Nerve.com: Love + Riot Grrrl
Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Riot Grrrl
What bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney taught me about relationships.
By Laura Barcella
“Rather than waiting for the playing field to become level, women were realizing that they could start
their own league.” So writes Marisa Meltzer in her new book, Girl Power: the Nineties Revolution in
Music, about the early-’90s emergence of the riot-grrrl scene. The young-feminist rock movement,
born in Olympia, WA and Washington, DC, inspired girls and women across the world to pick up
instruments, start bands (even if they were still learning to play), spill out their hearts in fanzines,
connect with each other through letters, and organize for what they believed in. Bands like Bikini Kill,
Bratmobile, Excuse 17, Heavens to Betsy, and Team Dresch encouraged women to start a “revolution,
girl-style now.” (The term “girl” or “grrrl” wasn’t meant to infantilize women — it was a celebration of
the more pure-hearted, confident days of youth.)
In their zines and in their songs, riot grrrls wrote about issues long thought too shameful to address
publicly — abortion, rape, eating disorders, and sexual harassment, to name a few — but the music
was raw, not academic. Former Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist Corin Tucker said it best: “[Riot grrrl]
was the first time I’d ever seen feminism translated into an emotional language.”
When I was in college in the mid-to-late ’90s, riot-grrrl music and zines introduced me to the idea that
love is about more than romance. I learned through riot grrrl that women could be their fierce, pretty,
freaked-out, independent selves with or without a romantic partner — that we could, in fact, be
anything we wanted to be. Which doesn’t mean I was — or am — immune to the pressures of society’s
romantic-industrial complex. Far from it. I was — and am — a feminist who really wants a boyfriend.
But if riot grrrl has taught me one thing, it’s that I don’t need to apologize for my thoughts and
feelings. They’re mine, they’re messy, and they’re okay. Here’s what else I learned:
1. Expect a struggle.
“When [DC band] Chalk Circle played shows,” writes Meltzer in Girl Power, “men in the audience
would wolf whistle, yell at them to take off their clothes, call them bimbos, or resort to the tired adage
that they were ‘good for girls.'” In other words? They were ridiculed, they were humiliated, they were
shot down, and they kept right on playing. Which is something I’ve tried to do, too, despite being
knocked on my ass by countless (no, really, I’ve lost count) crappy dates. Not to mention all the false
starts, dashed hopes, and blindside-breakups I’ve experienced during my ongoing search for romantic
bliss. I know better than anyone: it’s not easy to scrape your ass up and keep moving when every
ounce of your bruised ego is itching to crawl into the crevices of your couch, never to emerge again.
But you know what? Like Kathleen Hanna once sang with Bikini Kill, “I will resist with every inch and
every breath, I will resist this psychic death.” I’ll keep going. Because the alternative — abandoning
the idea of loving and being loved — isn’t an option.
2. Only connect.
Riot grrrl was one of the last youth movements before the internet made it easy to communicate
across the globe. That’s part of why riot grrrl was so powerful: women weren’t reaching each other
from behind computer screens. They were connecting more authentically: face-to-face at shows, and
through zines and letters.
After I published two issues of a personal zine back in college in the late ’90s, letters from readers
around the country swamped my mailbox. My zine was tiny! Imagine the reach of bigger zines like
Girl Germs by Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile.
Genuine connection is key — a fact I’ve learned the hard way from gazillions of internet dates. I’ve
leaned heavily on the internet to meet guys for the past few years, mainly because it’s easy. These
experiences have only solidified my desire to meet someone organically, in the “real world.” I just
don’t know if connecting behind a computer screen can ever have the same energy and electricity as
spotting someone from across a bar, or being introduced to someone at a party. Which is why one of
my personal 2010 resolutions was to get off the freakin’ internet — or at least rely on it a little less —
in my love quest.
3. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Like some of the best punk bands of the 1970s, certain riot-grrrl groups were ridiculed for not
knowing how to play their instruments. Of course, they didn’t give a damn— they made up for any
lack of technical skill with boatloads of rage, passion, and all-around aplomb. Bands like Beat
Happening even celebrated their deliberate amateurism with slogans like “Learn how to not play your
This lesson is one that most love-hunters would be wise to apply to their romantic pursuits: learn how
to not do it right. Learn how to fuck up, how to fall on your face, how to embrace looking stupid. None
of us knows what we’re doing when it comes to love; in the realm of the heart, we’re all amateurs. Now
let’s take our clothes off and make out, shall we?
4. Love yourself, dammit.
Okay, so it’s the cheesiest love cliché expressed, like, ever. But it’s kind of true, isn’t it? As hard as it is
to find someone to love in the first place, it’s that much harder if you don’t love yourself first. It’s a
stumper. I’d like to believe that I don’t need to master the art of self-obsession to find someone
fabulous, but maybe I just need to like myself a little bit. And I think I can do that.
In any case, riot grrrls were firm proponents of loving oneself. In their fanzines and in their lyrics,
they wrote of “girl love” — loving other women — as well as self-love. For lots of riot grrrls, loving
oneself meant being okay on your own, without a dude, a woman, or anyone else to take care of you.
As Bikini Kill wrote in “Don’t Need You”: “Don’t need you to tell us we’re good/Don’t need you to say
we suck/Don’t need your protection/Don’t need your dick to fuck.” Riot grrrl was about asserting your
autonomy — being comfortable in your skin, regardless of romantic status or who was sleeping with
whom. Important lessons, no?