“Riot Grrrl would later be spoken of as girls challenging sexism within punk… In a subculture that congratulated itself for presenting an alternative, in a realm that should have been a refuge, they found more of the same crap. Boys’ efforts were lauded and girls’ were unrecognized… Objectification and sexual assault went unaddressed… Punk wasn’t really the point, though. The problems with the scene burned the girls up precisely because it echoed the way the world at large treated them.” —Girls to the Front
Now validated as an important component of third wave feminism, Riot Grrrl was a loosely organized network of various newly politicized young girls trying to find a place and voice for themselves within punk and feminism in the early 1990s. Basically, the punk scene felt too sexist, while academic feminism seemed too rigid and out of touch with the lives of young girls. We sought to forge a safe, encouraging and vibrant cross-section where punk challenged sexism, among other oppressive ills, and feminism could speak to the reality of our lives as young punk girls.
As one of the founding movers and shakers of Riot Grrrl and lead singer of the decidedly Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile, I must admit feeling somewhat anxious when asked to read and review the latest attempt to get the Riot Grrrl story “right,” Sara Marcus’ in-depth study Girls to the Front. It can be emotional and confusing to read about yourself and major events in your life by someone who wasn’t entirely there and posits it back in third person print as fact. In many ways, Marcus nails it. But, then again, can this type of rendition ever be quite right?
While minor mistakes and mixups populate the text to a certain extent, Girls to the Front seems far more accurate than any other thirdparty Riot Grrrl documentation out there. Marcus has a gift for contextualizing Riot Grrrl politically in the times in which it thrived. She makes insightful connections with our intentions, motivations and meanings that many other storytellers have missed. Complete with smooth, catchy transitions, she thoughtfully and sensitively provides interesting personalized back-stories for many of the main players and the artists who influenced them. Marcus seems to have gotten inside our heads—she really gets it, which is impressive and rare.
The feeling of being excluded, dismissed, trivialized and written out of history has always been a bone of contention for marginalized people. While I’m proud to be validated in print for my contributions to the feminist continuum, I feel there are some misrepresentations in Girls to the Front that warrant mention for that very reason. Throughout the book, I sensed an underlying theme that myself and my band were not taken as seriously within the Riot Grrrl movement as, say, Bikini Kill or Heavens to Betsy. I am often referred to as “dorky,” “strange,” “weird” and, my personal favorite, “What is that??” Perhaps that’s something I need to come to terms with, and I know it’s not a competition, but am I really that out there? Marcus also characterizes my band as infantile and simplistic and insists that “Bratmobile had always been a relatively low-intensity band, something to do on school breaks,” when in reality, that band was the embodiment of our socio-political coming of age that placed us in the vortex of an incredibly influential time for music and feminism. While I understand the point she’s trying to make, that we proved you didn’t have to be mainstream cool or a professional musician to achieve what we did, after a while these impressions felt a bit dismissive.
Furthermore, her sole mention of the influential queer bassist/guitarist/ homocore zinester Donna Dresch in the book as simply “Tobi [Vail]’s friend from high school” left something to be desired. Donna’s early and continual encouragement and example set the stage for many a Riot Grrrl to follow.
I was also surprised to read that my telling of an incident where I threw a bloody tampon into the annoying crowd of a Washington, D.C., Fugazi show was presented as a (partial) lie. Many of Fugazi’s fans on the Mall were harassing Riot Grrrls throughout the day and behaving like jocks in the crowd. When these same jerks started singing along to the pro-woman song “Reclamation,” it made me sick. My tampon was overdue for a change and there were no bathrooms in sight. I envisioned my bloody tampon sailing into the mouth of one of these hypocritical jock fans, and it made my day. It’s too bad I can’t throw or aim well and that my tampon barely missed Ian MacKaye, one of my old friends and comrades. I was there, I did it and I know how it happened and what my intentions were. Regardless of the interpretation of any onlookers or MacKaye, who gets to tell this story? Who has their words taken seriously? Whose version goes down in history?
Sara Marcus takes some liberties in her prosaic descriptions of Riot Grrrl and our intentions. The problem is that most often opinions coming from the people Marcus interviewed are stated as fact and not placed more appropriately in quotes. Girls to the Front often blurs the lines between her interpretations and musings and the words and intentions of her subjects. It’s impossible to tell who really said what, what they really meant and wherein lies the truth. I believe there are multiple truths in the telling of Riot Grrrl, but perhaps that multiplicity cannot be thoroughly conveyed within the framework of a third-person retelling.
Ultimately, Girls to the Front is a painstakingly researched and wellthought-out tribute to a punk feminist era Sara Marcus clearly holds dear. I greatly appreciate the hard work and interpretive skill she put into a story of which I am part, and it should be heralded as an uncannily insightful revelation of the motivations and inner-workings of Riot Grrrl.
Allison Wolfe was born an identical twin in Memphis, Tenn. She grew up in Olympia, Wash., lived in Washington, D.C., for a long time and currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is considering working on an oral history of Riot Grrrl. Wolfe is a cofounder of Riot Grrrl and Ladyfest, as well as a singer who has been in Bratmobile, Cold Cold Hearts, Deep Lust and Partyline.