A bit of a late review here as I’m over half-way through my next two books (“Henry and Cato” and “The Library of Ice” – about 60% of the way through both!) but a great read that my lovely friend Sian gave me for my birthday in 2018 – she always gets it spot-on with booky presents and in fact I’m going to be lending this back to her now! This one came under my “oldest on the TBR” category and I can confirm I’m enjoying dotting back and forth between new acquisitions and old favourites from the front left!

Sara Marcus – “Girls to the Front”

(21 January 2018)

Undermining the subtitle, the author makes it quite clear in a number of places that this is A history of the Riot Grrrl movement rather than THE history, although it’s as meticulously researched and referenced as any work of academic history. I came to Riot Grrrl a bit late (in the late 80s and early 90s I was more of a goth then a grebo when I couldn’t be bothered with all the hair and makeup, being briefly vaguely trendy when I was into the Madchester stuff and sliding back into dark and noisy obscure stuff and twee pop with a side serving of Erasure and The Men They Couldn’t Hang) and although I was already a strong feminist, I was more aware of the music side. So this was a revelation to me and a great read that made me wish I could rewind a few decades.

So it was much more than a music genre, starting in a DIY movement which was about art and music and feminism, about teenage girls joining forces against a society that was trying to shape them and an art scene that was seemingly for the boys. These teenage girls were encouraged to talk about their experiences, raise their consciousnesses and find safety in numbers, thrillingly getting to know about each other through secret signs drawn on their arms in marker pen or shrinky-dink pendants. As well as sharing stories and organising chapters, they were encouraged to form their own bands.

Marcus introduces her own experiences in the introduction then goes on to chart the movement from its beginnings to its fading. She carefully uses women and girls’ own words, including texts and images from zines either reproduced or typed out in courier font – a nice touch. She explains how Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill became the movement’s de facto leader because she saw the need for it and “knew that feminism could save lives,” but never wanted to be a leader and moved back from that position, how the next short generation took it on, how the local then mainstream media examined and distorted it, and how the movement reacted, charting dozens of lives and experiences as they interwove and somehow keeping track of them all.

The twin centres of Olympia and Washington DC are documented as well as smaller mid-West chapters (and the reaction to Riot Grrrl in the UK, briefly), and the book discusses who wasn’t Riot Grrrl (Courtney Love, famously, apparently) and why, and where all those cute hairslides came from (reclaiming lost childhoods). The differences between this movement and 1970s and early 90s adult feminism are drawn out interestingly – there are fewer position papers and resolutions, more forums, zines and, to an extent, group voices, although a hegemony does arise over media interviews and the like. There are also different views on the fractured and fractious issue of sex work. It also addresses what we’d call intersectionality and the role and part-exclusion of working class women and women of colour in the movement.

Marcus ends by exhorting readers to “tell your own stories. Tell what I left out” wherever they are and whatever position they’re in, being carefully inclusive, and following the DIY ethic to the end. there’s then a useful round-up of what many of the women featured did next, although it’s worth bearing in mind this was published in 2010.

A great and fascinating read with much to learn about and some familiar stuff.