I got, started, and finished Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front yesterday. Stayed up too late to do it. But … but I’ve never been standing that close to the history I read, before. Unless-and-until someone writes the history of my high school. Which is going to happen one of these days.
I mean, I remember sharing pizza with one of the women in this book. I went to GLBT parties which she also attended. I knew, though was not exactly friends with, some of the Black-and-Greens that hung out at the Emma Center, I picked up Minneapolis-St. Paul Riot Grrrl zines and flyers in the student union at Macalester. It is a decidedly odd feeling to think that the normal background of my life was art of someone else’s cultural movement. Part of a revolution.
I’ll simply quote the About the Book from the website, here:
Riot Grrrl roared into the spotlight in 1991: an uncompromising movement of pissed-off girls with no patience for sexism and no intention of keeping quiet. Young women everywhere were realizing that the equality they’d been promised was still elusive, and a newly resurgent right wing was turning feminism into the ultimate dirty word. In response, thousands of riot grrrls published zines, founded local groups, and organized national conventions, while fiercely prophetic punk bands such as Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, and Bikini Kill helped spread the word across the US and to Canada, Europe, and beyond.
Girls to the Front, the first-ever history of Riot Grrrl, is a lyrical, punk-infused narrative about a group of extraordinary young women coming of age angrily, collectively, and publicly. A dynamic chronicle not just of a movement but of an era, this is the story of a time when America thought young people were apathetic and feminism was dead, but a generation of noisy girls rose up to prove everybody wrong.
I remember sitting in the baseball field at Macalester on a beautiful spring day, watching Babes in Toyland play in front of the science building. It was just normal, you know? Not a part of anyone’s political agenda. This would have had to be in May of 1992, the year before Babes played Lollapalooza. I remember all the women, including some of the extremely attractive members of the women’s rugby team, getting up and pushing to the front near the stage and dancing their asses off to “He’s My Thing.” I sat with my friends on the hillside, contemplating our inside jokes, discussing the prospect of getting more beer from the truck even though we were underage (and was that guy over there really holding), and wondering to myself why that one really cute rugby player was dancing to this song even though Everyone Knew she was a lesbian.
Was I thinking about Riot Grrrls? Was I thinking about changing the world? Was I thinking about politics, or women’s rights, or feminism, or the upcoming elections? Nope. Not really.
Except, in another sense, I thought about those things all the time. Operation Rescue was going to come to Saint Paul that summer. I still own the poster I found inside one of the city’s free weekly newspapers. It had a photo of a hand holding a Molitov cocktail, in front of the spire of a church. The text read, “Operation Rescue come to our town We’ll lock you in a church and burn the fucker down”. There was a sense of low-grade warfare everywhere I spent my time that year. War of women against the bastards who would rather see us dead than give us power over our own bodies. War of queers against the fuckers who would rather see us dead than — than, well, any other option. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had AIDS. Everyone knew someone who had had an abortion or been raped. The sense of a tangible, physical, constant threat was in everything.
I knew, in the way one knows things that may or may not be true, that this election would determine the fate of my physical safety in the world. That the elections this coming fall would decide whether I was going to be even less safe walking down the street. Whether I would be safe talking to my doctor. Whether I would take my life in my hands going to the gay bars I was then too young to go to but knew I needed to see.
Fear turns to rage, you know. Not every time, but a lot of the time.
I remember low-grade anger being … normal. Just a constant, seething, angry awareness that the world was essentially hostile. Feminist rage was not only normal, it was sane. It was the best response to a completely fucked-up situation. Yet I also remember being convinced that change was possible. That the world could be remade if one fought hard enough. I still believe that, more or less. That change is possible. That taking action is useful. That community brings strength.
The thing is, I was never a Riot Grrrl. I was never even particularly punk, or particularly grunge, or particularly anything. (Except geek. I have always been geek.) I never had either the strength of conviction or the insecure need to belong that drove some people into full membership in the big movements of the time. But reading Girls to the Front makes me realize how much I was affected by those things. Riot Grrrls were just an everyday part of my college experience. I saw their posters and flyers in the student union, saw them dancing at shows at First Ave, shared a pizza with one of them while discussing Jodi Foster with a big group of friends. I was never in Queer Nation, either, or ACT-UP. But these groups, collectively, formed a great deal of my political thinking at the time. That’s what feminism was, that’s what queer was — a refusal to be grateful to a hostile majority for every time they did not choose to harm me. An insistence on speaking up, living openly, and standing under the banner of the people who would take me in.
It’s twenty years later, now. And … And the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don’t have the current rates of domestic abuse, rape, child molestation by family members, or deaths from botched self-inflicted abortions sitting in front of me. And, coward that I am, I’m not going to go look them up. All those things still exist. Yet …. Yet things do change. In the industry I love, with all my heart, in spite of all its flaws — the comics industry — there are more women working on prominent titles, in bigger and better-paying positions, than there were in 1990. There are about four times as many women working in my building as there were ten years ago. Women find themselves more able to gain access to traditionally male things, and they find that sometimes they can speak up about the bullshit they find there — and then make change occur.
So, thank you, Sara Marcus. Thank you, Kathleen Hanna. Thank you, Susan Davies. Thank you, Kat Bjelland. Thank you to the Riot Grrrls of East Coast and West, the Riot Grrrls of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
Girls to the fucking front, indeed.
Filed under: Autobiography, Feminism, Queer | Tagged: feminism, girls to the front, riot grrrls | 4 Comments »