Rioting or Shopping? Generation X's Feminists

Stephanie Pepitone

Writer’s comment: A couple of months after writing this paper I was at a punk rock show and heard a joke that goes like this: How many Riot Grrrls does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Riot Grrrls can’t change anything. Although I didn’t quite laugh at the joke, I did realize that it perfectly summarized this essay. However, the message of my essay is not merely to criticize Riot Grrrls or culturally stereotypical Generation Xer’s. Here I critique a passing fad with the hope that my readers will understand that I’m really talking about something larger, a permanent phenomenon in our society. Those of us who have any desire to change the way our world works must learn to be threatening first.
        Thanks to Andy Jones for giving assignments that challenge and encourage original thought.
—Stephanie Pepitone

Instructor’s comment: In the week before I was handed this excellent essay, Stephanie Pepitone and I hadn’t much discussed rough drafts or where to find nontraditional sources of information. So finding “Rioting or Shopping? Generation X’s Feminists” among a stack of final papers for the Thematic Expository Writing seminar I co-taught with Gordon Sullivan was a welcome surprise, and proof that independent scholarship and critical thinking are possible at every level of instruction, provided an ambitious student is making the investment. By the end of the quarter I should have expected such refreshingly creative and original work from Ms. Pepitone. Throughout the fall Stephanie questioned the logic, facts, or conclusions offered by the instructors and students during our class discussions about politics, current events, and pop culture. It only makes sense that she would disagree with most of her classmates’ opinion that members of Generation X are uniformly apathetic, bored, and apolitical. I hope the increased exposure of “Rioting or Shopping?” will convince students that excellent writing and argumentation skills can support unexpected conclusions.
—Andrew Jones, English Department

What’s up with girls today? Here we are, about 20 years past the last feminist revival, and still, nearly every time I hear “feminist” the word is uttered in a tone of censure and disgust. The popular attitude among many females today is that there’s nothing left to fight for—we’ve won the battle for gender equality. Still, the mere fact that the most popular show on TV among women my age is “Beverly Hills 90210,” whose characters mimic traditional sex roles and stereotypes promoted by Western patriarchal culture, makes me think otherwise. I am not the only one, but we are few. Feminism did not die along with the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s, but unfortunately it appears that feminism will remain as marginal to social change in this generation as it did in the last. Of course, I say this as a feminist, condemning the apathy towards social change I find in my generation.
         The typical, socially accepted definition of “Generation X” portrays us as a generation of slackers and whiners with few ambitions or aspirations. Essentially, we are the antithesis of our predecessors, the supposedly energetic, change-oriented youth of the 60s. While the mere thought of trying to stereotype an entire generation of people is inane, I believe the popular view provides a working definition of the white, middle-class youth who traditionally dictate cultural trends in America.
         Generation X is the epitome of America’s consumer culture, raised on television, microwaves, and every other modern convenience we can purchase. In accordance with our upbringing, we have chosen to commercialize our “rebellious youth” stage rather than attempting real social change as many of our parents did. We buy ready-made rebellion in the form of Lollapalooza tickets, body piercings, and ripped jeans. Writer Sarah Ferguson says that the “commodity culture” has replaced our desire for action. “[Their] dreams and desires have been manufactured and controlled at such an early age,” she writes, “they [Gen X] lack a clear sense of authentic experience” (62). It seems that the latest addition to this commodity culture-type rebellion is Riot Grrrl—Generation X’s equivalent of the women’s movement.
         For some, the women’s movement of the early 70s was a triumph over gender inequality in the United States; for others, it didn’t accomplish enough. The daughters of last generation’s feminists have universally benefited from their gains in the form of declining wage differentials between the sexes, a politically pro-choice status-quo, and overall raised consciousness, to name a few. Nevertheless, today’s females have not universally felt the need to continue the struggle of 70s feminists. Those who do call themselves feminists and work for progressive gender relations have worked through the usual channels such as NOW, NARAL, or a number of other groups supporting abortion rights. In my own opinion, many of these groups have become ineffective and epitomize “knee-jerk” liberalism. Women today interested in activism have found little support among the majority of young females too scared to call themselves feminists and older feminists too accustomed to working within the system. The first powerful movement to satisfy those needs was Riot Grrrl.
         The roots of Riot Grrrl can geographically be traced to Olympia, Washington, where a few, exclusively female punk-rock groups formed a scene attempting to make punk rock a little more “girl-friendly.” For convenience many people say that the Riot Grrrl movement started in the summer of 1991, because that was when most of the original groups formed and began to create the then-abstract social entity we now call Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl was originally a collective of young feminists with a special interest in music and in raising gender awareness in Generation X. Riot Grrrl became a little less abstract in July of 1992, when the Convention of Riot Grrrl took place in Washington, D.C. This convention marked the beginning of Riot Grrrl as a national movement, with an East Coast focus in D.C. and a West Coast focus in Olympia.
         The convention also indirectly built an agenda for the movement, which tried hard to remain nonhierarchical and unrestrictive. Workshops held at the conference were diverse (although female related), ranging from fat oppression to unlearning racism. As educational as this conference was, it is remembered more as a punk rock concert than as an actual “conference.” Along with the workshops, a number of female bands entertained the conference participants, who were by then calling themselves Riot Grrrls.
         American punk rock culture, imported from England in the mid-70s, has often manifested the same Western cultural ideals it professes to abhor. Despite its desire for cultural revolution and the eradication of all systematic oppression, the punk scene has been dominated by white males, often from middle-class backgrounds. Whether intentionally or not, this race and gender makeup has often excluded girls and minorities from being active in the punk scene. Girl bands throughout the 80s were regarded by many as musically unimpressive and politically unimportant. When bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear began to form and call themselves Riot Grrrls, their members demanded equal status within the punk rock scene.
         Bikini Kill, particularly lead singer Kathleen Hanna, has come to single-handedly define the Riot Grrrl movement, much to the professed dismay of Hanna herself. In the traditional D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) fashion of punk rock, Bikini Kill started its own record label, “Kill Rock Stars” in 1991. “Kill Rock Stars” is not just a name, it enunciates a tenet of punk culture and subsequently of Riot Grrrl. It is about rejecting consumerism and separating art from corporate America. Bikini Kill used this label to make recording more accessible to girl bands that might otherwise be excluded from other independent punk labels.
         Seventies feminists didn’t hesitate to remind Riot Grrrls that they weren’t the first progressive women to promote these ideals. In her article on this subject, Val Phoenix asserts that “despite the obvious differences in style and contest, the womyn’s music and punk communities are not as divergent as they appear, sharing a do-it-yourself ethic, commitment to resistance, and grassroots organizing strategies” (40). Womyn’s music was basically a kind of music of the 70s that could not be popular in the mainstream because most artists were lesbian and most subject matter was uncomfortable for what Phoenix calls the “malestream.” As Phoenix says, “The message of resistance to patriarchal culture is one commonality, even if punk puts an exclamation point on it” (41). To illustrate what she means, here is a sampling of lyrics from one of my favorite Bikini Kill songs:

Lay me spread eagle on your hill, yeah
Then write a book ‘bout how i wanted to die
It’s hard to talk with your dick in my mouth
I will try to scream in pain a little nicer next time!
White Boy . . . Don’t Laugh . . . Don’t Cry . . . Just Die!
I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you
Your whole fucking culture alienates me
I can not scream in pain from down here on my knees
I’m so sorry that i think! (Hanna 1992)

         Another important part of Riot Grrrl was the system of networking these women formed, which made it more than just a genre of music. Seemingly overnight, Riot Grrrl meetings popped up in every major urban area of the East and West coasts to discuss politics, action, music, and just about any other topic they wanted. Most important, women were getting together and talking about their experiences, learning from one another about the world, rather than watching TV or hanging out in shopping malls.
         Two years ago I attended several Riot Grrrl meetings. The group I was involved in met in the East Bay and called themselves GreenBeans. At these meetings women would talk about whatever disturbing experiences they had encountered in the past week. Common topics of discussion were street harassment and how each of us dealt with it, or frustrations with “girlfriends” and “boyfriends” and boys and girls who were just friends. One meeting became intensely personal when two girls shared stories with the group about being molested.
         Organizing extended even further than urban areas through the “zine” network. Phoenix explains that, “like the feminist presses that sprang up in the 70’s, the girl zine network puts women in touch with each other on their own terms. . . . Zines create and document culture: girl rage, resistance and love” (41). Women from every corner of the country were making their own zines and sending them out, often in exchange for another zine or for the cost of photocopying it. Zines usually contained original prose or poetry, editorials, thoughts, ramblings on about the world—just about anything. While I never put out a zine myself, a few of my friends did, and I made a lot of permanent friends though zine correspondence. I eventually even got up enough guts to publish some of my own thoughts in a zine from Vallejo called “Jing Bang So.”
         Riot Grrrl somehow worked. It formed a network of young women from all over the country and got them to start thinking about their role in society and about acting on those emotions. Although no one struggled to define it, zine editrix Sarah Duzer explained the movement as “the idea that girls should do things for themselves, and support each other in doing this. For some girls this means hanging out away from guys, . . . doing a zine, . . . participating in radical activism, or even thinking about actual separatism” (10).
         In the same way that no one attempted to define Riot Grrrl, no one attempted to control it. Riot Grrrl was not about subscribing to someone else’s ideas, even concerning feminism; it was about personal politics and networking all of these different ideas. Unfortunately, in the very authoritarian, hierarchical society we live in, Riot Grrrl couldn’t endure for long without a leader. When the media started to lend attention to Riot Grrrl, they indirectly deemed Kathleen Hanna the leader, much to her professed dismay. Bikini Kill, the most popular group to call themselves Riot Grrrls, was used by the media to define the movement, and the actions of Hanna were assumed to be leadership. Even back in 1992, off our backs interviewer Melissa Klein said of Hanna, “I originally intended to talk to her about Riot Grrrl, but sensed her hesitancy to assume the mantle of spokesperson for a movement so amorphous and intent on collectivism” (7).
         Few journalists were as courteous as Klein in their attempts to keep abreast of youth culture. Both Sassy magazine and Rolling Stone began reporting on the Riot Grrrl scene in 1993. Focusing on the musical origins of Riot Grrrl in her Rolling Stone article “Grrrls at War” (July 1993), Kim France didn’t hesitate to generalize and glamorize the movement. France wrote, “Riot grrrls’ unifying principle is that being female is inherently confusing and contradictory and that women have to find a way to be sexy, angry and powerful and the same time.” She went on to say, “This attitude is best personified in Kathleen Hanna” (23), although nowhere in her article does she mention ever talking to Hanna, or even seeing Bikini Kill play live.
         Sassy quickly co-opted Riot Grrrl’s energy and Kathleen Hanna’s style to create a Frankenstein of the movement. Being the “PC” form of journalism that it is, Sassy never bagged on traditional feminists before Riot Grrrls came on the scene, but Sassy and other teenage magazines like it welcomed Riot Grrrl as an answer to what journalist Angela Johnson calls the “image problems” feminism suffers from (13). Soon after, Riot Grrrl became synonymous with writing “slut” on one’s stomach or dressing up like a little girl with barrettes, baby doll dresses, and the added “angry grrrl” touch, combat boots. Why? Because this was the part of Riot Grrrl most accessible to the media, and most easily marketable to the youth of today.
         There were other reasons Riot Grrrl received the media attention it did. Leslie Mah, punk musician from the band Tribe 8, said, “I think it’s gotten so much attention because it’s like these pretty, white girls that are doing the youth worship thing” (Phoenix 42). Like every women’s movement, Riot Grrrl, much like punk itself, was unable to capture the support of young women from all demographic categories. In fact, Phoenix observed that Riot Grrrl always had “a largely white, middle-class membership” (42). In her interview with Melissa Klein, Kathleen Hanna said of the media attention: “Part of the reason is because I’m attractive by the traditional standards . . . so I know that we’re tokens. I know that. I have no fucking delusions that people give a shit what I have to say for real. I do think that people want to stare at my tits. I do think that people want me to put my foot in my mouth. . . . They want us to stop shouting. And if they can control what we’re doing by labeling it and ghettoizing it in some weird box. . . . I refuse to be caged” ( 10).
         Even more unfortunate than the fact that the media eventually designated Hanna a “leader” against her will was the fact that many females began to consider her their leader. They began to dress like her and talk about her as if she was, well, a rock star. It was at this point that Riot Grrrl lost its momentum as a political movement and turned into something more tangible for Generation X—a watered down, meaningless fad complete with rock stars, fashion models, and a “new” attitude exemplified not through action but though consumption. Commenting on Riot Grrrls’ synchronization with pop culture, Johnson says, “they’re hip, they’re now, and, not coincidentally, they’re spreading like wildfire” (13).
         Nowadays almost everyone is a Riot Grrrl. The new “Beverly Hills 90210” season opened this fall with complete makeovers of every female cast member. Each character undeniably dons Riot Grrrl fashion with barrettes, little girl blouses, and Doc Martens. Major record labels are falling over each other to sign every new “grrrl” band that comes out of the mold. The pages of every female-oriented teenage magazine are filled with Riot Grrrl fashion and information.
         What’s happened to the original Riot Grrrls? A year ago, along with the initial media coverage of the scene, many Riot Grrrls began to find the label too restrictive and immediately shrugged off any responsibility for ever creating the scene. Daisy Rooks writes, “It seems that since Riot Grrrl started, every girl in hardcore who was feminist, strong, aggressive, or confrontational was automatically pushed into this narrow slot and branded ‘riot grrrl’” (12). When Riot Grrrl became “cool” rather than threatening, most Riot Grrrls, myself included, knew it had gotten larger than itself and gave up.
         My experiences with Riot Grrrl have greatly affected my relationship with many of my peers. I see the way that much of Generation X has been bought off by American consumer culture. It truly is as if a nihilistic state has been perpetrated in the minds of an entire generation despite the fact that many of us don’t even know what nihilism means. We are angry and empty but we don’t know why. The only thing that fills the inner void is consumption because that’s the only thing we know how to do. The evolution of Riot Grrrl is just one example of Generation X’s disinterest in being anything other than an apathetic blob of people. I’ve given up on my generation, but not on myself. Perhaps it’s a good thing that many of us, as popular opinion states, claim to not have any heroes. But only if it makes us take action ourselves. A little while back I disowned one of my own heroes, Kathleen Hanna. Marking the final stage of demise for Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill played a $20 show with the GoGo’s sponsored by Budweiser, the King of Misogyny. For me, punk’s not dead, nor is feminism. But Riot Grrrl and Generation X certainly are.

Works Cited

Duzer, Sarah. Letter. Maximum Rock N’ Roll June 1993: 10.

Ferguson, Sarah. “The comfort of being sad.” Utne Reader July/August 1994: 60-62.

France, Kim. “Grrrls At War.” Rolling Stone 8 July 1993: 23-24.

Johnson, Angela. “Confessions of a pop culture junkie.” off our backs May 1994: 12-13.

Klein, Melissa. “Riot Grrrls.” off our backs February 1993: 6-13.

Phoenix, Val. “From Womyn to Grrrls: Finding Sisterhood in Girl Style Revolution.” Deneuve February 1994: 40-43.

Rooks, Daisy. Letter. Maximum Rock N’ Roll June 1993: 12.