When I take a look
at feminism in the late 90's, I suffer from an odd disorientation
trying to grasp the branches and sub-branches of feminist discourse:
anarchist, separatist, essentialist, postmodernist, etc. It presents
a confounding array that refuses to fit into a linear or hierarchical
framework. Once I adjust to the profusion, though, I find a lot of gaps.
Where, for example, does an pro-pornography feminist fit? Or a
Riot Grrl? Does either of them have a place in that generalized
geneology of First Generation, Second Generation, and Third Generation
feminism? If it's left up to literary critics, historians and other
academics to decide when to add a new generation/category (or an
old one, for that matter), then nothing would change. They analyze
only after real people choose to alter their lives based on verbal
and visual data. Change occurs at the interstices between ended histories.
I'd say that the idea of unified feminism is over. It burnt up all
the ready fuel in the 1970's-era liberation fight against inequity in
our male-dominated job market. Then, obscured in a decade of hazy smoke,
the women's movement died and became Post-feminism and everything after.
This mediated production of post-feminism (a play on postmodernism),
placed postmodern feminists, who were in the process of critiqueing
the dominant patriarchal narrative, in the position of having to let
their own history (as progress) come to an end. In that light, the
appearance of multiple branches of feminism in humanities and women's
studies departments makes perfect sense. No marker is understood as
singular or fixed, no liberation narrative leads from slavery to freedom.
The end of unified feminism doesn't mean, however, that there are
no more feminists. Given the limitations of my chosen metaphor,
it seems to me that the fires of feminism still blaze on the margins
of our culture even though few feminists or cultural critics notice.
An intriguing phenomenon roughly shaped as grrrl power, carries on the
rage and frustration in the alternative art and music scene. Girl bands
have gone on-stage with in-your-face defiance of mainstream constructions
of 'girl' or 'young woman.' So why hasn't it made it to any of the
feminist charts? For example, on Kristin Switala's excellent website
on feminism you'll find no reference to grrrl-anything, nor or does it
show up in the feminist taxonomy posted at Southern Oregon University
a of couple years ago by Warren Hedges. Maybe the latest phase of
academic-feminists can't get a hold on what grrrls -- or cyber-feminists
-- are and can't find a place for them in their schema. They've let them
fall through the cracks.
Trying to get a handle on this issue through the web, I came across
a lot more grrrl sites than I had anticipated. If the web is one of
the current hot spots for identity formation and declaration, then
grrrls are still steaming. These grrrls project youth, indignation,
and desire for solidarity, attention, and independence, no matter
what age they've reached. I found the seminal
Riot Grrls, Rockrgrl
magazine, a grrlzine of Riot Grrl art named Angel Cake,
Geek Girls, Nrrd Grrl with their ezine Grrowl, Modem Grrls, the U.K.'s Girlpower magazine, Asian gurls, Slantgirl,
and Hilary Carlip's Girlpower, to name only a few.
Sites range from corporate (Japanese animatrixes the
Power Puff Girls, Purple Moon, Grrl Gamer, American Girletc.) and parental
endeavors to the more intriguing fan pages for girl bands,
personal grrrl sites, zines and comics.
Sometimes the 'grrrl' or 'grrl' spelling indicates how alternative
a site is, but that rule of thumb doesn't always hold true. Ariel
Bordeaux's "Deep Girl"
underground comic grapples with the difficulties of a teenage girl turned
feminist in a hostile, anti-girl, world.
art rebels par excellence, predated this miss-spelling.
Significantly, grrrl power has no preference for any single
identity marker, like spelling, and no cohesive center. It
thrives as an anarchic, sporadic, and personal rejection of
adulthood as currently constructed. Born with the girl bands,
Riot Grrrls found their own way to feminism, as reflected in
"What is a Riot Grrrl" by Spirit. My tendency to want
to call it a movement seems to stem primarily from the institution
of "Girl Power!" as
a governmental campaign in November, 1996.
Over a year ago, this campaign by Dept. of Health and Human
Services made a concerted attempt to siphon off subculture
into the mainstream. Envisioned as a nation-wide, mediated,
top-down propaganda drive in partnership with Girl Scouts of
America, "Girl Power!" focuses on 9-14 year old girls to prevent
them from engaging in "substance abuse and other risky behaviors"
/1 as they enter
puberty -- a psychological booster program. Just innoculate
girls with a dose of 'good body image' and all will be well.
This might sound like a wild guess, but by the time someone
formulated "Girl Power!" and sent out official press releases,
the representations of girl bands had made it to pop culture.
This invention for a media stream had to be triggered by the rise of the
Spice Girls, a group who had cultivated a
following girls as young as 7 and 8. The Spice Girls have a lot
that their young audience wants: a doll-like grown-up sex appeal,
physical energy, confidence, independence, and lots of image
propagation. The HHS staff wanted to reach that audience of
pre-pubescent girls and hook them in for the next 5-7 years.
They simultaneously co-opted the old 'Black Power' slogan
(from roughly the same era as women's lib) in an evasive attempt
to appear non-governmental (as if to simulate the power which
that movement really had).
Appropriate for such co-optation, the Spice Girls are a
slicked-up version of their out-of-control predecessors, girl
bands that came on strong and hard in the 70's and 80's.
Bikini Kill, L7 and Hole took on the tough stance of a Patti
Smith or Siouxie Sioux, shouting out feminist-sounding rants
and churning out heavy music (for a good reference see
Women in 1970's Punk. Here is where the real powerhouse of grrrl
energy got stoked up. Girls could play a mean guitar, pound
a set of drums, scream into the microphone, mess with
electronic equipment, and stay up all night. They got booked
for tours, cut albums and cd's, and had riotous fans. They
could do it all.
Would someone like Courtney Love want to wait for some
quintessential age (18 or 21?) to become a woman and be
eligible for liberation? You must be kidding. With lyrics
like "Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? Did she
ask you for it? Did she ask you twice?" (Live Through This,
1994) she puts female sexual assertiveness up against a reluctant
(speechless?) male, even as she questions how this aggression
can be 'nice' behavior for a girl. In a sense, liberation comes
with being not nice, with red lipstick, short skirts and high
heels, through an exaggerated feminity that advertizes hormonal
awakening. This stress on female sex attributes, added to
obscenities and violence, breaks barriers around the proper
female and all that is ladylike, just as bra-burners protested
against physical restraint in the '70's and artists put tampons
In visual culture, both
VNS Matrix and
Gashgirl go for female symbolism and her sex as
denoted by cunt-slits and round protruberances (see M.
Breeze's article in this issue of Switch). Dolls provide
powerful girl-type content easily bordering on the abject.
Other images incorporate violence, including one the best
"Exoticize This!". Asian girls emerge not from the music
scene but through cyber-culture, where 'chick' shows up as
often as 'girl'. Mimi Nguyen has
drawings of tough grrls in t-shirts, jeans
and carrying a gun, and Mimi Ilano has other
drawings and photos
Another edge to girl imagery counters this preference for
aggressive sexuality. Some girls wanted to remain girl-like
even into their twenties or thirties and go for an innocent,
tomboy-ish, raver look. An article published in the Sacramento
News & Review,
"I Am a Girl" by Rachel Orviro, addresses the positive
girl-not-woman stance. Here older girls reclaim their lost
freedom, one they had prior to the socialization that accompanies
sexualized bodies, by endorsing a girly style that counters female
Not all girls have burgeoning wombs. As a trans-sexual,
Artificial Girl occupies an important interstice, a young girl
constructing and defining her own identity -- clearly not an
easy position to take in a culture that still tries to keep
The territory burns on. An article by Pearl in Grrrl Thang,
vs. Women, argues that girls are preferable to being women.
But Susan Faludi (of "Backlash" fame) slams anything
smelling of girl-dom in her article
"All the President's Flings". She accuses women of
calling themselves girls to avoid taking responsible and
moral actions, preferring to sulk over the damage done to
them by nasty guys. Her characterization of women-as-girls
denies the grrrl power and girly/girl alternatives and sets
women on top in a political move that I find offensive.
I wonder if she thinks of bra burning as throwing a tantrum,
since it was neither a responsible nor moral act.
Faludi's criticism comes off as an inappropriate sidestep,
a failed attempt to rally women's pride in the media onslaught
surrounding Clinton's lies. Responding to tv, newspaper and
radio coverage, she turned to feminism for protest against
media miss-representations -- and in this she might have
been joined by others claiming the feminine if she hadn't
burnt her bridges in an attack on girlhood. In my humble
opinion, girls push apart the remains of existing structures
and toy with image-behaviors at the interstices. No doubt
soon to be joined by menopausal women.