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Girl Fucking Power

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

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IN THE INTRODUCTION to Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, author Sara Marcus describes her own history with the movement: She first heard the term "riot grrrl" in 1992, in an article in Newsweek that "describe[d] a nationwide network of teen feminists who came together to support one another, fight back against harassing classmates, and talk about 'everything from tuning guitar strings to coming out of the closet.'" In a pre-internet era, her efforts to learn more about riot grrrl led her to newspaper classified ads and phonebooks and the bulletin board at the local feminist bookstore—to writing "Riot Girl" on her knuckles and hopefully scanning the hands of other girls for similar messages.

It's significant that Girls to the Front begins with this personal anecdote, because it establishes that Marcus experienced riot grrrl the way that most of us experienced it: Not via a 1991 Bikini Kill show with 25 people in the audience, or in a class at Evergreen with Corin Tucker and Allison Wolfe, but as an idea picked up in a newspaper story or a Sassy article or a mixtape from a friend or a zine found at a show. The high priestesses of riot grrrl—Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, Wolfe, Tucker, and others—had largely moved on by the time the movement began to spread out from its epicenters in DC and Olympia, but that in no way diminished its effect on those who received its message.

Marcus' 300-plus page account locates the origins of riot grrrl in 1989, when writer Kathy Acker told a then 19-year-old Kathleen Hanna not to become a performance artist, but to join a band instead. Hanna did it, channeling her feminist politics toward developing a ferocious, outspoken girl-punk aesthetic. She sometimes performed shirtless, the word "slut" on her chest, "confronting audiences with what they might want to see (a topless woman) and what they might think of a such a woman, all in one fell semiotic swoop."

From Bikini Kill, Marcus moves on to Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, zine culture and national politics, capturing the energy and intensity of young women mobilizing around ideas of solidarity and activism.

Her rigor occasionally lapses—when describing the relationship between Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail and Kurt Cobain, she writes, vaguely, "Even though Cobain and Tobi were in love, he broke up with her later that fall." And as she talks to riot grrrls in Oly and DC and Arcada and Omaha, it can be hard to keep track of whether Erika is mad at Jessica, and how Erin and Molly are getting along. But to her credit, and for all her obvious enthusiasm and nostalgia for the movement, Marcus doesn't shirk from describing riot grrrl's devolution into factionalism and infighting. As one member of the DC punk scene noted, "This was a time when you could just turn your head the wrong way and you were a racist or a classist or a sexist or a rapist."

Riot grrrl was a political movement with a specific set of concerns (sexism, abuse, harassment, rape) born out of very real personal experiences. At the same time, though, it was very much a young person's movement, something that mattered intensely until one day it didn't. Marcus understands this: "People grew out of Riot Grrl, but that doesn't diminish the movement's value, any more than trigonometry diminishes the value of algebra," she writes. And its effects are still felt, not least musically: Corin Tucker released a hotly anticipated solo album this week, 20 years after her band Heavens to Betsy helped start a revolution.

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