Question: What is Riot Grrrl?

Singer Kathleen Hanna and drummer Tobi Vailfrom from Bikini Kill perform live on stage with Joan Jett (left) at Irving Plaza in New York on 14th July 1994. Photo by Ebet Roberts, image from

“Rebel girl, you’re the queen of my world”

Riot Grrrl was a feminist movement, set to a noisy soundtrack of amplifier feedback and snarling guitars, demanding respect and calling for an end to men’s violence against women.

Riot Grrrl started in the punk/grunge music scene of the early 1990s, in Washington DC. Sparked by the D.I.Y culture of the punk community, where handcrafted zines were cultural currency and bands regularly performed in lounge rooms at house parties, Riot Grrrl called out the BS of the punk scene, which was overly masculine and excluded women.

Not only did Riot Grrrl lead to women rising up in the punk music community, it also signaled the third wave of feminism. 

Girls who played in bands, made zines or went to punk shows were all part of the movement, and promoted their feminist views anyway they could – through their clothing, music, writing, zines and street demonstrations. Riot Grrrl was political. For those who were there as it happened, it felt as though the revolution had arrived.

Zine: a handmade magazine, usually combining creative writing, collage and illustration, which is then photocopied for wider distribution. Zines were a huge part of the Riot Grrrl movement, helping those involved to discuss ideas, express frustration with the status quo while providing an alternative to women’s glossy magazines.

Originally, it was intended to be a non-hierarchical movement without a specific leader but it didn’t really work out like that. Kathleen Hanna (left) lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, became the default spokeswoman for the movement, and their song ‘Rebel Girl’ became the anthem (see clip below).

Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill and the other bands of the time (see our playlist below) challenged social norms through their performances and music by talking about men’s violence against women, slut shaming, the media’s influence over women’s bodies and how women were confined by expectations of what they should or shouldn’t do, say, wear or look.

Kathleen’s 1991 Riot Grrrl Manifesto (scroll down to the bottom) laid it all out on the table, pointing out the obvious flaws in the way women were treated.

Riot Girl Playlist:
1. Rebel Girl – Bikini Kill
2. Girl Germs – Brat Mobile
3. Herjazz – Huggy Bear
4. Axeman – Heavens to Betsy
5. D.A Don’t Care –  Team Dresch
6. Narrow – Mecca Normal
7. M.I.A – 7 Year Bitch
8. Miss Hell – Calamity Jane
9. I’d Rather Eat Glass – Excuse 17
10. Bitterness Barbie – Luna Chicks
11. Don’t You Ever – Slant 6
12. Would-Be Saboteurs Take Heed – Emily’s Sassy Lime
13. Fiberglass – Tattle Tale
14. Penetration – Lucid Nation
15. Anonymous – Sleater Kinney

Playlist by our favourite magazine in cyberspace, Rookie Mag

What had started within the small punk scene in Washington soon went global, with girls all over the world creating their own manifestos, calling themselves ‘Riot Grrrls’. The movement highlighted the issues within the punk scene – women targeted or crushed in mosh pits by aggressive males, the way women’s music was dismissed by male reviewers – and it also covered issues that all women were dealing with like street harassment, sexism or domestic violence.

So, was Riot Grrrl totally positive thing? That’s a good question.

Watch Sangeeta Ranade discuss the pro’s & con’s of the Riot Grrrl movement, and how it factors into our lives today. Super informative and interesting.

In this clip Sangeeta makes a really valid point about Riot Grrrl being somewhat exclusive to white, middle class girls. While it has been argued that this was not intentional, there is a real absence of diversity within the Riot Grrrl scene. As Sangeeta says, if Riot Grrrl is to flourish again today it needs to be more explicitly open to all kinds of women, so that it can really embody the meaning of feminism: that is anyone who identifies as a woman is of equal value to a man. Any woman within the movement should feel able to contribute and be heard.

Original Riot Grrrl Manifesto (1991) by Kathleen Hanna (which still rings so true today):

Modern-day Riot Grrrls in music:

Angel Olsen – Forgiven/Forgotten
Grimes – Genesis

Ally Oliver-PerhamAlly Oliver-Perham
Ally is a Melbourne-based designer, educator and one of the co-creators of Rosie. She is addicted to This American Life podcasts, wasabi peas and red lipstick. Her dog Scout is widely acknowledged as her spirit animal. Ally loves being able to put feminist issues front and centre.

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