Girls to the Front

Sara Marcus

I became aware of riot grrrl late, mostly from a distance through zines and records. I can still conjure some sadness that Huggy Bear actually played a show in northeastern Connecticut, but on a Tuesday night when there was no way I could go. What I experienced influenced me greatly, but I never felt like I was a part of the movement in the political sense. There was a lot that I didn’t know about the origins and history. I’m glad this book exists now, though it doesn’t feel like the “definitive” record it claims to be.

Marcus opens the book by establishing her own relationship to riot grrrl, so it’s clear from the beginning that this is a personal project for her. It follows that her feelings would guide the focus. While the book unfurls ostensibly as an unbiased narrative of a complicated history, not all the players receive equal treatment. Kathleen Hanna appears infallible; she does nothing to warrant any critique. Whereas other people and their bands are described perhaps more realistically, with their adolescent faults and struggles intact, in comparison those portrayals feel mean-spirited. There is a decent amount of acknowledgement of the limitations of riot grrrl, how it felt overwhelmingly middle-class, white, and straight to many of the girls who were involved who were not all of those things. In the end, about half the book follows the establishment of riot grrrl in DC and Olympia and the latter half describes its long decline as it spread out further into the US (and, briefly, beyond to the UK).

Despite the limitations inherent in one 350-page book about a heavily decentralized movement, it succeeds in capturing the energy of the time and making clear that riot grrrl was more than just a music scene or the result of a small group of people’s efforts. There are some reviews of and responses to this book from people who were involved and are discussed in the book, including Tobi Vail, Allison Wolfe, and Johanna Fateman, that are worth reading for additional context.