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Can Riot Grrrl TikTok Re-Imagine a Flawed Scene?

Can Riot Grrrl TikTok Re-Imagine a Flawed Scene?

Open TikTok’s #riotgrrrl hashtag and you’ll find a thriving ecosystem. There are countless videos to scroll through, almost all made by young women or non-binary people, teens or young adults. Some show off their riot grrrl-inspired outfits. Others recommend bands to their audience. Others still talk directly to camera, discussing riot grrrl’s history or culture. As of August 2021, videos tagged with the phrase have amassed 94M views — in TikTok numbers, a relative niche maybe, but a notable one. 

A feminist movement born in the punk communities of Washington, D.C. and Olympia, Washington during the early ’90s, riot grrrl is best known for its flagship bands, Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. The term was first used in a 1991 zine made by Bratmobile members Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman and Jen Smith and Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna. Its adherents organized feminist marches and protests, and there were weekly meetings where young women gathered to share their experiences and ideas. Most importantly, riot grrrl was DIY; messages were spread via zines, which could be cheaply printed and widely disseminated. 

But the movement was considered dead by the mid ’90s, years before most of those TikTok creators were born — swallowed by intra-community differences and plain fizzling of momentum. Now, in the comment sections under #riotgrrrl videos, teens are having their own conversations, asking and answering questions, building a community. They’re curious, engaged and crucially, doing it themselves. 

Koren Dalipe, 23, who makes TikToks as @zazieinthemetro, discovered riot grrrl in high school. She explains, “[The ethos of] ‘Maybe you don’t know how to sing, maybe you don’t know how to play guitar, but we don’t know either [and] we’re gonna do it anyway’ — I thought that was really empowering.” She began posting punk-themed TikToks in late 2020, her following growing with her series on ‘punk’s lost BIPOC history’ — each video focusing on a punk musician of color (Dalipe herself is Chicana and Filipina). As of August 2021, she has over 19,000 followers. 

A following developed similarly for Maddie Peletsky, 19, who since 2019 has posted as @riotmoms; her content, focusing largely on riot grrrl and grunge, now has over 114,000 followers. Both Dalipe and Peletsky found their following suddenly and fairly inexplicably; TikTok’s discovery-geared algorithm, centered on an endless-scroll For You homescreen, is an ideal but unpredictable breeding ground for trends to spread. 

“The algorithm is something that nobody can figure out,” says Peletsky. “It puts a bunch of different s—t in your face — random stuff, or stuff that you love, or stuff that nobody knows you love.” Artist manager Lindsey Miller, 22, of Heathers Artist Management, adds, “It’s probably the easiest social media to get a following on. There’s points where it’s just so random, what goes viral.” 

Miller and business partner Mel Grinberg, 25, manage VIAL, a neo-riot grrrl band from Minneapolis whose debut album LOUDMOUTH dropped on July 30th. The band consists of women and non-binary individuals aged between 19 and 22; their fun, light-hearted posts, usually hashtagged with #riotgrrrl, have so far shot them to 125,000 followers, and they’ve signed to queer-focused indie Get Better Records. One track, “Rough,” has over a million Spotify streams. 

To Gen Z, there’s a retro appeal to riot grrrl. Having a style to latch onto counts for a lot. “Kinderwhore,” a subversively feminine look marked by frilly dresses and exaggerated makeup that originated in grunge and riot grrrl, is popular on TikTok. Plus, zines feed into the widespread cultural nostalgia for physical media. TikTok creators share brief clips of the process of making them, call for contributions and encourage others to make their own. Molli Vass, 18, who posts as @bratgrrrll and creates the Brat zine, says, “I’ve noticed the zine community getting larger and larger lately. It’s a really cool community of mainly girls who are angry, [who] release all their frustration into paper.” 

There’s more than just nostalgia at work here. Vass was inspired to make her zine by the 2021 murder of Sarah Everard — a 33-year-old marketing executive walking home from a friend’s house — by an off-duty police officer in London. It’s proof that the need for feminist dissent has never disappeared. Crucially, the conversations about rape culture and reproductive rights that ’90s riot grrrls were leading now have a place in mainstream culture, and almost every young woman is conscious of some version of feminism. 

Plus, having grown up amid late-stage capitalism and impending climate disaster, the riot grrrl ethos chimes with the growing sense among Gen Z that they can’t afford political apathy. Dalipe says, “I see so many people going to protests, or making websites where you can donate or sign petitions. So I think it’s because [riot grrrl] is very do it yourself.” Kate Kanfield, bassist of VIAL, adds: “Riot grrrl has an anti-capitalist ethos. And I think right now, there are universal experiences of, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever gonna work in a job that I enjoy, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to buy a house’. There’s a drive for a community that can get that, and scream about it with you.” 

It helps that for the first time in a while, mainstream music is trending towards alternative and punk — look at Willow Smith, Machine Gun Kelly and the myriad other hip hop and pop artists enlisting Travis Barker to help them transition to pop punk. On a platform like TikTok, it’s easy to go looking for the authentic communities under that surface. 

But there is a cautious undertone to any conversation about riot grrrl revival. The ’90s riot grrrl scene has been often criticized for platforming white, middle class women, while women of color struggled to make their concerns heard. Both Dalipe and Peletsky, upon noticing a lack of critical conversation among riot grrrls on the app, explored these flaws in TikTok videos. Both have also posted about the Sista Grrrl Riots — a series of gigs, beginning in 1997, thrown by Black musician Tamar-kali in opposition to the white-centered riot grrrl scene. 

“The fact is that as a Black girl from Brooklyn going to punk and hardcore shows in NYC in the ’90s, riot grrrl felt super SoCal suburban and white,” Tamar-kali herself — who now scores major feature films such as Shirley and The Last Thing He Wanted – tells Billboard. “I related to the DIY meets feminist ethos and enjoyed a good share of the music. But as a movement, it didn’t match my sensibilities as a person incessantly aware of the belligerent racism, sexism and homophobia I was experiencing on the streets of NYC.” 

On seeing her own work discussed on TikTok, Tamar-kali says, “The power of the internet will never cease to amaze me. I love this generation’s penchant to investigate. They want the whole story.”

“A lot of people had never heard about [Sista Grrrl]. That kinda goes with people trying to wash away [the scene’s] problematic history,” Peletsky says, of why she felt moved to discuss the movement on TikTok. “Having inclusivity to Black women and Black non-binary people — pushing their music, adding it to playlists, writing about them in zines — is so instrumental in getting everybody’s message out.”

Tamar-kali agrees, though she acknowledges the surrealness of her contributions still being relevant today. “Broadening the lens through which we view the past to reflect the actuality of the diverse world we live in can only be a good thing. It’s a head trip, though. A decision to create a collective, the everyday DIY punk rock organizing you did with your peeps, can become a historical marker or this cultural moment that folks aspire to.”

The members of VIAL, who are all white, emphasize the importance of intersectionality and anti-racist activism. George Floyd was murdered in their home city, and they take care to support mutual aid initiatives in their community. “As riot grrrl was imagined to be a community for people who were misrepresented, underrepresented, or just not f–king listened to, if we bring it back in any capacity there has to be serious conversations about it,” Kanfield says. “[And an] understanding that we have to do everything we can to make sure it’s not like it was.” 

There are also gender essentialist aspects to the ethos that can feel unwelcoming to trans women and non-binary people. Riot grrrl-adjacent bands The Butchies (fronted by Kaia Wilson of Team Dresch) and Le Tigre (fronted by Kathleen Hanna) have been criticized for playing the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, notorious for its trans-exclusionary entry policy. (Hanna has since voiced her support of trans rights on Twitter.) On TikTok, a new term, ‘riot ghoul’, has been used by people who identify with the movement’s empowerment of those who face misogyny, but don’t feel comfortable accepting the label of ‘grrrl’. 

“Evolving any movement that sought to dismantle the same old patriarchal hierarchy is great,” says Tamar-kali. “I shirk a bit at the term ‘revival’. They say nostalgia is the lowest form of engagement. [But] the movement was a part of rock history and its ethos is alive and well today. So if we vibe with this concept of evolution and expansion as opposed to regurgitating or pantomiming the past, the newest expression will meet the moment.

It’s certainly possible that any movement under the banner of riot grrrl is bound to its initial problems. Though Dalipe still considers herself a fan of riot grrrl’s bands and a supporter of its ethos, because of the scene’s exclusionary tendencies she no longer identifies as a riot grrrl. “It kinda made me [think] maybe this space wasn’t made for people like me, a Brown person who doesn’t really know if she identifies as cis. I’m of the opinion that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, to quote Audre Lorde. I feel like we should just start a new movement. [One that’s] more inclusive of people of different gender identities, and people of color.” 

Of course, any youth movement carries potential for profit, and that too can spell trouble. Tramp Stamps, a band with a markedly riot grrrl aesthetic and a publishing deal with Dr Luke, sparked weeks of internet debate when they appeared on TikTok this April. Many deemed them an inauthentic marketing ploy or an “industry plant”, and the backlash was substantial enough for a Vox article to dub them “the most hated band on TikTok”. “It turned a lot of people off from riot grrrl and punk in general,” says Taylor Kraemer, VIAL’S lead vocalist and keytarist. The band add that they and other non-male bands on TikTok caught the fallout of the drama; guitarist KT Branscom says, “It became a trend to be really, really nasty towards women and non-men in the music scene because of that.”

The marketing gold rush isn’t confined to TikTok, either. The visuals around one of the biggest albums of the year, Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, resemble riot grrrl zine and Kinderwhore aesthetics (Hole frontwoman Courtney Love took offense to one image’s similarity to Hole’s Live Through This album artwork — Hole were not a riot grrrl band, but are conflated often enough with the scene to contribute to public perception of its aesthetic.) Plus, the track “Brutal” is audibly Bikini Kill-influenced, while the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Good 4 U” is full of more general ’90s punk echoes.

Meanwhile, the Netflix original movie Moxie — produced, directed by and co-starring Amy Poehler — centers around riot grrrl; Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” plays as Hadley Robinson’s main character finds her mom’s box of riot grrrl memorabilia. But critics of the movie decried its inauthenticity and lack of intersectionality. “It was a little too much like, let’s stick with this ’90s riot grrrl trope, instead of let’s actually dive into what riot grrrl means to kids who are young now,” Grinberg opines. “It’s like, cool, we get it, we know what middle aged white ladies think about riot grrrl. I care more about what do young people of color feel about it?” 

For riot grrrl to be stripped into toothless aesthetics is nothing new; the phrase ‘girl power’, which originated in a riot grrrl zine, entered ubiquity as a mantra used by the Spice Girls. “There is a huge market for it, and where there is a market there’s a threat,” Peletsky says. “But I think even if that happens, fanzines and stuff like that are still home-made. They’re still telling the story of women all around the world, going through the same s–t that we are. Riot grrrl is very personal.” 

Plus, the last year has seen more meaningful mainstream contributions to the movement. The Linda Lindas, a band of Asian-American and Latina teenagers who made a cameo in Moxie, had a performance of their furious song “Racist Sexist Boy” go viral and signed to Epitaph Records soon after. The British Channel 4 show We Are Lady Parts, created by British-Pakistani writer and director Nida Manzoor and centering around an all-female all-Muslim punk band, premiered to critical acclaim.

Katie Fischer, drummer of VIAL, says, “I think [legitimacy] really depends on who’s making it, and what the intention behind it is. If the intention is to uplift marginalized voices and give them a platform, then it turns out well. If the intention is to emulate the popular aesthetic or the popular sounds, it doesn’t.” 

In Tamar-kali’s eyes, the important thing is that there can continue to be honest discussion around riot grrrl. “I definitely see space for authentic critical reflection and conversation. It is absolutely necessary. In other words, acknowledging that riot grrrl was naturally centered around the identities and experiences of its founders, and that it is simply one part of our collective story.”  Meanwhile, VIAL hope that the mainstream interest will trickle down, giving smaller riot grrrl bands a shot at industry success. Kanfield says, “I’d like to see these small DIY bands get some money. I would love to see these baby bands that have been putting in work for years make enough off of it.” 

Whether conditions are right for bands like VIAL to reap those rewards still remains to be seen. So does what success would even mean for the movement, and whether the original scene’s pitfalls could be avoided this time. But perhaps it’s enough that a new generation of young women and other marginalized identities have stumbled upon a movement that helps them find a voice. 

“Regardless of how you might feel about what goes on in mainstream music, it is nice to see more kids getting into it,” says Grinberg. “And yeah, maybe it’ll be temporary. But if more people are like, ‘Hell yeah, punk music’, and that makes young girls want to make punk music, then f—k yeah. You know? Go for it.”                    

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