Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (Review)

Book cover for "Girls to the Front" by Sara Marcus.Title: Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

Author: Sara Marcus

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 384

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Review copy from the publisher

From the cover:

Girls to the Front is the epic, definitive history of Riot Grrrl — the radical feminist uprising that exploded into the public eye in the 1990s and included incendiary punk bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear. A dynamic chronicle not just a movement but an era, this is the story of a group of pissed-off girls with no patience for sexism and no intention of keeping quiet.

I grew up too late to be aware of the Riot Grrrl phenomenon – I was only 10 years old in 1995, and was also located in a small Canadian town, where feminist political movements weren’t exactly center-stage. In fact, I hadn’t heard about Riot Grrrl until this book came up in a publisher’s email. It looked interesting, though, and I went for it hoping that I would get a bit more knowledge about feminist history in the process.

Girls to the Front is definitely more of an anecdotal history of the movement, but it fits in this case. Marcus really makes her case that Riot Grrrl wasn’t an official – or even cohesive – movement, but still manages to narrate the important points in a way that paints a picture for those of us who weren’t around to experience it first or even second-hand. I could really feel the anger of the girls through the pages, and felt as though I, too, would have been a riot grrrl if I had been old enough at the time.

The formative experiences of the riot grrrls included the seemingly constant acts of violence against women that were in the headlines. One of the attacks mentioned was the Montréal Massacre (which I talked about earlier today) on December 6th, when a man

walked into a roomful of engineering students, ordered the men to leave, and opened fire on the women who remained, saying, “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” By the end of his rampage, he had killed fourteen women.

Two days before that attack, Time had published its article about how most women didn’t consider themselves feminists. For Kathleen, that article, combined with the massacre’s coming right on its heels, settled the matter: The world was officially insane. Women were continually under attack but weren’t supposed to acknowledge it, weren’t supposed to resist it.

This really seemed to be the focal point of the riot grrrl “revolution”: women wanted to fight back against all of the bad things that happened to them in their daily lives. They wanted to be open, honest, and loud about whatever they wanted to be – especially when it seemed that no one else would stand up for them.

One of the ways that the riot grrrls fought back was to write on their hands as a way to identify themselves to others who might share their politics and interest in the “revolution”. From reading Girls to the Front, I got the impression that this was one of the most unifying things that the movement undertook – it was something that anyone could do, anywhere, and that helped them to bond in a very simple (but important) way:

A girl’s body was contested territory; this was a way to rewrite its meaning. Proposing an underground identifying mark also seemed to promise comfort to any girl who felt like nobody understood her. It suggested that one-girl sleeper cells surrounded her at every moment, waiting to be roused. The revolution would proceedd not through persuading or recruiting but simply through connecting together the girls who had already, in their hearts, enlisted in the cause. Girls were already fully aware of the forces that hemmed in their lives; they were only, perhaps, held back from open rebellion by a feeling of isolation. The problem of female adolescence was so enormous that knowing and naming wasn’t always enough to counter it; you needed allies. Write on your hands, and you might find another revolutionary on a bus, at the supermarket, in math class. You had to be ready.

I have to admit, this wasn’t exactly a typical narrative history or even very much like other books I’ve read about feminism. Instead, Girls to the Front was more of an anecdotal cultural history, tracing the path of an indistinct – but important – movement in recent history. If you’re interested in feminism, you might find it interesting like I did; if you were of age in the time of Riot Grrrl, you might find it even more so.


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