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by Rachel Devitt

October 3, 2012

Cheat Sheet: Riot Grrrls and Feminist Punk

by Rachel Devitt  |  October 3, 2012

The world's attention has been riveted to the case of Russian punk band Pussy Riot for months -- and not only because "Pussy Riot" is a seriously awesome name for a punk band. Back in February, the Moscow-based collective staged a guerrilla cathedral performance of a "punk prayer" that sharply criticized President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church's support of him. But they didn't fully catch the eyes and ears of the world until the following month, when three band members were arrested and held without bail for the incident. Despite international outcry, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich are still sitting in prison, and their most recent appeal has been postponed. The charge? Hooliganism. The case is pretty shocking to those of us who live in parts of the world where even the most persecuted and politicized music is probably not going to get you thrown in jail (particularly when you watch the video they made of their frankly pretty innocuous performance). But it's a fervent reminder that musicians can often be at the vanguard of political uprisings and activist movements. More specifically, Pussy Riot's story is also part of a long history of the particularly strong connection between punk music, political rabble-rousing and feminism.

In the 1990s, that Molotov cocktail of elements reached a boiling point with the riot grrrl movement. In arts scenes from the Pacific Northwest to Washington, D.C., female musicians (along with zine-makers, writers and visual artists) began strapping on guitars and screaming their guts out to demand a "revolution girl style now!", as formative riot grrrl band Bikini Kill put it. Part of so-called "second wave" feminism, riot grrrls, like their predecessors in the women's movement, challenged patriarchal power structures and gender norms. But bands like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and 7 Year Bitch did so with a new sense of playfulness that made it possible to be a feminist and recoup girlie stuff (so that the '50s-housewife look became both ironic and iconic, and high heels became weapons), reclaim overt sexuality and, especially, seriously rock out with their ... well, you know.

Riot grrrl got a lot of media attention (in part because some factions instituted a media blackout at one point), but was often dismissed as an anomaly. In truth, grrrl power and punk rock have often been passionate bedfellows, both before and since the early '90s, from early all-girl rock band Fanny (perhaps Pussy Riot's true foremothers ... look up what "fanny" means in the U.K.) to '70s punk firebrands like The Slits to contemporary bands like Gossip and Wild Flag. This Cheat Sheet not only serves as a kind of grrrl punk primer, but also explores the musical DNA that helped provide Pussy Riot with the inspiration to stage their own girl-style revolution now.

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