Reading this book was a bit like doing a jigsaw: fragments of the story I could recognise from earlier accounts of riot grrrl (most notably the riot grrrl chapter in Jenkins and Anderson’s Dance Of Days), some I remember being dimly aware of at the time, to varying degrees (Simple Machines and Positive Force I remember reading about/being aware of at the time because there was a Tsuinami interview in Ablaze! 10 and they mentioned the connection there), but they are fragments in a wider, more detailed narrative.
Before obtaining a copy of, and reading, the book I was a bit worried that it would be written for the academic market, and that it would tend towards dryness as a result, and be laden with theory (I got this impression from reading the review on Wears The Trousers) but it isn’t at all: It’s very vivid and readable. Marcus does write it from the position of an insider, which is a definite strength in this case as previous books on riot grrrl haven’t been written by insiders, but her perspective doesn’t mean she is uncritical: she is setting up the cracks as well as showing the strengths.
The analysis of the frequently contested, maligned, and misunderstood activity of writing on the body is interesting. Through Kathleen Hanna, Marcus links it to art history and artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, to ACT UP and straight edge, revealing prededents and possible influences. I also like the way Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ (which I read just prior to this on the basis that it was probably long overdue that I did), Madonna, and the post-punk film ‘Ladies And Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains!’ are mentioned and discussed. She sums up writing on the body this way:
a girl’s body was contested territory; this was a way to rewrite its meaning.
I begin to see more and more that the riot grrrls essentially, consciously or not, picked up the gauntlet laid down to women at the end of ‘Backlash’, where Faludi wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘This is how it’s been in the 80’s, what will happen in the 90’s?’
I also think that Marcus sums up a crisis point beautifully when she writes in the 1992-3 section “Riot Grrrl was edging its way, involuntarily, towards the cultural mainstream, and it wasn’t ready to be there.”
In terms of the way punk and riot grrrl have been fetishized and the nostalgia aspect has become damaging, I found a section of the book where Marcus discussed Seanna Tully’s introduction into riot grrrl particularly poignant: Tully became a riot grrrl in 1992, and she proudly wore a ‘Riot Grrrl; shrinky dink necklace, but was acutely aware of it not coming from the first batch of such homemade neckaces.
“I had first-generation-shrinky dink envy,” Seanna laughed later, aware of how silly it sounded, but her comment pointed to something real: how easy it is to idealize things that happened in the past, or are happening to somebody else, as more enticing than what you could make out of your own life.
Another general strength is that the book clearly makes a strong case for music as a serious tool in feminisms arsenal: How many girls would get to tour a feminist lecture tour? and how many would attend? What would be the entry requirements to speak on such a tour? And what would be the entry requirements for a group of young feminists to form a punk band and tour?
I also like that Marcus isn’t afraid to discuss the violence bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear faced, from men and women, and from some of the riot grrrls in the end. She also acknowledges the chilling impact of murder and rape within the punk scenes, and of Kurt Cobains suicide.
The decline and fall section is very good, in that she recognises the impact of burnout, sheer disillusionment, the searing impact of media intrusion, failure to address issues of class and ethnicity (I should probably say race, but the ghost of A Level Sociology lingers on…) and the subsequent battles within that ensued as a result of this, also the impact of Jessica Hopper’s breaking of the media embargo, and individual acts of profound selfishness on the various chapters and scenes. I like the postcript very much, in that she acknowledges the enduring impact and influence of riot grrrl, whilst also pointing to the fact that American society has got worse, not better, since riot grrrl.
Needless to say, the book focuses on the U.S scenes and chapters, so whilst the U.K gets a mention, it’s only in the form of London, Huggy Bear, Linus, and Lucy Thane’s film of the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear tour in 1993: ‘It Saved My Life’. There’s a vague reference to chapters, bands, and scenes, in ‘the north of England’, but that’s it. This is to be expected though as it’s clear that the book was never intended to take a much wider view than the U.S. One day, fuller, worldwide accounts of the impact riot grrrl had on girls in Britain, Holland, Belgium, France, Brazil, Poland, Spain, Italy, Croatia, and beyond will be written, but scrappy accounts are what exist at present, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.