Identity and Agency: Riot Grrrls’ Jouissance

Judy Isaksen

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

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Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style explores the semiotic value of music subcultures as each attempts to resist cultural hegemony and rise above the subordinate position that society so readily assigns to youth. Building on Hebdige’s work, Lynn Worsham in “Writing against Writing” explores the radical nature of French feminism by mapping “spectacular subcultures”--primarily punk--to the “spectacular discourse subculture” of écriture féminine (85). Worsham contends that écriture féminine and music-centered subcultures should be recognized for their radical nature, for both disrupt the “accepted codes through which the social world is organized and experienced” (86).

Since Hebdige’s work in 1979 with predominantly male-populated subcultures of beatniks, teddy boys, and punks, and Worsham’s analysis of écriture féminine in light of such subcultures, a decidedly feminine subculture has emerged: socially and musically, a disruptive girl-style revolution has been taking place under the label of Riot Grrrls, and their resistance is clearly aimed at cultural and patriarchal hegemony. What little is known about the Riot Grrrl movement comes almost entirely from the popular press, which Riot Grrrls distrust and shun. Furthermore, their seemingly bizarre appearance and, at times, cacophonous music can justify not taking the movement seriously. Given these concerns and my belief that the movement should not be underestimated, I shall add to the small amount of scholarship that has been written about this subculture to take it in a fresh direction.

I posit that the Riot Grrrl movement is making significant feminist contributions to the welfare of young girls. With both Hebdige and Worsham in mind, I propose that serious insight into this new generation of feminist work can be gained by looking at the Riot Grrrl subculture through the critical lens of écriture féminine, the discourse subculture which may be translated as “writing said to be feminine,” “feminine writing,” and “writing the body.” While I admit that I have encountered no indication that the Riot Grrrls members are aware of écriture féminine and that vast differences between these two subcultures exists, I hope to demonstrate a striking analogy in terms of purpose and means, such that the glorious energy of Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa,” reads like a Riot Grrrls’ (Wo)manifesto.

Ecri(o)ture Féminine:

Emerging in 1991 in both Olympia, Washington and Washington D.C., the Riot Grrrl subculture of neo-feminist punk women in their late teens and early twenties has created a flourishing nationwide underground network. The members challenge the corporate, male-dominated music scene while they demand self-representation and insist upon controlling their gender identity. They are seizing control of the representation of women by various discourses while simultaneously blurring gender lines in order to resist the essentialist identification of women with sexuality.

Though a relatively new movement with clearly feminist intent, the Riot Grrrls’ roots extend back to 1976 when the not-necessarily-feminist British punk movement exploded onto the scene. Early British punkers were a subculture of alienated youth reacting against the oppressive ideologies surrounding primarily capitalism. Before long, the despair and futility experienced by British punks at the hands of an indifferent society resonated with many young Americans--including women who had always been forced to live with multiple oppressions. As the punk movement gathered momentum in the states, brazen female musicians recognized their opportunity to participate. Women punk bands like the Slits, the Go-Go’s, and the Raincoats along with women artists such as Siouxsie Sioux, Grace Jones, and Poly Styrene paved the way, both corporeally and musically, for what would eventually become the new subculture of Riot Grrrls. Building on the advances made by these early punk women, 90’s Riot Grrrls are focusing their attention toward more political and social aims by challenging patriarchal oppression discursively.

In The Sex Which is Not One, Luce Irigaray struggles with a principal notion of écriture féminine that insists we are caught up within phallocratic discourse: “one cannot simply leap outside that discourse,” she claims; rather, she suggests moving “continuously from the inside to the outside” (122). Such movement appears to be the foundation of Riot Grrrl philosophy, starting with their rhetorical alteration of “girl” to “grrrl.” Historically, the word “girl” has signified society-approved qualities of being sweet, quiet, and ladylike. Distorted to “grrrl” and pronounced with a growl, however, the signification transgresses to defiant agency and confrontational, anger-driven energy, intended to move outside of phallocratic ideology.

While both subcultures--écriture féminine and Riot Grrrls--resist being theorized and codified, Cixous’ opening of “The Laugh of the Medusa” sounds a theoretical bell for both movements when she insists that “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing.” Cixous continues with two aims: “to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project” (334). Similarly, one of a long list of credos declared by Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill harmonizes with Cixous’ aims: “viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how [what] we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo” (qtd. in Rosenberg and Garofalo 812).

Bikini Kill

And yet, despite the sisterhood among women operating under the aegis of either écriture féminine or Riot Grrrls, members openly rejoice in the notion that there is no single representative female. Cixous glorifies the “infinite richness of . . . individual constitutions” where “a female sexuality” is never “uniform, homogeneous, classifiable” (“Laugh” 334). For Riot Grrrls, contradiction utterly defines their feminism; elements of pleasure and danger, laughter and anger, childlikeness and vampiness joyfully juxtapose each other in their music, their body image, and their writing to subvert and redefine their sexuality and identity.

Ecriture féminine and Riot Grrrls perhaps best unite in, as Irigaray says, “jamming the theoretical machinery” (78). The stylish and deliberate mimicry Riot Grrrl bands employ to uncover patriarchal exploitation resonates with écriture féminine. Band names like Lunachicks, Babes in Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch, and CD titles like Pottymouth and Nemesisters are exposing--and, thus, diluting--through parodic mimicry elements of masculine discourse. Irigaray endorses mimesis to “make ‘visible,’ by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language” (76). Riot Grrrl lyrics are equally rich with transgressive style. For example, in addressing violence against women, 7 Year Bitch eliminates the possibility of rape by killing the violator in “Dead Men Don’t Rape”:

I don’t have pity, not a single tear
For those who get joy from a woman’s fear
I’d rather get a gun and just blow you away
Then you’ll learn firsthand dead men don’t rape.

Through discourse, these lyrics destroy not only perpetrators of sexual violence, but, even more importantly, allow “woman” to place herself willfully inside of language and define her ability to control, despite the Lacanian claim that women are not symbolically self-defined. These lyrics, as do most Riot Grrrl writings, challenge the law of the father.

Coupled with trangressive lyrics, screaming is also a part of Riot Grrrl music repertoire. The primal urge of the scream can signify a vast range of emotions: despair from oppression, rage from assault, a jouissance-like elation associated with orgasm or childbirth. Screaming--generated by full-body energy--whether signifying rage or pleasure, or pleasure at expressing rage, embodies the physical and discursive characteristics of écriture féminine while simultaneously giving an alternative voice to the socially desirable quiet, passive female. “Silence,” declares Cixous, “is the mark of hysteria” (“Castration” 49). Irigaray goes further to suggest that “hysteria is silent and at the same time it mimes”; it “caricatures and deforms” masculine discourse (137). Thus, by screaming, these young women are articulating a resistance to the phallogocentric language of the father.

The scream technique closely aligns with the often rudimentary musical ability of most Riot Grrrl musicians; indeed, the creation of their own political culture far exceeds their concern for musical virtuosity. “Technique alone is unimportant,” states Riot Grrrl, Tamra Spivey. Simply “memorizing” rock solos plays into the “limitations of the patriarchy” (qtd. in Rosenberg and Garofalo 829-30). Cixous, too, addresses transgressive ways one may operate “within” the discourse of man:

Nor is the point to appropriate their instruments, their concepts . . . their position of mastery. . . For us the point is not to . . . internalize or manipulate, but rather to dash through and to “fly.” (“Laugh” 343)

Like Cixous, whose “The Laugh of the Medusa” simultaneously is and is about feminine writing, Riot Grrrls self-define their cultural and sexual representation through their writings in underground zines [1] that underscore their song lyrics. Self-motivated, self-published, and self-distributed, grrrl-positive zines are sources of empowerment and communication. Here are a few illustrative comments of the impact zines have on Riot Grrrl subculture:

Through writing zines, which are distributed at concerts and schools, taped in bathrooms, and published on the Web, the members have not only established a political community, but they also do as Cixous commands: “Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the . . . publishing houses. . .” (“Laugh” 335).

Common in écriture féminine is playful syntax and erotic images that release women’s bodies from patriarchal representation; Riot Grrrls toy with language in the same way. While Cixous demands, “I want vulva!,” Riot Grrrl rhetoric is laced with “vulva-lutionary” writing, and web sites are frequently posted with an “under cunt-struction” sign. In many ways, zines are the fibers that mesh the Riot Grrrl movement together, for all members can write about their emotions, experiences, and critical social issues with a backdrop of safety and acceptance.


True to écriture féminine, the body is also a principal terrain for Riot Grrrls. In a typical web-zine article “A Grrrl’s Breast Friend,” Venus discusses her healthy relationship with her body, defying our culture’s phallocentric belief that women’s “breasts belong to others--her husband, her lover, her baby” (Young 127). Lyrics, likewise, contain body-based rhetoric, often calling into question social perils facing women. Lunachick’s “Binge & Purge,” depicts the despair young women experience concerning body image: “Ipecac and X-Lax are my best friends” and “Ruptured my esophagus, but I’m still a hippopotamus.” Cixous laments that women have been “turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them” (“Laugh” 342).

In writing both zines and lyrics, Riot Grrrl members are turning toward their bodies, attempting to understand their sexuality, while simultaneously dismantling the phallocratic notions of sexuality that haunt/erase/expose them.

The uses of the female body for patriarchal satisfaction inspires Riot Grrrls to fashion the body itself as a political site. Understanding that the body is a text and that body image both off and on stage is an important signifier, a sense of “posing” and “posturing” prevails. It is not uncommon to see Riot Grrrl members in feminine, baby-doll dresses juxtaposed with clunky Doc Marten boots, creating a parody of daddy’s little girl while simultaneously toying with notions of machismo (Wojcik 26). In choosing to wear the "anti-fashion" Doc Martens rather than spike heels--which phallicize women’s legs and, therefore, reinscribe objectification--Riot Grrrls resist domination under the heels of patriarchy.

Cixous exalts that “her flesh speaks true” (“Laugh” 338), and Riot Grrrl members too glorify flesh. Using their bodies as posters, they literally engage in écriture féminine as they write jarring messages such as “RAPE VICTIM” and “INCEST VICTIM” on their arms, hands, and stomachs; through these signifying practices of body writing, they refuse to be silenced. Clearly accustomed to the “male gaze,” Riot Grrrl members adorn their bodies with labels such as “BITCH” and “WHORE”; in writing the body in this fashion, they are mirroring (and hopefully altering) the perception men already have of women.

In using discourse--lyrically, textually, and bodily--Riot Grrrl members are effectively critiquing social, cultural, and patriarchal power relations as well as creating transformations that enhance their world. And they are doing this without leadership, at the underground level, and outside of the academy. As Riot Grrrl member Jen Smith puts it, “The ways we exercise our ideas, our art, and our livelihoods are the ways in which we engage in activism” (238).

Through whatever lens we choose to view the Riot Grrrl movement, we cannot ignore that their underground DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos is their political method of choice, a fact that any Riot Grrrl member would quickly remind us of. As Riot Grrrls continue to define their personal identity and establish a measure of social agency, it is readily apparent, at least to me, that theirs is an efficacious feminist movement with sustaining, albeit, “outrrrageous” energy.


1. ZINES: Noise, Scream (dedicated solely to Babes in Toyland), Cybergrrlz, Riotgrrl, Sex9. (back)

Works Cited

Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 (1981): 41-55.

- - - . “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991. 334-49.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.

Irigaray, Luce. The Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Lunachicks. “Binge & Purge.” Binge & Purge. Safe House, 1993.

Rosenberg, Jessica, and Gitana Garofalo. “Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from Within.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23 (1998): 809-41.

7 Year Bitch. “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” Sick ‘Em. C/Z, 1992.

Smith, Jen. “Doin’ It for the Ladies—Youth Feminism: Cultural Productions/Cultural Activism.” Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Ed. Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 226-38.

Venus. “A Grrrl’s Breast Friend.” Online posting. 1997. 9th ish Riotgrrl. 1 June 1999.

Wojcik, Daniel. Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. Jackson: UP of Mississippi: 1995.

Worsham, Lynn. “Writing against Writing: The Predicament of Ecriture Féminine in Composition Studies.” Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age. Ed. Patricia Harkin and John Schilb. New York: MLA, 1991. 82-104.

Young, Iris Marion. “Breasted Experience: The Look and the Feeling.” The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. Ed. Rose Weitz. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 125-36.

Copyright © Enculturation 1999

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