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2 November 2010, 12:00 pm 3 Comments

TNG Interview: Sara Marcus and Her Riot Grrrl Bible

This post was submitted by John "Jolly" Bavoso

Equal parts music history, ethnography and Feminism 101 syllabus, Sara Marcus‘ new book, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, is wholly engrossing, with Marcus’ meticulous research being perhaps the book’s greatest strength. For individuals like myself, who missed out on the Riot Grrrl movement due to factors such as age (full disclosure: I was five years old when the book’s opening events took place) and gender, Marcus’ incredible attention to detail allows you to lose yourself completely in a truly unique moment in our culture’s history.

While Marcus, who grew up here in D.C.-metro area, provides some personal context in the form of an author’s note at the beginning of the book, her narrative style mostly removes her own voice from the text and allows the reader to become immersed in the world the original Riot Grrrls were creating for themselves and for other like-minded women and girls around the country.

And while the book’s main protagonists are mostly legendary musicians (Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail; Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile, etc.), one of Marcus’ goal is to place the music in its larger context and remind (or inform) us that the Riot Grrrl revolution was about a lot more than just female-fronted punk rock. Of the movement, Marcus writes, “some spoke of it as having been a radical feminist movement of young women, but most people thought of it as a music scene, an expired trend.” Girls to the Front should go a long way toward de-mystifying a movement that’s long been misunderstood.

Marcus, whose work has previously appeared in publications such as Slate, The Advocate and Heeb, was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of her November 5 DC event in support of the book.

The New Gay: The book is incredibly detailed. How did you go about doing the research for it?

Sara Marcus: I researched this book for five years and interviewed about 150 people. I started off interviewing people I already knew personally, and then I branched out from there. Social networking platforms, which were in their infancy when I began working on this book, proved absolutely indispensable; every year, and with every shift in platform (from Friendster through a brief MySpace interregnum to, finally, Facebook), more people who had been “lost” became visible. I made research trips to the Midwest, the Northwest, California, Canada, England, and many different cities on the East Coast; I would show up someplace and talk to as many people as I humanly could–in two-hour increments, sometimes for twelve hours a day–before catching my train or airplane out of town.

The interviews form the bedrock of the book, but I did a great deal of secondary research as well. I read every newspaper and magazine article ever written on Riot Grrrl, of course, and I also delved into the political history of the early 1990s, which led me to explore Operation Desert Storm, the Anita Hill hearings, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Rock the Vote, the 1992 Democratic and Republican national conventions, the birth of the Christian Coalition, the rise of Rush Limbaugh, and national attitudes toward and studies about young people’s sexuality. Realizing that I needed to gain some purchase on the culture of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where many of the people in the book went to school, I spent time digging through file boxes in the college’s archives, in a subbasement of its library, and I got people to take me on walking tours of important spots on campus. And in order to place the eruption of Riot Grrrl within the context of what was going on in feminism at the time, I did a lot of reading about the history of radical and organizational feminism, and I spent a week (thanks to a very generous grant) poring over the institutional history of the National Organization for Women, which is collected at the Schlesinger Library for Research on Women at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

TNG: There seems to be a common experience among the riot grrrls you describe in the book of simultaneously being enraged by the world and yearning to find a place within it. The tension between younger and older feminists is also touched on a number of times. Do you think the motivations behind starting the Riot Grrrl revolution are unique to young people, and how do you think these feelings have evolved or been channeled differently now that the original riot grrrls are getting older?

SM: I think the quality of rawness with which adolescents approach the world is really specific to that age. That isn’t to say that people don’t have moments later in our lives of feeling that hideously, excruciatingly, exhilaratingly open to the world. Those early experiences definitely live on within us, and they speak up, like a sympathetic vibration of a piano string, when we have experiences that remind us of that time, or when we see other young people with struggles that feel familiar to us. This latter situation accounts, I think, for much of the sincere and intense emotion we’ve seen in the “It Gets Better” videos. Those difficult feelings don’t actually disappear. But part of growing up is learning to place them in perspective. We may still have instances, as adults, of feeling lonely or isolated. But that’s qualitatively and quantitatively different from being isolated and lonely as a young person, and searchingly, legitimately wondering: “Will I ever have friends? Will I ever belong anywhere?”

At the same time, those raw feelings are not just veins of negativity to be avoided once we get old enough to do so. When young people tap into those experiences and express them, sometimes what results is really sublime. I’m thinking less of tormented high-school poetry and more of the wordless, piercing screams of a Heavens to Betsy song. There’s an unmistakable deliciousness to feeling things so deeply; we shouldn’t be aiming, in our adulthood, for a state of anaesthetic irony.

Teenagers who don’t document their experiences in the moment have to content themselves with the memories and neuroses born of those years, I suppose; but the riot grrrls documented those years obsessively, and I’ve gone and documented it in a kind of meta fashion, all making it possible for people to now go back and ask themselves: What parts of that portion of my life can still be of use to me? Everybody finds a slightly different answer. For some people, the answer is that they want to make art with their friends, or they want to take political action instead of just complaining about things and feeling helpless, or they want to identity openly as a feminist and talk with people about feminist politics.

TNG: Looking back on how many riot grrrls identified as queer, how do you think the movement affected female sexuality in America and vice versa? Do you think there’s anything that the gay rights movement could/should take away from the Riot Grrrl movement?

SM: It’s true that lot of riot grrrls identified as queer, or at least would have copped to that if asked about it. But many more riot grrrls, recognizing the state of flux that defines adolescence and feeling determined to inhabit that flux as a place of strength and political potency, refused to be put in one  box or another, and that’s the most important thing I could possibly emphasize about the whole question of queerness and Riot Grrrl: the fluidity, the insistence on not being boiled down to a tidy identity or political program.

Remember, we’re talking about an era–the early and mid-’90s–when young people were being exhorted to come out at younger and younger ages, partly in order to buttress a politically useful narrative about sexuality being inborn and immutable; and when the proliferation of Gay-Straight Alliances at high schools was reinforcing (through the clubs’ very names!) a binary, either/or model of sexuality.

Reacting against the history of secrecy imposed on LGBTQ people, gay rights movements have long posited explicit self-disclosure as a prerequisite for (and even as synonymous with) political action. But that’s not necessarily the most useful or the most honest stance for everybody, particularly young people, who are already facing enough anxiety about Defining Who They Are without getting even more pressure to come out with another proclamation.

In Riot Grrrl, various academic forms of feminism and postmodernism got translated into vernacular terms. These strains of thought were actually incredibly useful and relevant to young women. The postmodern appreciation of contradiction, ambiguity, multiplicity, and confusion as cultural strategies and emotional truths–and the realization that such an appreciation doesn’t have to come at the expense of political action–is perhaps the most important thing the gay rights movement still has to learn from Riot Grrrl.

TNG: You mention that many of the same feminist challenges that inspired the Riot Grrrl movement are still around today. With this in mind, what do you think the movement’s lasting impact has been/will be?

SM: Making anger an acceptable emotion for marginalized young people. This has fallen out of sight somewhat in recent years, but I think it’s coming back, and I say thank God. Things are fucked up, and it’s okay to be pissed off about that, especially if the alternative is to think there is something wrong with you.

TNG: You write that, “A movement that loses its young eventually dies out.” Do you think there will ever be another cultural movement quite like Riot Grrrl?

SM: Simply put, there has to be. Young people–especially people who don’t follow the rules of How To Be A Girl or How To Be A Boy–are always getting squeezed by our culture, just as acutely now as in 1991, if not more so. The problems of adolescence haven’t gone away. Kids can internalize those problems, as frustration and self-reproach or worse, or they can turn them outward and turn them into creative forces.

Younger people at my readings often tell me they wish they’d been born earlier, so they could’ve come of age in the 1990s. I always tell them that the only thing that made that time special was that people were doing things and spinning a mythology around the things they were doing. People believed in their work, believed in their friends’ work, and consciously decided to act as if what they were doing really mattered. It’s harder to do that now, because the Internet gives everybody way too precise a sense of context and perspective. But the only way to really feel like you’re doing something meaningful is to take responsibility for crafting that sense of meaning yourself, and building a community that will corroborate you. These things are just as necessary today as they were twenty years ago. TNG

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