This post is dedicated to the four-year-old girl I met on the bus home from class earlier this week. We talked about Dora the Explorer, her older sister’s boyfriend, her alter ego Juanita, and sang “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” She also named the women on the cover of Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women as Cultural Readers. A reproduction of Varnette Honeywood’s Snuff Dippers, the women depicted are now named Sophia and Danielle, respectively. This girl is the fucking future.
When I lived in Austin, I watched several Tyler Perry movies with my friend Erik. Perry is an industry unto himself, so to avoid watching his films seemed short-sighted to us. The politics of avoidance shaped and raced reception practices around his films. Perry’s consumer base are people of color, particularly within African American communities. Erik wanted to have some understanding of these movies because many of his co-workers are fans of Perry’s films. Thus, he wanted to be able to discuss them if they ever came up in conversation at work. I believe he saw Perry’s entire filmography, including filmed performances of the stage plays, which include intermissions, flubbed lines, improvisations, musical numbers, and discussions from Perry about moral lessons and thematic elements.
As a media studies scholar, I’m troubled by the racial politics of distinction and selection when choosing not to see a Tyler Perry movie. Pretty much all of the white people of my acquaintance, both within and outside of the academy, refuse to see Tyler Perry movies primarily because of the charges of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny led against his work. I can certainly understand the rationale behind the boycott, especially from within communities of color. At least one of my girlfriends refuses to see any of his films, in part because she is bothered by her parents’ fandom. Womanist Musings’ Renee Martin argues “Perry has said on many occasions that Madea is his version of a tribute to Black women, and I for one would much prefer he erase us.” Public figures like Todd Boyd seek to turn it such resistance into a social moment.
Likewise, I certainly understand the tacit privilege and threat of appropriation that occurs when white filmgoers take up a Tyler Perry film. While some white critics are engaging with Perry’s work in thoughtful ways, as Matt Zoller Seitz does in an essay that compares Perry’s work to Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography, these contributions should be problematized rather than taken as given. I’m also not discrediting claims against homophobia, sexism, and misogyny, as they are foregrounded and embedded within many of Perry’s films. Successful women are constantly vilified or pathologized in ways that play directly into black patriarchy. The threat of male emasculation looms so large it begs psychoanalytic intervention. Finally, the ways in which violence against women is played as high melodrama and violence against children is figured as slapstick is troubling, though perhaps speak to larger cultural histories of discipline and racial difference. Nor do I want to suggest that Tyler Perry’s films speak to or stand in for universal black experience, as no such thing exists.
But in my field, there is no justification for seeing a shitpile like Transformers because it is a successful film franchise (and thus a potential conference paper or book chapter) but avoiding a financially lucrative yet potentially problematic set of film titles and franchises from a controversial black male director. Even when Perry’s work is discussed in these contexts, the conversations can be disappointing. The logic behind such selectivity reminds me of an anecdote Kristen Warner shares at the beginning of her Flow column on black women and affect on reality TV. At a conference panel she attended, a presenter spoke on the Real Housewives franchise, but made clear that she didn’t watch the Atlanta season. Warner continues, “While others laughed, I was inwardly infuriated because, honestly, in a franchise based on ridiculous women behaving badly, how can one distinguish which cast is the worst?” Exactly. The troublesome rhetoric of positive representations and resultant policing and exclusionary strategies are at work here.
Though my screenings with Erik were casual, we knew as white twenty-somethings that there might be something potentially anthropological about what we were doing. Though we did see Why Did I Get Married Too in theaters, we decided against seeing it opening weekend, as it coincided with the Texas Relays. Instead, we saw it a few weeks later at my neighborhood movie theater. We also saw Why Did I Get Married, Daddy’s Little Girls, Medea Goes to Jail, Madea’s Family Reunion, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
Of Perry’s films, I like I Can Do Bad All By Myself the best. For one, it’s got Byron (Frederick Siglar), a charming kid who delivers some of the best reaction shots I’ve seen in recent memory. For another, it boasts cameos from Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, two black female artists whose music has been transformative for many black women. More importantly, Taraji P. Henson is excellent as April, a night club singer and alcoholic who is charged with and later embraces caring for her nephew Byron and his siblings Jennifer (Hope Olaidè Wilson) and Manny (Kwesi Boakye) after their family falls apart. Given the recent exclusion of the Academy Award-nominated actress from a TV Guide cover story for Person of Interest, such demonstrations of her formidable talent serve as necessary reminders. Of Perry’s work, it might also be the most female-positive and least pathological.
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference panel presentation that featured a prominent communication scholar who presented on Perry’s films. Apart from failing to demonstrate basic knowledge of Perry’s filmography or any interest in acquiring it, what disappointed me most about the scholar’s presentation was that she refused to dialogue with any discourses around fan and reception practices that might challenge her extremely negative reading of his work. While reading Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women As Cultural Readers for class this week, I wondered how black women would discuss texts like the Medea series, The Help, or Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. Thankfully, such discourses are constantly evolving online.
What strikes me most about Bobo’s book is the role translation plays in black women’s reception practices. In a chapter focusing on black women’s discourses surrounding Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the director recalls resistance toward having the film subtitled. She discusses her initial inability to engage with Miller’s Crossing because it took her a bit to adjust to the characters’ thick accents, then adds “You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We’ve had no other choice.” This makes me reflect on teaching, both as a college instructor and as music history workshop facilitator for Girls Rock Camp. With GRC, I seek to challenge the organization’s riot grrrl origins, how genres are privileged, how fan cultures around musical genres are raced, and acknowledge the reality that riot grrrl might not mean much to black female campers’ reception practices or lived experiences. I’m completely fine with this. As a feminist, I strive toward building a curriculum of inclusion where black girls can participate and influence. Translation will always be a part of this process, though hopefully we can think of it as an invitation rather than a challenge.
Last summer, I helped teach a music history workshop for Girls Rock Camp Houston. At least one of the counselors was a fan–I think actually was wearing a Best Coast t-shirt at one point. As a music instructor to young girls, the band’s appeal makes sense. Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino writes catchy songs that are easy to teach young instrumentalists. “When I’m With You” employs four simple chords–G, E, C, and D. If you have a guitar, I could probably teach you how to play it in ten minutes and I’ve been playing for almost a year. Also, Cosentino’s a belter. If you’re trying to get pre-teen girls comfortable with their singing voices and help them project it to a crowd of strangers, she’s a good model.
Cosentino’s appeal translates beyond the pedagogical. I remember when one of my friends was single, she mentioned that she could relate to a lot of Best Coast songs. Often her songs are about going on dates with people you’re not really into while waiting for a phone call from the person you do like (ex: “The End,” my favorite song on the band’s debut album, Crazy For You). I’ve been with the same person for over seven years, so I never did the bar scene as a single woman. But I certainly think Best Coast songs are cathartic. Imagine bellowing “I hate sleeping alone!” to your empty studio apartment after last call. Feels good, right? It also leaves a lump in your throat.
Cosentino’s booming voice is also an interesting contrast to her stoner persona. I totally believe her conviction when she sings. I was mounting this comparison with a friend recently, who sensed detachment in Cosentino’s delivery that negates the persona I put forth. While her image and hipster following presumes a blasé attitude, her vocals suggest otherwise. I think she means it, the same way that Shangri-Las’ leader Mary Weiss means it when she sings that “nothing in this world can tear us apart” when she promises her boyfriend she’ll break up with an old love on “The Train From Kansas City.” Maybe the bangs, sunglasses, and bong smoke just hide the tears.
But as I’ve said before, I wish Cosentino would write more songs about getting high, having the munchies, and hanging out with her cat, Snacks, who she’s savvily positioned as an Internet personality. While I like singing these songs in my car, I’m always aware of how much boys–particularly boys who don’t reciprocate–inform her lyrics. Part of this is music snobbery. I liked Pocahaunted, her project with Amanda Brown that was heavy on the drone and drugs. But Cosentino possesses pop sensibilities and can write just as effectively in economic, commercial song form.
A bigger part of my weariness speaks to my protectionist feminist impulse toward young girls. Best Coast songs are easy to play. They probably also speak to pubescent romantic angst, and convey it with more brevity than the Twilight series. It’s not surprising the band get invited to play quinceanearas. I’m more comfortable with girls singing and playing along to songs about cats and weed than whining about boys. You know, switch the script. But I sang “Lovefool” to the yearbook photo of my junior high crush throughout eighth grade and I turned out fine. I even discovered that the Cardigans were a lot darker and cooler than their big hit. Maybe I should just have more faith in girls.
This is ultimately my ruling on Swift, who I think shares similarities with Cosentino. Sure, Swift is ultimately more alpha than Cosentino. As Molly Lambert brilliantly surmised, Swift is a Jack Nicholson who is a virgin who can’t drive. And frankly, maybe the reason I prefer Cosentino–apart from kneejerk, shallow indie identification–is because I have deeper empathy for beta females. Yet both women pen songs about unrequited love in blunt, conversational language bolstered by mammoth hooks. Their regard for other women isn’t always great, though Cosentino tends to just compare herself unfavorably toward the girl who’s got her honey. But this isn’t particular to them. Both women are informed in some way by the girl group tradition. As was Black Tambourine, a Slumberland act recently plucked from lo-fi obscurity by a great reissue of their narrow catalog. Their biggest hit proposed throwing a girl off a bridge so the singer could get the guy. Clearly that’s what Swift wanted to do to Camilla Belle.
Swift and Cosentino’s boyfriends have been factored into interpretations of their music and persona. Again, this isn’t particular to them, as this is how most female entertainers are (mis)understood. Read Sheila Weller‘s book on Carol King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which detractors could rename How We Felt About James Taylor. Like Carly Simon before them, Swift and Cosentino have a knack for making people wonder who their songs are about. Swift has gotten lots of publicity for speculation around which songs are about John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, or Joe Jonas and when she’ll dish the dirt about Jake Gyllenhaal. The press is interested in casting Cosentino’s on-off relationship with Wavves’ front man (and tour mate) Nathan Williams as this generation’s Sid and Nancy. Both retain some agency through cultivating their persona and marketing by demonstrating fluency with social media.
There’s also a backlash against both women, sometimes perpetuated by other women. I’m part of that number with Swift, though I side with Julie Zeilinger and hope that she’ll adopt feminism. Cosentino has gotten it from folks like Marnie Stern, though I’m more than a little suspicious about how competition is being ginned up by the press. Both are pathologized because of their gender, whether or not the issue is made implicit. Swift, a career woman at heart, gets derided for being ambitious. Cosentino gets mocked for being a cat lady.
So maybe comparing them is a pointless exercise. Maybe they need to stop whining about boys and come together for some huge crossover project. Both have the chops. I hope Swift’s not allergic to cats.
I was at lovely SUNY Cortland over the weekend, co-chairing a panel with Kristen about Girls Rock Camp. We met some awesome scholars/activists from fourteen different countries, shook hands with enthusiastic coordinator Caroline Kaltefleiter, heard some great papers and talks on a variety of subjects, made contacts with several GRC organizers (including our roommate, who runs Girls Rock Denver and is working on her PhD in Communication Studies at Michigan), did an interview with a PhD student at OSU, and have lists of things we need to read. Here are just a few things I learned.
1. There’s a world of difference between youth organizing and organizing youth. We should strive for the former. This is a difficult process, but listening is of the utmost importance. Thinking of girls as agents of change is another.
2. My former thesis adviser Mary Kearney was present, as was keynote speaker Sharon Mazzarella. Kearney participated in the plenary and presented new research on how to fix the dropout rate amongst female production students. She managed to ask at least one transformative question in each panel we both attended. She also made several smart comments in the plenary, calling out the normalization of students’ upper-class backgrounds in the academy and hoping that the field of girls studies never achieves total legitimacy in the academy so that groundbreaking work can continue to happen outside the top-tier schools and across disciplines. Mazzarella stressed the strength of girls’ studies emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach as well. I want to be these women when I grow up.
3. Marilee Salvator’s “Moo Goes the Cow” was featured at the “Girl” exhibit that coincided with the conference. It was a series of embroidery loops with silk-screened images of anatomical diagrams of genitalia, needlepoint, cartoons, and menstrual blood serving as a commentary of recalling repressed memories of child abuse. It blew my mind.
5. Brock University’s Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby presented work they’ve done on nerdy girls, bridging representations with ethnographies. I’m interested in how this work will evolve, and hope they continue to challenge the racial dimension of female nerds, speak to girls who fit the profile of the nerd but don’t always make straight As, and address nerdy girls who engage in delinquent behavior.
6. The wave metaphor alienates many feminists and womanists of color, many of whom were excluded from its formations. White feminists should move away from using it. Also, speaking for myself, it’s always seemed like a problematic construct that doesn’t speak much to me as a feminist.
7. Regrettably, I could not attend Sunday’s film screening, which featured girl-made projects that came out of a workshop Kearney co-facilitated with Cortland’s Cynthia Sarver. I wish I had, though, as we should always include actual girls in girls’ studies conferences. We regret being unable to get girls to speak at our panel. We put out a call on the GRC listserv, but imagine that financial and parental concerns speak to their absence. As always, something to work on.
Late last month, media scholar Jason Mittell posted a piece on why he dislikes Mad Men. I was intrigued by his argument, especially his claim that objects of analysis in academic scholarship are primarily determined by taste. In other words, we tend to research and write about what we like and eschew applying similar critical rigor toward what we don’t. He references Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which attempts to explore the music critic’s disdain for Céline Dion by examining the album that boasts Titantic‘s “My Heart Will Go On.” However, Mittell notes a difference in attitude between him and Wilson. Wilson comes to Dion’s oeuvre as a hip outsider. Mittell, lauded for his ground-breaking work in television studies, approaches one of the two jewels in AMC’s original programming schedule from within his own habitus of quality televisual aca-fandom.
Though I found Mittell’s commentary trenchant, I had a few problems with “On Disliking Mad Men“. He paid peripheral attention to the show’s deliberate peripheral attention to race and gender, the former of which continues to bother me and folks like Michael E. Ross believe needs immediate intervention. As Ian Bogost argued, Mittell also failed to capture a singular argument against Mad Men that couldn’t be applied to other like-minded quality programs.
But my primary quibble is with methodology. As Mittell reports in the essay, he only watched the first season of Mad Men and a few of season two’s episodes for the purposes of constructing his argument. Several commenters addressed this as an issue, though many were fans who seemed at least partially propelled by motives of conversion. Though a fan of the series, I’m not interested in whether Mittell would come to like or appreciate Mad Men. Most of my interest in his criticism actually stemmed from his anti-fandom, a position that tends to get overlooked. My complaint has a completionist bent: how can you write about something you haven’t submerged yourself in?
Mittell makes the valid argument that a season should provide a viewer with enough of an arc to motivate continued investment for a show’s duration. However, for the purposes of criticism this still feels too arbitrary. This may be a tenuous position for a person who values deliberate misreadings and appropriation, as it suggests that texts can only be consumed and interpreted in a limited set of ways. But a television series is a medium of progression and process. A movie ends conclusively, unless it’s spun off into a multiple-installment franchise. Serial television does not. Cliffhangers bridge seasons together. Characters develop, sometimes in profound and unexpected ways. To acknowledge this evolution it seems one has to watch the entire series, even if the person’s opinions don’t change.
Music fandom informs my criticism. Completionism is a fan practice that exists across mediums. Often this is exploited through the commodity fetish, which again straddles mediums. The same person who has the Six Feet Under funeral plot DVD collection probably owns Rhino’s One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, which is packaged in a hat box (I know him — he’s my friend Erik). But I came to understand completionism through music. I’ve followed several artists across albums, in an effort to plot out their artistic trajectories. Sometimes, I continued to keep up long after I lost interest in their musical developments. Other times, I defended them long after they lost cultural relevance. occasionally, I’m surprised when they’re as vital as ever.
But again, we’re talking about taste. To the ire of Animal Collective’s Bordieuvian contrarianism, taste is nigh impossible to escape, much less transcend.
Mittell’s essay presented me with an interesting opportunity. During our workshops for Girls Rock Camp this summer, Kristen at Act Your Age and I noticed two pop stars who consistently showed up when we asked our girls to name the female artists they liked: Katy Perry and Ke$ha. I dislike both artists’ music, which some astute mash-up artists note shares producer credits to the point of becoming compositionally interchangeable.
Initially, I had a hard time understanding either pop star’s musical value. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll enumerate my biases going into the project. Below is my criteria for the music I like. Three of these items were stolen from conversations Björk and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had on musical preference. Unsurprisingly, I like both artists. If an act hits on at least two of these, there’s an excellent chance that I’ll like the music.
1. Emphasis on strange and/or unexpected vocal harmonies. Throw in a 7th or a 5th when you think the triad will satisfy. Better yet, lean into a 2nd. Harmonies should facilitate discord.
2. Preference toward superficial or actual repetition. Song length is usually not a concern, nor is an overt attempt at progression. What is important is hypnosis, transportation, and the space to parse out subtle variation and compositional synthesis (swiped from Murphy).
3. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
4. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings and/or angular melodies.
5. Tenuous reconciliation between electronic and acoustic instruments (thanks, Björk). Emphasis on “tenuous.” I have no use for a twee indie rock outfit that shoehorns in cute synth burbling over conventional rock riffs.
6. Funneling intensely private emotions through the very public act of singing (Björk has few peers in this category).
This rubric may strike some as oppressively pretentious, but these are my comforts and points of interest. I think at its best, mainstream pop music is capable of touching upon at least the first three items on the list, so it’s not necessarily a matter of art versus commerce when mapping out preferences. But Ke$ha and Katy Perry don’t meet any of this criteria for me.
The protectionist feminist in me is also pretty horrified that girls like them. While I don’t think censorship is the answer, I do think figuring out what they like about them is necessary.
I admit to being amused by Ke$ha when Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted an early performance of “Dinosaur.” Actually, some music geeks I know like her, deeming her funny, smart, ironic, and a forward-thinking pop star. Jamie Freedman at Always More to Hear talked about posting an entry called “In Defense of Ke$ha” during a lunch date, and I’m interested to seeing this piece materialize. But as much I wanted to like her talk-singing and deliberately shambolic performance on Saturday Night Live, I could not. Also, Ke$ha’s odes to partying and borderline alcoholism register differently in a gay club than they do when a pre-teen sings about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Plus, she has got to stop her sartorial appropriations of pan-Native American garb.
When Perry’s second single “I Kissed a Girl” became a smash in 2008, I was throbbing with righteous indignation. Some of it was full-on music snobbery. How dare some pop tart swipe Peaches and Goldfrapp’s glossy electropop? I bristled at Perry’s image as a preacher’s daughter turned servile kewpie doll seemed to spring from the id of Leisure Suit Larry. But the message behind “I Kissed a Girl” made me angrier. It positioned Sapphic flirting as harmless, temporary, superficially transgressive, and ultimately in need of heterosexual male validation. I want the exact opposite in a pop song. You can imagine how I felt when Out put her on their cover.
By the time Perry’s inane ”California Gurls” came out earlier this summer, her image as a superficially edgy pop star with a predictable sense of heterosexually palatable feminine camp did little to challenge what I already thought of her. Neither did employing venerate sell-out Snoop Dogg for guest services. Neither did playing dress-up with various markers of teenage identity as host of the Teen Choice Awards. Neither will marrying Russell Brand. Neither will providing the voice of Smurfette in the doomed film adaptation of The Smurfs. Casting my friend Chu in the “Teenage Dream” music video tested my subjectivity, but ultimately confirmed that Perry needs to associate herself with hip, fashion-foward, androgynous young people to bolster her image. Thankfully, my friend is not the one in the headdress.
So I had to put theory into practice. I listened to every track of their’s I could find for the past few weeks, anticipating Perry’s forthcoming Teenage Dream album. For fun, I tempered this experiment with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to test whether my reaction toward artists I don’t like changed in relation to Important Music. I also read Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love in preparation of my experiment. I recognize its contribution, though I can’t champion the effort I derisively referred to as Let’s Talk About Anything But the Album. Too often, Wilson sabotages insightful contextualization of Dion’s aspirational class positioning and ethnic identity in relation to her voice’s function as a luxury item or a continuation of hair metal’s power ballad against gross projections of his unbridled disdain or unnecessary explanations to oft-cited theories of taste circulating in Western philosophy and cultural studies. Furthermore, the chapter he devotes to Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love is a reprinted submission that reads like a conventional album review.
This potentially illustrates the limits of such critical inquiries. Though I found Wilson’s book frustrating, I couldn’t improve upon it here. I warmed a little toward Ke$ha’s Animal, which foregrounds her singular personality and features the pop metal barnburner “Party at a Rich Dude’s House.” Perry’s first two albums are joyless affairs, saddled with the burdens of putting up with bad boys and defining yourself as someone else’s vacuous sexual object instead of your own realized sexual subject. Both artists (and their songwriting teams) share the habit of putting down men through emasculation and viewing every girl as competition.
In short, neither pop star move me toward any notable form of appreciation regardless of how much I consumed. I’m curious to try this exercise on other artists, though am frustrated that taste will continue to warp the outcome. Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Probably. Can I transcend them? Maybe not, but I’ll keep listening.
First, an admission: like several feminist friends in my age group, riot grrrl didn’t make a profound impact of me until college. I was 10 in 1993, the year Sara Marcus claims as pivotal for the movement in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I was moving away from Mariah Carey and getting into the Pet Shop Boys. Riot grrrl was first on my radar through mainstream distortion in the pages of Spin and in the Spice Girls’ defanged “girl power” message. In high school, I started listening to post-riot grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney, who were in rotation on the local university radio station. But it wasn’t until hearing about bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear in women’s studies courses, reading essays that connected riot grrrl with queercore, and programming a weekly show as a college deejay that I came to have any relationship with the movement. Marcus’s book is a great reintroduction and a valuable entry point for folks who have only a cursory knowledge of riot grrrl.
I especially appreciate that, despite the book’s monolithic title, Marcus incorporates the shared experiences of many girl participants. Riot grrrl tends to be defined by its adult-aged bands, with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile representing the movement. But many teenage girls were inspired by these bands. Some formed ‘zines and bands of their own, like Girl Friend founder Christina Woolner and Heavens to Betsy’s Tracy Sawyer and Corrin Tucker. Not all of their contributions were preserved or recorded, so the book’s intervention is all the more important. Some of these girls also came from working class or single-parent households or did not attend college. Furthermore, while much is made of the movement’s Pacific Northwest origins and identification with liberal arts colleges like Evergreen, Marcus is quick to refute essentializing class assumptions. Riot grrrl’s class heterogeneity becomes more pronounced when Bikini Kill and Bratmobile relocate in Washington D.C. and contend with the hardcore scene, which was primarily peopled by diplomats’ children.
By dialoging band members’ and movement participants’ shared experiences, Marcus challenges the notion that riot grrrl was sustained exclusively by white, middle-class, college-educated women. She also points out the movement’s aspirations toward queer inclusiveness were complicated by the efforts of predominantly straight or bi-curious cisgender females. Previous interpretations of riot grrrl represent it as a celebration of white girls challenging gender politics in a vacuum. Marcus points out how some girls created ‘zines, formed organizations, chaired panels, and created conferences challenging feminism’s inherent white privilege, racism, heteronormativity, and class politics, often causing contention and defensiveness from within.
Thus, I also liked reading that riot grrrl was an imperfect, discursive movement comprised of many conflicting opinions, belief systems, and identities. Despite third wave feminism’s investment in the fragmented female self, so often riot grrrl is depicted as a halcyon period for a then-nascent third wave. While it’s sad to read about in-fighting and rivalries, it’s refreshing to read differing opinions on philosophies and movement imperatives. As someone who’s participated in collective and politically-minded non-profit organizations, it seems a more honest representation.
Furthermore, the presence of male oppression from within informs riot grrrl in interesting ways. Riot grrrl formed in response to the right wing’s attack on feminism’s political gains as well as the cultural silencing of incest, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, poor body image, and low self-esteem. It also opposed punk and hardcore’s exclusionary, homophobic, and misogynistic tendencies, best symbolized by the mosh pit, and implemented “girls in front” or “girls only” policies at shows. So it was really interesting to read about how bands like Fugazi aligned with riot grrrl, but were less willing to cede control over their audience. In 1992, Fugazi and Bikini Kill played a Supreme Court protest. Frontman Ian MacKaye bristled at the idea of sharing the bill out of concern that the event would be misunderstood as a concert. He was also unable to reign in the aggressive inclinations of his predominantly white male fan base, and blamed the women in the audience who defended their space in the pit.
Marcus also does a good job addressing controversial figures like Jessica Hopper. Now an established music journalist who penned The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, Hopper was associated with the St. Paul/Minneapolis scene and came to notoriety as the girl who sold out riot grrrl by speaking out of turn to Newsweek, which hit newsstands in November 1992. Many riot grrrls, who already witnessed message dilution in other mainstream publications, interpreted her interview with Farai Chideya as an attempt to further her own media career. By her mid-teens, Hopper launched a successful ‘zine, Hit It And Quit It, interviewed Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, and corresponded with Courtney Love. Marcus honors the opinions of girls who knew and felt betrayed by Hopper, but also tries to represent the writer’s viewpoint as well.
Girls to the Front suffers a sad ending, as many believed fell riot grrrl. Like Hanna, some riot grrrls were strippers but had difficulty negotiating theoretical rebellion against capitalism and conventional sexual politics with adult entertainment’s regressive market imperatives. More of them disbanded local chapters after internal struggle and lagging membership. Bratmobile disbanded after a major blowout on stage. Girl love is revolutionary, but it can be hard to sustain.
Marcus concludes by outlining riot grrrl’s cultural contributions and documenting the late-90s trend of commodifying girlhood and the mainstreaming of post-feminism. She mentions riot grrrl-influenced bands like Gossip, as well as the influence figures like First Lady Michelle Obama hold. I would like more of a discussion about the cultural significance of Girls Rock Camp, as well as Ladies Rock Camp. The many-armed non-profit is carving space in several cities in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and is catching on in countries like Argentina. Founded in Portland, Girls Rock Camp counts Hanna, Bratmobile’s Erin Smith, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, and Gossip’s Beth Ditto as champions. The organization is perhaps the clearest indication of riot grrrl’s influence. It certainly borrows from riot grrrl’s reliance on regionalism to spread its larger message. More importantly, it provides space for girls’ actualization and self-empowerment through music and DIY media production, which were riot grrrl’s main imperatives. As both organizations are still quite young, I understand wanting to wait and see what these organizations will become. Also, they should get their own books.
However, Marcus does something valuable with Girls to the Front. In representing riot grrrl’s imperfections and contradictions, as well as its relevance, she argues at once for its historical significance while challenging how we understand it. Make sure to check it out when it hits stores in October. Maybe it’ll convince you form a band with your best girlfriend and kick off a new revolution.