Post Road Magazine #1

“I said I’m not yr oilwell”: Consumption, Feminisms, and Radical Community in Bikini Kill And “Riot Girl”

Hillary Chute

"Consumption is imbricated in every transaction, even, or especially, in the production of meaning which is language.” - Jennifer Wicke, “‘Who’s She When She’s At Home?’: Molly Bloom and the Work of Consumption”

“Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.”- Michel Foucault, Preface to Anti-Oedipus

The revolution will be incited through my voice, my words, not the words of the universe of male intellect that already exists,” insists 20-year-old self-described “fatkikecripplecuntqueer” Nomy Lamm in a piece called “It’s a Big Fat Revolution,” from 1995’s Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation. “And I know a lot of what I say is totally contradictory. I wanna explain what I mean when I say ‘the revolution,’ but I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Cuz at the same time that I’m being totally serious, I also see my use of that term as a mockery of itself” (85). Lamm clarifies: “Part of the reason for this is that I’m fully aware that I still fit into dominant culture in many ways. The revolution could very well be enacted against me, instead of for me” (86). Lamm’s provocative essay, which later asserts, “I really do think that the revolution has begun,” and ends with a battle-call, “Fuckin’ yeah!” well represents theoretical avenues common to on-the-margins and/or “punk rock” feminist thinkers, in a particular cultural location born out of the early nineties which for all intensive purposes can be called “Riot Girl.” These include the politics of contradiction and indeterminacy, complicitous critique, and an authentic demand for ideological, everyday revolution.

It is my contention that the values of “Riot Girl,” which started locally with a community of young women in Olympia, WA, organizing female-only meetings (the original flyer said something like “Girls! Let’s have a meeting about punk rock and feminism! Let’s share our skills and put on some rock shows together!”) have deeply influenced what can now be called “Third Wave” feminism. As Jen Smith, author of “Doin’ It for the Ladies—Youth Feminism: Cultural Productions/Cultural Activism” (which appears in the 1997 volume Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism), explains:

Riot Grrrl has evolved into broadly based activist communities....I have met a variety of women engaged in this kind of work. Some make music. Some write. Some run their own record labels. Some keep track of all these efforts, producing directories for other women....Some are moms. Some are gay. Some are old....All have known the threat of violence in their lives, all are resisting. All are trying to do their work. All want to contribute their voices to a larger community of women. All are feminists. (237)

Lamm’s suggestions are laced with postmodern irony—she simultaneously asserts as she critiques her own “revolution.” She also adopts a firm politics of indeterminacy (“I wanna explain...but I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to”) and complicitous critique (“I still fit into dominant culture”). However, the underlying logic of her argument for her revolution is based on a struggle to express her complex subjectivity. Her appetite for fragmentation and inconclusivity of the self does not preclude a reassembling of that self.

Desire to forge a self-authored whole beyond totalizing labels is doubtless present: a shifting, ever-proliferating self, hardly the impersonal “one”-themed self of Luce Irigaray’s contempt, but nonetheless one which may string together as a coherent entity. An excellent analogy for this concept of fluid unity appears in singer/performer Kathleen Hanna’s 1991 essay “Jigsaw Youth.” As the title indicates, selfhood is about reinventing, but also connecting, the fractional pieces of an identity. The “Riot Girls” had no utopian worldview, although theirs is essentially too optimistic to be characteristically postmodern:

We live in a world that tells us we must choose an identity....as if we don’t live in a world of flux, which we do. Don’t freak out cuz the jigsaw is laying on the floor and it’s not all the way done and has been laying there for 4 whole hours now, resist the freakout. You will get to it...it’s all part of the process....JIGSAW, a puzzle made up of all different weird shaped pieces. It seems like it will never come together, it makes no sense, but it can and it does and it will.

The sentiments expressed here, like the remoded “jigsaw” itself, create a fluent text unconstrainedly both modern and postmodern, challenging on the level of genre the same monologism which causes the “freakout” in the first place: “it is easier to deal with cardboard cutouts...all these boxes and labels, nothing to put in them, we are wasting valuable time.” Crucially, the puzzle of the self coming together is unapologetically presented as a political process; revolutionary resistance, which “is everywhere, it always has been and always will be” is conceptualized across the board as “being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it” to being a political organizer.

This text, and “girl style revolution[ary]” texts like it, in all different mediums, are transitional. They link the fervor, rhetoric, and urgency of sixties critiques with a nineties hyperawareness of both the banality and the pleasure that politics of commodification and consumption elicit everyday in a postmodern context. The texts of the so-called “Riot Girl” movement combine a nineties deployment of tonal irony and edginess with a sixties exhortatory tone which (in spite of its Valley Girl nuances, proclaimed in the song “VGI”—“Valley Girl Intelligentsia”—by Kathleen Hanna), is comparable in naked enthusiasm, tremendous urgency, and sincere desire to communicate the need for action to either Baldwin or Fanon. The first paragraph of Jen Smith’s essay illustrates this solvency:

I am a punk feminist interested in telling a story. This is a story about the creation of an alternate meaning system. It is a story about identity, about networking, about community. It is also a story about cultural resistance from a particular cultural location. But maybe it is a story about conquest and domination, the human body as a landscape defined by political boundaries. Maybe it is a story about fragmentation, about synthesis, about physiological dysfunction. (226)

Despite the faux-aloof gambit of “maybe this...but maybe that,” itself a downplayed ironic move like Lamm’s “mockery,” the honest and hopeful investment in radicalism in Smith’s prose is unmistakable. “Cultural resistance from a particular location,” resonates with Fanon’s emphasis on the matchless spark of spontaneous local movement from below: “Each man or woman brings the nation to life by his or her action, and is pledged to ensure its triumph in their locality” (132). In the now-defunct punk band Bikini Kill’s zine #1, they present the slogan of movement, underscoring their revolution as survival skill, a necessity: “MY GIRLFRIENDS WANT REVOLUTION GIRL STYLE NOW...we are not special, anyone can do it.”

But unlike Fanon, the “girl style” revolution saw violence necessary only infrequently as a response to harassment, and the corporate ploy to make female violence sexy a tired, exploitative effect of “2D”-image producing capitalism. In the 1996 song “Tony Randall,” Bikini Kill sing, “Robotic Nation/False history/spit out another picture of a girl with a gun to bore me.” The commodification of a girl with a gun makes money for a male establishment at the expense of women: “Cartoon Girl/ Hallmark Card/I see a punk club/He sees a strip bar.” “Tony Randall” not only asseverates that commodification of a woman assimilating machine-gun-toting prowess is harmful, but even more to the point, it’s simply boring. In a 1991 “Girl Power” Fannie by Bikini Kill’s singer Kathleen Hanna, acclimatizing “toughness” is debunked:

Being cool in our culture means being cold, stand-offish, uncaring (your too cool to notice a lot of things) and self absorbed You are attractive in a normal white way but have a little dirt on your chin....For the most part, cool attributes have been claimed by our society as ‘male’. This means the only way a person brought up GIRL (and thus the opposite of what is cool) can be ‘truly’ cool is to assimulate into male culture via toughness. (98)

Rejecting this induction into the exchange of typically masculine values, the essay asserts, is “about demystifying yourself, not fitting yourself into james dean tv pictureland (cuz it is alienating)” (98). American capitalism trading in rigid gendered images offered nothing; it tapped into none of the vitality of the women of the punk underground, so they harnessed their own energies to create autonomous systems of value, hence the outcropping in the nineties of independently operated female bands, art collectives, and evocatively-titled record companies such as Chainsaw, Kill Rock Stars, and Mr. Lady, the latter’s business statement reading, “we felt like there weren’t enough women &/or dyke run record labels.” In a talk titled “On Not Playing Dead,” Kathleen Hanna puts the rejection in simple terms: “Since I have a committment in my life to not being a boring, bullshit capitalist square and to actually fully living, I have to hate capitalism” (124).

Hating the static images trafficked in capitalist system does not preclude consumption across the board. The alternative work of consumption, one that implies an informed complicit critique in action, is cogently articulated by Jennifer Wicke, discussing the female consuming subject (in this case, Molly Bloom) in the context of Ulysses, and refusing traditional views on female consumption: “Consumption so regarded [as gilding the lily of male desire] offers nothing by way of active tactical use of consumption by women, and thus cannot conceive of the productions of meaning immanent in even seemingly male-directed consumption” (183, italics mine). Importantly, Wicke also offers a suggestive distinction in conceptualizing female consumption: “The choice of the word ‘work,’ instead of its synonym, ‘labor,’ is important because the latter fits too neatly into the preexisting compartments of the labor theory of value, for instance, while ‘work’ has a more sinuous semantic life—offering a word for labor, but more generally what Marx himself called the work of making the (individual’s) world—his homo faber—definition—and just as insistently labeling a discrete piece of work, usually a work of art or creative labor” (184). Writers like Jen Smith, who consistently discuss “work” (i.e. women “engaged in this kind of work,” or women who “All are trying to do their work”) affirm Wicke’s positive complication of the term as it relates to conceptualizing identity.

Bikini Kill’s present incarnation, Le Tigre, propose that “what is experimental in art is inextricable from what is revolutionary politically.” The lyrical content and deliberately outmoded technology of their songs, and their live performances, examine the work of consumption as it relates to the “the female artist,” disrupting the idea that female performance is, in Irigaray’s terms, a feeble “clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ” (350). Just as they refuse to consume “all popular masculinist myths re the artist,” they refuse to let their performances be easily digestible experiences. The landscape of consumption they insist upon presents a framework which specifically applies to audience appreciation of an aloof male rock star, or in Le Tigre’s estimation, “the mystery of encyclopaedic knowledge and technical wizardry....rock purity, guitar virtuosity”; but the same framework of consumption is, as Jennifer Wicke puts it, “imbricated in every transaction,” especially in sex and the politics of the body as they relate to creating meaning (182).

Bikini Kill’s claims are equivalent, both thematically and often even more literally, to Irigaray’s allegation in This Sex Which is Not One:

Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters....In these terms, women’s erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing. (350)

Irigaray’s use of the term “hole-envelope” to describe the vagina working in a phallocratic world is particularly evocative: a vagina as envelope may contain a letter, may be hiding language, or may be using its words uselessly in the wrong context. “Your world not mine your world not ours/I’ll resist with every inch and every breath/I will resist this psychic death,” sings Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill’s mutinous “Resist Psychic Death.” Other songs on the same 1992 record propound a similar idea: “I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me” are lines from “White Boy”; “If you were blind and there was no braille, there are no boundaries on what I can feel, if you could see but were always taught that what you saw wasn’t real. HOW DOES THAT FEEL? IT FEELS BLIND. HOW DOES IT FEEL? IT FEELS FUCKIN” BLIND...LOOK AT YOUR WORLD IT TEACHES ME NOTHING” they vow in “Feels Blind”; and in “Liar” they accuse: “You profit from the lie/You prophet from the lie/You profit from the rape lie baby.”

Like Irigaray, Bikini Kill assert the inextricability of language and sexuality in forming, and marking, meaning. As “Liar” indicates, “the lie” is bound directly to capitalistic system of social/cultural production. As to what the “rape lie” entails, “White Boy” encapsulates Bikini Kill’s analysis of the physically and culturally consumed female body: “Lay me spread eagle out on your hill, yeah/ Then write a book ‘bout how I wanted to die.” Blame and stigma are not only shifted to the female body after a rape act, but used to publicize that body for money, abetting a reenactment whereby female subjectivity is erased by a male narrative of advertising and self-promotion.

Bikini Kill in the early 90s wrote a fanzine article called simply “Riot Girl,” pledging, “we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings” (debatably, since many written texts from the “Riot Girl” movement and punk in general are so consistently riddled with typos, invoking and aestheticzing the urgency of the sixties manifesto, “moanings” may have been intended to read “meanings”; either way, the implications are conflatable). In this essay’s list of answers to the perceived constant “why?” of the (male) center, Bikini Kill, like Lamm referencing “the universe of male intellect,” emphasize the importance of their own system of gynosocial production. Here the “male” attributes are ascribed not only to self-aggrandizing, normative and hence definitive intellectualism, but specifically to capitalism: “because we recognize fantasies of Instant Macho Gun Revolution as impractical lies meant to keep us simply dreaming instead of becoming our own dreams AND THUS seek to create revolution in our own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things” (italics mine). Essentially synonymous are these other entries in the catalogue of girl philosophy: “BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t”; “BECAUSE we are interested in creating non-hierachical ways of being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on communication + understanding, instead of competition and good/bad categorizations.”

The formulation of an alternative sexuality created through a shared experience of non-hierachical performing and performance-watching is one of punk feminism’s—and Kathleen Hanna’s—most radical claims. As she proposes in “On Not Playing Dead”: “[Live performance is] one of the only places where we give and receive pleasure publicly (which seems radical for a myriad of reasons, especially because it challenges the idea that sexuality/pleasure is only for people in straight, monogamous relationships and not something we as a community can have together through music” (131). “Girl Style” revolution asserts sexuality as political—not in the doomed sense of Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon—but rather because pleasure which not pre-fabricated by capitalism’s consuming/consumed ethos is not only “not boring,” but radical.

An eroticized, politicized community here produces its own public meanings: the female performer as imaginative, sidestepping the manufactured commodity sexualization of the ironically “tough” woman, say, the woman in the short-shorts cocking the gun (or guitar—as performance artist Linder writes, “Guitars come in all shapes and sizes, including pistols”); pleasure has a vital place in political struggles; sexuality, to return to Irigaray, can be figurally the two lips of the female genitals, “in continuous contact”— a community give and take, a plural consumption, a textually rich pleasure.

The feminisms of the punk movement I have partially described take their cue from the sixties in fundamental ways. Lucy O’Brien, in her recent essay “The Woman Punk Made Me,” states clearly that “The orthodoxy was that punks hated hippies....It was the 60s and early 70s countercultural movement, however, that opened up pathways for punk feminism.” O’Brien lauds Germaine Greer’s demand to put female sexuality on the table in the 1970 “Cuntpower” issue of the underground magazine Oz; she quotes Greer’s exhortative call: “Cunt is knowledge...skirts must be lifted, knickers...must come off forever. It is time to dig CUNT and women must dig it first” (187). “I’m the little girl at the picnic/Who won’t stop pulling her dress up,” Bikini Kill sing in “New Radio,” as if in direct response, 23 years later.

Further, sociologist and rock critic Simon Frith asserts that the sixties “doing your own thing” evolved in the eighties/nineties “DIY” (do it yourself) so crucial to punk philosophy and feminist/gay independent productions. And on an even more basic level, the idea of rock/punk as counterculture, and as unfixed, is a specifically sixties inspiration, as is the notion of a radical youth movement wherein artists and audiences fight for control of meaning of cultural symbols (47). The sixties also saw the ideology of adolescence transform into a radical ideology of youth—anyone could be “young” (33). “Youth” in the schematics of “Riot Girl” feminism represents an authenticity of purpose; as Frith points out, audiences in the beginning of the rock’n’roll explosion were always typed as “youth,” as “teenage” markets were created. Bands like Bikini Kill and Le Tigre recognize that women’s bodies have always been typed in the rock design as audience bodies and youth bodies. Reclaiming an ideology of youth while simultaneously re-configuring the infantilization of women in rock paves a space for a radical blurring of the distinction between gendered concepts of art and mass culture.

The last line of Bikini Kill’s here-is-the-new-order anthem “New Radio” is an enthusiastic “Let’s wipe our cum on my parents’ bed!” Contrary to an ostensible disrespect for the generation who paved the way for their own feminism, this song indicates that the anarchic “new radio” represents a “youth” movement resistant systems of power and ideologies represented by metaphorical “parents.” When asked what she would do if she met Rush Limbaugh, Kathleen Hanna replied, “I wouldn’t say anything cuz he’s boring. He’s also my Dad okay so could we not talk about him anymore.” “Riot Girl”-style feminism, even with its “youth” trappings, however, is positively dutiful to the opportunities created by the mothers of the second wave, and appreciatively ever-mindful of a historical feminist/activist continuum; Le Tigre’s song “Hot Topic” names an wide range of influences: Yoko Ono, Billie Jean King, Gertrude Stein, Gayatri Spivak, Angela Davis, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin are just a few.

These feminisms, in tune with the utter insistence on resisting easy consumption, prize work in furthering and expanding a feminist agenda as opposed to a goal of creating it anew; it is this recognition of influence that connects what was locally “Riot Girl” with a broader, national “Third Wave.” As Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake maintain in “We Learn America like a Script: Activism in the Third Wave; or, Enough Phantoms of Nothing”: “Remember the snottiness in graduate-school circles that upheld ‘feminist theory’ over anything second wave and dismissed that wave as ‘not theoretical enough?’....Their struggles are still our struggles, if in different forms...Being humble enough to realize that our ideas are not so new, is one fine way to fight paralysis, to move, to shake” (54). Or, in Kathleen Hanna’s terms, it is one way to fight facile digestibility, the paralysis of a “boring” product/consumer schema, a response framework that academic theoretical texts are hardly immune from producing. In a 1995 interview, Hanna expresses what Heywood and Drake’s “Third Wave” tenet: “I want to use the tools that are here right now and make something that works; I don’t want to create a new novelty product that you can consume and discard. I don’t care if I sound like [late 70s British punk singer] Poly Styrene—I think Poly Styrene is great! I’m not into the novelty of the new” (103).

Proposing revolution, be it ideological in an everyday texture, or the kind to take to the streets, is the backbone of a young, accessible, contemporary group of feminisms which defiantly refuse to be a “post” construct. At a time when the designation “post-feminism” is in unfortunate circulation, powerful articulations from the margins of the mainstream highlight, as do other, more conventional feminist coalitions, the debts that feminisms in the age of postmodernity pay to their forerunners.

“Riot Girl” feminisms have demanded the recovery of re-vitalized “Sisterhood.” In the opinion of bell hooks, writing in 1984, “Sisterhood was not viewed as a revolutionary accomplishment women would work and struggle to obtain. The vision of sisterhood evoked by women’s liberationists was based on the idea of common oppression” (43). Refusing to shy away from the latter, “girl style” feminisms insist that women, to name one “common oppression,” live in a rape culture. However, they combine the former and the latter, in hooks’s schema: they intently struggle with the work, to invoke Wicke’s use of the term, of political revolutionary accomplishment, be that work conducted in private—“For now, the revolution takes place when I am confronted by a friend about something racist I have said,” writes Lamm—or in public, as in the pleasure-for-the-people ethic of audience/performer erotic exchange. Hanna proclaims, “Having live performance that isn’t based on strict consumptive models is important because it creates community, and when we create community, we create the self-esteem we need to fight oppression, not only our own oppression, but the oppression we see our neighbors and friends going through as well” (131).


Notes:

Bikini Kill. “The C.D. Version of the First Two Records.” Olympia, WA: Kill Rock Stars, 1992.

—. “Reject All American.” Olympia, WA: Kill Rock Stars, 1996.

—. “The Singles.” Olympia, WA: Kill Rock Stars, 1998.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Foucault, Michel. “Preface.” Anti-Oedipus. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and Rock’n’Roll. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Hanna, Kathleen. “On Not Playing Dead.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Heywood, Leslie and Jennifer Drake. Third Wave Agenda. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

—. “We Learn America like a Script: Activism in the Third Wave; or, Enough





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