The Political Punk: A Riot of their Own

April 17, 2020

Illustration by Insha Momin

The year 2020 marks the 100th year anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It is worth quickly reflecting on the change since the landmark amendment had passed (partially thanks to my home state and one awesome legislator’s mother who changed her son’s mind at the last minute! Go Tennessee!). These past few decades have been monumental for American womxn, the term womxn chosen to be inclusive of those with femme or intersecting identities. In the political sphere, from the passage of Roe v. Wade to the promotion of powerful role models like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, greater numbers of womxn are running for (and winning!) office than ever.

These accomplishments have not been without struggle. Womxn continue to be paid less than men and this past year alone, there have been numerous attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade. But with movements like #MeToo, there has also been a constant outrage to match as womxn have turned to using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and change.org to organize, gather, and fight for change.

Just like womxn have made strides in the political sphere, so have womxn in punk music. Traditionally, this form of music has been known for its outright rebellion against the established norm. In the 1970s, pioneer womxn-frontliner bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, and The Slits carved out a niche for themselves in this growing underground culture. Since then, the niche corner has turned into a full-fledged community of womxn protesting, gathering, and expressing themselves through rebellion of the status quo.

Many of the challenges womxn have faced politically, such as harassment, ostracization, and sexism, womxn have faced in punk. Their habits of spitting, cursing, and wearing torn and mismatched vintage clothing, though similarly exemplified in men in punk, caused them to face more backlash for appearing as poor role models, going against the idea that women had to maintain a certain level of modesty. Some even reacted violently to these womxn: Ari Up of The Slits was stabbed by a man on the street in 1976 due to her association with the band. 

Womxn in punk were able to advocate for the change they wanted politically through their music. The Riot Grrrl Movement in the 90s formed in response to a pressure felt by womxn that while there were expectations and controversies surrounding their bodies and existence, there was little room for them to take an official stance and assert control in those contexts. The movement of womxn in punk simultaneously becoming political activists in order to express their anger and autonomy occurred at a time when like politics, punk, for the most part, was dominated by men. While other womxn were organizing protests, walk-outs, and debates, womxn in punk were trying to carving out spaces for themselves in the music sphere by forming their own bands, fan magazines, and organizing hardcore shows. 

Bands such as Bikini Kill, Skinned Teen, and Bratmobile formed the forefront of the movement. The bands not only addressed public sphere issues, but also private sphere ones. Both they personally and their songs addressed sexism, systemic racism, domestic violence, homophobia, and classism among others. Like those early rockers and rebels who came before, punk offered an opportunity for the womxn to break societal norms and assert themselves in a creative sphere of their own making.

Though much of the Riot Grrrl culture splintered in the years that followed due to media misrepresentation fueling factionalism within the movement, its effects are still growing worldwide. Many girls around the world look to the early bands for inspiration and identity in creating their own music or taking their own stand as they begin a brand new wave of feminist punk rock. These bands such as Bnt Al Masarwa, Big Joanie, and The Tuts garner large audiences worldwide by sharing their struggles and confronting injustices through focused activism and unbridled creativity. 

Most notably would be the Russian all-girl punk band P*ssy Riot, who were imprisoned by the Russian state for “hooliganism” by staging a punk rock protest and performance against the Russian state and Putin in a church. They directly trace their inspiration in part to the Riot Grrrl movement. P*ssy Riot continues activism to this day as they lead protests against the Russian political prison system, Putin, and social injustices across the world.

In a time when many around the world are feeling an immense political pressure and polarization due to their identities, punk is once again creating a space for them. It has offered a space for me, a blue-collar, Native American woman. These bands have helped me recognize my agency. For instance, they have inspired me to pursue activism in places where politics most affect me yet have historically shut people like me out. I embrace my working class and Native American identity to advocate for the rights of rural, underprivileged communities and womxn everywhere. With the courage of punk, I have been able to fuel my passion for reforming prison systems and protesting against my state government’s awful private prisons. 

I am a first-generation college student from a working-class family. I am from an extremely rural place in America. While other art forms are wonderful for expression, punk is inherently different as an active call to rebel. It is a call to reject everything that has been told of how something is done, how it must be done, and how it will be done. It is a call to do things as you want, because you as an individual matter in contrast to society that attempts to box people in. Punk called me to investigate the many sides of my identity—what made me, me. I chose punk as my mantra because it wasn’t just about feelings or experience, it was about action. It was about taking action to turn your passion into courage and initiative against challengers, to get things done in order to make a better world for all. 

As unrest and protests around the world grow, I suspect the Riot Grrrl movement, and punk in general, will grow alongside it. Those womxn who came before were instrumental in beating down the path in punk for those who came after. By showing the possibility of what could be accomplished through this medium of liberation and protest, womxn who listen to their music will continue not only to be inspired, but encouraged to empower and advocate for social justice. 

While punk movements can serve as landmarks to great social change, they too need to consistently evolve in response to the current conditions. So, if you feel inspired by the original Riot Grrrl movement, remember the words of Bikini Kill member Kathleen Hanna, “Don’t revive it, make something better.” 

Recommended Listening:

The Slits – “Typical Girls
Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl
Big Joanie – “Fall Asleep
P*ssy Riot – “Putin Lights Up the Fires

Cheyenne Martin
Cheyenne Martin is a junior in the College studying history and government to inspire her punk rock lifestyle to the fullest. You can easily spot her on campus because she wears band t-shirts every day.

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