The Three ‘R’s of Riot Grrrl:
Reclaiming, Repurposing, and Redefining Space
The film begins with only a voice: “I’m your worst nightmare come to life. I’m a girl who you can’t shut up.” As the black screen fades away, the archived video of a petite young woman reciting spoken word about rape materializes. The woman is Kathleen Hanna, feminist punk rock icon. The film is The Punk Singer (2003). The crowd-funded documentary traces Hanna’s life and musical career from her childhood, through her various band memberships and transformation into a feminist icon, and to her disappearance from the punk scene. As the face of Bikini Kill, Hanna pioneered the riot grrrl movement, a feminist movement of the 90s and 2000s seeking to transgress gendered norms and redefine girlhood. The film reveals how Hanna negotiates with the concept of space using transgressions and reinventions of sound, content, and body. This essay investigates the tensions that riot grrrl created between the notions of public and private spaces, the body as a site of naturalness and performance, and the voice as sound and message, and displays these tensions within the film. The Punk Singer relays and embodies this emergent feminist community reconstituting what it means to be a woman and exemplifies the negotiations over physical space, sonic space, and the body as space. This essay explores riot grrrl’s ability to transgress male-dominated spaces and norms and to repurpose previously inferior female spaces as spaces of action and self-definition for women.
The historical and gendered divide of public and private spaces emerges as the origin for the interwoven development of riot grrrl feminism with the feminist punk rock scene. It is only by tracing this history that the force of feminist punk’s appearance into the public sphere establishes itself. While men are granted access to public spaces and the ability to express themselves within that space, women are relegated to private spaces such as the home. Male-oriented public spaces are sites of action, creativity, and productivity. Conversely, female-oriented private spaces are sites of passivity and consumption. As women are confined to private spaces overseen by the family structure, they are prevented from independent self-definition and exploration as well as denied girl to girl connections free of patriarchal or institutional mediation. The regulation of women’s participation in the public sphere has not only hindered the public’s external articulation of girlhood, but fractured the internal community of girlhood. Riot grrrl feminism rejects the repressive and regulative gendering of spaces. This rejection begins with the female punk rock scene’s arrival unto the public stage. In the same way Joanne Gottlieb and Gayle Wald, authors of “Smells Like Teen Spirit: Riot Grrrls, Revolution, and Women in Independent Rock (1993),” assert that “…many middle-class girls’ first political experiences involve escape ‘from the family and its pressures to act like a ‘nice’ girl,’” the emergence of Hanna’s female punk band Bikini Kill is one of the first political acts of the nascent riot grrrl movement (37). The explosion of women unto the punk scene converted women from passive consumers into active producers. It expanded the scope of women’s self-expression to a public and relatable image from a private, unshareable image. It transgressed male-dominated spaces and specifically the restrictive punk rock culture built on the repression of femininity and interrogated those gendered norms.
As women’s punk rock emerged into the public sphere, tensions over sonic space emerged. Sonic space is the situation of voice, noise, and the content expressed by those sounds (whether it be words or emotional exclamations) as contested domains that wield ideological power and control. Before bands like Bikini Kill did so, a women’s voice was rarely seen expressing anger or frustration, nor speaking on topics such as sex, rape, or menstruation. Women’s sounds and voices were meant to be non-disruptive and distinct from men’s sonic spaces of profanity and rage. Gendered norms domesticated women’s voices along with the women themselves. Riot grrrl feminist rockers transgressed, reclaimed, and repurposed voice. They redefined the sound and content of the feminist punk genre and empowered the voices of young women everywhere. Women are raised within the cliché of to be seen and never heard, to speak quietly and timidly, and to never interrupt or contest with another’s voice. In The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna behaves in quite the opposite way. The film’s isolation of Hanna’s voice in the first few moments foreshadows the importance of her voice, its sound, and its words. Interviewees in the film talk about how Hanna’s voice is “arrestingly young” and “girly,” yet “so strong and so powerful and so punk.” Hanna integrated two characteristics previously thought to be mutually exclusive sounds: the tone of juvenescent femininity and the charged, emotional power of yelling and screaming. The film emphasizes this unprecedented unity of sound, a performance of anger and aggression that was reserved for men. In her essay, “The Expansion of Punk Rock: Riot Grrrl Challenges to Gender Power Relations in British Indie Music Subcultures (2012),” Julia Downes posits a theory of music’s influence over the classification of sound: “If music can be understood to occupy a position ‘between the myth of silence and the threat of noise’ , then music inhabits an unstable and contested position, dependent on contingent practices that (re)define which sounds are valued as music and which sounds are othered as noise” (215). The domain of sonic space is therefore a battleground for acceptance and legitimation of certain sounds and voices as well as those who produce that sound and voice. Riot grrrl intrudes and disrupts sonic space to assert that women have access equal to men and access distinct to their femininity. These emerging women vocalists do not aspire to be “one of the boys,” but a girl or woman exploring and exploding the notion of femininity. Hannah changed the character of punk’s sound to include women, yet she further redefined the public stage into a private space for women by sharing and unifying female experience’s through her content.
Hanna delivered her messages and music “by women, for women, and about women.” The film states that her music was not “escapist,” but rather an avenue for sharing and relating to the experiences of girls and women everywhere. The Punk Singer simultaneously emphasizes Hanna’s voice as uniquely hers, yet also the surrogate voice of the feminine and feminist experience collectively. The film does so in its introduction of Hanna to the viewer. It opens with only her voice, and then introduces her as an image and personality. This initial separation of Hanna’s voice from Hanna herself is built upon throughout the film. The film describes Hanna’s music as a voice for “a lot of people that hadn’t been heard before.” Music critic Ann Powers stated, “Stories of abuse, emotional violence, sexism, that were just bubbling around, they [Bikini Kill] brought that out in open.” Hanna herself states, “We just tried to take feminist stuff we read in books and filter it through a punk rock lens.” Hanna uses her art as a medium for women’s collective expression, while maintaining and emphasizing her own individuality through her unique sound and image.
Through this duality of ownership and alienation of Hanna’s voice, the film reveals how riot grrrl feminism prompted individual self-definition and the mystification of girlhood. Hanna’s voice was her own in its unique femininity and feminist use, but became collective property as she absorbed and reflected the experience of women everywhere. The Punk Singer interviewee Jennifer Baumgardner, a feminist writer and activist, frames Hanna’s importance to third wave feminism as the first person to unapologetically dictate what that feminism would look like. Lynnee Breedlove of punk band Tribe 8 illustrates this image of feminism as “girls going back to, like, their girlhood and reclaiming girlhood…Where they’re like ‘I’m actually gonna be a little girl, but I have the power now.’” Hanna’s practice of returning to the vulnerable experiences of girlhood infused the feminist punk movement with the idea of girls as a marginalized group claiming respect, authority, and voice. bell hooks explains how such a margin can prompt community, self-identification and individualization, and action: “A message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance” (152). The film demonstrates how Hanna both expresses and embodies this marginalized community of girls through the dual ownership of her voice. Hanna recovers her voice as she recovers girls’ voices more generally. She creates solidarity through this collective reclamation of individual girls’ voices and narratives. Hanna alludes to the abandoning of silence and the assumption of control in vocalizing pain, whether it be rape or coming-out experiences. That action itself becomes a feminist statement, but it does so from a central source of women’s power and feminist identity. Hanna used her feminine and girly voice to assert a voice equal to, and independent from, men’s voices. From this position of independence, feminist punk music articulated female experiences that opposed the dominant narrative of girlhood. It created uncertainty and space within the concept of girlhood for girls to continuously assert their own definitions. The mystification of girlhood allowed girls to start relating to each other free from men’s or dominant ideology’s mediation.
Claiming the scream is crucial to making this feminist statement. The film introduces the “scream” with the statement “It’s all about speaking what’s unspoken, screaming what’s unspoken.” Lynnee Breedlove describes Hanna as “just screaming at the top of her lungs.” The scream breaks the boundaries of vocabulary and expresses meaning at a level of ambiguity that allows it to be a somewhat-private space for women. In the film, this scream is a feminist transgression while it is an exposition of the hidden inner-conflicts of girls. It articulates without words. The scream is liberated from a male-defined vocabulary and becomes a “wordless protest.” The scream can “simultaneously and ambiguously evoke rage, terror, pleasure, and primal assertion” (Gottlieb & Wald 29, 30). The scream alludes to childbirth, orgasm, or rape. Itself, the scream expresses emotions of sexual pain and pleasure that were previously exclusive to women. The scream savors this charged expression as it complicates feminist resistance by communicating on an exclusive and distinctly feminine level. Using the scream, riot grrrls reconstituted this sonic space with a femininity that did not cater to men. It was an individual space in which women used their individuality in a collective expression of struggle and frustration.
Riot grrrl used this sonic space to reclaim the worth and character of women’s voices and liberate them from censorship. The name “riot grrrl” came out of this space of recreation and redefinition. Hanna explains the birth of the movement as a reaction to a string of anti-women violence and feminist defeats, such as Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and the massacring of 14 female students by a vocally anti-feminist gunman. A friend, Jen Smith, said to Hannah, “We need a girl riot.” Member of Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail, proposed that “girl” become “grrrl” to express the “defiant ‘grrrl’ identity that roars back at the dominant culture” (Gottlieb & Wald 35). The synthesis of these two ideas became “riot grrrl.” Riot grrrl reclaimed the identifier “girl” and imbued it was the unapologetic frustration, rage, and power of this feminist movement. Hanna prompted every woman to claim the term and with it “create anything she wanted.” The term denounced the passive, “nice” notion of a girl and made being a girl productive, passionate, and assertive. Girlhood became a liminal space for such self-identification rather than a segue into domesticated womanhood. The synthesis of Hanna’s conquest over sound, content, and identity opened a space and community for women to transgress norms, experiment with sonic transgressions, and assert their individuality and personal experiences as the basis for change and unity.
Riot grrrl also sought to redefine girlhood in a complementary space to that of voice: the body. Just as the film favors Hanna’s voice, it also favors archived videos of Hanna. The onslaught of video and photo montages show Hanna in miniskirts, painted with the word slut, and moving wildly around the stage. Hanna reclaims her own body, asserts it within space, and uses her body as a site for gender and identity transgression and definition. Naomi Griffin, author of “Gendered Performance and Performing Gender in the DIY Punk and Hardcore Music Scene (2012),” argues the gendered body can be performed in a spatial sense: where an audience member positions themselves, where the performer positions the audience members, and how these performers and audience members enter each other’s spaces. Griffin uses her arguments on self-presentation and physical orientation to conclude that the manipulation of punk spaces deconstructs strict concepts of femininity and masculinity. This argument begins in an individual sense, how someone makes use of her own body. Women are taught to use their bodies differently than men. They are taught to be reserved and unobtrusive. Hanna, jumping, leaping, and twirling, across the stage denies this restriction of women’s movement. Hanna spits and she sweats. She redefines the purpose of her body. In archived clips shown in the film, Hanna does a cartwheel, a split, but mostly spins around the stage with her arms outspread in the act called “windmilling.” “Windmilling” is an example of such movement that allows women to reclaim their bodies. According to Griffin, windmilling is more than an assertion of ownership over the body, but a rejection of others from approaching: “Encompassing as much space as possible, this motion clears the area around you, preventing anyone from approaching.” Feminist punk rockers liberated women’s bodies from small and discreet, to explosive and confrontational.
Hanna demanded space, both for herself and other women. The Punk Singer expresses the violent nature of the punk scene and the subsequent physical exclusion of women from the punk scene. In an archived clip, a young woman states, “I’m sick to death of going to gigs and coming back with bruises and broken ribs. It’s not fair, ‘cause lads get everything. They’re allowed to do what they want and we have to stand in the background.” This woman, frustrated by her restriction, framed that restriction in feminist terms. Rather than being simply frustrated by her inability to participate in the punk scene, this woman is frustrated by the gendered access to such spaces. In the film, Hanna declares in response to this repression, “All girls to the front,” and to the boys, “Go back.” Feminist punk manipulated the boundaries of performer and audience by reorganizing the audience to allow women to the front and policing the audience’s behavior. As Ann Powers explains Hanna’s revolutionary intervention into the audience and assertion of control over men’s bodies, “Men could be in the room, but they could never dominate the room. It was a flip of the script that blew people’s mind.” Further, the film depicts Hanna as she polices the crowd, turning audience members’ violence unto themselves in Hanna’s angry and reactive assertions of control. “I said no! No! Get out! Out! Out!,” Hanna yells as she hits an audience member away from the stage. At another performance, Hanna declares “I have a fucking right to be hostile and I’m not gonna sit around and be peace and love with somebody’s fucking boot on my neck. Here’s your shoe. Get off my stage.” Hanna ruthlessly exposed any crowd member and his unwanted or violent behavior on the public stage. Hanna claimed more than just space for women, but transformed that space into a safe, inclusive, and feminist punk scene.
Hanna blurred the boundary of performer and audience through her interactions with the audience as a whole and as individuals. Downes relates how Bikini Kill inspired teenager Layla Gibbon to start her own riot grrrl band and zine: “’The thing that was most important to me…was the idea that I could be on stage or in the audience, there was nothing separating me from ‘them’: we were all just as important’” (223). Downes argues that the performers’ interactive behavior with the audience developed the community of “grrrls” and allowed female riot grrrl concert-goers to see themselves within the active performer. The Punk Singer depicts how Hanna creates this unity and complication of performer and audience member: “If anybody is fucking with you at this show … let us know, because it shouldn’t just be one person in the crowd’s responsibility to deal with fuckers.” Downes explains how this troubling of the line between singer and crowd promoted riot grrrl’s collective effort to reconstitute the punk space: “The onus was therefore shared between the performers and audience, to co-produce a space that acknowledged and challenged the violence and abuse that women experience in the immediate gig situation and wider social order” (227). Yet, the use of the body’s assertion over space is not the only spatial understanding of the body. The body is also a space itself, and riot grrrl’s manipulation and articulation of their presentation allowed the body as a site for transgression, expression, and resistance.
At the Evergreen State College in 1989, the film shows Hanna as she uses the platform of her fashion show to relate her friend’s rape experience. While working late, Hanna’s best friend and roommate was assaulted in their home. As the intruder was dragging her best friend upstairs saying “I’m gonna rape you, then I’m gonna kill you,” her best friend struggled free. Hanna reflects in the film, “I had to take this thing that happened to my friend—it had affected me—and put it into my work.” On a white dress, Hanna printed the words “AS HE DRUG HER UPSTAIRS BY THE NECK SHE SAID I’M SORRY I’M SORRY.” By exposing women’s bodies as sites of abuse, Hanna reclaims the body from abuse. She places power into the hands of violated and abused women and “’turned being looked at into an aggressive act’” (Gottlieb & Wald 39). Hanna does so by manipulating and inverting her image to critique the mainstream perception of women and highlight the performative nature of gender. Griffin provides a framework for the analysis of these “body technologies,” or the permanent or temporary ways people change their appearances, in the context of riot grrrl. Riot grrrl worked to show how women can be both masculine and feminine, how women can be powerful feminists no matter if they appear masculine or feminine. Riot grrrl reclaimed taboo imagery within mainstream communities and feminist communities. Within mainstream culture, taboo imagery for women can be male-gendered haircuts, dress, or body art. Within feminist culture, taboo imagery for women can be female-gendered style, for example, skirts or makeup. Riot grrrl worked to deconstruct both of these taboo self-presentations and thus created an inclusive and feminist community for more women.
The film reveals the power behind Hanna’s return-to-girlhood and feminine image to turn the act of looking aggressive. Allison C. Wolfe of feminist punk band Bratmobile, says of Hanna, “It goes to show that you can be, just, like, you know, I don’t know some valley girl and you still can be smart and have feminist ideas and you still should be listened to.” Lynnee Breedlove elaborates on how Hanna policed the audience’s behavior, “They just weren’t expecting those kinds of orders to come from that size of a person, that gender of a person, in a fucking dress.” Jennifer Baumgardner describes Hanna as the origin for the cliché third wave feminist, “A hot, but angry bisexual girl who is wearing a minidress with combat boots.” Baumgardner goes on to say “There’s, like, a lot of, I think attempting to reconcile a lot of extremes that are in all of us.” Hanna reclaims her body and asserts her power with her body. By writing on her body “slut,” “queer,” or “revolution,” and dressing in miniskirts and crop tops, Hanna interrogates the objectification of her body by the audience and mainstream culture. She opens the questions of what it means to objectify her body, to praise a certain kind of body, to prescribe an exclusive notion of beauty. Hanna deconstructs ideas of femininity and masculinity as measures of worth and power and as exclusive to women or men. Women can be masculine or feminine, but they are not equal to men because they can be masculine or “one of the guys.” They are equal to men because women can be powerful and forceful as women, “girly” and feminine or otherwise.
Riot grrrl liberated girlhood and womanhood from the gendered limitations historically exerted upon them. It liberated space, voice, and body from domestication and simplification and reclaimed the space, voice, and body as sites for expressive and self-defined femininity. This riot grrrl feminism maintained and built upon these feminist actions through the 90s and 2000s because it was self-conscious feminism. Gottlieb and Wald explain how riot grrrl was self-conscious in its ability to respond to the oppositional mainstream culture as a subculture. Mainstream culture and subculture continuously comment upon one another as mainstream culture attempts to “handle and contain” this emergent feminist community (Gottlieb & Wald 14). Riot grrrl feminism asserted itself aware of the mainstream’s regime of youth regulation.
The mainstream culture moderated feminist action by allowing women to have voices, but scrutinizing and condemning what those voices expressed. Anita Harris argues in her essay “gURL Scenes and Grrrl Zines: The Regulation and Resistance of Girls in Late Modernity (2003)” that the riot grrrl movement responded to a mainstream classification of girlhood into “girlpower” and “girls as risk-takers.” Riot grrrls temper these attempts to regulate girlhood by reinventing it as a transitional space for women to become active and deliberately transgress norms. The Punk Singer demonstrates this in Hanna’s first experiences as a feminist artist at the Evergreen State College. Hanna says, “When we would bring in our work, we were treated like we were crazy.” Hanna responded to these attempts to censor and delegitimize her expression by creating her own feminist art gallery, Reko Muse, with other feminist artists at the college. This regulation presented itself within the feminist punk scene as well. In 1993, Hanna and Bikini Kill decided to negate mainstream’s access to the feminist punk community through a mainstream media blackout.
The rejection of access to the feminist punk scene coincided with riot grrrl’s retreat into private and inaccessible spaces. Riot grrrl did so through the network of zines. Zines connected girls through their experiences and provided a safe community to allow girls’ “articulation of complexity, dissent, and critique” of the mainstream and establish their own definition of girlhood (Harris 39). Together, this feminist community revoked adults’, men’s’, and the mainstream’s authority to know and police girlhood. The bedroom, previously a site of girls’ repression, became an unregulated and productive space for girls to evade commodification and containment. Harris explains how girls claimed authority over negotiations of public and private space by “actively manipulat[ing] the borders between public and private, inside and outside, to manage expression without exploitation, resistance without appropriation” (47). The film demonstrates this in Hanna’s album Julie Ruin. A solo record, Hanna made Julie Ruin to change who her audience spoke to, from “an elusive asshole male that was fucking the world over” to women directly. She recorded her whole album on a $40 drum machine in her own bedroom. Julie Ruin is an example of the redefinition of the private, female space of the home into a productive and expressive liminal space. Instead of denouncing femininity and arguing that male spaces were the only spaces of legitimacy, Hanna and riot grrrl feminism embraced femininity and the female experience.
The riot grrrl community became, as Harris calls it, a “fugitive culture” (52). This fugitive culture allowed girls to explore themselves, each other, and girlhood without the scrutinizing eyes of the public. Harris explains that the secrets and silence of riot grrrl was silence of dissent, of resistance. It was a reclamation of the right to themselves. Feminist punk rock stole back women’s voices, bodies, and spaces on the public stage, and riot grrrl extended the same on the private stage. Riot grrrl saw the power in being misunderstood because, as girls, they had always been simplified, commodified, explained for themselves by other. Harris expands,
Young women themselves try to disguise their spaces, often happy to be misunderstood as a subculture, and sometimes playing this up by using the language of girls’ private play and the intimate world of girlhood that (hopefully) is of no consequence of interest to the state or advertisers. (48)
Girls’ secrets became currency for self-ownership. The scream became a renunciation of men’s and mainstream access to girls. Riot grrrl confused dominant understandings of women’s spaces, voices, and bodies and translated that confusion into an inclusive, individualized, and self-defining network of girls. The Punk Singer follows these spatial transgressions, reclamations, and redefinitions as they evolve into the riot grrrl feminist community, a community comprised of women and girls empowered in their femininity.
- Downes, Julia. “The Expansion of Punk Rock: Riot Grrrl Challenges to Gender Power Relations in British Indie Music Subcultures.” Women's Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, 2012, pp. 204–237., doi:10.1080.
- Gottlieb, Joanne, and Gayle Wald. “Smells Like Teen Spirit: Riot Grrrls, Revolution, and Women in Independent Rock.” Critical Matrix, vol. 7, no. 2, 1993, pp. 11–43. ProQuest.
- Griffin, Naomi. “Gendered Performance and Performing Gender in the DIY Punk and Hardcore Music Scene.” Journal of International Women's Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, 15 Mar. 2012, p. 66+.,
- Harris, Anita. “GURL Scenes and Grrrl Zines: The Regulation and Resistance of Girls in Late Modernity.” Feminist Review, vol. 75, 2003, pp. 38–56., doi:10.1057
- hooks, bell. Yearning Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.
- The Punk Singer: A Film about Kathleen Hanna. Dir. Sini Anderson. Perf. Kathleen Hanna. IFC Midnight, 2013. Film.