Riot Grrrl and Third Wave Feminism

Here's something different: some academic writing from my Gender and Sexualities course I took  in college.

Rock music has always been a male dominated field and punk rock was no exception. The 90s saw a shift in attitudes with the emergence of third wave feminism, and in particular with the emergence of Riot grrrl, a movement that combined the punk rock aesthetic with the progression of feminist ideals. While the movement did have its fair share of problems, it did have a positive impact on both society and the music industry and it continues to have an impact to this day.

    Riot grrrl began as a female response to problems in the punk rock scene. In the documentary “Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl”, musician and former riot grrrl Madigan Shive recounts an experience at a punk show in DC where women were not near the stage and were instead standing around against the walls, holding the jackets of the men who were in the crowd.  She says, “I remember looking around and being like, ‘Why are all these girls just standing around holding these jackets?’, and I remember overhearing another person here go, ‘Those are the coathangers.’”

    As suggested by that anecdote, women had no place in the punk rock scene. Women like Patti Smith who were successful were seen as a great exception to a rule. Riot grrrl sought to break that rule, or rather, create in a separate space where that set of rules didn’t apply.  The riot grrrl manifesto states, “BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.” (Hanna) Riot grrrl was a unique creative movement because it was created for women by women. It was also a unique feminist movement because it dealt with women and art, rather than women and economics like prior feminist movements did. (Don’t Need You)

    One aspect of riot grrrl feminism was their attempt to reclaim derogatory words. In the essay “Loaded Words” Greta Christina writes, “Loaded words are… well, loaded. They come with value and judgement attached, sometimes positive, sometime negative, and very frequently, a muddled and weird combination of the two.” (Christina) Words such as “slut” are typically used in a derogatory manner and riot grrrl sought to change that. Kathleen Hanna wrote the word “SLUT” across her stomach in a 1992 picture and Courtney Love, though she said she was not a riot grrrl, partook in this movement, scrawling the word on her arm in red lipstick. The attempt to redefine words such as “slut” continues to this day, with the most prominent example being the advent of movements such as SlutWalk. The organizers of SlutWalk Seattle issued a statement that outlined the importance of this. They write, “One of the most effective ways to fight hate is to disarm the derogatory terms employed by haters, embracing them and giving them positive connotations. This also serves to provide a sex-positive term for women (and men), few or none of which currently exist.” (Chloe) The attempt to reclaim derogatory words is powerful because redefining a term that was previously used as an insult can take away the power of any opposition who uses these terms in this way. That was the goal of riot grrrls who attempted to reclaim derogatory words.

Despite the positive changes, there are several areas where the riot grrrl movement was lacking, the most obvious being the lack of diversity within the movement. In the article, “Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl”, Laina Dawes writes that while she was alive during the movement and appreciates the artistry of many female musicians heralded by the movement, she could not be part of it. She says, “It wasn’t for me. It was for white women.” (Dawes) While Riot grrrl did make feminism accessible to many women, it focused on middle class white feminism, and didn’t account for the experiences of women of other ethnicities and economic statuses.

    Though regularly associated with the movement, Courtney Love vehemently denied any participation in it. The aesthetic was occasionally similar, which is a fact that Courtney resented. “I didn’t do the whole kinderwhore because I thought I was fucking hot,” she said. “My angle was irony.” (Courtney Love Quotes) She felt as though riot grrrls were missing the bigger picture. In an interview with Spin magazine, she said “Look, you've got these highly intelligent imperious girls, but who told them it was their undeniable American right not to be offended? Being offended is part of being in the real world. I'm offended every time I see George Bush on TV! And, frankly, it wasn't very good music.” (Reilly)

    The final statement of the riot grrrl manifesto published in 1990 was simple. “BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.” (Hanna) Despite the problematic elements of riot grrrl and the groups it left behind, it was truly a girl power movement that did have a lasting impact on society. Feminist punk rock reemerged as recently as 2011 with Pussy Riot in Russia. In an interview with Pitchfork, Kathleen Hanna said, “"It would be really cool if this reinvigorated feminists all over the world, taking on the appearance of Pussy Riot locally and making change around that." (Pelly)

    The DIY attitude lives on, and zines are still regularly made. 





Carter, Stephanie. Every Girl Is a Riot Grrrl? Exploring the Intersections of Riot Grrrl and the Third Wave of Feminism. Diss. Emory University, 2010. Web. <>.


"Courtney Love Quotes." Web log post. Courtney Love Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.


Chloe. "A Few Words about Reclaiming the Word "slut"" Web log post. Feministing. N.p., 16 May 2011. Web.


Christina, Greta. "Loaded Words." Greta Christina. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2013.


Conger, Cristen, perf. "Women in Punk Rock." Stuff Mom Never Told You., 12 Sep 2013. web. 14 Aug 2013.


Dawes, Laina. "Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl." Bitch Media. N.p., 15 May 2013. Web. 14 Aug. 2013.


Hanna, K.. N.p.. Web. 14 Aug 2013. <>.


Koch, Kerri, dir. Don't Need You: Herstory of Riot Grrrl. Morpheus Record, 2006. Film. 14 Aug 2013.


Pelly, Jenn. "We Are All Pussy Riot." Pitchfork. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.


Reilly, Phoebe. "Courtney Love: Let the Healing Begin." Spin (2005): n. pag. Oct. 2005. Web.



Sangeeta Ranade