"What we do is secret." That motto is scrawled more than once in the fanzines assembled in "The Riot Grrrl Collection," this first-ever collection of writings and artwork from Riot Grrrl, the early '90s punk-based feminist movement whose critique of boy-centrism in music and art circles was co-opted by the Spice Girls, then resurrected by Pussy Riot.
"What we do is secret" captures the clever agitprop style that turned purposely crude underground publications into coveted fetish objects of mass-media hype. At the time, the grrrls blamed sensationalized coverage on patriarchal capitalist swine, but really, it was just innate human curiosity. No one wants to be kept out of a secret, especially when it's whispered in curlicue cursive right in your face.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the media boycott declared by some Riot Grrrls 20 years ago, and the anarchic scene's subsequent dissolution, is that the movement's messages have been left in the very hands that the grrrls (as they called themselves) sought to slap away. The story of Riot Grrrl has been mostly spread via journalists, documentarians, historians and critics. Sara Marcus chronicled its history in the 2011 book "Girls to the Front"; the documentary "The Punk Singer," about Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, "the raddest grrrl of all," is making the festival circuit.
But few people have actually seen the zines, fliers and cassette tapes that ignited the fiercest firestorm in feminism's brilliant Third Wave. Furtively mimeographed at lunch breaks — often with runs of fewer than 100 — and often distributed by hand at punk rock shows or in Riot Grrrl meetings, these artifacts were as ephemeral as they were incendiary. Sometimes their own creators didn't keep copies.
Fortunately, a number of original participants held on to these "smart, radical texts," as archivist Lisa Darms describes them in the collection's introduction. Building on documents donated by Hanna (that's her sticker-adorned file cabinet on the cover),
In her smart, personal introductory essay, Johanna Fateman, erstwhile creator of the zine "Artaud-Mania" and co-founder with Hanna of the band Le Tigre, recalls how "each girl's photocopied missive was a revelation" and also how failure to constructively address issues of race and class privilege mired the movement in recriminations. Critics still deride Riot Grrrl for being too white, as if white girls have no right to express their problems. In fact, this collection reveals that some of the most powerful writing came in zines by girls of color ("Bamboo Girl" and "Gunk"). Queer voices were also integral and in your face.
I saw a lot of these zines when they were first published. Their bold encouragements and intimate confessions thrilled and amazed me; "feminism" was still a dirty word in the music circles I ran in, and even though I was a few years older than these grrrls, I felt transformed by a new generation's unapologetic activism.
The collection is obviously a document of a moment, 1990-97, but it doesn't feel steeped in nostalgia. Twenty years later, slogans like "Stop the j-word jealousy from killing girl love" strike me as being as vital for the college students I now teach as they were initially for me. Indeed, staying underground may have preserved these creations' life force. After all, last year, such battle cries inspired the strongest revolt against authoritarian government and religion in Russia in 30 years, when a group of artists, musicians and activists dubbed themselves Pussy Riot, in direct homage to the '90s Grrrls, and stormed a Moscow church.
More of an art book than an anthology, the collection comprises reproductions of manifestoes, essays, reviews, fiction, lyrics, drawings and collage art from zines including "Girl Germs," "Chainsaw," "Jigsaw," and, of course, "Riot Grrrl." There are punk singers (Corin Tucker, Allison Wolfe) and filmmakers (Sadie Benning, Miranda July), term papers and erotic musings. In a sense, these are time capsules of a moment just before the Internet changed the way we communicate. The zines were purposely raw and retro: handwritten or typed, physically cut and pasted instead of made with then-available desktop publishing programs. These were semi-private communications, not processed, produced or prettied up product.
Sometimes, especially during the earliest outpourings in the first half of the book, the personal becomes philosophical. "This is about making new meanings of what it is to be cool," Tobi Vail writes in Bikini Kill. "Embrace subjectivity as the only reality there is."
Later, as Riot Grrrl began to collapse under the pressure of being mocked, appropriated and dispersed by the mainstream, the tone becomes solipsistic and hostile, a tape loop of self-criticism and defense. Still, there's ample creative genius: Hanna displaces her own struggles into a fantasy of stalking rock star Evan Dando. Fateman uses the zine diary format to fashion art criticism.
Of course, that notion of individual genius is one of the romantic myths of Western capitalism that many of these radical writers, steeped in punk egalitarianism, inveigh against. That was part of Riot Grrrl's problem: suppression of the individual in favor of the group. As "Girls to the Front" documents, original grrrls like Hanna were verbally and even physically attacked by haters in and outside the movement.
Still, girl power became a force of its own. Such bands as Sleater-Kinney, Mika Miko, Girl in a Coma, and the Gossip carried the music and the message forward. A thousand blogs and bands, and a Russian protest/performance group, bloomed in their wake.
With this powerful anthology, the secret is out once and for all. Girl-style revolutionaries now can look back on the original expressions of revolution girl-style then.
McDonnell's latest book, "Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways," will be published by Da Capo in July.
The Riot Grrrl Collection
Edited by Lisa Darms
The Feminist Press: 360 pp., $34.95