Allison Wolfe (Sex Stains, Bratmobile)

I am riot,
hear me grrr

I have never had a problem with being labeled a girl singer in a girl band or a riot grrrl or whatever. I see it as part of my identity—that’s part of who I am and what I do—and I’m proud to be both a woman and a musician. I believe that who we are informs the art we create and it’s okay to be upfront about our identities. Of course, straight, white, middle-class, cis-men (basically, people who belong to dominant culture) have the privilege of being just “musicians,” the standard, “neutral” point of departure. I can see how that’s skewed against artists from marginalized groups and could seem ridiculous to women, who make up roughly half the population. We live in a sexist society that is highly gendered, and my way of dealing with and confronting that reality has been to highlight my experiences specifically as a woman in music—to own it and embrace it.

Hiding or denying your identity differences seems like succumbing to the standards set by dominant culture. Erasure. The dominant culture defines what something is and expects marginalized people to replicate that standard. The opportunity and ability of marginalized people to match those expectations is supposed to make everyone “equal.” I think it’s more radical to not try to be “one of the guys,” but to set our own standards and uplift our own teen girl bedroom scenes, for example. Instead of breaking into the all-boy clubhouse, I’d rather invite the girls over for kool-aid at my house.

A lot of this perspective comes from the way I was raised and the way I got into making music. I grew up in an all-female household with a lesbian, feminist mother. I wasn’t a girl who hung out with the guys much, and I honestly have a hard time understanding boy culture, whatever that is. Starting my first band when I was 20, I was a late bloomer by punk standards. If you had told me I’d be a singer in a band just a year before, I wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t grow up playing guitar in my bedroom. I had no idea what I was doing or even if what we were making could be called music. So I think identifying with the label “musician” is the harder part for me. I was a young punky feminist who wanted a platform for self-expression, so starting a zine and a band seemed most accessible. Do it yourself however you can. “Musicianship” was never my main focus, but expressing feminism in punk was.

In the early and mid 90s, I was in an all-girl band Bratmobile and helped start the punk feminist network riot grrrl. We aimed to make punk more feminist while making academic feminism more punk. Riot grrrl became known as a strain of third-wave feminism. Since then, a lot of women in music have been called “riot grrrls” in addition to the “girl band” thing. I was an originator of riot grrrl and in a band directly involved with it, so I don’t mind having the riot grrrl label slapped onto me. I can’t really deny or avoid it. The list of people who actually identified directly as riot grrrls is smaller than most people think. I tend to think of it as part of a broader community of like-minded women who worked together, networked and influenced each other.

“Riot grrrl” and “girl band” are not musical genres. Many ‘90s female musicians who didn’t identify as riot grrrls got lumped into that label by lazy, unimaginative journalists. Bands who influenced us and paved the way for us, like L7 and Babes in Toyland, got called riot grrrls. Not that there’s anything wrong with riot grrrl, but they came before us and that wasn’t their scene. The media was happy to tokenize female musicians and pit our bands against each other, acting like there wasn’t enough room for all of us in our variety. The press loves a good cat fight.

Unfortunately, plenty of female musicians took the bait. I get the annoyance at automatically being labeled riot grrrl, but the knee-jerk reaction from many punk women played into the hands of a sexist society. Riot grrrl became synonymous with a type of feminism, and—not that riot grrrl didn’t have its short-comings—the dissing of it has often been unnecessarily divisive and sexist. I think it’s important to be mindful of that in critiques, so that we’re not just dissing other women when we assert our desire to not be put in a box.

The press doesn’t seem to have learned from its mistakes and still inaccurately calls ‘90s (or any era, for that matter) female musicians “riot grrrls.” And it still happens that some female musicians assert in a negative tone that they are not riot grrrls. While I understand the frustration, the sexist framing of women in music is not riot grrrl’s fault. In the process of self-definition, why dis other women? We are not mutually exclusive. Don’t take the bait.

-Allison Wolfe