It’s all there

[Edited to add the image of Erin Smith’s zine Teenage Gang Debs, found at ]

The New York Times just posted an article about Riot Grrrls, and it took me back.

It was probably November 1991, and my friend Erin was like, “You guys, my friends are playing a concert, and you have to come.” I had barely ever been to a concert before I saw Bikini Kill play that night, but for some reason I trekked into DC from the suburbs. The concert may have been in a church basement somewhere. I remember seeing it from the back of the room. I was like, “So this is a concert.”

I was probably standing by the door. Even then, I was medium in all things. Medium height at 5′ 5.5″, with medium brown hair of medium length. Probably wearing mom jeans waaaaaay before they were cool, a black sleeveless t-shirt, and an old pair of beat-up Keds. (Sadly, it was mostly downhill from there, as far as physical appearance goes.)

I remember that the music was loud. I also remember that in between two songs, the lead singer (Kathleen?), grabbed the microphone, and asked defiantly, “Does anyone have a tampon?” The crowd giggled. She asked more insistently, “I’m serious. DOES ANYONE HAVE A TAMPON?”

And that was feminism in 1991. I never imagined that a woman would ask a room full of strangers for a tampon, over a mike, no less. She was, like, admitting that she was a woman. With a body. Also, she danced around like she was enjoying dancing more than she wanted to be looked at. This meant that she was kind of hopping and jiggling at the same time. Just click on that link in the NYT article to get a better idea of what I’m talking about. Praise be that you could be a rock star in 1991 and not be an especially sexy dancer. She looked nothing like the Janet Jackson videos that I was used to seeing. Long before there was a “body-positive” movement, some women were celebrating their real bodies on stage.

Reading that article made me want to run down to the basement and find my original riot grrrl cds and cassettes. Back in the day, Erin (Smith, of Bratmobile) was all about riot grrrls. She was kind enough to try to teach me to play an instrument and was so encouraging that it seemed that I was more lacking confidence than talent. (Actually, it was both.) Thanks to Erin, somewhere I have a box of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Shonen Knife cassettes.

Going to those concerts, I learned that how you look on the outside is your choice. You could wear tiny shorts or airy cotton dresses, it’s your choice. But that doesn’t say anything about who you are on the inside or what you aspire to be. As that NYT piece says of Bratmobile, “Here was someone who looked like a prim librarian spitting out acid-tongued harangues and taunts.”  The movement said that you could be so opposed to the patriarchy that you defied all of the tropes of the genre, writing a catchy song that has the words, “By the way” in the chorus. [Looking at you, Bratmobile]

Those cassettes have black-and-white covers that were obviously cut and pasted and then photocopied, just like the zines that spread the word about them and allowed anyone to tell their own stories. Those cassettes and zines were a part of a whole do-it-yourself, pre-digital aesthetic that may represent the riot grrrl movement. It’s a movement that taught me that the joys of creating and sharing are real, that no one exclusively owns judgement or the means of creative production. It’s the same aesthetic that has launched a thousand blogs, even this one.

You’re welcome!

That aesthetic has come to stand for the beauty of the imperfect if it is also authentic. I remember just a few years after I went to my first riot grrrl concert, I heard my first episode of This American Life  (TAL) on WBUR when I was unpacking my Somerville kitchen alone on a Saturday night. Because of TAL, I think I was secretly glad to stay in on Saturday nights. Like riot grrrl music, TAL was self-consciously vernacular, meaning that the journalists on the show talked like regular people that you might be having a conversation with. And they talked to regular people, to make you understand how their stories were connected to your stories and to “big” stories.  TAL has been credited with starting both the modern storytelling movement of the MOTH and all of podcasting.  In this sense, I believe that the earnest, authentic, imperfect aesthetic of my generation has made its mark on the culture at large.

And now the 90s are back, baby! Those riot grrrl cassettes are gathering dust in my basement. (In this case, that is not a metaphor, they really are gathering dust.) Enough time has passed that the 90s can be “back,” and the Times can announce that the music that I listened to as a young person “holds up” after all these years. Even though this whole movement is decades past, it is still in me, still a piece of my values and sensibility and commonsense.

One thing I always wondered was, did riot grrrls really think that they were girls? In my day, we unabashedly called ourselves women  when we came of age because there is no shame in being a woman. I assumed that the girl moniker was perhaps a tongue-in-cheek way to poke fun at the notion that there was anything inherently weak or inferior in the girly. It said, “Be as girly as you like. Be girly all day long, you can still be strong or whatever.”