Riot grrrl feminist counterculture from Sleater-Kinney to Pussy Riot
(USA, University of North Carolina)
The Riot Grrrl movement, which flourished in the 1990s and lent its legacy to bands such as Pussy Riot, was a major era of feminist solidarity in which female punk rock bands rebelled against patriarchal hegemony in music and, more generally, in the structure of society and interpersonal relationships. This essay examines the musical composition, lyrical content, and performances of the groups Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot as embodying two different strategies of feminist resistance to patriarchy. Sleater-Kinney’s “micro-feminist” personalization of patriarchal oppression sends a complex array of messages that simultaneously undermine and underscore masculine norms. Concentrating on personalizing the political enabled Sleater-Kinney to avoid the ferociously anti-institutional provocations instigated by Pussy Riot’s “macro-feminism,” but perhaps at the cost of less direct engagement with the structural foundations of institutionalized oppression. Feminism may best be served by preserving space for both modes of activism.
An obscure, hitherto almost unknown Russian band of female musical performers made international headlines in 2012 and remains under watchful eyes of human rights organizations worldwide. The event that vaulted Pussy Riot, an anonymous group of female performers, into the spotlight was their 21 February 2012 guerilla performance of their song “Punk Prayer” on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. A video of the brief performance went viral and has since garnered close to 2.5 million views on YouTube, not counting views of repostings. Protesting the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of Vladimir Putin, the performers also expressed outrage at the oppression of women. “Punk Prayer” links the Church with the KGB in dictating that “Women must give birth and love” (Free Pussy Riot, 2012). This broader critique of institutionalized sexism seems to have been obscured by the more immediate confrontation with two powerful institutional forces: the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime.
Between 3 March and 15 March 2012, three band members were arrested and detained. Two band members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years imprisonment (Elder, 2012). Ekaterina Samucevich was released after two months of detention. More recently, a Russian court has ruled that video clips of Pussy Riot be removed from the Internet, threatening that non-compliant sites might be blocked for Russian users (Court in Russia, 2012). This essay leaves ecclesiastical and presidential issues aside; instead, we specifically address the theoretical foundations and communicative techniques that give rise to Pussy Riot’s performance-based feminism.
Pussy Riot’s lyrical allegations of Church and state collusion in oppressing women link the group with another punk rock-influenced feminist phenomenon. Pussy Riot represents a current incarnation of an earlier version of feminist activism through female-fronted, punk-style music known as Riot Grrrl. A member of Pussy Riot known as Garadzha directly acknowledged Riot Grrrl bands as a major influence: “A lot of credit certainly goes to Bikini Kill and the bands in the Riot Grrrl act—we somehow developed what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance…. [i]n terms of feminist musical acts, activism, and community building we do give credit to the Riot Grrrl movement” (Langston, 2012). Some commentators identify Pussy Riot as a “continuation” of Riot Grrrl as a “counterculture movement” (O’Brien, 2012). In the same spirit, Pussy Riot has been called “the next generation” of feminist punk rock initiated by Riot Grrrl, largely based on a similar defiant attitude toward patriarchal oppression and in body language (Friedman, 2012). Riot Grrrl historian Sara Marcus observes that Pussy Riot enacts the Riot Grrrl sense of female outrage and empowerment: “They’re kicking, they’re punching, they’re always standing on something tall and being really monumental. There’s this way that toughness gets projected through their body language even without being able to see their faces” (quoted in Friedman, 2012). To clarify the roots of Pussy Riot and to track the trajectory of feminist activism through music more generally, it becomes necessary to delve deeper into the musical and social phenomenon known as Riot Grrrl.
The all-female American band Sleater-Kinney furnishes a convenient panorama for critically analyzing Riot Grrrl as a social phenomenon. Corin Tucker, a guitarist and vocalist for the band, links to the roots of Riot Grrrl activism. She was a founding member of the duo Heavens to Betsy, a 1991 creation that formed part of the “backbone” of early Riot Grrrls (Thompson, 2004: 51). Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein had performed with Excuse 17, another all-female band identified with the gestation of Riot Grrrls (Marcus, 2010). As a performing band, Sleater-Kinney also provides a coda, since they sustained their cultural message well past the 1990s peak of Riot Grrrl and helped lay a foundation for subsequent countercultural bands such as Pussy Riot.
This essay explores the symbolic grammar of Riot Grrrl-inspired feminism as embodied in the American band Sleater-Kinney. We contend that the lyrics, musical style, physical delivery, and performance components synergistically combine to form a symbolic grammar that can be probed to expose its interpretive potential. As Middleton (Middleton, 2000: 13) indicates, musical meanings are produced through dialogue at many levels: within the textures, voices, structures, and style alliances of the individual musical event; between producers and addressees; between text, style, and genre, and other texts, styles, genres; between discourses, musical and other; between interpretations, mediators, and other involved social actors. Apparent univocality represents the attempt at hegemonic closure, but needs to give way, in interpretation, to recognition of impurity and contingency. Meaning, then, is always at issue
but also real
(not arbitrary)—it has material effects.
These symbols do not furnish definitive, syllogistic arguments against patriarchy. Rather, they offer fragments of feminist commentary that can be reassembled to construct full-blown arguments against and alternatives to patriarchal hegemony. In this way, Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot provide resources for revolutionary action without stipulating what the fully consummated revolution must be. Rhetorically, this approach functions as an enthymeme, providing the basis for conceptually coherent, systematic social change (Schwartzman & Green, 1999). Unlike conventional enthymemes, music operates primarily via activating and marshaling emotions more than assembling propositions in linear logical chains. The conclusions that may be drawn from the musical messages are far from univocal, since the symbolic grammars do not carry the force of logical necessity. The diverse components that interact to form music-driven social action operate analogously to nucleotides in recombinant DNA research. The outcome depends on the environmental forces that forge the messages to bolster or burst the sociopolitical status quo.
Three intertwined threads of thought form the skein of this analysis. First, the feminist messages within Riot Grrrl music as embodied in Sleater-Kinney provide potent symbolic resources for instigating deep social change. These symbolic components, like all symbols, are not univocal. The same resources that sow the seeds for feminist resistance to patriarchal domination also provide ammunition for patriarchy to tighten its restrictive clutches on women. Second, Sleater-Kinney’s micro approach to feminist advocacy through discussing interpersonal relationships complements the more macro approach of Pussy Riot’s direct challenge to religious and political institutions themselves. Each approach carries risks and rewards relative to its potential for triggering deep social change. Finally, a more meso approach could minimize or overcome the limitations of each band’s tactics. This meso-strategy combine critiques of oppressive institutions with a materialization of patriarchy’s effects through vivid depictions of particular roles and relationships that empower women.
Riot Grrrl music enacts a multimodal symbolic grammar of resistance by using lyrics, musical qualities, and performance synergistically to confront the social power dynamics that subjugate women. Although its musical activity was most prolific in United States and United kingdom in the early to mid-1990s, the musical and social influence of Riot Grrrl-inspired performers persists internationally into the present. Riot Grrrl blossomed as an expression of social sentiments and political awareness fertilized by the convergence of several factors: key events pointing to women’s sexual vulnerability, dissatisfaction with the sexism and commercialism associated with the music industry, and a desire to reclaim control over creative expression that patriarchy had attenuated.
The Riot Grrrl movement “began in 1991, when a group of women from Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington, held a meeting to discuss how to address sexism in the punk scene. Inspired by recent antiracist riots in D.C., the women decided they wanted to start a ‘girl riot’ against a society they felt offered no validation of women’s experiences” (Schilt, 2003: 6). This absence even infuses Hebdige’s classic analysis of punk subculture. Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style
(Hebdige, 1979)insightfully examines punk as a social movement, yet it devotes no attention to women’s social concerns within punk subculture. To spread a message of acceptance in an anti-mainstream, revolutionary way, bands like Sleater-Kinney and predecessors such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile sought to embrace music as a way to bring likeminded women together and start a conversation about feminism and female solidarity.
In October 1991, sexual harassment was thrust to the forefront of American consciousness when Anita Hill was called to testify during the confirmation hearings on the Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court. Thomas was eventually confirmed, despite Hill’s detailed allegations of Thomas sexually harassing her while she served with him in the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The swift dismissal of Hill’s claims outraged many feminists, as it re-enacted at the highest levels of governmental power the silencing and discrediting of women within patriarchal institutions (Marcus, 2010).
In April 1992, Rape in America: A report to the nation
was published in the United States (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992). This widely publicized and cited study first documented the astonishingly high extent of rape and sexual assault, alerting women to the degree of their vulnerability to sexually related violence.
Riot Grrrl as a social force coalesced musically as an evolution of the punk scene that decried the narrow range of musical and performance styles authorized and popularized by the male-dominated, corporate profit-driven music industry. As Schilt (Schilt, 2003: 5) notes, “even in punk rock, women are often treated as a novelty by the music press and cultural critics”. Riot Grrrl, however, pushed punk’s social consciousness toward a more reflexive critique, exposing the sexism within punk itself. Corin Tucker, vocalist and guitarist in Sleater-Kinney, notes that Riot Grrrl bands thrust women more into the forefront of punk performance: “To me, riot grrrl was a group of artists and activists that wanted to change the sexism of the punk rock music scene that they were deeply involved with. …I think having women fronting bands and labels has shifted more power to women” (quoted in: Leonard, 2007: 155).
Leonard (Leonard, 2007) suggests the most apt description for Riot Grrrl would be a network. Disavowing a restrictive set of core values or definitive identities, Riot Grrrls built solidarity on various intertwined common causes and objectives. One such commonality was avoidance of the capitalistic profiteering of the mainstream music industry. Riot Grrrl bands produced their work under independent, obscure labels and propagated their messages via homespun, handcrafted fan magazines known as “zines” (Kearney, 2006). Assertion of control over their modes of performance and publicity rendered Riot Grrrl women as active producers of their creative identity rather than passive, compliant consumers of mass/masculine marketed feminine roles (Piepmeier, 2009; Thompson, 2004). This resistance to institutionalized commodification qualifies Riot Grrrls as practitioners of “the first national entrepreneurial female youth culture” in the United States (Kearney, 2006: 41).
From a broader social and developmental standpoint, women were gaining greater awareness, both from research findings and from personal experience, that the self-esteem of girls and young women tends to plummet from early adolescence into adulthood. Riot Grrrl bands and zines stressed the ways that fashion, cosmetics, and other feminine accoutrements reinforced masculine ideals of womanhood imposed on—and sometimes compliantly adopted by—women themselves (Duncombe, 1998). This crisis of self-worth led women to seek solidarity and empowerment not merely as refuge from masculine domination but also as a forum for publicly expressing their assertion of self-determination (Turner, 2001). Sleater-Kinney did receive some degree of critical acclaim - such as being called “the best band in the world” in Esquire
magazine (Marcus, 1999) -and mainstream media attention (including a nationally television performance on The Late Show with David Letterman
in 2005). Like many Riot Grrrl bands, however, Sleater-Kinney built its core following through the Riot Grrrl zines and performances at venues far outside the commercial mainstream (Kearney, 2006). Long before the internet became prominent in discourse, these media of expression were popular among those who felt excluded from the mass market music scene. Riot Grrrl, therefore, created a handcrafted information highway that encourage group solidarity via publications that reflected the personal investment of the creator’s energy.
All-female, post-punk bands came into existence amid other expressions of female solidarity, including the homemade zines, which were “a medium for discussing taboo subjects, such as rape, incest, and eating disorders” (Schilt, 2003: 6). Not only did the zines demonstrate personal crafting in their style, but their contents brought traditionally private topics out of the shadowy margins and into public discussion. Bikini Kill, an early Riot Grrrl group, which published “one of the earliest Riot Grrrl-associated zines” (Schilt, 2003: 6), was very much in tune with a scene that used their music as a platform for social change and “created songs with extremely personal lyrics that dealt with topics such as rape, incest, and eating disorders” (Schilt, 2003: 7). These personal messages were paired with a “demystification of music-making in that it rejects ‘boy’ notions of excellence and expertise” (Reynolds & Press, 1995: 328). The ethic of centering their music against the mainstream media, as well as the male-centered ideals of earlier punk music, was at the core of the Riot Grrrl persona of a contrary, subcultural belief system.
“Riot Grrrl Manifesto,” a founding document of the movement, recognizes the potential for the movement’s practitioners to underwrite as well as undermine extant sexist power structures. The fourth item justifying the movement states: “BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo” (Riot Grrrl Manifesto, 1991; capitalization and grammar in original). This point in the manifesto notes that the revolutionary force of Riot Grrrls operates simultaneously on two levels: the micro level of patriarchal oppression in women’s personal lives and the macro level of critiques directed at institutional power structures. In this essay, we contend that Sleater-Kinney primarily conducts its confrontation of patriarchy by working outward from the micro level, demonstrating the ways institutionalized patriarchy infuses the personal and relational lives of women. This technique of challenging the dominant patriarchal culture helped insulate bands such as Sleater-Kinney from being targeted by powerful political interests.
“The politics in Riot Grrrl are personalized” (Duncombe, 1998: 444), especially as exemplified in the works of Sleater-Kinney. “White Girl,” a song performed by Corin Tucker’s previous band Heavens to Betsy and included as a track on their compilation Calculated
(1994), exemplifies the advocacy of personal transformation as a prerequisite for social change:
White girl I want to change the world but I won't change anything unless I change my racist self.
Although the song deals with racism, it exemplifies the directionality of social change: inward transformation as a prerequisite for public advocacy and political action. The lowercase “i” designates the diminution of an authentic self under what lowercase social critic bell hooks calls “white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.” The lack of capitalization also underscores the desire not to reify a personal viewpoint as authoritative. The lyrics, therefore, perform more a revelatory than a didactic function.
Sleater-Kinney released their third and most prominent album, Dig Me Out
, in 1997—one year before the pioneering Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill disbanded (Monem, 2007). While Sleater-Kinney came into the Northwest music scene in 1994 with a self-titled album, it was not until Dig Me Out
that they obtained mainstream recognition. The album “poised them as the new superstars of the underground. The record was widely covered by mainstream music magazines like Spin
and Rolling Stone
, as well as the underground press” (Barbour, 2001). Despite being approached with contracts from major music companies, the band resolutely refused all offers due to “their insistence of maintaining control and creative freedom of their music” (Barbour, 2001). This relates to the DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, ethic of Riot Grrrl. Such insistence on personal creative responsibility is reminiscent of the individualized creativity apparent in Riot Grrrl zines. More generally, it reflects a shift in feminism from broadly political stances toward enacting feminism in personal behavior. Kearney (Kearney, 1997: 216) observes that “as feminist ideology has broken free of its predominantly political grounding and become diffused throughout mainstream society, many women have been encouraged to see ‘the personal as political’ and have infused their cultural practices with feminist politics”. The fact that Sleater-Kinney was invested in their own work and opted not to relinquish their musical freedom shows that personally crafting the feminist messages within their music was more important to them than conforming to commercialized standards of “girl band” music.Dig Me Out
“was friendlier, more intimate, but it wasn't any less passionate” than their previous compilations (Moody, 2005), reflecting a tendency to express political themes as they were manifested in personal experiences and relationships. This collective desire to engage and defuse the power of patriarchy from the site of personal relationships and behaviors stems from a larger desire to avoid substituting another restrictive collective identity for those that already are imposed on women from the masculine power structure. Oppression might operate conceptually at the level of sexist institutionalized codes of conduct, but the pain, humiliation, and anger they engender becomes materialized in the lived practice of resisting subjugation personally and professionally. Characteristically for Riot Grrrl politics, Sleater-Kinney enacts their emotional frustration and self-assertion rather than simply singing about
“In using discourse – lyrically, textually, and bodily – Riot Grrrl members are effectively critiquing social, cultural, and patriarchal power relations as well as creating transformations that enhance their world” (Isaksen, 1999). Concern with patriarchal power is very much embedded in Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics, yet paradoxical elements infuse this band’s dealings with gendered power struggles. The lyrics in Sleater-Kinney’s music are both liberatory and constraining in how they approach feminism in post-punk music. These paradoxical elements, when put together, fit with what the movement stands for: “the name Riot Grrrl
was chosen to reclaim the vitality and power of youth with an added growl to replace the perceived passivity of ‘girl’” (Rosenberg & Garofalo, 1998: 809).
Sleater-Kinney’s paradoxical relationship with patriarchal power begins with the title track of their 1997 album Dig Me Out
. This collection has a prevalent theme of movement in many of its songs, which encompass the idea of leaving a situation in search of independence with the paradoxical idea of staying within a relationship. These lyrical ideas are usually part of a romantic entanglement that has begun to get rocky. While these songs are liberating in that feminism is being represented through a strong sense of individuality from the songs’ narrators, the fact that romance is also involved has an element of playing to the patriarchy in terms of stereotypical topics for women to brood over in music.
The title “Dig Me Out” immediately conjures an image of burial, but the imperative mood of the title implies a request or command to extricate the buried narrator—perhaps from a hole she has dug for herself. The act of digging out, however, conjoins with the reverse act of digging in. The digging is attributed to the “other” addressed in the song:
dig me out
dig me in
outta this mess baby outta my head (Sleater-Kinney, 1997).
Rather than the assertive act of digging oneself out of one’s own messes, the narrator pleads for another person to rescue her. In the process of apparently abdicating responsibility and shifting it to someone else, she also would be transported from her more conscious, level-headed self. Extrication comes with a heavy price: surrendering her “head,” possibly not only sanity but metonymically a decapitation that renders her a sheer body for sexual exploitation. Another part of the chorus reveals concern about such a physical surrender as the anonymous other digs the narrator “outta my body outta my skin.” While the singer might be “out of her mind” due to love, the lyrics take a dark turn as the romantic commitment metaphorically morphs into punishment (possibly physical beatings) and injury: “I wear your rings and sores/ in me in me it shows.” Addressing her anonymous counterpart directly, an accusation of cruelty emerges: “get into your sores get into my things/ do ya get nervous watching me bleed” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997). The song concludes in a conundrum:
oh god let me in
there's nowhere else to go
oh god let me in
and let me go (Sleater-Kinney, 1997).
The grim reality is that the disempowered relational partner may not know an alternative to the destructive relationship The song thus concludes with an unresolved tension between enduring cruelty or risking a helpless uncertainty cultivates by subjugation.
In the track, the lyrics “You got me for now/ I’m here for now” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997) are repeated in multiple verses, inverting the traditional lyrical tribute to enduring love. The literal imagery focuses on “rings and sores,” “body” and “skin,” which is symbolic of how deeply embedded this person is in her mind, yet this relationship needs to be purged. These lyrics encompass the paradoxical ideas of opening one-self up to someone else, yet then feeling the urge for independence. This idea feeds into the patriarchal stereotype of emotional, undecided females; yet it also has a feminist bent due to the apparent conditionality of a relationship maintained “for now,” which could presage sovereign thinking.
These sentiments merge curiously with the Riot Grrrl movement as a whole. “The instability of the strategic reappropriation of girlhood is mirrored and reproduced, in other words, in the very instability of meanings that consumers construe from performers who play the girl or who attempt to signify girlness in an ironic or parodic fashion” (Wald, 1998: 592). Although the lyrics are not talking about girlhood per se, but are more of a commentary on relationships, the idea that the narrator is signifying love as something to be “dug out of” creates an “instability” in what leaving means in terms of figurative detachment from a situation.
More explicitly, Sleater-Kinney directly engages the fickle fantasy of girlish romance in “Modern Girl,” a track from their final album The Woods
(2005). Consecutive stanzas begin with a four-line parallel structure that tracks the degeneration of feminine romantic fantasies.
My baby loves me
I'm so happy
Happiness makes me
A modern girl…
My baby loves me
I'm so hungry
Hunger makes me
A modern girl…
My baby loves me
I'm so angry
Anger makes me
A modern girl... (Sleater-Kinney, 2005).
The emotional trajectory of modern girlhood defined by participation in a relationship runs from naïve bliss to recognition of lack, then finally to outrage. The girlish connotation, underscored by the infantilization of the relational partner as “baby,” illustrates how “the performance of nostalgia complicates and extends the Riot Grrrl performance of righteous outrage at patriarchal abuse, in other words, invoking a yearned-for innocence and lightheartedness that retroactively rewrite the script of childhood” (Wald, 1998: 597). The lyrics, therefore, have both masculine and feminine attributes to them that allude to different aspects of the movement: towards a movement against the patriarchy in a liberatory, radical sense, but also appropriating feminism as a way that creates a softer side that recognizes the feminine, which is playing more into the mainstream heterosexist ideals of female/male roles.
The second song on the Dig Me Out
album, “One More Hour,” also has a repetitive line that highlights the lyrical theme of movement. “In one more hour I will be gone/ In one more hour I’ll leave this room” dovetails with “Dig Me Out” in terms of romantic comings and goings, literal and figurative, that occur when a relationship is on the rocks. In both songs, the narrator is the one in motion and telling the romantic partner that they are in transit, not stationary emotionally or physically. While “Dig Me Out” has a very straightforward, unwavering bellow from Tucker, the pairing of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein in singing this song in a call-and-response chorus adds a literal movement to the lyrics. Through answering each other in lyrical motion, the literal image of Tucker running after Brownstein, which was a real life scenario related to their brief romance (Schmoop Editorial Team, 2008), materializes through the combination of lyrics and vocalization. When one can picture Brownstein and Tucker communicating their romantic relationship through the lyrics, the detachment versus attachment qualities associated with femininity create an ideological discourse of power between lovers. Tucker wails, “I needed it” between Brownstein singing, “I know it's so hard for you to let it go/ I know it's so hard for you to say goodbye/ I know you need a little more time” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997), portraying a tension-filled dynamic that pits nostalgic reflection against the reality of departure.
The lyrics of “Dig Me Out” and “One More Hour” are much in tune with the idea of a feminist standpoint in the paradoxical sense of embracing individuality and taking control of one’s life decisions. “One More Hour” has the added queer element of a backstory related to the two lead singers to narrate up a song about one person moving forward and one staying stagnant in a romantic relationship. Patriarchal, heterosexist relational norms invest males with agency in determining the course of a relationship. Women exercising the choice to stay or leave is not part of the dominant male power structure; therefore, Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics exemplify the Riot Grrrl ideal of challenging patriarchal stereotypes in favor of female agency. However, the idea of love stories being embedded within the lyrics surrounded by these feminist ideals also constrains the message through its ambivalent attitude toward female independence. In these lyrics there is a sense of moving forward, but also an element of wanting to stay within a safe range of female roles.
The lyrics of Sleater-Kinney’s “Little Babies” (1997) are paradoxical in terms of the Riot Grrrl movement’s attitudes toward women’s roles. On the surface, the lyrics apparently refer to a woman taking care of her child. Closer analysis reveals that the lyrics seem to cast the narrator in the role of “mother’s little helper,” a line which the lead singers bellow at the end of the song (Sleater-Kinney, 1997). The first two lines are telling when considered in that vein: “i’m the water, i'm the dishes, i’m the soap/ i will comfort, make you clean, help you cope” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997). When sung by the female leads, the women themselves adopt their metonymic characterization in a patriarchal household. Thoroughly domesticated by their roles of serving, cleansing (both literally and through absolution), and caring for others, the metonymy affirms female identity as equivalent to feminine domestic functions. The backing vocals are sing-song baby talk: “dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do/ all the little babies go, oh, oh, i want to” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997). The lyrics and delivery exploit the polysemy of “baby” both as a term of patriarchal endearment for women and as a sign of disempowerment that infantilizes the woman as a compliant “baby” in relation to the dominant male.
Sleater-Kinney member Corin Tucker refers to how the lyrics from “Little Babies” preserve the unresolved tensions infusing the roles women assume: “That’s about feeling the intensity of the role I play as a person, as a woman and as a performer, and how those all intertwine—how you can want to fill a role and at the same time be enraged by it” (McDonnell, 1997: 36). The lyrics straddle the line between comfortable conformity and righteous anger. In an ambiguous reference to a woman’s expected sexual availability on demand in the patriarchal household and to her constant duty as caretaker, the narrator declares: “when you're tired, feeling helpless/ come inside, i am the shelter/ and then when you're feeling better, i'll watch you go” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997). The quotidian manual labor described, such as “i peeled potatoes, set the table, washed the floor” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997), paired with the emotional intensity of the vocals, indicate contempt for the child-like figure whom the song never explicitly disavows.
Female agency is called into question, as the role of “mother’s little helper” (Sleater-Kinney, 1997) renders a woman a reproductive tool biologically and ideologically. Biologically, her sexual availability to her mate renders her the vessel of reproduction, the ever-ready receptacle of the male seed. Ideologically, the “helping” role of young women trains them to reproduce the patriarchal household power dynamic, replicating the mother’s subservience to the father. The narrator has taken on the role of a stereotypical, passive, caretaking female, yet the tongue-in-cheek tone suggests that the child-like voice is an appeal to the audience to challenge the metonymic reduction of women to servile tasks in relationships. The idea of females as “tools” of men’s and children’s happiness is not truly seen until they are distinctly referenced as objects and given an objective role. Through writing a song with sexist lyrics, they are therefore challenging the structure of female agency through seeking to make people aware of the roles that women are typically given in society.
The metonymic reduction of women to objects or domestic functions is extremely important to note, as the “critical rhetoric” that exposes this tropology “seeks to unmask or demystify the discourse of power” (McKerrow, 1989: 91). Through acknowledging the stipulated roles that women often perform in a patriarchal society, Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics take on the power relations with a sarcastic tone in order to make people aware of these oppressive practices that may not be clearly visible beyond the personal, domestic sphere. The metonymy of the lyrics interweaves with the irony embedded in way the song sounds as well. Its bouncy, bopping rhythm creates an aura of positive, celebratory emotion around a sobering lyrical dialogue.
In the same vein, playing into the standpoint of a subservient female and the dominant structures of society reminds audiences people of the ways the prevailing discourse works to glorify subservience as motherly munificence or praiseworthy obedience, thereby reinforcing it for people unaware or dismissive of its sardonic overtones. While the liberatory aspect of challenging the power structures of society is uplifting against a male-centered discourse, there is still a constraining aspect related to the risks of attacking the revered practices of selfless motherhood and family fealty. As George Lakoff (Lakoff, 2004) has discussed in relation to politics, even if a frame of reference is attacked, merely mentioning the dominant frame can rekindle an emotionally charged defense of it (Lakoff, Put more pithily, “Even when you negate a frame, that frame is still activated” (Lakoff, 2012).
The lyrics of “Little Babies” are doubly ironic, since Corin Tucker left Sleater-Kinney due to wanting to spend more time as a mother. When talking about her son Marshall to Rolling Stone
, she described him as a “total boy,” saying “he loves cars and trucks, squirting us with the hose. He loves to play the drums” (Sheffield, 2003: 72). The stereotypes present within her statement have an interesting connotation when paired with Sleater-Kinney’s Riot Grrrl roots. The last line about her son loving to play the drums seems to reinforce the whole notion of masculine musical mastery, a stereotype that drummer Janet Weiss was defying with Sleater-Kinney. Despite having participated in the writing of a tongue-in-cheek, metonymous song about women’s roles as mothers and caretakers, Tucker has embraced the roles that Sleater-Kinney sang about challenging.
Considered collectively, the oppositional tactics of Sleater-Kinney represent one route the feminist message of the Riot Grrrls movement took in personalizing the political, thus challenging patriarchal practices at the sites of oppression without directly confronting the institutions that perpetuate patriarchy (Keetley & Pettegrew, 2005). To what extent can this approach influence the patriarchal power hierarchy, and could such an approach effect social change in ways that do not alienate occupants of entrenched social institutions? Pussy Riot would respond by arguing that the preferred tactic to instigate institutional change is to wage a direct attack on institutional regulations: performing in prohibited places, leveling obscenity-laced insults directly at leaders, and advocating revolutionary overthrow of the political regime. These techniques have garnered public attention, but with attendant risks. Pussy Riot renders itself more vulnerable to direct political backlash by choosing a more frontal assault on two key institutional power structures: the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. This overt confrontation with the seats of power qualifies as a macro-feminist approach directed at the sources of oppression more than the personal and relational sites of oppression addressed by Sleater-Kinney’s micro-feminism.
Pussy Riot embodies their message performatively, but on a somewhat different plane from Sleater-Kinney. The anonymity and ambiguous, shifting membership of Pussy Riot mirrors the depersonalization of women as a whole in patriarchal cultures. Their insistence on wearing crudely crafted balaclavas reminiscent of terrorist masks not only helps shield the members from identification and potential persecution, but it also graphically illustrates how women are de-individualized and dehumanized as interchangeable performing bodies. Even the band’s own name exposes a cultural paradox. Pussy Riot appropriates the sexist slang term that metonymically reduces a woman to her organ of sexual pleasure provision or reproductive function. The term “pussy” (also a pejorative, emasculative moniker when applied to a man) in this case is married to “riot,” not only a designation for social disruption but also an implied imperative to the very women dismissively objectified by sexist terminology.
Such an appropriation of sexist or derogatory terminology typifies Riot Grrrl’s ironic self-referentiality. In the hands of Riot Grrrl feminists, terms of diminishment transform into terms of empowerment. Through “recognizing the power of language and how empowerment can be achieved through language use, riot grrrl bands engaged in actions to reclaim traditionally derogatory words (such as cunt, bitch, dyke, and slut) at the same time men in the punk movement called them these very words” (Huber, 2010: 68-69). In “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot adopts the terminology of the oppressor by imploring, “Bitch, better believe in God instead” of political leaders or church patriarchs, who also happen to be male authority figures (Free Pussy Riot, 2012). Pussy Riot also routinely refers to women as “bitches” in the lyrics of “Punk Prayer” and in “Putin Got Scared” (Free Pussy Riot, 2012).
Contrasting with many Riot Grrrl musical concentrations on material practices of patriarchy within personal relationships, Pussy Riot engages patriarchy as institutionalized policies on a grand scale. Linking directives of the Church with state-sponsored political suppression, “Punk Prayer” complains that “Women must give birth and love” as an act of obedience rather than as a freely willed choice (Free Pussy Riot, 2012). Unlike Sleater-Kinney, who scrutinizes remnants of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy that linger within one’s self, Pussy Riot externalizes their rebellion from the outset. For Pussy Riot, the remedy lies in drastic conversion of religious and political institutions, as the chorus of “Punk Prayer” thrice begs the Virgin Mary to “become a feminist” (Free Pussy Riot, 2012).
Like the original Riot Grrrl groups, Pussy Riot does not articulate a vision of post-patriarchal society. Instead of directing their anger at particular embodiments of patriarchy within personal experiences, Pussy Riot criticizes the principles of patriarchy itself. The verbal techniques of their lyrics offer insight about how the protests are conceived. Adopting terms directly associated with a key issue for women, “Putin Got Scared” calls for the political system’s “abortion” (Free Pussy Riot, 2012). This metaphor exploits the ideological as well as physical connotations of reproduction, implying that the replication of repressive practices can stop only when the powers that germinate them are terminated. The same song decries “the culture of male hysteria,” offering a feminist appropriation of a psychoanalytic term often used as medical justification for the marginalization of women.
Sleater-Kinney critiqued patriarchy in “Little Babies” through an ironic metonymical merging of women with their menial, matriarchally-inspired duties. Pussy Riot’s “Kropotkin-Vodka” begins with a lyrical visit to the feminine domestic realm—to arm women with the tools of their unpaid labor and use their sexuality to dismantle a police state.
Occupy the city with a kitchen frying pan
Go out with a vacuum, get off on it,
Seduce battalions of police damsels (Free Pussy Riot, 2012)
In the Pussy Riot revolution, feminism metaphorically transforms into a weapon. “Kropotkin-Vodka” continues: “The knuckle-duster’s ready, feminism’s sharpened.” The metaphoric equivalence of feminist ideology with instruments for beating and stabbing could qualify as a direct endorsement of violence. More figuratively, the song alludes to the potential for feminist protest to wield the same power as the violently oppressive weapons of patriarchal policies. The lyrical transference of these accoutrements to women in itself challenges the more familiar melding of violence with masculine power. Such figurative connotations square better with the group’s recommendation in “Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest”: “Occupy the square, do a peaceful takeover/ Take away the guns from all the cops” (Free Pussy Riot, 2012). The lyrics seem to suggest seizing weapons not to turn them against the police, but to acquire political potency by disarming patriarchy.
One such disarming tactic is to reclaim fetishistic sexual terminology usually reserved for pornography and give it political significance. Rejecting the political passivity reserved for women within patriarchy, “Raze the Pavement” uses violent sexual imagery to expose just how shocking an assertive feminist political stance would be: “It is never too late to become a dominatrix/ The bludgeons are loaded, screams get louder” (Free Pussy Riot, 2012). Here the patriarchal hierarchy gets turned on its head, revealing how the sexual fantasy of the dominatrix also by extension associates feminine empowerment with deviance. The metaphors that weave through Pussy Riot’s lyrics expose how an empowered woman is neutralized/neuter-ized by being “diagnosed” as suffering from hysteria (“Putin Got Scared”) or by being stigmatized as a sexual deviant (“Raze the Pavement”).
Confrontations with institutionalized power, however, need not take the form of Pussy Riot’s overt attacks on ecumenical and political structures. The polemical frontal assaults that Pussy Riot conducts against the Putin regime may create a boomerang effect for audiences seeking political alternatives to the status quo. The highly publicized trial of the three band members could easily caricature Putin’s entire opposition as imprudent extremists, alienating those who are not prepared to embrace rejection of familiar Russian religious and political institutions (Miller, 2012). Indeed, judge Marina Musimovich, who presided over the court that ruled videos of Pussy Riot’s must be removed from Russian internet sites, said that the video of “Punk Prayer” contains “elements of extremism” (Court in Russia, 2012). This risk reflects the larger gambit for Riot Grrrl feminism.
The contrasting approaches of Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot are emblematic of a more fundamental tension within the feminist agenda inspired by Riot Grrrls. Simultaneously proclaiming inclusiveness and decrying commercialism, Riot Grrrl-style activism could attract a broader range of adherents, but at the expense of adopting the marketing tactics associated with mainstream music. In the lyrics to “#1 Must Have,” a track on their compilation All Hands on the Bad One
, Sleater-Kinney (Sleater-Kinney, 2000) expressed concern over the commodification of Riot Grrrl:
Bearer of the flag from the beginning
Now who would have believed this riot grrrl’s a cynic
But they took our ideas to their marketing stars
and now i’m spending all my days at girlpower.com
Trying to buy back a little piece of me
(Everywhere you go they say “Hello,
weren't you the one that sold your soul?”
Every time you leave they say “Oh no,
why did you ever let us go?”)
As an activist movement, Riot Grrrl always has had to perform a delicate balancing act between ideologically pure insularity and broader appeal with a more diluted message. “The dilemma the Riot Grrrl movement faced was one of reifying an opposition between preserving authenticity but risking elitism or reaching a wider audience but ‘selling out’” (Sherrod, 2006: 542).
Dorian Lynskey (Lynskey, 2012), a British music critic, contends that Pussy Riot would never sell out by becoming commercialized. He quotes a member known as Orange, who affirms the collective’s ideological purity: “But the only performances we'll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets” (Lynskey, 2012). This perspective, however, presumes that commodification lies within the control of the performers as the source of their musical message. As we discuss in the concluding section, the best intentions of the performers might be undermined by how their messages get appropriated by interpreters and by the institutional powers they critique. As Hebdige (Hebdige, 1979) notes with the punk movement, a countercultural force operates most powerfully when it challenges the very foundations of hegemonic power. Punk was effective as a deep structural critique of musical and sartorial fashion as long as it raised basic ontological questions about what qualifies as music or clothing. Once the fashion became popularized as simply another style and marketed alongside other clothing and music as retail merchandise, it became another canonized musical and fashion genre that provided a template for imitation and replication, just as hegemonic cultural practices are replicated in musical composition, performance, and clothing design.
Deprived of potency as a countercultural force, music and performance that originated as a direct challenge to patriarchal practices accepted as “normal” becomes assimilated into the mainstream. This corporate assimilation is precisely what happened to rap music and hip hop culture (Blair, 1993). Kathleen Hanna of the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill alludes to this potential in a recent interview about the arrest of Pussy Riot members for their “Punk Prayer” performance:
“It would be really cool if this reinvigorated feminists from all over the world—taking on the appearance of Pussy Riot, but not in a cutesy way. Taking it on in a way that makes sense locally, making change around that” (quoted in: Pelly, 2012).
Hanna’s wariness about a “cutesy” appropriation of Pussy Riot’s dress or performance behavior calls attention to how popularization of countercultural performances can degenerate into trivialization or loss of the political messages. Just as punk’s challenge to the very definition of clothing was lost to the consumers who acquired punk fashions at retail chain stores, merely donning a colorful balaclava and tights could degenerate into a fashion fad. This “cutesy” appropriation adopts the appearance of Pussy Riot without questioning patriarchal practices.
Commodification and “selling out” do not constitute the only ways that potentially revolutionary feminism can be co-opted. Pussy Riot currently faces the opposite problem: suppression and marginalization. The risk of further arrests and imprisonment may deter high-profile guerilla performances. Even if this deterrent fails, the threatened Internet or social media blackout throughout Russia could prove unnecessary as a means of quashing a Pussy Riot-inspired revolution. As Evgeny Morozov (Morozov, 2011) indicates, Russian experiences with the Internet have shown that minimal regulation may effectively tranquilize political opposition. The ease and allure of online entertainment can distract users from social activism, mollifying malcontents with the assurance that merely viewing or liking Pussy Riot sites and videos qualifies as a blow to patriarchal authority. Indeed, as videos and lyrics of Pussy Riot circulate more widely, the urgency and novelty of attending their transgressive performances could wane. Behind the safety and anonymity of a computer screen, Pussy Riot’s supporters may become more fans than feminists, admiring the group from afar without personal investment in performing concrete actions that undermine patriarchy.
Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot, operating within what seem to be drastically different political contexts, confront a similar challenge that constrains all potentially revolutionary feminist activism. Both groups wrestle with finding an optimal balance between the personal and the political. One could argue that the most effective feminist punk strategy would be to promote social change incrementally, jarring audiences into greater awareness of patriarchal injustice without directly violating legal codes and social customs. Engineering social change “within the system,” however, can ultimately reinforce the embedded social structures that entrench patriarchy. As Herbert Marcuse (Marcuse, 1965) notes, permutations of existing institutions—and here one might consider the feminization of the punk rock genre—can be absorbed into a democratic power structure as evidence of institutional tolerance and broad-mindedness. For example, the first all-female automotive design team’s work was hailed as a coup for women while their prototype was relegated to display in an art museum as an aesthetic curiosity (Schwartzman & Decker, 2008).
Providing a token acknowledgment of the value of women not only leaves the oppressive core of patriarchy intact, but it also revivifies patriarchal institutions for their beneficence in expanding authorized roles women can occupy. Meanwhile, patriarchy plods onward, dismissing calls for reform as unnecessary in such a “progressive” socioeconomic system. One could make precisely such a case regarding the relationship of Riot Grrrl to the commodified punk music industry.
Punk was a genre that enabled women to gain a foothold, as it spurned the vocal and instrumental virtuosity (such as the canonical lead guitar solo) exhibited by iconic male rock stars. As Isaacson (Isaacson, 2011: 4) indicates, women could exploit these opportunities for deviance because “punk was an early example of a musical genre in which women were not typically limited to the chanteuse role and instead often played instruments or sang in a dissonant scream or shriek”. The question then becomes whether women can infuse the means of musical production and consumption sufficiently to alter the commodified patriarchy of mass-marketed music. The growing consolidation of the music industry and the narrow range of musical styles actively promoted by major commercial labels point to the need for ongoing feminist struggle. Any episode of televised musical competition series such as American Idol
, The Voice
, or The X Factor
testifies to the restrictive range of musical performances rewarded with a contract from a major corporate music label.
This essay has examined how Riot Grrrl emerged and evolved as a feminist countercultural movement from the early 1990s to the present. The approach has focused on feminism as performance-based discourse manifested in two all-female, post-punk musical groups: Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot. The concentration on discourse in the broadest sense—lyrical, physical, and musical—recognizes the Riot Grrrl-inspired musical movement as a site of the struggle between patriarchy and feminism. The convergence of verbal, visual, and physical constructions of emotionally grounded feminist enthymemes reinforces McKerrow’s (McKerrow, 1989: 98) point that “discourse is the tactical dimension of the operation of power in its manifold relations at all levels of society, within and between its institutions, groups, and individuals”.
Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot embody two different but ultimately complementary approaches to feminist advocacy. The micro-feminist approach taken by Sleater-Kinney hones in on patriarchy as the lived experience of gender-based power asymmetries manifested in the negotiation of personal relationships and identities. The macro-feminist approach of Pussy Riot conducts its critique of patriarchy as a direct indictment of specific institutional forces that they identify as key props of patriarchy. After reviewing the constructive and constraining aspects of each approach, we propose that feminism maintain space for both the micro and the macro strategies. A meso-feminist strategy recognizes that Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot embody complementary paths to a similar destination. Feminism may function most potently when it reveals patriarchal oppression operating at both the personal and the institutional levels. The modus operandi of patriarchy is multi-faceted, infusing personal conduct as well as public policy. Far from mutually exclusive alternatives, the micro-feminism of Sleater-Kinney and the macro-feminism of Pussy Riot can mutually reinforce in a two-pronged disruption of patriarchal power. Preserving both types of activism can fortify feminism as a panoramic movement rather than veering into self-absorbed introspection or sheer shock tactics.
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