So I finally got my hands on a copy of Sara Marcus's Girls to the Front and haven't put it down for the past two days. I think I'm really starting to understand the "scene" aspect of riot grrrl, or, rather, the lack of a unified scene, which made it difficult to define riot grrrl despite mainstream media's best (or worst) efforts. Going by the handful of magazine articles written in the early nineties, one would think riot grrrl was nothing but babydoll dresses and smeared lipstick punks with just a side order of feminist politics. Reduced to its sartorial effects, the movement loses its power. And girls stuck in the middle of the country or away from a major city got their information piecemeal: a short article here, maybe a some airplay on a low-power college station there. I was one of those girls, and everything I knew about riot grrrl came from traditional media. The way it was presented in the mainstream press, I just assumed I wasn't cool or smart enough for it. Plus, I was never much of a fan of punk rock, and it was impossible to disassociate riot grrrl from its music.
It's kind of a sad fact that, especially in the pre-internet age, riot grrrl needed the mainstream to reach all those girls grasping for feminist role models, but it was the mainstream that ultimately sold them out. In that respect, I like that that Girls to the Front was told from the inside out. It answered a lot of questions I had, and I don't feel as much resentment towards it now. It was about the music, but much more. And I'm kind of surprised that riot grrrl's heyday lasted only a few short years -- at least in the big history of rock -- but as cliched as it sounds, its impact is still felt today.
Random tidbits from the notes I took while reading:
Fugazi's influence as a political punk band fighting against the sexism that is part and parcel to hardcore: noted. Their song, "Suggestion" is sung from the point of view of a woman being harassed, and lauded as an anti-sexist anthem. It always smacked of appropriation to me. I couldn't help but feel validated when I read this:
"'Suggestion' was still Fugazi's song, though, and in recent months it bad begun to sound to some riot grrrls like a self-righteous white boy appropriating girls' issues so he could appear more virtuous."
I never doubted Fugazi's motivations, I just thought it was a bit misguided. That they let women come up on stage and sing lead presents it in a different light, though.
On riot grrrl's mostly white, middle-class majority:
"Some of the riot grrrls knew their group wasn't perfect. They were good at talking about what they had in common, but they weren't sure how to approach their differences. For instance, while a majority of the people involved were white and middle-class, quite a few were Latina, black and Asian. And some had grown up in struggling families. These things were rarely discussed."
This has been my primary criticism of riot grrrl, and I see parallels in the feminist blogosphere today. Although some of those walls have broken down, it's an ongoing process to fight against the biases and privilege.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book have a lot of respect for the women who were part of the early days of riot grrrl. I especially liked that riot grrrl's story wasn't sugar coated, but presented as something as complex and, at times, as flawed its members.