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Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution - Sara Marcus. I read half this book months ago & then just finished it recently, so this review will probably be a little less specific than it could've been! Anyway: through interviews as well as zines & other documents, Marcus constructs a fairly deep, if narrow, view of the riot grrrl feminist movement in the mid-late '90s. Some of you know I had my own feminist coming-of-age as a teenage riot grrrl during that period, so I read this with great anticipation. There's a lot I found interesting here, the in-depth backstory behind the bands I was so inspired by (I especially loved reading about the British band Huggy Bear, because while I'd read, say, the Bikini Kill zines, my knowledge of Huggy Bear beyond their recordings at the time was virtually nil).

Also, well, I was there for some of this stuff, so it was interesting to see a broader view of it than I had when I was 16 or so. Like the disastrous Riot Grrrl convention in Omaha: so much fucked-up stuff going on there that I simply didn't see -- I do remember some of it, like a band composed almost totally of boys coming in & aggressively insisting they were going to play at the convention. & yeah, I definitely remember, to my shame, being on the faily defensive middle-class side of the class discussion. I remember how incredibly nice & supportive Ann was to me, in correspondence beforehand -- & I remember Ann complaining (justifiably!) at the convention about how snobby the "coast girls" (from both coasts) were at times, & I remember her looking at me & saying, "Not you." Yeah, not me, because the coast girls were snobby to me too: clueless uncool little high school girl from the suburbs! Anyway, I had an amazing time there (the people, the zines, the bands, doing clinic defense, etc.) so it is useful, & more than a bit horrifying, to see what transpired that I just didn't pick up on: besides the above, just people being jerky to their hosts, etc.

Marcus clearly believes in the power that this movement had; her enthusiasm comes through strongly (though some of the writing is pretty sharp, then bizarrely there are paragraphs that read like the worst stereotypes of blogospheric music reporting: an odd dissonance). This kind of love letter to the power of teenage girls & young women -- girl gangs! zines! punk fucking rawk bands! manifestos on bathroom walls, on our bellies, on our hands, in black marker! -- there needs to be more of that. Though as with any kind of look back at a political movement, I kind of... fear the stultifying power of nostalgia, especially for girls & women who are growing up now & hearing about this stuff for the first time: oh wow, things were really happening then, but now...

Anyway -- so I appreciated the love & gratitude with which the book was written, the excitement with which the narrative is infused. I had some issues, though. Firstly: while the book does briefly mention the schisms that, say, race and class had in the riot grrrl movement, these felt hastily covered, and in fact, for most of the book, thoughts about racism are almost entirely attributed to white girls & women, not people of color. Which kind of underscores the point about riot grrrl's race problem, I suppose!

Secondly: for a movement whose leaders (namely: bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, etc. but also certain zinesters) were unwilling ones, Marcus seemed really willing to take their word on when riot grrrl was 'over.' I appreciate the negative impact that mainstream media attention had, & I can see how this would make people from first-wave (or whatever) riot grrrl groups/bands feel like the message & meaning of riot grrrl got distorted. And yet -- & I fully admit I say this as someone who first heard about riot grrrl through Sassy magazine & through the much-hated Seventeen magazine article -- more & more girls were picking up guitars & writing zines & forming networks & getting shit started. The book ends just about when I (& Marcus -- we moved in similar zine circles) would've started to get involved in riot grrrl stuff, in zine stuff. Because that's when, apparently, the leaders that we as riot grrrls weren't supposed to have, kind of decided riot grrrl was over? & yet there was so much that happened after that -- including, I think, riot grrrl getting called out more on its own -isms.

I mean... how do you talk about race & riot grrrl without talking about LJ Martin or Mimi Nguyen or Bamboo Girl or Evolution of a Race Riot? I know some of those folks might not have identified as riot grrrls, or did & then stopped doing so, but they came out of the same subcultural scenes -- I know because I was there, ahahaha -- & critiqued riot grrrl from a place of familiarity; to stop the book when some of the most valuable conversations about, for example, race started happening (by people of color, not the concerned white people Marcus gives the most attention to throughout most of the book) feels like a cop-out.

Scanning the preface to the book again, I see that Marcus says herself that she missed the first few years of riot grrrl; it's curious, then, that given the impact it clearly had on her, she winds the book down during the years when she started participating in riot grrrl movement herself. To me, those years were full of activity & thought & music & noise & protest, & to have them dismissed as the twilight of riot grrrl, even when our leaders-who-weren't-leaders had already claimed riot grrrl was dead, feels like a betrayal. I guess this underscores a bigger problem w/the book: if "every girl was a riot grrrl," as one of our more naive slogans at the time went, then why focus so much on our (fallible, of course) idols? Sure, it lends a structure & a focus to the book, but the depth happens at the cost of breadth, & if riot grrrl was really a mass movement of girls like we believed at the time, well, it is disappointing to find a chronicle of those years that relies so much on hero worship.

So... tl;dr: no book could really cover all of riot grrrl, & this history is a celebratory start, but the gaps, to me, were very indicative of the sorts of problems that riot grrrl had & that feminist movement still has.

Date: 2012-06-08 07:04 pm (UTC)
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From: [personal profile] onyxlynx
Thanks for this; as someone who was already past 40 then I only heard of the riot grrrl stuff peripherally. (The Riot Grrrl on Mars (operatic updating of The Italian Girl in Algiers) was fun, but didn't really explain anything.)


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