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Resist Psychic Death!

GIRLS TO THE FRONT: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, by Sara Marcus

Harper Perennial; September 28, 2010

384 pages; $14.99 list; $10.79 at Barnes & Noble.com, $10.11 at Amazon

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[NOTE: A vigorous subjectivity is hereby asserted]

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I was thirteen in 1994, born a few years too late and too many hundreds of miles away from DC or Olympia to catch the first wave of Riot Grrrl, before the media declared Courtney Love its leader and made short skirts, ripped fishnets and combat boots another uniform to choose from, on the rack next to grunge and goth and punk. The punk rock girls in Miami sort of had the right idea. We wrote zines and covered our hands (and arms and shoes) in magic marker, wore too much black eyeliner and publicly made out with one another, smoke and drank and bragged about the good drugs we could find, and applied duck tape to the rips in our backpacks and notebook covers and black jeans. But we were copying the look from MTV, not inventing it ourselves, and we were more interested in intoxicants than radical feminist politics. We mixed up Riot Grrrl with trampy adolescent showboating, equated it with bands like Hole and L7 and the Lunachicks, plus local favorites Jack Off Jill (more Manson-fanclub than feminist, but at least female), and generally, in the way of all younger siblings aping their older sisters’ trends, didn’t exactly get it right.

Luckily Sara Marcus is here to set the record straight.

Girls to the Front is a scorching history of the Riot Grrrl movement, from the roots of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile in 1989 and 1990 to the emergence of a nationwide scene, heralded by articles in USA Today and Newsweek and Spin, to its eventual petering out and “death” by 1996. But it’s not just another rock history or last-minute addition to your feminist studies class, and its appeal isn’t limited to to readers who remember those years—and have the zine collection to prove it—or to fans of punk minutiae. Girls to the Front is a full-throttle history of the feminist counterculture of the early 90s, and a swift chronicle of the political scene that sparked so much anger. There was NOW’s march on Washington and the failed Freedom of Choice Act of 1992, the furor over abortion rights for teenage girls as the Supreme Court moved to uphold states’ parental consent laws that same year, the emergence of the Christian Coalition (Pat Buchanan actually called Bill and Hilary Clinton’s politics “radical feminism”), and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” And Time magazine published an article that said most women didn’t consider themselves feminists.

But Girls to the Front doesn’t stop at history or politics. At the heart of the book is a collection of personal stories, starting with Marcus’s own. She was a participant-observer in the movement and an active member in the music scene, playing in bands and attending Riot Grrrl meetings at the Positive Force house outside DC. The meetings were a big part of the movement, where sharing ranged from the intimate and painful to the political and practical. Young women and girls related accounts of domestic violence, rape, and childhood abuse; they organized shows and played music, stapled zines, drew up fliers, and generally spoke their minds. At the first Riot Grrrl meeting she went to as a young teen, Marcus writes, “[w]e talked about sexual harassment from classmates and teachers, crushes on boys and girls, our favorite kinds of tampons and ice cream, and our outrage over the sexist stories and images we saw in the newspapers and on television.” The meetings emerged as a place where girls could gather to support each other against an outside world—both within the boy-dominated punk scene and society at large—that often left them feeling like no one understood them, stuck as they were “in that aggravating period of time when girls get hit from all sides, belittled as children and sexualized as women.” Some of the best and most touching writing in the book comes from Marcus’s account of those vulnerable, “stuck” years: pinned to a locker by an older boy; threatened in a dressing room. “I experienced female adolescence as a constant affront with calamity always loitering nearby, licking its lips, waiting for an opening. I spent the beginning of my teens miserable, alienated, and isolated. And I was sure I was the only one who felt this way.” Enter Riot Grrrl, and the movement that gave power and belonging and a voice to a generation of girls just coming of age.

Girls to the Front is one hell of an empowering read. Even a decade and a half later, reading Marcus calls up all those old feelings of anger and rebellion and unity more clearly than I probably ever experienced them at the time. As I read, I caught myself holding my head higher, imagining myself screaming along with the riot grrrls at the front of every show. I even gave a few of the usual leering creeps on the subway some nice cold intimidating stares. Fuck yeah. It left me wishing that the spirit of those first Riot Grrrl meetings could have outlasted the media explosion that followed, and that there’d been a little more feminism—and not so many older punk guys offering malt liquor in yogurt cups—back in the scene when I was coming up. But, history book though it may be, Girls to the Front also left me thinking about the future. There’s inspiration here. Read this book and feel it—a renewed energy, in talking about the roles women play in the scenes that we live in today.

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Eva Talmadge is the editor, with Justin Taylor, of THE WORD MADE FLESH: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, coming from Harper Perennial October 12th. She lives in Brooklyn.

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