Photos by Kelsey Smith
Last night in Olympia a bunch of "old school Olympia riot grrrls" participated in a panel discussion at the library organized by Sara Peté as a part of The Girls To The Front Book Tour with visiting author, Sara Marcus. I was nervous and didn't really want to do it, but I wanted Michelle Noel and Angie Hart to do it, so I agreed. I really hate public speaking, getting my picture taken and doing anything in front of an audience without my drum set (I like to play guitar and sing but always get really bad stage fright). I also feel way more comfortable writing than talking and generally do most interviews via the written word. But I thought about it and participating in this kind of local, living history is an important part of living in a community. Plus I really wanted to hear what the other panelists had to say and I had things I wanted to say. So I sucked it up, put on some lipstick, a bit of eyeliner and my favorite Ramones T Shirt (that was my mom's when I was in Middle School) and forced myself out of the house and into the streets. As I was walking to the library, I realized I had so much stage fright that I thought I might throw up, but when I got there, I just kept thinking, this is Olympia you can do this, and ignored all the cameras that were being set up, trying not to think "this awkward moment of your life will now be on youtube forever".
At first everyone introduced themselves. Olympia artist Bridget Irish started. She talked about being a film person and working at Evergreen on visual media arts in the early 90's, mentioning that at the time, there was a generation gap happening between the older feminists and the younger ones. I wish she had gotten to talk more about that, because I don't actually know that history very well. She then mentioned she had been in a band during the Tropicana era (84/85) in Olympia (the all-girl, mostly acapela group Rain Shadow with Nicole and Lisa) and that she had also sang in The Slattenlies (with Maggie Vail, Jessica Espeleta and Natalie Cox) in the mid-90's.
Next up was Billy Karren, guitarist of Bikini Kill, who wanted to come and share his experience of having witnessed the (pre)meeting before the first riot grrrl meeting, which took place in Malcolm X park in Washington DC, June 1991 (I was there too but I let Bill tell the story, he generally has a better memory than me). He asked how many people in the room had been to a riot grrl meeting and not that many people raised their hand (I think many of them were toddlers in the early 90's) and he said "ok, I see we have a lot of work to do", which I thought was pretty funny and got a few laughs.
Then it was Diana Arens turn, who was the program director at KAOS during the early 90s. She talked about having to defend the existence of a show called Riot Grrl Radio, the details are fuzzy in my mind, but the story involved Calvin Johnson backing her up and some ruffled feathers about a bluegrass show being moved to a different time slot. One of the points she made was that there is room for a men's movement or as (I think) Calvin said, a whole day of programming by for and about men, so really no one needs to get upset when someone decides to showcase music made by women. Diana used to do the amazing Free Things Are Cool radio show, which had many live bands play on the air over the years. Diana also does sound and knows how to record bands, so she talked about that a little bit.
Michelle Noel, one of my good friends that I still hang out with from that time period, came next. Michelle talked about why she moved from Tacoma to Olympia in the early 90's, one of the reasons being that people in Olympia weren't all on heroin and she wanted to go to college. I remember Michelle from The Community World Theater days in Tacoma in the late 80's. She was supportive of girls in bands early on. When she was talking a bunch of memories came flooding back into my head. I remember having a conversation with her about an article I wrote in the first Bikini Kill fanzine in early 1991. We were in the bathroom at Evergreen on the third floor of the library building. As I remember it, we were at a Nirvana show, but that might not be right because there were many shows back then and they all blur together in my mind. Michelle told me she read the article I wrote about Yoko Ono, where I talk about how "the yoko ono myth" is something (straight) guys in bands impose onto their girlfriends. This is the girlfriend-as-distraction idea, where the girl(friend) is always the opposite of the band, the domestic partner, the threat to The Beatles, the weird, eccentric, irrational force that might break up his band. While this is happening, it's not only totally obnoxious, but oppressive-- because your identity is framed in relation to his identity, you are seen as the opposite of his band and by extension, the opposite of any band, so the likelihood that you would ever start your own band is not even an idea in your mind, because girl(friend)=opposite of someone in a band. Michelle liked the article a lot and we had a pretty intense talk in the bathroom, a female space away from the male-dominated show happening a few feet away from us. I think I gave her my fanzine Jigsaw soon after that and invited her to my radio show, or maybe she was already volunteering at KAOS, anyhow we ended up doing a show together called Jigsaw Radio for that year and for a few short weeks played together in a version of Bratmobile. Later Michelle got her own radio show, which she did for years, started setting up shows and became one of the driving forces behind the local Olympia music festival, Yo Yo A Go Go. I don't know if Michelle said any of that, but I was thinking of it all when she was talking, being transported back to that time period and feeling very nervous that I was sitting there in front of so many people.
Then it was my turn. I introduced myself and said something about how I was really happy that Bridget Irish had come to talk because in 1985 I taped her band playing live on KAOS, memorized all the lyrics and showed up at their first (and only) show ever, knowing all the words, which had totally freaked them out. I still sing those songs in my head! I don't think I said this, but I was trying to evoke that there was a continuum from the early 80's Olympia scene and the early 90's era, as a lot of people don't know any of this history, so I wanted to share at least some of it.
Next up was Akiko Carver, who said that she was younger than all of us and wasn't as involved. I remember Akiko as being a totally radical riot grrl who brought issues of race and elitism to the forefront of the discussion, pushing for a more inclusive vision and praxis. I might have her confused with her old friend Cindy Hales, because I didn't know either of them very well at the time and they used to always hang out together. In the late 90's Akiko was in the band Semi-Automatic and today plays in an experimental group called Gentle with Marissa Handren. I think she played with Ari Up from the Slits for awhile when she lived in Brooklyn, but maybe they were just friends. I know Akiko (or was it Cindy) was at the final Bratmobile show in New York City, where they broke up on stage, and that there was some kind of anti-racist action that happened at the show that she may have been involved in, but that didn't come up during the panel and I didn't really know the details so I didn't bring it up, though Sara Marcus does write a bit about this in her book.
Then Sash Sunday introduced herself, saying that going to riot grrrl meetings was an important part of her life when she was in high school, growing up in Olympia and that it still really meant a lot to her today, that it really helped her get through her own teen years. I thought a little bit about what that would have been like if I had had something like that happening when I was a teen, wondering if my experience had been that much different than hers.
At this point Sara Marcus read a bit of the introduction from her book, where she talked about her own discovery of riot grrrl. Although Marcus grew up in a suburb of DC, she found out about riot grrrl from an article in Newsweek magazine. I really like the parts of Girls To The Front where she talks about her own experience. After the panel was over, I asked her if she felt comfortable writing in that voice, and she said that she most definitely did not and will not be reading that part of the book in front of people on the rest of the tour, but she thought that since everyone else was putting themselves on the line and making themselves vulnerable, it was appropriate for her to do the same and that is why she included a bit of her own story in the book. I thought that was really thoughtful of her and appreciated it a lot.
The rest of the panel is kind of a blur in my mind. People asked questions, we rambled on about the difference between that time period and today (the internet being an obviously huge difference and the one we mainly focused on). At one point someone asked a question about trans involvement in riot grrrl. I was asked this question before a few years ago by a classmate of mine when I went back to school. I said this last night, but I will say it again here because I'm not sure what the answer is to that question. As I remember it, in the early 90's there was not a lot of trans visibility within punk or even within feminism. I don't know if it's because it wasn't on my radar because of my own ignorance or what, but I don't remember. What I didn't say but thought about later, that maybe I could have said, is that anytime Bikini Kill played a show, no matter where we were in the world, if there were any genderqueer/trans/gay teens and/or radical lesbians in the punk scene, they would be up front at our show and the whole night would be for those kids. Those were the Bikini Kill fans! But as for riot grrrl I'm not really sure. It is a good point to bring up because not everyone did feel included in riot grrl. I have tried to talk about this before, but in fact there were times that I didn't feel included in riot grrl and that wasn't always for non-political reasons, sometimes I actually felt alienated from the politics of it. Anyhow I tried to say this during the talk, but I'm not sure what I actually said.
It is important to ask who felt included in riot grrl and who didn't. It was not for everybody. There was this idea that it was inclusive because "anybody could do it" and anybody got to decide what a riot grrl was (in theory at least), but because not everyone has equal access to information, resources and leisure time, dominant hierarchies reproduced themselves in riot grrl, just as they have throughout the history of feminism. This would have been a good point to bring a discussion of race and class into play and I was hoping that would come up in one of the questions, but it didn't really come up. This made me go home and look for this cool article that Mimi Nguyen wrote about race and riot grrrl, where she says:
I want to reconsider what we meant when we said “community,” “safe space,” and of course, “the personal is political,” because somewhere along the way, the utopian impulse broke down and something dangerous happened. See, the assumption of safety is all too often an assumption of sameness, and that sameness in riot grrrl -and in other feminist spaces– depended upon a transcendent “girl love” that acknowledged difference but only so far. That is, in the process of translating the urgencies of political realities into accessible terms of personal relevance, a fundamental misrecognition occurs that ruptured riot grrrl’s fabrication of a singularity of female/feminist community. It was assumed that riot grrrl was, for once, for the first time, a level playing field for all women involved, regardless or in spite of differences of class or race. But what became painfully clear, for those of us in the midst of the fray, was this: that the central issues was not one of merely acknowledging difference,” but how and which differences were recognized and duly engaged.
So today I am thinking about that. Please post your thoughts in the comments!
Here are a few videos from The Sara Marcus Girls To The Front Book Tour:
Girls To the Front author Sara Marcus talking about Riot Grrrl on KING5 TV
Kathleen Hanna talking about Girls To The Front in NYC
After the panel local queer feminist band Blood Bones played their set!