Brooklyn-based writer and musician Sara Marcus deserves a medal just for daring to write a book about Riot Grrrl, the fiercely uncompromising feminist movement of the 1990s. I was there for portions of the punk concerts, street protests and hand-crafted fanzines she documents in “Girls to the Front,” and I wouldn’t go near that hot mess of brilliant idealism and tragic dysfunctions with a 10-foot publishing contract. Marcus not only goes there, she describes Riot Grrrls’ raw, emo agit-pop with a poetic fervor that matches its subject —- and chronicles the brief-lived rebellion’s sometimes nasty downward spiral with perhaps too much sympathetic regret.
Marcus was there too, a teenage refugee from suburban Maryland drawn to a punk-rock communal house in Arlington, Va., in 1994. She didn’t realize at the time that RG’s moment had largely passed, thanks to exploitation by patronizing media and its founders’ own myopia, paranoia and burnout. But there was enough life left in the old grrrl that those meetings saved the author from feeling doomed to the “bloodbath” of adolescence. “Talking to these girls, I began to understand that I didn’t have to be miserable. ... I felt powerless not because I was weak but because I lived in a society that drained teenage girls of power .... For the first time in years, I knew that I was going to be OK.”
One day before a meeting, Marcus paged through a file cabinet full of documents of Riot Grrrl’s early-'90s explosion. She was amazed by the power of the words and images and wondered what had happened to all these young feminist pioneers. Years later, the residue of that wonder led to this book.
Marcus’ experiential understanding of the emotional rescue act Riot Grrrl performed for thousands of girls and women girds her for the daunting task she has set for herself. She gets what the filmmaker Tex Clark calls the “radical act” of the musicians, writers, artists, and activists who bonded through ‘zines, 45s, gigs and stickers. The first part of “Girls to the Front” (named after the decree by which females pushed aside males at punk shows) captures the heady political and artistic breakthroughs of Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, Nikki McClure, Girl Germs, Jigsaw, and of course Riot Grrrl — the name of a zine as well as an unincorporated network of activist/consciousness-raising groups. In prose that’s more literary than journalistic, the author resuscitates the giddy courage of “Revolution Girl Style” at its best.
“This window of time, free of obligations, was their chance to fashion — out of nearly nothing but friendship, noise, and restlessly majestic vision — a new era,” Marcus writes of the summer of 1991, when grrrls from the two capitals of punk feminism, Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Wash. — came together to form bands, cut-and-paste Xerox mashups and write manifestoes. Riot Grrrl proliferated via inspiration, not institutionalization: “That’s how so many of these stories go: A girl onstage, a girl at a show: she seemed so cool, so tough, so together. Dozens of these moments, scores of them, are lodged here. It’s the high school friend-crush mobilized to political ends.”
Riot Grrrls cut a bold path through their mothers’ feminism and their brothers’ punk rock boys club. Inscribing their bodies with slogans in black Magic Marker, they were utterly compelling in their creative, media-savvy outrageousness. During a time of direct action protests and street theater, they could steal the show from both ACT UP and the Guerrilla Girls.
The media ate them alive. Sympathetic coverage, like Emily White’s 1992 L.A. Weekly cover story, devolved into patronizing, parasitic parodies of “pink, frilly bedrooms.” Riot Grrrl DC became overwhelmed by requests for interviews. Instead of grabbing this bull by the horns, the group’s freaked-out de facto leaders declared a media ban. Spoilers, like the Minneapolis girl who talked to Newsweek, became pariahs.
If the first part of Marcus’ book is exhilarating, the end can be depressing. Instead of supporting “girl love,” as they’d earlier vowed, members turned against one another and their male sympathizers. It was as if some Cointelpro conspiracy had planted double agents: A couple of over-the-top partisans could knock over the whole apple cart, as one grrrl did at an infamous New York show that spelled the end of Bratmobile. Just as Marcus carefully puts together the pieces of Riot Grrrl’s birth, she pulls apart the strings of its unraveling. This will undoubtedly earn her enemies, and she admits the pain of truth-telling — “the parts I would have preferred never to write.” Because she loves the doers, she sometimes lets bad deeds — like the ill-conceived media ban — off easy.
Marcus undoubtedly knew what she was getting into when she stepped into this quagmire. Mostly, she writes with the empathy, grace, and balance of a good war correspondent, not letting embedment preclude perspective. The author interviewed most of the period’s key figures, including Kathleen Hanna, Allison Wolfe, Corin Tucker, Jen Smith and Tobi Vail.
“Girls to the Front” is the well-documented history Riot Grrrl deserves. It puts into printed narrative a much misunderstood and maligned but crucial piece of the feminist past. Riot Grrrl may not have lasted, but you can find its agents and influence everywhere, in the dance-punk of the Gossip, the art films of Miranda July, even the pop spectacle of Lady Gaga. There are still hundreds of young bands inspired by old Bikini Kill records. Marcus’ book will undoubtedly prompt a whole new generation of teenage girls, letting them know it’s going to be OK.
McDonnell is the author of “Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, and Rock ‘n’ Roll” and is working on a book about the Runaways.
Girls to the Front
The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
Harper Perennial: 368 pp., $14.99 paper