Women up front: The punk Riot Girl movement

A step toward gender equality in the punk scene Photo: jonathancharles

BERLIN, September 3, 2013 — Punk music, like so many other forms of cultural expression, has been an unfortunate microcosm of society, replete with all of its divisions, hypocrisies and repression. For the thousands of song lyrics protesting racial prejudice and sexism, the punk scene, like the world at large, has been mostly made up of upper middle class white males. 

In the early 1990s, this archetype was finally challenged by a small but determined movement of women. These people loved punk music and subscribed to the basic ideals it purported to represent, but were tired of facing the same objectification and male-imposed limits their peers were experiencing in the real world. 

Many women realized their identities were unfairly stunted. They were identified only as somebody’s girlfriend or spouse. They became resigned to the knowledge that they will always earn less money for doing the same work as their male counterparts.

In the punk scene, women were expected to hold their boyfriend’s jacket while he danced at shows. Even if women wanted to dance, they were physically outmatched by the larger, aggressive males in the pit and, when they started their own bands, it was either deemed a cute novelty or discounted altogether. For all its progressive rhetoric, punk was perpetuating society’s legacy of unconscious sexism.

History will call it the Riot Girl movement. The name is immaterial. The important fact is that women began spontaneously creating their own movement within the punk community. It exploded out of the northwestern cities of Olympia and Seattle and soon spread throughout North America. Women started bands, booked and promoted their own shows, and began writing and publishing magazines which dealt with the realities of their lives. 

There were shelters set up for runaways, almost a modern day underground highway, for women who were escaping abusive families, boyfriends or spouses. The whole vibe was empowerment and speaking truth to power, as one band put it: “Revolution, girl-style now!” These women questioned the superficial limits society had placed on them and were soon discarding them completely. Bands were singing about the realities of sexual objectification and rape. Women who had been surviving these traumas found a rallying cry and finally songs they could identify with.

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Bikini Kill, one of the better known groups to spring from this movement, frequently made all the boys stand at the back of the room while they played, leaving the dance floor free for the women in attendance. For many, it was the first time they’d felt free to dance and express themselves without fear of physical or psychological repercussions. While there were many men who were offended at being pushed to the back, there were more who understood and applauded the idea. They were now able to see a show from a woman’s perspective and it had a profound affect on them, one many would carry with them for the rest of their lives. 

Inevitably, the Riot Girl phenomenon fell victim to its own petty divisions as the more ambitious factions allowed themselves to be co-opted by the culture industry. With its raw vitality stripped away, the movement quickly faded. Fortunately, it’s ideals live on, particularly with the men and women who were able to experience it at it’s epoch. 

As an ideal of gender and racial equality, punk still has a long way to go. It could be stated that this vibrant injection of female empowerment and perspective helped move it further in the desired direction than it would have otherwise. 

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Santa Cruz, California native Russ Rankin is the vocalist for the seminal California punk band Good Riddance, the hard rock band Only Crime as well as currently performing original songs as a solo artist. Rankin is a dedicated vegan, an avid animal rights advocate, a political activist and has been a regular columnist for AMP Magazine and New Noise Magazine as well as contributing to various magazines such as Alternative Press, Razorcake and others. 

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