Riot Grrrls leave male rules behind

September 23, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Jennifer Thomas is sitting in the bedroom of her parents' home in Daly City, Calif., with her girlfriends Branwyn Bigglestone and Sam Ott, amid flowery walls and posters of rad boy rockers, remembering the night last summer when they saw the band Bikini Kill play. It was a turning point for them.

It was the night the girls took over.

"I looked up and the whole floor was just girls dancing," Ms. Ott says, still dazzled with the memory. "And wow, I was just so excited! I was like, Whoa, who are these girls? It was totally amazing."

Ms. Thomas nods in agreement. "They were totally rockin' out," she says. "And the boys were like, 'What's going on?' "

"It was something you've been waiting for," Ms. Ott says. "It was like, This is me. I'm a girl, I'm a punk and I'm into it. It was revolution girl style now."

That night they became part of a young and growing underground movement called Riot Grrrls -- a punk rock feminist revolution with no leader, no rules and no organization, but lots of anger. Riot girls are angry at their abusive fathers, at boys crowding the stage at concerts and keeping girls in the back, at a world that expects them to be thin, pretty, compliant and sweet. They say it's time girls take control and start doing what they want, like being in a band instead of dating a boy in a band. And it's time to bond with each other, start a girl group, play music and teach other girls "how to be truly cool to each other."

"Revolution Girl Style Now is about reclaiming all the rights you should have had since the day you were born -- to be respected, to have a guaranteed place in society as opposed to being left out," says 19-year-old Tiffany Fabian of San Francisco. "It's 'girl style' because we're not playing by boys' rules anymore. And 'now' because we're not waiting."

The punk rock feminist ideal started a couple of years ago, when bands such as Bratmobile and Bikini Kill began singing, putting out photocopied, stapled-together fanzines and holding weekly meetings that were part political action and part just girls hanging out. Riot Grrrl groups are strongest in the punk rock meccas of Olympia, Wash., and Washington, D.C., but the movement is branching out to cities across the country, as more girls form bands and as more girls discover the girl fanzines.

It is the zines -- passed out at shows, or sold by mail order or in a few comic book stores -- that are spreading the Revolution Girl Style Now credo, a list of imperatives that includes "Burn down the walls that say you can't," "Resist psychic death," "Be a dork, tell your friends you love them" and "Cry in public."

"We have to stick together and form a place where we can all talk to each other and feel OK," says Ms. Thomas, a 19-year-old graphic arts student at San Francisco City College.

Places like girl bedrooms, girl bathrooms and punk rock clubs such as 924 Gilman in Berkeley that have specially arranged girl nights, when girl bands sing songs about girl power.

Just how big -- or small -- is the revolution?

The person to ask is Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill and the person many girls credit with helping them "discover their girlness" through her girl power fanzine essays and song lyrics ("Your world, not ours. I will resist with every inch and every breath"). But on the phone from Washington, Ms. Hanna won't answer any questions. She and other riot girls take the revolution very seriously, and they have instituted "a press block," she explains angrily.

"Our integrity is being taken away by the media and the powers of exploitation," she says. "You should respect us as an underground movement. The nicest thing you could do is not write an article about us. Or have a blank space where the article would be; that would be even nicer."

And then she hangs up.

Ms. Ott and other Bay Area riot girls are more forthcoming, and less political. On the floor of Ms. Thomas' bedroom a few weeks ago, they excitedly pulled out stacks of zines, organized them and loaned them out. The booklets are filled with stories about pTC girls making peace with their fat, top 10 lists of bands and songs, scrawly art, reviews of other zines, essays on rape and abuse and lots of reminiscences of childhood, in which Barbies are generally hated, daddies feared and moms are usually cool.

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