Notes on feminisms past, still relevant today
If you haven't yet, I can't recommend enough the recent Sound Opinions episode on Riot Grrrl, featuring an interview with the marvelous Sara Marcus, who wrote Girls to the Front, a history of the brief period where Riot Grrrl grew, made an impact, and then flamed out dramatically, fueled by juvenile, over-the-top identity politics that had come to replace any thing like thoughtfulness or complexity. (Draw your own parallels to recent struggles in the feminist blogosphere.) While Sara does reming the hosts Greg and Jim that Riot Grrrl was about far more than music—that it was also and in some ways primarily about zines, political actions, and community organizing—most of the episode is about the music. And I think that's about right. My feeling is the best part of Riot Grrrl, the most interesting and lasting part, was the music. Part of that is because the rest is ephemeral by nature, but it's also because music, being art, was able often to rise above the purity rituals and in-fighting that tends to eat up feminist movements. The politics of Riot Grrrl may have turned into a holier-than-thou fest, but the music often embraced ambiguities and complexities, ironically exactly the sort of thing that makes feminism so compelling to many of us.
Sara talks about this during the interview, mentioning Bikini Kill's evolution from a polemical noise band to a lyrically fascinating band with songs like "Rebel Girl" and "New Radio", where Kathleen Hanna demonstrated herself to be more than a fist-pumper, but also a genuine humanist singing songs directly to the fuck-ups out there who never did nail the art of Being A Girl, and through some great imagery, she empowered said fuck-ups to realize that they deserve to be proud of themselves. (Perhaps one reason I'm indifferent to most song lyrics is that they don't speak to me, but Riot Grrrl at its best totally did.)
I also want to shout out Bratmobile, who mastered the art of writing songs that captured both the longing to be cool and the anger at how oppressive the rules of cool were, especially considering that the rules were often written by guys who had ulterior motives when it came to the women in the punk community. Songs like "Punk Rock Dream Come True" may not have fixed my personal problems for me, but at least I felt like someone actually understood the way certain cool guys would draw you in with their coolness while repulsing you with their sexism, and the number of bad decisions that could be made in the space between the desire to fuck and the desire to run.
Note: Nice Guys® would be wise to keep their complaints to themselves.
A lot of the zines were also remarkable, but a lot of what I've read wouldn't have had any interest for me if not for the music, because there was some wallowing that crossed into a humorless territory that bores me. What I found most compelling about Riot Grrrl as music was that it was a pro-pleasure feminism. The whole point of getting women on stage and giving them space at shows is that shows are fun. Music is fun. Women deserve to have fun and are not just here to serve men's pleasures. That, more than anything, had a major impact on me as a young woman. I wasn't a Riot Grrrl or anything—I was too isolated as a young woman, and it was over by the time I discovered it, but the music meant a lot to me. Still does.
Speaking of a pro-pleasure feminism, Michael Bérubé has posted the text of the speech he gave at the Ellen Willis conference. Good stuff; check it out. There's some thoughts in there that go back to the eternal problem in feminism of those who are more interested in establishing their bona fides as the Best Feminist than being effective or interesting.
And on that subject, I would like to say that I finally got around to reading Roseanne Barr's epic essay in New York Magazine about her struggles in the TV business and why that bullshit is still going on. As soon as I finished it, I could hear the Problematic Choir denouncing it because Barr is wealthy and quite privileged in many ways. Examples, though thankfully not too many, available in comments here. (I'm beginning to notice the Problematic Choir often dislikes the same things about some women that the patriarchy hates, with bitchy loudmouthness and overt sexuality at the top of the list.) But seriously, read it. It's actually a good example of how to think through multiple concerns and levels to a problem without sacrificing your voice or substituting piety for genuine analysis. Also, Rosanne Barr does not care what you think. She admits to many major failings as a person and her strengths are often things we don't like to admit are strengths—stubborness, belligerent about what she believes she's entitled to—and the points she makes are all the stronger for it. Domestic goddess indeed.