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GRRRL LOVE AND REVOLUTION: RIOT GRRRL NYC
"Like she-devils out of Rush Limbaugh's worst nightmare, a battery of young women with guitars, drums and a generous dose of rage stampeded into popular consciousness early this  year. They do things like scrawl SLUT and RAPE across their torsos before gigs, produce fanzines with names like Girl Germs and hate the media's guts. They're called Riot Grrrls and they've come for your daughters." [Rolling Stone, 1993]
Throughout 1992 and 1993, sensationalized accounts of the Riot Grrrl phenomenon, like the above passage from Rolling Stone magazine, appeared in publications all over the country, describing a new youth subculture that had emerged out of the American underground punk movement. But the media attention was disproportionate to the size of the movement. Despite the intense media interest in Riot Grrrl, very little video documentation of this important facet of feminist and pop culture history exists. This is due in part to a decision by Riot Grrrls to no longer engage with the mainstream media in response to stories that trivialized the movement while appropriating the term “riot grrrl” to sell everything from perfume to t-shirts to the Spice Girls. It was also due to a desire by Riot Grrrls to make their own media and culture.
History of the Film
Filmmaker Abby Moser was both a participant and an observer of Riot Grrrl NYC. Between 1993 and 1996 she shot over 100 hours of original footage of Riot Grrrl meetings and events, and interviews with individual members (to be donated to the NYU Riot Grrrl archive upon completion of the final film). In 1998 two rough cuts of the film (18 min. and 40 min.) were completed and screened at venues including the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, Anthology Film Archives in New York City, the Princeton University Women in Film Series and at various film festivals. Since then, the final cut of the film remained unfinished mainly due to lack of funding. Dependent on funding, the finished film will be approx. 45 minutes in length and in standard definition digital video. After completion, the final film, Grrrl Love and Revolution: Riot Grrrl NYC will be screened publicly and made available for distribution and sale. An invaluable historical document, the film glimpses how young women in Riot Grrrl NYC created and participated in a movement that revived a stagnant alternative rock scene and created a new wave of feminist politics.
The Time is Now
This is an opportune time to complete the film because we're currently experiencing a renewed interest in Riot Grrrl history. A new book about Riot Grrrl, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, by Sara Marcus, is to be released by Harper Perennial in October 2010. This coming fall will also welcome the opening of the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU's Fales Library, thanks to Kathleen Hanna's donation of her personal archive of Riot Grrrl materials. A documentary about activist and musician Kathleen Hanna, directed by Sini Anderson is currently in production. The Bikini Kill Archive, a blog collection of stories and photos of Bikini Kill was started in late 2009. This fall Barnard College will feature a class about Riot Grrrl, entitled Amplify: Gender + Voice in Rock Music taught by musician and women's studies scholar Ingrid Dahl. And surely the list goes on...
That we know of, there are only two other documentaries in existance on Riot Grrrl: It Changed My Life (Lucy Thane, 1993) and Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl (Kerri Koch, 2006). Filmmaker Abby Moser is deeply familiar with both of these films and filmmakers, as she organized panels on Riot Grrrl and asked the filmmakers to show their films alongside mine. Abby and Lucy Thane also forged a friendship while working on their respective Riot Grrrl films. Kerri Koch’s film is a retrospective “herstory” that features interviews with a few key players telling the story of the movement after the fact, supplemented with archival footage. Lucy Thane’s film is about the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill’s tour of the U.K. and how it changed girls’ lives, including her own.
What distinguishes Revolution, Grrrl-Style Now!: Riot Grrrl in NYC from the others, and why it fills a significant gap in the history and representation of Riot Grrrl, is that it is the only film that provides an in-depth investigation of the movement while it was happening and from the perspective of an entire Riot Grrrl chapter. For three years, Abby attended Riot Grrrl meetings, went to Riot Grrrl events and interviewed any Riot Grrrl who was willing to speak on camera. Riot Grrrl was very much a grassroots movement, and while Bikini Kill was a catalyst for Riot Grrrl, it was the community of girls on the ground that made this movement what it was—a point underscored by Bikini Kill themselves. This film is a product of the Riot Grrrl community, not only because other women in Riot Grrrl helped with sound, interviews and videography, but because it is the production of the relationships built through this movement (and the way the filmmaker changed by being involved).
"For girls to pick up guitars and scream their heads off in a totally oppressive, fucked up, male dominated culture is to seize power. We recognize this as a political act." –Tobi Vail
Women have been central to the creative and political phenomenon of punk rock, although their contribution has been underrecognized. With the conservative backlash of the 1980s, as happens when any subculture is popularized into the mainstream, punk became tainted with misogyny and homophobia. In the early 1990s, girls who were feeling increasingly alienated from a violent and misogynist punk scene joined forces and brought feminism to punk rock through a grassroots network of girl-run workshops, consciousness-raising meetings, conventions, benefit shows, fanzines, music labels, and film and video. Riot Grrrl chapters emerged in cities across the United States and in the United Kingdom. However, very little is known about Riot Grrrl in NYC, which was quite different from other Riot Grrrl chapters. This documentary is a document of this convergence in NYC.
One of Riot Grrrl’s greatest contributions was its call for a “girl revolution” and “girl love” in a cynical, alternative music scene and a so-called “post feminist” era. In the documentary, I show how Riot Grrrl created an environment at shows where girls were no longer relegated to the role of “groupie” or “coat hanger” (holding their boyfriends coats at shows); and were urged instead to come to the front of the stage and into the mosh pit. Lyrics were by girls and for girls and acknowledged their collective experiences - with sexism, sexual abuse, identity, body image and love - and empowered them to do something about it. This was a first in pop music history and it changed girls’ lives.
"Kathleen Hanna was speaking about issues that really meant something to me, things that I never heard [anybody] talk about before. She spoke openly about rape and incest. She criticized the way girls get treated in society. She embraced her flaws and critiqued the futile pursuit of female perfection. She declared herself a feminist and made no apologies." –Kerri Koch, Skip a Beat: Challenging Popular Music Orthodoxy, Experience Music Project Pop Music Conference, 2004
Structure of the Story
The story is told in a chronological way, following the rise and fall of Riot Grrrl in New York City over a three-year period. It starts by providing a context for what Riot Grrrls were responding to in the punk rock scene and in their personal lives and shows how a few young women who were inspired by a Riot Grrrl Convention in Washington, D.C., started a chapter in NYC. The second “act” of the film shows a thriving feminist subculture being made with weekly consciousness-raising meetings, Pussystock shows, spoken word, bands, and films being made.
The film ends with a reflection of the movement’s successes and failures, drawing parallels to issues of race, class and interpersonal conflict that were also problems in the women’s movement of the 1970s. The message of the film is positive, however. It shows how these girls learned from the feminism of their mothers' generation despite appearances to the contrary, and made feminism powerful again.
A driving force in this film is to show that Riot Grrrl did not emerge in a vacuum – that it has a legacy that extends not only to early women punk rockers (one of Riot Grrrl’s missions, in fact, was to rescue these women from obscurity), but also to the alternative womyn’s network of the early 1970s, which similarly established a women-run alternative music network with its own labels, distributors and concert promoters.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Riot Grrrl, as there are about feminism, and completing this documentary is important because girls still need it and because otherwise the history gets forgotten or permanently misrepresented.