Revolution ‘Girl Style’ – for whom? Feminist punk’s problem with whiteness

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The year is 1991. You pick up a copy of the Bikini Kill zine and find the Riot Grrl manifesto. Towards the top of the page there is the statement: BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.

For those who have no idea what the above was about, allow me to give a crash course in feminist punk rock history: Riot Grrrl was a feminist punk scene which began at the turn of the 1990s in the northwestern United States. Spearheaded by the band Bikini Kill, it also featured a prominent zine and general DIY culture which encouraged women to have their own spaces to express their experiences in candid and creative ways. 

However, whilst there was a shared ethos of supporting the power of women, the scene does have its share of criticism about its lack of true diversity. As early as 1992, the typical Riot Grrrl was described by Newsweek magazine as “young, white, urban and middle class”. There was scant evidence of the scene championing and supporting those women amongst its ranks who bucked that overwhelming trend. Furthermore, the recent documentary The Punk Singer was heavily biased towards a white feminist perspective: a plethora of comfortable white women graced the talking head spots, and one contributor, the feminist activist Jennifer Baumgardener, went as far as to lean in on the white feminist trope about how white ‘feminists’ had always historically opposed racism and had even helped to put an end to slavery.

There were some women of colour during the period who didn’t fit this narrow world, however. Tamar-kali Brown was a key figure of the New York punk scene in the late 1990s, and she has mused: “I was aligned philosophically in terms of understanding, but I still felt on the out because it was a white-dominate scene”. Meanwhile, the zinester Ramdasha Vikceem, wrote in her publication Gunk in 1993 that “Riot grrrl calls for change, but I question who it’s including … I see Riot Grrrl growing very closed to a very few i.e. white middle class punk girls”.

Although existing in another century and continent to the original Riot Grrrls, I too can empathise with such an observation. I was a huge punk fan in my teens, but whenever I glanced around the audience of whatever hall or sweaty basement I found myself in, I did not go unnoticed that I was the only non-white, let alone Asian (I am half-Japanese, for reference), person in the crowd. Of course, such an observation did not carry with it the social implications like the prior examples, but it shows how far we still have to go in making feminist punk scenes truly inclusive. 

Perhaps my disappointment was further compounded if you consider how I fell in love with punk in the first place, as throughout my teen years my favourite album was Germ Free Adolescents by the late 1970s band X Ray Spex. The band is best known for its 1977 single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ which begins with the incendiary lines “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard…but I think: Oh bondage! Up yours!” Listening to the frontwoman, Poly Styrene (born Marianne Elliott-Said), a mixed race half-Somali girl with braces and brightly coloured cardigans singing about exploitation, consumerism and general alienation was so incredibly liberating. I finally had a musical hero, someone who followed her own path and sang about important issues without clashing with the energetic exuberance of the music. 

Yet despite the aforementioned issues with the punk scene, there are many great bands (some of whom were influenced by Riot Grrl no doubt) including women of colour which are putting out great music today. Big Joanie, who have actually supported 90s legends Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney in the past, are a 3 piece self-described “black feminist sistah punk” band from London and are a vital presence on the current scene. Other groups include Nova Twins, who declared themselves as “females of colour playing heavy music”, and have such an intense sound that they make all the all-dude bands getting more press attention just sound completely cowardly. Those are just two bands who have been able to get a bit of a profile in recent years, but there are so many more artists who take the spirit of Riot Grrrl, directly or indirectly, and turn it into something beyond the original confines to create art which truly disrupts the status quo.

All that being said, I feel tentative about being too explicitly critical of Riot Grrrl; they were pioneering and inspirational to many, not to mention how the members did a lot of work in raising awareness of issues regarding sexual assault and misogyny. So when I wear my Bikini Kill t shirt or listen along to ‘Rebel Girl’ or ‘Feels Blind’, it is with half a mind that I need to create work and live my life in a way which takes up the Rebel Girl manifesto and makes it applicable to the world as I see it, not just for myself but so that I can support other women with the solidarity that they deserve. ‘Revolution girl style now’ means all girls, not just the white and middle class poster girls for the movement.

 

Image credit: Miguel Bruna via Unsplash

 

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