“If I was ever a part of something that inspired anyone to say no when they needed to say no or say fuck off when they needed to say fuck off, then the work is done.” - Allison Wolfe
“We’re so cool yeah, yeah. We’re so cool, cool,” sings Bratmobile frontwoman, Allison Wolfe. It’s the early 90’s, and Bratmobile and Bikini Kill are at the height of the riot grrrl movement. Centered around politics and female acceptance, riot grrrl was the ultimate community for women. With safe spaces and angsty music that talked about issues such as rape, domestic violence, and patriarchy, it all seemed unstoppable. However, as the movement continued to grow, so did the backlash, and it eventually crumbled.
Now over 30 years later, Wolfe has continued to be a voice for women and female empowerment. In addition to co-founding the movement and fronting the band, Bratmobile, she’s also been involved with bands such as Cold Cold Hearts, Sex Stains, Ex Stains, Deep Lust, Partyline, Cool Moms, and more. She was one of the principal creators of LadyFest, a feminist music and arts festival that has since gone global and is now the creator and host of the punk podcast, I’m in the Band. We spoke to Wolfe about all things riot grrrl, from its creation to its downfall in the 90’s, the legacy it left on the punk scene, and how people today can create their own “riot grrrl” movement.
According to Wolfe, riot grrrl was never anything new to her. Growing up in Olympia, WA, she was surrounded by a very liberal environment that allowed for self-expression and vocalization of important issues. “I was raised in a lesbian, feminist, household. Living in Olympia and being surrounded in that community, I probably took a lot of things for granted. It wasn’t until I left town and came back that I realized the rest of the world doesn’t think like that.” Nevertheless, Olympia proved to be the perfect setting for and her friends to get together and create something powerful. “In college Molly Neuman and I were neighbors. We joined forces and she helped to politicize me more, while I brought the DIY music aspect. Through the encouragement of the Bikini Kill girls, we started a band and fanzine and eventually created this whole scene. A lot of the riot grrrl stuff was happening before it was really called riot grrrl.”
While the elements of riot grrrl were already in action, it wasn’t until Wolfe, Neuman, Jen Smith, and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail collaborated to coin the official term for the movement. With “riot,” taken from the phrase “girl riot,” which was written in a letter from Smith to Wolfe, and the spelling of “grrrl,” taken from Vail’s existing zine, Angry Grrrls, “Riot Grrrl” was born. “Jen Smith and I would write back and forth when she lived in DC, and a cop shot someone in front of a restaurant. Things were already boiling over, and it sparked riots in the neighborhood. As she was telling us what was going on, she said, ‘I hope you girls come back. We can start a girl riot.’ So we mixed that with what Tobi had been saying for a long time with her Angry Grrrls zines and came up with riot grrrl.”
Riot grrrl was centered around issues that were prevalent in their everyday lives, politically and personally. Combining music, DIY culture, and politics, the movement was meant to speak out on affairs in and out of the punk scene, while creating a space where woman can feel empowered and not feel pitted against each other like society is used to. “There was a lot of horrible stuff going on. We had the Gulf War and Bush Sr. was president and all of these things. Kathleen Hanna was volunteering at the local women’s domestic violence shelter and was seeing and hearing a lot of things that were going on in our little town. When we all became friends and realized we were trying to create a scene together, we all decided to join forces and bring women together.” By doing this, the group had realized just how powerful they were collectively and how similar they were in regards to issues they were seeing. Bringing these issues to the forefront and having those conversations was incredibly important. “A lot of guys were afraid they were going to get drafted, which is valid. But at same the time, we were kind of like, ‘Finally the boys get politicized because they’re going to be dragged off to war.’ Kathleen was the one that said, ‘What about the war at home? What about the war on women?’ There was a lot of violence at shows and in our personal lives and we wanted to speak out on that.”
Speaking out was what they did, not only with their words, but with their actions as well. From demonstrating “girls to the front” in a literal sense (allowing women to the front of the stage and/or pulling them up as a way to create a safe space free from groping/assault) to vocalizing their disdain on certain matters through their music, the riot grrrl movement was heavily political. It was outspoken, created tough conversations, and provided a space for women to feel safe. The message was more important than the music according to Wolfe, and that was something she hoped people saw. “We built this DIY community out of friendships and raw talent and we were addressing issues we were seeing every single day. We were putting a lot of time and energy into this and even now when I first moved to LA, I’d go to these shows and bands weren’t as politically outspoken as I would’ve thought. We were engaging in a form of cultural activism at the time, and I’d still like to see that now with these bands that are playing today.”
As the riot grrrl movement grew bigger and bigger, there was bound to be criticism. From comments calling them out for not being inclusive enough and creating a girl culture away from men, to the alienation of women of different races as the founders were middle class, white women, riot grrrl had great intentions and wanted to create change in society. However, there were things that weren’t picked up on from the beginning and caused a lot of fallout in the end. “I feel like riot grrrl ate itself. We didn’t really know what we were doing and didn’t have a clear goal or plan. It wasn’t diverse enough and you can’t just bring people in, in a tokenized way. In order for something to be successful, it has to be diverse from the very beginning in all different ways. After a while it became this ‘I’m more righteous than you’ type thing and towards the end it was just a mess.”
Riot grrrl eventually imploded. With the disbanding of Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear in 1994 and Bikini Kill a few years later, paired with the rising issues in and out of the movement, riot grrrl was done. Wolfe states that with the way everything had died out, a lot of them felt like they had created more harm than good. “A lot of us were kind of ashamed of riot grrrl after. We felt like it was a waste and that we fucked up and a lot of us had a hard time talking about it. Even now, I still have a hard time sometimes seeing it fully politicized. It wasn’t until years later when people started documenting and historicizing it that we realized the impact it had made.”
To say the movement made an impact is an understatement. While there were interpersonal conflicts and accusations from the outside that played a part in its downfall, riot grrrl left a lasting legacy on the scene. It created safe spaces, brought activism to the limelight, allowed women to have a voice, and has taken on a new persona to today’s “riot grrrls.” “If I was ever a part of something that inspired anyone to say no when they needed to say no or say fuck off when they needed to say fuck off, then the work is done. If it helps someone be strong or stand up for themselves, that’s really important.”
Wolfe gave some parting words for today’s riot grrrls and how they can work on their community to create their own movement. “As long as sexism and racism and all of these things exist, then so must feminism, intersectional feminism, anti-racism, everything. It’s important for each generation to come up with their own words and names, terminology, and methods. Just because one thing’s done doesn’t mean it’s over. We should be resisting and participating in the creation of our own culture. We were just friends who were excited to be around each other do things together, and the best kind of activism comes from groups of friends.”
You can check out a condensed version of our interview with Wolfe below: