“Women could do awesome shit”

July 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Three photos of riot grrls in the 90s in NYC.

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to speak at one of Colectivo Mujer’s Through Our Eyes film screenings. They showed ‘Grrrl Love and the Revolution’, a film by Abby Moser about riot grrrl culture in New York in the 90s. Here is the trailer:

Here’s a rough version of what I had to say about the film and about how riot grrrl relates to my experience of ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) feminism:

First I want to acknowledge that I’m sitting on Aboriginal land, pay my respects to the elders, and extend that respect to any Aboriginal people here tonight.

Thanks to Rosarela and Colectivo Mujer for inviting me, it’s good to be amongst feminists and friends.

I’m going to talk about the film a little bit and relate it to some of my experiences in Sydney and some things I’m often thinking about: feminism and creativity.

Would any one here ID as an artist/ creative of some sort? Me too.

In many ways the culture represented in the film is unfamiliar to me. I’m not a punk rocker and some of you who know me might find the idea of me as a riot grrrl fairly ironic (I’m pretty mild-mannered). So let’s establish some familiar territory:

Many of us are feminists because of sexism in our communities, at work, because of sexual assault (often at home), narrow gender roles, slut shaming – these things might make us feminists, and these things made riot grrrls feminists.

Some more familiar territory is that these women thought – and felt – that they could change things.

Has anyone here ever been part of a feminist movement where you felt you could change some stuff? I have too.

I come from a tradition of organising, mostly student and trade union organising, that really focuses on capital C change – legislation, government – in my state, country, occasionally someone else’s country, then there’s political parties, school or church or organisation’s policy etc. And there’s definitely value in that and I want that activism to keep happening – at the moment for example I’m working on a campaign about cuts to the single parent pension. But I’ve also certainly felt over the years that this was sometimes a really OVERWHELMING task, and if there wasn’t an obvious target, then this sort of activism would stall.

On the street, for folks who care but aren’t necessarily activists, I reckon people often also feel like its really hard to make change.

Last year when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with capital C change, I was lucky enough to go overseas for a while. I was in Spain and Germany to be precise, and I saw all this street art culture everywhere. This really made me want to do activism through street art, even though I felt I lacked the skills. So when I got home, my feminist buddy Corina and I started a practice of feminist street art, and the thing was that we had inspiration to draw on because feminists had done this riot grrl DIY stuff before us.

Our art was definitely part of campaigning – some of it was about Bankstown being targeted in changes to Centrelink, for example – but some of it was also about making beautiful things that made us feel good and feel like feminist bad asses and so on. Hopefully it also made other people feel good when they saw it. In some ways this is the super accessible feminism of my dreams.

Like the girl in the film said, riot grrrl is about doing stuff, direct action, and that was what I wanted for my feminism at that time.

A question I’ve seen asked a bit is whether riot grrrl tactics, zines and so on, are defunct due to the internet. After all a lot of their ideas, such as actual snail-mailing lists, came about without the Internet. DIY is not taken out of action by social media, though. Zines are still happening, and music, and art. But the internet changes it, and changes the distribution patterns. It’s a lot of work, too. Not only do I have to make my art but I also feel obliged to document it online, to put it on my blog, etc etc. What this says to me is that we need more people than ever involved and doing stuff, sharing the work and the action.

On the flip side, DIY can make production easy again too. I can’t make a glossy graphic poster for example, at least not yet. I can make a pretty great poster with scissors and glue though, and I can draw, so there’s always a way if I am willing to consider these options when I am organising.

As one Colombian riot grrrl said, “I learned that we have the strength needed to make our dreams come true.” I would add, and the resources.

I think this is for me the insight and power of Riot Grrl – the sense that change and possibility can happen right here, right now. I think that what riot grrl does is present a whole bunch of possible new realities. You could learn guitar and start a punk band, you could write your own mag, you could take this fat texta in my bag and write about how awesome you and your best feminist friends are on that wall over near Erko train station, you could make art and hang it on the canvas that is the street.

I guess the question of what sort of change music and art and zines can make is a big one that I think we should ‘post it’ for discussion later tonight.

Which kind of brings me to what I see as some of the values of riot grrl, because there is political analysis there, even if it’s pretty disparate – there’s commentary on class and access to education in terms of sharing what we know, for example.

I guess what I see as the other main ethic of riot grrl is that it saw/ sees women as artists with total, full potential as human beings. Women could do awesome shit and lead crazy amazing lives and make art and music. These were and are people who deeply value self-expression/ creation. Riot grrls are saying that they/ you/ we can be artists and conversely that their/ your/ our self-expression is valid. My question here is who is and isn’t represented in this “they/ you/ we”? What special codes & language do you have to know to be read as a person of value in riot grrl culture? In a culture so informally organised, where doing stuff really depends on friendship, who is in or out? [Mimi Thi Nyugen has an awesome article on riot grrrl and race that I’ll embed here – it’s academic but worth wading through. Link is to PDF]

I want to finish up with two examples of DIY culture that aren’t necessarily riot grrrl but are part of the DIY feminism tradition. They’ve both inspired me recently:

Femme Shark Manifesto (last night I mistakenly said Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha was of Latina heritage, whereas she is actually of Sri-Lankan & Ukranian & Irish background, apologies! Again link is to PDF).

Poor Lass Zine.

With thanks to Rosarela, Corina and Rosa, whose thoughts and deeds inspire and sustain me.

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