REVIEW: Sara Marcus – “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution” (book)

I haven’t reviewed a book since, fuck, 1998 or something. And, of course, I pick a book on a subject that I feel unqualified to write about anyway. So, if this gets a little middle school book report-ish, that is why.

The events covered in Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution take place between 1989 and 1995. As is the case with any piece of work that is looking back on something, it is easy to see the problems in hindsight. This is especially true for books that are about cultural and political movements. Riot Grrrl stands in a weird place. It is painted as a music scene/fashion thing, generally as a punk offshoot. But, overwhelmingly, it seemed designed to be an outlet for political and social norms to be challenged.

The book is interesting in that, if you were to replace Riot Grrrl with any other social/political movement, the overarching narrative would have probably remained the same. The personal stories would have been different, but it would still be a story of a cultural movement getting stolen, defanged, and twisted by mass media. It would still be about how something threatening to normal society got watered down into nothing more than a fashion trend (as far as media at large is concerned). It is an interesting thing that gets repeated time and time again.

As far as content, Sara Marcus did some great work on this. The people she talks about in the book are people she had correspondences with. They are people she did interviews with. This book has strengths in that it covers things using material provided by the people who were there. Whole chapters are written around the personal experiences of a few girls. The zines that were hugely important in the movement are discussed at length, quoted, and respected. This was certainly written by someone who was there, not some jackass looking backwards. Any other book would have been content to just prattle on about Bikini Kill and Bratmobile without getting to the heart of the matter. While those two bands play a big part of the narrative, they are not painted as some bullshit scene figureheads. They are not presented as paragons of scene virtue, they are presented as people who had a whole culture blow up around them. They are presented as flawed people who did their best to help out the movement, but were later looked down on by it.

The stories of the individual people are the strong points in the book. Examining the interpersonal relationships that make up a movement is probably pretty hard to do. But, whether we are talking about some random people in Olympia, Washington or zinesters in Canada, this book does a good job of showing those stories. Be it the early exuberance of the movement, or the later struggles with an influx of mainstream misunderstanding and attention. The struggles are not uncommon to any group, but they always manifest themselves in different way. For example, at the first major Riot Grrrl conventions, a workshop about the role race plays in the movement got shot the fuck down and ignored. It would become a repeated issue throughout.

The role media and mainstream culture played in the expansion (and eventual constriction) of Riot Grrrl is discussed at length. It follows the same lines that a story like that always has. Vibrant, underground culture starts making waves, mainstream media wants to cover it. Mainstream media finds a way to shit all over the movement by making it seem like a fad. Culture is then looked at as bullshit by mainstream culture. It is the story of every movement. More over, it is the story of any movement that is, by nature, female-centric. It seems that whenever women stand up and say something about how they are getting treated unfairly (or feeling unsafe), everyone just tells them to shut up and get over it. That is bullshit.

Even today, it seems that if girls are coming out and discussing how shitty things are, they are almost always dragged down. Towards the end of last year, I Live Sweat and Punknews were doing interviews or posting essays written by female musicians about sexism in the scene. The most vocal people in the crowd were the dudes telling them to be quiet. How fucked up is that? You have women talking about how they feel unsafe in a male dominant culture, and they are just being ignored. Honestly, that is why the ideals of Riot Grrrl are just as important now as they were in the early 90s. For as progressive as punk (or culture in general) pretends to be, the same issues that existed 20 some years ago are still fucking there.

As I write this, there is a huge discussion about birth control happening in government, Rush Limbaugh is still calling women sluts and prostitutes because they are speaking up for their rights, and we have two crazy Republican assholes trying to become president. Both of whom are notoriously anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-women’s rights. Culturally, we are still treating things like rape, harassment, and domestic violence as a joke (at best). At worst, we are treating them like something the victims should be ashamed of. It is still almost totally verboten to speak up about these things. With shit being as fucked up as it is, a document about a movement as political and personal as Riot Grrrl should be required reading. Totally check this out.

Girls To The Front
Sara Marcus
Harper Perennial