Every girl should be a Riot Grrrl

By Eliana Joftus

I used to be sure that everyone was a feminist. After all, isn’t feminism just the belief that men and women should be considered as equals? To me, equality of the sexes was simply a 21st century norm. So, at the beginning of my freshman year, when a female classmate mentioned to me that she wasn’t a feminist, I was stunned. It was completely foreign to hear that a woman didn’t believe in her own right to equality.

Only when I joined the Riot Grrrl movement — a radical feminist movement that focuses on female liberation and opposing patriarchal standards — did I learn that feminism is so much more complex than equality. It’s easy to see why my female classmate might have been turned off by radical feminism; its unapologetic punk attitude is often too abrasive for women who have been told to “be quiet” their entire lives. But this defiance is precisely where the movement gets its power.

Since first joining social media in sixth grade, I’d followed mainstream, surface level feminist Instagram and Twitter accounts that posted about “girl bosses” and female politicians.  It was empowering, but ultimately, it wasn’t effective in creating lasting change. Accounts would post about body positivity and sexist phrases to avoid, all while failing to acknowledge the systemic injustices in our society. I knew more radical strains of feminism existed, but I was skeptical if identifying with them would be a little too “out there” for my middle school sensibilities. 

However, after following the Riot Grrrl movement on social media in Jan. 2020, I began to understand the difference between the generic feminist media I had been exposed to and the grassroots movement just below the surface; these communities were places for all women and non-binary folk to come together, speak their mind and demand action from popular, widely supported women’s movements. 

The Riot Grrrl movement stems from an underground music scene in the ‘90s that aimed to highlight female rockers in the largely male-dominated and historically misogynistic genre of punk. Music and media from the Riot Grrrl era emphasized a certain duality: being both a rebel and an unapologetic woman. Many Riot Grrrls would get ready in the morning “the same way a man would.” For them, this might have meant not brushing their hair or not concerning themselves with their appearance. At the same time, many Riot Grrrls wore traditionally feminine clothes — dresses and floral patterned skirts — on stage to claim their womanhood. The Riot Grrrl attitude inspired me to completely transform my day-to-day life; every little change I made to my traditional female habits is now a purposeful and targeted attempt to rebel against our sexist systems.

A couple months ago, while scrolling through Riot Grrrl content on Twitter, I started chatting with 18-year-old Riot Grrrl Mina, known as @Fem1na on social media. I had asked her if she had any advice for young people interested in the movement, expecting only a short response. Instead, she responded instantly with voice memos and long paragraphs filled with guidance. Her words and advice gave me a better understanding of the deeper issues that plague women, and motivated me to further understand the movement and explore my female identity.

Mina elaborated on the lack of education that teen girls receive about true female liberation. It’s evident that women often suffer in silence because we think we’re alone in our experiences regarding sexual assault, harassment and gender-based discrimination. But, when girls begin to talk to each other about negative gender-based experiences, we realize we’re stronger as a collective. 

While mainstream feminism is a good starting point for young girls, it fails to properly represent all types of women. Mainstream feminism is often nicknamed “white liberal feminism” for the narrow demographic it’s focused toward. On the other hand, radical feminism ensures intersectionality and collectivity on all fronts, never neglecting non-binary, transgender and BIPOC (Black, Indingenous, and People of Color). Intersectionality highlights the deeper struggle that these marginalized groups of women face — whether that’s experiencing extreme forms of prejudice or dealing with the internalized effects of Eurocentric beauty standards. Instead of focusing on what women can do to solve their own issues, radical feminism focuses on the root of these problems: corporations and individuals benefiting from the sexualization and abuse of women, especially queer women and women of color.

Becoming a Riot Grrrl made me realize that women must be proactive in abandoning male-oriented versions of our lives. Traditional feminine culture revolves around appealing to the male gaze even when we think it doesn’t. Much of teen girl culture is shaped by a desire to please men — shaving, covering blemishes with makeup and cosmetic surgery are all forms of conformity if your motivation doesn’t lie in personal autonomy. Many women like doing these actions for themselves, and people with gender dysphoria undergo surgical procedures, to feel comfortable in their own skin. It’s true that many of these small actions are impacted by male desires — but as long as we can acknowledge their roots, they won’t aid the patriarchy.

An important lesson I’ve struggled to become comfortable with is that you don’t need to follow the media’s beauty standards or worry about how other people view you in order to have value. In the past, consciously or subconsciously, I compared myself to other women I barely knew, both on screen and in my daily life. I wanted to “surpass” other women, and attempted to differentiate myself from “other girls.” Throughout the past year, however, I’ve come to consistently recognize these faults in my mindset. I was unintentionally supporting the idea that womanhood is about competition, and I reinforced this by looking for someone in the room who might be prettier, smarter or more talented than myself. Even if I’m a woman, I’m not excused for promoting sexist behavior. Nobody is.

Instead of catering to misogynistic conceptions that value a woman’s worth solely through her appearance, I wanted to better myself, starting from the inside, by reading, listening, and trying to unlearn lessons that are catered to girls for all of their youth. Of course, meeting these societal standards doesn’t make you any less of a feminist. Preaching a complete rejection of the “norm” would be hypocritical of me. I enjoy wearing makeup and feeling feminine as a form of gender expression. I have an unnecessary amount of skirts and dresses. Any person can paint any action as empowerment, which is why it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re living for yourself rather than for other people. 

In the past year as a Riot Grrrl, I’ve seen drastic changes in my self-perception. Today, I’m a stronger individual — I’m more aware of the effects of misogyny in our society and more active in fighting conformity, which includes celebrating and highlighting all women, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, racial background or class. And, no matter how much I learn, I’m going to continue to listen to other women and grow my knowledge on these topics.

To the girl from freshman year: I hope that you understand the strength your words have. Being a woman and openly refuting feminism is dangerous and allows toxicity from those who permit misogyny. Letting any man dictate how much you care about a topic is wrong. If you want to riot, then riot. To teenage girls who do consider themselves feminists: Let yourself break down and get angry, because you deserve to. I hope the next generation of radical feminists never shuts up, never leaves you alone and will never sit back and watch ever again.