I was inspired to write this piece while procrastinating from writing and watching The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna. More generally, it is also about feminism in the form of the Riot Grrrl Movement in the 1990s in America. I really identified with Hanna’s insight about a girl’s “creative bedroom culture” and the need to share it with a more public audience as well as taking care of oneself creatively and physically.
I first discovered riot grrrl the summer before I started high school. I was outside an all-girls preparatory high school waiting for my parents to pick me up, after having taken a placement test that would determine if I would get in and how I would be ranked. I was listening to my Walkman with a cassette playing songs I had taped off of the college radio station, feeling oh so cool. Two girls approached me wearing patterned tights, one with stars and the other with hearts, and piqued my interest. They gestured toward me and when I pulled off my headphones, they asked me what I listening to. We talked for a little while and exchanged phone numbers.
After a few three-way telephone conversations (the height of technology at the time), we decided to start a band; our name would be Petticoat. We didn’t know that there was already another band named Petticoat from Berlin (this was in the infancy of the Internet), but luckily, that didn’t stop us. I was going through my second largest identity crisis since puberty. Here I was, a girl from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks getting into a high school halfway across town with the daughters of state representatives and locally known business owners. Even so, getting into riot grrrl was not the most difficult thing for me; I was used to being an outsider, misunderstood, and craving a creative outlet. I had been born into a love for the local music scene including punk rock and “alternative” music. However, nothing quite blew my mind apart like the sounds and philosophy of riot grrrl and nothing changed my personality and life’s direction more than going to that high school, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Petticoat practiced in my parents living room, with scratchy shag carpeting, among my childhood encyclopedia sets, using the amp my dad bought me for my electric piano for middle school band. We spent the entire summer together informally recording songs on tape recorders and dreaming of the day when we might play a show. Unfortunately, that day never came. Due to “artistic differences” we broke up before we were able to perform publically. What I took from those afternoons was a sense of belonging, being embraced for my weirdness, and feeling like I could have a public forum for my writing in musical form.
The summer before senior year, I became fully “radicalized” when the Petticoat bassist and I decided to go on a road trip to Memphis, Tennessee for the “Southern Girls Convention”. At the height of its popularity, riot grrrl meetings were generally held on either the East or West Coast and although it held significant relevance for girls everywhere in the US (and I’m sure beyond), us Southern girls were much more isolated from each other by distance, very conservative local politics, available spaces, and limited resources.
San Antonio is known for being a “big city with a small town attitude” and I’m sure that most other women that I met at SGC struggled with small town attitudes everywhere they went. We did not have some of the basic resources that many women have in the northern cities that had supported riot grrrl in the past. We often grew up in traditional homes with racism, sexism, and classism rampant just outside our doors, if not within them. People did not look kindly on blue lipstick, torn fishnets, and dog collars; this meant that we were freaks, weirdos, and probably, sluts and therefore, did not deserve equal treatment. They certainly did not like people, especially women to question the status quo, what is considered “normal”, and appropriate behavior for “ladies”.
Thankfully, we had each other. I had experiences and made friendships there that remain salient today. I experienced what academics call a complete and total “paradigm shift”; I went from knowing I was “different” and sometimes feeling like the weirdo freak that other people thought of me to a feminist, vegetarian, and human rights activist. In college, I found my niche in the Feminist Forum, the queer college group, Amnesty International, and Radical Cheerleading (protest cheerleading on various activist topics). Not only did I take my “bedroom culture” and turn it into a public creative outlet, I made friends in the process, and I began to deeply care about the world around me and the people in it. I was doing something about it, which is possibly the most empowering thing a person can do for themselves when they are feeling misunderstood.
Riot grrrl allowed me to be aggressive about my identity, but also sensitive to hurt feelings and other’s life experiences. Since then, every time I didn’t know who I was “supposed to be” and what I was supposed to be doing with my life, I found a new way of identifying myself with the world through my friendships with strong rebellious women. These are things that continue to quell my anxiety about living in the “unknown”. Plus, “bad girls” have all the fun! It was refreshing to meet other girls like myself who had similar musical tastes, style sensibilities, and the strength to pursue the purest form of their identity. We did not need to be cookie cutter images of each other and in fact, we pushed ourselves to get to know our true selves, to love ourselves, support each other, look at the world with open eyes and active minds, and mostly importantly, to do something about it.