Riot Grrrl, Doing Gender and Race

Drawing of Bikini Kill performing close to a White woman fan

In the video below, Kathleen Hanna, singer with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, reflects on her feminist awakening. Hanna remembers going to a rally in Washington D.C. where mainstream feminist icon Gloria Steinem spoke.

“My mum was a housewife, and wasn’t somebody that people would think of as a feminist, and when Ms. magazine came out we were incredibly inspired by it. I used to cut pictures out of it and make posters that said ‘Girls can do anything,’ and stuff like that, and my mum was inspired to work at a basement of a church doing anti-domestic violence work. Then she took me to the Solidarity Day thing, and it was the first time I had ever been in a big crowd of women yelling, and it really made me want to do it forever.”

Hanna would go on to be part of the ‘Riot Grrrl’ movement, which bought into question how to “do” femininity in popular culture. This musical period coincided with my interest in feminism, social justice and social studies, and eventually, sociology. Let’s unpack the gender and racial dynamics of this genre.

Doing gender, but not undoing racism

The idea of “doing gender” was popularised in sociology by West and Zimmerman. This theory shows the amount of work that society puts into maintaining gender binaries. Boys do this, girls do that; dresses mean this; women’s work means that; and so on. Women-led bands played around with gender concepts. They ramped up certain levels of femininity, using baby doll dresses and vintage-style make up, but they also disrupted what’s appropriate gender displays for women. Musicians like Hanna used their lyrics to question what it means to be feminine, although notably, the most high profile of these women were all White.

One of the most interesting things about this genre was the focus on anger, which is not a socially acceptable way for women to communicate in public.

For Black women and other women of colour, anger is even more taboo, as the racist stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’ and the ableist slur, ‘the crazy Latina,’ make anger not only deviant, but dangerous. The Riot Grrrl movement was therefore liberating for some, mostly White, women, who found a way to express anger using music, in a way that was less accommodating for women of colour.