Girls to the Front, local-girl-made-good Sara Marcus' deeply researched chronicle of the 90's riot grrrl revolution, has earned high praise from the DIY feminist movement's central figure. "I usually don’t get behind projects like this cuz they are usually really bad," Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna wrote of the project, "but I think this book is pretty on.”
This Friday, Marcus will read from the book at Mount Pleasant's St. Stephen's Church, followed by a free riot grrrl-inspired show featuring Trophy Wife, Hey Girl, the Gift, and War on Women. Marcus, 33, spoke with me about the origins of D.C.'s DIY punk feminism, the modern forces that made the movement gauche, and things still being unfair for girls:
TBD: Why do you think there's so much nostalgia for riot grrrl right now?
Sara Marcus: You know, part of that is just the fact that 20 years has gone by. After 20 years go by, things begin to become the objects of nostalgia. The right amount of time has passed. But it's more than just that. It speaks to the fact that there hasn’t been a comparable movement of this kind of brassy feminist outrage since riot grrrl. And so when nostalgia comes up, I think it’s people being like, ‘What we did back then was awesome. Why hasn’t that kept happening?’ It’s not like there’s any less need for it now.
TBD: Have things improved for women in music since riot grrrl, both in sheer numbers of female musicians and their prominence in the scene?
SM: Overall in punk rock and underground music, the gender balance has totally improved since the pre-riot grrrl era. More young women have grown up with it being more acceptable to play rock and roll. We’ve only begun to see all the fruits of the girls' rock camps. But the prominence of female bands during riot grrrl was partly due to it being so unusual. Certain people banded together to make a statement as a group of women playing music. It’s gotten better since then. There’s a much wider range of opportunity for women in music. Now that there are so many amazing female musicians, it’s become a little—it’s not quite passé, but it’s a bit gauche to be like, ‘Here’s a band of women.’
TBD: Now that it's not a political act for a woman to pick up an instrument anymore, is there still a place for a movement like riot grrrl?
SM: The riot grrrl ethos is not necessarily the idea that like, playing music is this radical political act. Plenty of female musicians today are like, ‘I’m grateful for the road that was paved for me. I just kind of want to make my music.’ What people are nostalgic for is the sense of community and support, and the way that people created local scenes to encourage one another to create things. Our culture has become so delocalized that that often gets lost. But it’s not even the music specifically, but the politics of riot grrrl that people are nostalgic for. Riot grrrl was about seeing things that were unfair and naming them as unfair. It was about drawing political angles to things that were going on in your life and that you saw going on to the world around you. As people grow up, it become s a little impolite to mention those things. But they’re still going on.
TBD: The gender imbalance in music has improved, but there are still things that are unfair.
SM: Exactly. I think the whole music thing, and the under-representation of women in punk music , was always just a metaphor for presence, and being heard, and having access to a wide range of ways of being female that you could enact out in the world. Music was this theatricalized stage on which the larger grievances around sexism played out.
TBD: Growing up in Rockville, how important was riot grrrl to kids in your high school?
SM: They couldn’t have cared less. To me and my closest girlfriend in high school, it was the whole world. When I was in Wootton, that school was just beyond the perimeter of anything interesting in D.C. filtering out there. Which is to say, nothing reached us. Me and my friends used to go downtown and hang out at the museums, and the Wootton school paper ran an article about us. About the weird girls who went downtown. It was called 'Students Stray From the Pack.' Because we went to museums in D.C., and didn’t go to football games.
TBD: Are there still places in the country where girls don't have anything like that, any connection to playing music?
SM: Oh, yeah. I’m sure that if you get more than 45 minutes out of any metropolitan area, you’re going to wind up in that space, for sure. Fortunately, I've led a bunch of girls' rock camps, in Portland specifically, and girls will come to these camps from really random places. Girls would be like, 'My mom’s coworker heard about it on the radio, she told me mom to send me to this camp, I took two planes, and here I am in Oregon playing the guitar.' But especially when you’re quite young, your life circumstances may not even give you enough to find a search term to put into the computer. If a girl knows enough to write 'punk feminism' into the search box, she can learn enough to find riot grrrl. But if a girl just has a vague sense that none of the options of how to live her life around her are compelling, it's hard to even come up with a search term for that.
Interview has been condensed.