Saturday, May 05, 2012

On The 20th Anniversary of Riot Grrrl

Then: It did not hit me like it did the women in the crew. For them, it was an (albeit lily- white) explosion. It was a profound shifting in how they publicly expressed culture. I noticed it in bits and pieces. The women who once where the backbone of our ‘zine making and distribution empires, now could not be found to bum a ride to Insty-Prints to make copies. They used to emcee—introducing the bands. They now had bands of their own, and they were playing better and with more ferocity than the dudes they once supported. It wasn’t like it was an all out gender mutiny. It was not a split, but a forced reckoning—we had to notice the girls. They were no longer support staff to the indie/punk-culture male ego DIY-industrial complex. They were Riot Grrrls.

Well, not exactly Riot Grrrls. Many of the women of the crew were waiting for a critical race element that barely manifested. They were Riot Grrrls, but they were also young women of color. Many of them had a difficult time reconciling the two. They were at a crossroads between bell hooks and Bratmobile, having a difficult time discerning which had the greater pull, and which would be a more useful politics for their futures.

Needless to say, this played havoc with trying to hook up. Tattoos, Doc Martens, and being surly were no longer enough. To step correctly to a woman, we had to be versed in women-centered politics and cultural implication. We just couldn’t know about certain bands or artists, we had to know why they were important. And if these bands or artists had even a tangential tendril of misogyny dangling, they got the boot. They were excised from the new cultural-canon, only to be spoken of in whispers of disgust.

This new reality forced me to understand what a feminist-politic meant. Having grown up in a profoundly matriarchal environment was not the education you might think. It was a given that my aunts, mother, and the over-boss that was my grandmother were running shit. It was just how it was. But when confronted, or asked for support, I had no idea what I could do to back up this phoenix rising among many of the women in my life. But I would learn. I had to learn. I had to act. It was Revolution Girl Style Now, for real.

I do not feel that I am in any way qualified to talk about what feminism is. What I am qualified to impart is how I learned to be an effective ally (and eventual feminist). This consciousness transformation was not as hard as it sounds. I started with a few simple rules:

-  I removed woman/girl-demeaning language from my vocabulary. This was the most demanding piece of my transformation. Hate and disrespect is so insidious because it colonizes your language, and reifies their negative influences every time you speak.
-  If anyone around spoke disrespectfully to or about women and girls, I’d speak up. If speaking up didn’t work, I’d knuckle up.
-  I shut up and let the women in my life be the experts on their own existence. I followed their lead to address their needs.

I still follow these rules to this day—well, I don’t knuckle up as much as I used to because my ally vocabulary is light-years more sophisticated than it used to be. But I will put foot-to-ass if I need to.
In retrospect, I can experience the effects of the Riot Grrrl explosion as advanced training in how to be a good partner and a good father to my daughter.

Now: I’m writing this circa twenty-years since my initial encounter with Riot Grrrl (and three days after my daughter’s fourth birthday). I write this with an aching nostalgia. There was an urgency that popped off back then, a sense of kicking norms in the crotch and striking out into wholly brand new territories. New maps of expression were being drawn, a new language being spoken. I don’t feel that now. My daughter came home one day singing Justin Bieber, talking about wanting to be a princess, and knowing who Nicki Minaj was. Are you kidding me? What happened to all the Bodysnatchers, The Selecter, Bad Brains, M.I.A. that I’ve been feeding you? I felt all of who I was, whom I wanted my daughter to be, spill out into a murky puddle of senseless pop stool. I know she’s only four, but still.  

Warrior training starts young.

It is a very difficult parental realization when you have to come to terms with the idea that your children are people. People with her or his own wills, desires, and tastes in everything from food to the culture they consume. Parents are also in constant battle with the influences that your kid runs into when you are not around them—when there are at school, at friend’s homes, or child care. You can expose them to all you want, but they are in charge of whether or not they give a damn about your recommendations. This was a bit disheartening. However, I no longer have to worry about this, or about going overboard with trying to expose her to all of the things that I think are vital and necessary.

The only two things that I have to do are act and speak with respect and integrity. My only mission is that every word I utter, every action I take, affirms her as a girl, but does not lock her into being so. She sees and hears how I speak to her mother, and the other women in her life, and finds comfort and solace in this. I am in no way a saint. My latent misogyny can flare up from time to time (usually when I’m not in love with myself or jealous of my wife’s accomplishments) but I think I walk the feminist ally line often enough because my daughter will tell me how different I am compared to other daddies. She says this with a smile and a headbutt. No more validation is needed. My daughter shows me daily that what I say and what I do matter to her. She reaffirms that I am having both an affect and effect on her life.

While she may have ripped my musical heart out by singing Justin Bieber, she repaired it—instantly—by singing “Monkey Man”...the The Specials version. Here is a different accounting of what I mean:
Once upon a time, my daughter wore dresses. Nothing too frilly, or pink, or taupe, just nice little sun dresses. Then, as she got older and started to have a say in what she wore, and the great dress-rebellion of 2011-2012 began. After showing her photos of her in dresses (and noticing the turned up nose as she perused the pictures) I asked her, "Why don't you like dresses anymore?" With no beat missed, she stares at me, "How am I supposed to save the world in a dress? I need a bow and arrow and a tiger." Revolution Girl Style Now. For real.