbitrary societal roles for women, creating the expectation that they have to look a certain way in order to attract men, casting suspicion on rape victims because they dress a certain way, crafting legislation that criminalizes choices women may or may not make about their own bodies, rewarding culture that treats women as pretty, doll-like objects and/or prizes to be won, and assuming they are somehow biologically incapable of rocking every bit as hard as men.” I’m sure I could add more things to that definition, but I’ll trust you to get what I’m driving at here).

So Girls to the Front is only partially about music, but I think it’s important for people who read Bollocks! to know about it for several reasons.

First of all, rock is still way too  much of a boys’ club. Even punk, for all its declared progressivism, was not very good at addressing women’s issues and/or actually including women in the movement. Riot Grrrl changed that – bands like Heaven to Betsy (which featured a young Corin Tucker), Bratmobile, and Bikini Kill proved that girls could be just as awesome at punk music as the boys. The music of Riot Grrrl, at least all of it I’ve been able to find, is the sound of liberation. When I finished reading Girls to the Front, my first question was, “Why the fuck isn’t 1991 given the same respect in punk circles that 1977 is?” Every fucking thing I’ve read about punk crowns 1977 as “Year Zero” for the movement. But until Girls to the Front, I never saw a mention of 1991.

So why is it worth mentioning? Well, that’s the second reason Bollocks! readers need to know about (and please read) Girls to the Front. Riot Grrrl was a movement of very young women – Kathleen Hanna was nineteen when she started her first band – who felt out of touch with old-school feminism and made something new (and entirely their own) to replace it. They took it upon themselves to make a movement where there was none, and faced real fucking danger for doing so (men actually bought tickets to Bikini Kill shows so they could menace the band and harass the girls in attendance. Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard of that shit going down at a Green Day concert). As Marcus writes, “nothing else has emerged since then [1991] to confront sexism with a fraction of Riot Grrrl’s fire and prophetic drive.”  The upshot is that Riot Grrrl gave the lie to the idea that “kids these days” aren’t tuned in to the world around them. I have not known of a movement since Riot Grrrl that was so completely driven by young people.

I don’t know the demographic make-up of my readers (and I don’t really want to) but I’ve seen plenty of evidence that lots of dudes read Bollocks! at least semi-regularly. The third reason my readers should read Girls to the Front is to learn some shit about modern feminism. Dudes, particularly white dudes, tend to get a little defensive about feminism (Marcus chronicles roughly a billion instances of people dismissing Bikini Kill as “man-hating” music) and I think that’s because white dudes have never had to struggle, as a group, just to be taken seriously. I don’t recall a single woman mentioned in Girls to the Front who hates all men (Bikini Kill’s guitarist was a man named Billy Karren and Marcus makes no mention of him suffering the slightest injury at the hands of any riot grrrls), but you have to remember something: men have been in charge of this country since its inception and that means that all of our worst villains are inevitably gonna be men. I’ve never met a feminist who hates men because they’re men, but I’ve met plenty who hate specific men because of things those men have done. And you know what? I hate the same fucking men!

Let’s do a little test, male readers. See if you can object to these values, outlined by Kathleen Hanna in a Bikini Kill zine: “Recognize that you are not the center of the universe. Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships. Recognize vulnerability and empathy as strengths. Don’t allow the fact that other people have been assholes to you make you into a bitter and abusive person.” I’ve pared down Hanna’s instructions from Girls to the Front‘s longer quotation; I wanted you to see my favorites. Because those are great human values. I try to live life the exact same way, but nobody calls me a Feminazi for it.

The fourth reason you really need to read Girls to the Front is that it – often very movingly – tells the story of a human movement that suffered the same setbacks and internal strife that lots of large movements have to deal with. Sara Marcus does not deify the riot grrrls as a flawless group that easily accomplished everything they set out to do. She tells you the truth about it without flinching, giving you the good and the bad.

The net results have to be considered positive – Riot Grrrl very clearly changed the lives of a lot of young women who felt like nobody could understand them. Marcus quotes Andee Davis, a riot grrrl from Omaha:  “Riot Grrrl… made it seem cool to be who we were, which was empowering. It made me feel like I could be forming my own ideas. Feeling that you had a community, and that there were other people out there like you, was a big deal.”

Though Girls to the Front is a book about a feminist movement, it should be sufficient to ignite the passion of anyone who can be bothered to care about their fellow human beings. Though women have needed to use the language of liberation to gain equality, it’s a principle that is universal (which is the argument women, minorities, and gay people have had to make for far too long in this country – none of them are asking for “special” treatment. They’re asking to be treated as equal human beings). Is that idealistic? So be it. As Marcus writes in her author’s note, “we never stop needing that idealism and energy, that courage to name things as political if they are political and unacceptable if they are unacceptable, that dedication to crafting our lives and our communities on our own terms.”

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6 thoughts on “Girls to the Front

  1. Pingback: The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #8: “Achy-Breaky Heart” « Bollocks!

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