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Monday, June 3, 2013

The Riot Grrrl Collection: Preliminary Thoughts by Tobi Vail

INTRODUCTION: I am an author/fanzine editor featured in this book. My contribution includes excerpts from Jigsaw #1 1989, Bikini Kill #1 1990/91, Bikini Kill #2 1991, various correspondence and flyers/graphics. I am enjoying reading The Riot Grrrl Collection and I think it looks fantastic. I would like to thank everyone involved in making this happen. I appreciate all of your hard work. I fully support this project and I am looking forward to seeing what people have to say about The Riot Grrrl Collection after they read it. I know I am not alone in welcoming critical, analytical responses to this document and the history that it represents.

I will post a full review when I've finished reading the book but I already have a lot to say so I will start with the introduction. First of all, there are some factual details I would like to correct, question and/or add to the book. I am keeping a running list of mistakes or questionable claims, as I do every time a book is written that includes local history that I have witnessed/taken part in. This is one way history gets revised so I don’t want to just ignore errors or inconsistencies. History that is being written and recorded is contestable terrain.

So far this is what I have down:

Lisa's intro to The Riot Grrrl Collection ends with a quote from Girl Germs #3:

“If you are sitting there reading this and you feel like you might be a riot grrrl then you probably are so call yourself one”

She attributes the quote to me, Tobi Vail, but this should be credited to Molly Neuman.

When I first read this I thought -

I don’t think I would have ever said this, I don’t remember ever feeling this way about riot grrrl, I actually remember feeling like it was really important to acknowledge that many of us (myself included) were a bit apprehensive about calling ourselves riot grrrls for legitimate reasons.

This is obviously a-whole-nother article but, in short, some of these reasons included class, race, sexuality, gender expression as well as theoretical differences – for example, following feminist/political theorists such as bell hooks, Judith Butler, Alison Jaggar, Michel Foucault, Joan Cocks, Elizabeth Spelman, Angela Davis - not wanting to universalize a utopian idea of sisterhood or promote an essentialist idea of gender. I also had problems witnessing what I later learned is called the oppression Olympics (see Elizabeth Martinez) and some of the self-serving misuses of identity politics that I saw happening in the riot grrrl scene. There were also strategic differences – like wanting to play in bands and make zines but not wanting to go to C.R. type meetings (but still respecting those who did go to meetings, blah blah blah....) and in general, being focused on trying to build a culture of resistance rather than wanting to get involved in more traditional forms of political organizing, which, at the time, I felt were ineffective in that they no longer spoke to young people. Then the media coverage happened and it got even more confusing/alienating adding all these additional layers and layers of complexity...one being that I was not interested in being a leader or a star or taking part in a feminist movement that had leaders or stars. I was interested in encouraging and participating in radical, anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical, diffuse, localized feminist movement/scenes/action and was trying to help build an international network through punk rock /d.i.y. /underground music culture that connected us via bands and zine-making – I wasn’t really focused on A NAME, I thought there should be multiple names and mutability and when riot grrrl started to seem to represent something else it didn’t speak to me so much AS A NAME…I thought it would keep moving, evolving, changing, growing – now, of course, that whole time/place is known as “riot grrrl” and you have to just say, yes ok, that is the term, fine, I surrender.

This is all to say that YEAH - I understood the hesitancy to call yourself a riot grrrl as something to respect and not something to gloss over. You could be a feminist, a punk feminist even, a self-identified grrrl even, a member of a so-called “riot grrrl band” and not feel represented by that category.

I thought about it some more…

I thought, MAYBE, it is POSSIBLE that the quote is mine. MAYBE I felt this way once a long, long, time ago - way back at the very beginning of riot grrrl…the year before it started…the summer it started, the month it started, the week it started, the day it started…that long hot summer evening in Malcolm X Park…in a secret grrrl gang solidarity letter to Jen Smith that spring? Before meetings were happening and it all was just this big utopian dream of revolution that some of us girls were using as a metaphor - or maybe a dare - as a way to imagine and talk about what a feminist network of action would actually look like, as a way of getting to that next step, as a way to create a feminist future, as a way of asking for back up or to gather an army?

When I look back at some of my writing in Jigsaws #2-#4 I see some of this kind of hopeful romanticism there in the form of sisterly sloganeering and it’s not totally formulated on paper yet but it is inspired and it did inspire others to action, it did get me from point a to point b to point c, and so - YES - maybe I could have written this but I don’t remember feeling it. That makes sense, as a lot of emotions you experience as a young person are hard to feel or even relate to later in life. Perhaps this is just something I blocked from my memory years ago? Hmmm.

But then I noticed that the quote was credited to an issue of Girl Germs. I didn’t write for Girl Germs. Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe were the editors/main writers of Girl Germs and I don’t remember ever contributing any writing or being interviewed for Girl Germs but, again, I thought maybe I had forgotten? So I looked around and started rereading Girl Germs #3, which is included in the Riot Grrrl Collection in its entirety, and I found it - see page 78 of the book, page 27 of the fanzine - as a part of Molly’s Top Ten (Extended Dance Remix) under the sub heading "#9 riot grrrl":

I encourage those of us who were participants to comment on the historical record, to tell our version of what happened, to record our memories and thoughts and find a way to share them. If you are reading "riot grrrl" zines for the first time I look forward to finding out how someone in 2013 will hear what we had to say about the world 20 or more years ago when we were much younger.

Ok, that's it for now! Back to the book.


Tobi Vail said...

P.P.S. I should add that Lisa did email me before the book came out to ask for my authorization to reprint my work and listed this quote in a long list of things she wanted my permission to reproduce. I just said yes to the whole email and didn't think about it too much until the book came out - so, in all fairness to Lisa, I want to say that I missed an opportunity to correct this mistake before it was published, which I now regret.

I also would like to thank Lisa and Johanna everyone at the Fales Archive and The Feminist Press and all of the contributors/participants made it possible for this book to exist.

Anonymous said...

I'm very interested in reading this collection and reflecting on it and on my life as I accept that I'm middle aged.

My background is kind of strange: I grew up on the East Coast near a college campus in the '70-'80s, and I paid attention. As with many young people of every generation, I felt "a change is gonna come." Some sort of change came, but I'm in the process of sorting that out in my mind and paying attention to present apparent changes and those that are minor seismic vibrations. <-- those are the most interesting to me.

I was a protest of one when I was 10 years old -- Don't Buy Del Monte! Apartheid is bad! -- it pissed me off that people thought I was cute. Some spoke to me, but not much was going down in '76 besides getting Philly ready for the BiFuckingCentennial.

I'm not sure how I lost my voice. I think I know, but I don't know if it's a blame thing of having hope and drive beaten out of me or inertia on my part. Maybe feeling like I was alone contributed. Capitalistic drive is okay, though. /sarcasm

Raised by a fundamentalist xtain nutjob, I had to hide my interest in things like music, feminism for sure, driving beats, The New Mutants, The X-Men...I had issues with the way the women were drawn, but the themes of bigotry and oppression -- those I got. I mean, the underlying political messages seen in the discussions of how mutants should interact with humans -- the minority had all the power? Whoa.

In my early 20s, I read about women about my age writing their own " 'zines," of which I was like, "Whazza zine?" The funny thing is that my great aunts and grandmothers were feminists farmers ("What the hell do you mean I can't keep chickens in my row-home backyard?!") and into DIY out of both poverty and fucking common sense. They also wrote the editor of the local rag. Uppity black wimmin!

I started knitting when I was four, sewing when I was six. At some point these were things that I was ashamed of doing because their origin was poverty. The shame is gone. They're fucking SKILLS, and they've been co-opted in weirdass ways because they're en vogue, but, meh. Free trade/homemade yarn is good. Getting fucked by yarn shops selling lessons is dumb.

I knit because I'm cold, especially when it rains in Auburn.

Self-conscious apologies for rant/autobiography and many thanks. Women, Race and Class blew my motherfucking 28-year-old mind. Good.

Anonymous said...


While reading your hard-copy Jigsaw zines from a collection at the library of a prominent University in 2010 I had the uneasy feeling that some of your ideas, because they were written during a period of time before the birth of the current student body who could not share the common life experiences/changes of our generation, could lead them on a self-destructive path for their lack of comprehension.

Maya said...

I'm going to read this as soon as summer starts, and I'm really excited. I've read Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus and I liked it although I think it was a little scattered. It's so interesting to read these books and get the feel of what it was like for everyone in that place and time.

Katie said...

This book finally came in to the library last week so I was able to read it this weekend. I found it to be really inspiring. For me it was like getting a time capsule made by the girls of the 1990s to remind us to go out there and make art today. It also put the music of that time in context for me--the theory and thinking behind the music. Thanks to all of you for letting the editors publish your zines so that we can read them today. I found feminism through punk music a few years ago when I was 28.

Anonymous said...

Tobi, thanks for sharing your reflections and introspective history. As usual, I am inspired and filled with renewed energy by reading your texts.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

So, I am at my work, sitting at my desk, and sort of just in a daze checking out the girl that works next to me. We work in a chaotic, but fun job, and we are all friends.
So, I stare at her, looking inside, and feeling like she has no idea why she can come to work as she does, live as she does, and go through life with a smile on her face, and just enjoy. She is young, married to her girlfriend, and never has a 2nd thought about trying to dress to impress, or doll it up. She is completely happy being herself. She is enjoying the benefits of what them Dirty girls / Riot Girrls laid out for her. It's sad, she does not know or understand what or who made her happy life possible. I think I will get this book for her so she can at least understand what her life might have been like, if not for the way rad Riot girrls who really kicked Barbie in the face, and started it up.
Thanks, Just another olden dude.
P.S. Tobi be so rad.