Lisa Darms and Kathleen Hanna discuss The Riot Grrrl Collection (slide show)
The Feminist Press will publish The Riot Grrrl Collection, compiled from NYU's riot-grrrl archives, on June 18.
Wed May 29 2013
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In the more than 20 years since riot grrrl first exploded as a cultural movement—one that meshed radical feminism, activism and punk rock, and encouraged young women to challenge the status quo and start a “revolution girl style now!”—its influence has held strong over legions of girls. Activists (such as NYC’s own Permanent Wave) have taken inspiration from the movement’s DIY ethos, while musicians like Gossip’s Beth Ditto and Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster have cited riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile as major influences. The movement's emphasis on creating safe, empowering spaces for girls, meanwhile, has been embraced by those helping shape girl culture (look at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls or Rookie magazine for proof).
Despite this, official chronicles of riot grrrl have been somewhat hard to come by. (Sara Marcus’s excellent 2010 history, Girls to the Front, is a good place to start.) Part of this was by design: In 1992, after a spate of publicity that focused more on the movement’s image than its message, many riot-grrrl chapters imposed a media blackout, refusing to participate in coverage that wasn’t telling the true story. But the methods used to keep riot grrrl alive are also a factor: Zines and letters were the primary documents of the movement—this was long before the Internet made communicating with people outside of your small circle of friends easy and immediate—so if you weren’t there, living and breathing riot grrrl, those items aren’t easily accessible.
But that’s about to change: On June 18, the Feminist Press will publish The Riot Grrrl Collection, a compendium of zines, flyers, posters and artwork from the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU’s Fales Library. Lisa Darms, the library’s senior archivist, is its driving force; after working on Fales’s Downtown Collection (which documents the art scene in lower Manhattan from the ’70s through the ’90s), she realized that something similar could be done for the girl-centric movement. “There are a lot of affinities between [the] Downtown and Riot Grrrl [Collections],” she explains. “Downtown generated a lot of unusual material—things like poster or audiovisual material, even objects from theater groups—so I knew that it would make sense here and that we would know how to deal with the materials.”
Darms began working on the collection in 2009, and it got an immediate boost from a riot-grrrl icon: Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. She and Darms are old friends, and after they attended a discussion on archival collections at Fales (along with former Le Tigre member Johanna Fateman, who wrote an introduction for the book), Hanna decided to donate some of her personal materials, including the original Bikini Kill zine and the sticker-festooned filing cabinet featured on the cover. “Part of it was just getting the stuff out of my house—I had files where I just kept everything,” says Hanna. “I was also at a point in my life where I felt like I couldn’t move on until I wrapped up that chapter. I’m so heavily associated with it, but I needed in my own mind to be like, that’s not all I am. In a way, by facing it and looking at it all, I was able to step away from it.”
Hanna also helped Darms reach out to other musicians and activists who’d been there during riot grrrl’s early years; eventually, the archivist amassed artifacts from 16 people, including Hanna and Fateman, Bratmobile member Molly Neuman, musician Ramdasha Bikceem and Outpunk founder Matt Wobensmith. But even as the archive began to get publicity, Darms was aware of the limitations of keeping the materials confined to an academic collection; the pieces are used in classes and are available for researchers, but they’re not easily accessible to the public. That’s where the Feminist Press, which initially approached Darms with the idea for a book, came in. “Even though I really believe in the model of special collections, it can be intimidating for some people to come into the reading room, or people just can’t get to New York,” explains Darms. “To have other ways of sharing the collection is really exciting for me.”
The book presents a sort of chronological history of riot grrrl, as told by the people who were a part of the movement. Some pieces are published as excerpts, while others have been reprinted in full, the better to give readers a sense of what it was like to read a zine back in the day. Seminal works like Tobi Vail’s Jigsaw, Donna Dresch’s Chainsaw and Riot Grrrl (a collaborative effort between the members of Bratmobile, Hanna and others) offer a glimpse at riot grrrl’s earliest years, and the anger that would ignite the wider girl revolution. (Take this, from Riot Grrrl No. 1: “There has been a proliferation of angry grrrl zines in recent months, mainly due to the queezy [sic] feeling we girls get in our stomachs when we contemplate the general lack of girl power in society as a whole, and the punk-rock underground specifically.”) But there are also pieces that offer critiques of riot grrrl: Bikceem’s Gunk, for example, takes the movement to task for its lack of diversity and “growing closed to a very chosen few.”
There was never one right way to be a riot grrrl, and the book embraces that; differing viewpoints are presented without extrapolation, and each person’s work speaks for itself, rather than being offered as representative of the movement as a whole. “I feel like the way [Darms] curated it is really smart in that it really admits to being a snapshot and not being totality,” notes Hanna. “It’s not this thing of, Here’s the definition of what [riot grrrl] is! And that was part of the thing that was frustrating to me about riot grrrl; it became this thing where people thought, ‘If I dress like this and I know these certain things about feminism, that’s the requirement,’ but it was always about raising questions and starting dialogue.”
For her part, Darms hopes that people will continue to find their way to The Riot Grrrl Collection—not just out of historical fascination, but to keep the spirit of the movement alive. “I thought maybe 2010 was the moment for the riot-grrrl resurgence and that it would sort of end,” she explains. “But it hasn’t at all, it seems to be sustained, which is great because I don’t see this as a fad.” In the introduction, she writes, “Ultimately I do have an agenda. I hope this book will be a manual: a set of instructions for remaking the world. Use it to learn from riot grrrl's successes and mistakes. And then go out and start your own revolution.” Here's hoping a new generation of girls is inspired to do just that.
The Riot Grrrl Collection (The Feminist Press; $34.95) is out June 18. Darms, Fateman and Hanna will discuss the book tonight at Fales Library & Special Collections (6:30pm; free) and at Bluestockings on June 18 (7pm; free).
Follow Amy Plitt on Twitter: @plitter