Too Cool to Be Forgotten: Riot Grrrl Lives On, Two Decades Later

A traveling museum exhibition and two research projects aim to examine the punk-feminist movement’s lasting impacts.

Bikini Kill of Olympia, Washington—one of the original Riot Grrrl bands—performing at Gilman Street Projects in Berkeley, California, in the early 1990s. (Photo: John Eikleberry/Flickr)

Feb 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

In the early 1990s, a radical political art movement swept across the country and inspired thousands of women and girls to start bands, publish literature, and create political action networks serving their interests. Formed in the Pacific Northwest partly in response to the male-dominated music scene that prevailed in the region (and most regions) at the time, the movement’s crop of feminist-minded bands included Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. They championed female friendship, spoke out against domestic violence and sexual abuse, and carved safe, inclusive spaces for women in music and art. The movement was called Riot Grrrl, and a new traveling exhibition seeks to demonstrate that it’s not just a thing of the past.

Alien She opened Sunday at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California, and makes its final stop in Portland, Oregon, in the fall. Named after a Bikini Kill song, it examines Riot Grrrl’s lasting impact by focusing on seven contemporary artists whose work draws from the movement and spans the past two decades. Alien She curators Astria Suparak, former director of the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ceci Moss, assistant curator of visual arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, also launched two research projects that accompany the exhibition. Each leverages technology that didn’t exist at the movement’s birth to provide a more comprehensive look at how Riot Grrrl continues to empower women today.

One of those projects is a crowdsourced Google map that geolocates worldwide Riot Grrrl chapters. Suparak said she and Moss have discovered that since 1991, women’s groups founded on the principles of Riot Grrrl have been formed in 24 countries. Generations of chapters have operated in cities that include Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit. The map also points to newer chapters, from Turkey to Brazil.

We can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society.

the website of a Riot Grrrl chapter in Malaysia

“Each of the chapters’ missions are a response to their locations, moments, members, and needs; many forefront politics and language that are explicitly intersectional, POC [people of color], queer, and trans,” Suparak wrote via email. The Riot Grrrl chapter in Kuching, Malaysia, for example, bills itself as a political and radical feminist space “where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society.”

The other interactive project Suparak and Moss created in conjunction with the exhibition is a continuously evolving census surveying how the women of Riot Grrrl define the movement. Suparak sees it as “a way to present and collect an oral record of the movement, the many lives it has changed, and its continued effects.” So far, the census has gathered about 100 entries, mostly from English-speaking countries.

Though largely viewed as a movement made up of young women in the ’90s, the census shows that Riot Grrrl has reached other communities and across generations. One of the first women to fill out the survey after it was introduced online in December 2012 was video artist Sara McCool, who wrote that Riot Grrrl’s influence expands beyond music and art: “It means women-centered movies actually getting made, it means Tina Fey and Shonda Rhimes existing.”
One of Suparak’s favorite entries, from a 28-year-old transgender woman, reads: “I need riot grrrl because I have seen too many friends try to kill themselves. I have seen too many young, vulnerable people suffer specifically because they are women or queer or trans.”

Alien She is only the latest project to reflect on the movement. There’s also Sara Marcus’ 2010 book, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution; the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, about Bikini Kill front woman Kathleen Hanna; and Hanna’s recent donation of archival letters and zines to New York University's Fales Library Special Collections’ growing Riot Grrrl archive.

Said Suparak, “The stories are such a powerful thing to read and spend time with, and it’s still growing.”