Sunday, March 3, 2013

The P-Word: Pranks and Provocations by Punk-rock Girls

Audio-visual materials for my talk, "The P-Word: Pranks and Provocations by Punk-rock Girls," Montgomery College, Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus, March 7, 2013.

Some thoughts about Riot Grrrl and punk inspired by learning about Pussy Riot.

This post contains the A/V materials used in my presentation (and some that were not). It is not the presentation itself.

There is way too much to say about women and punk than can be contained here. A million bands and ideas were left out.

I. Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot's "Punk Prayer": "Mother of God, Drive Putin Away"

St. Petersburg Times: "The group cites American punk rock band Bikini Kill and its Riot Grrrl movement as an inspiration, but says there are plenty of differences between them and Bikini Kill. 

“What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse, non-standard female image,” Pussy Riot said.

II. Background: Civil Disobedience: "Put your bodies on the gears, upon the levers."

Mario Savio, Free Speech Movement, University of California, Berkeley, 1964:

Full speech - audio (play from 2:12 - 5:00)

III. Civil disobedience in the American South, civil rights era: 1950s - early 1960s

Rosa Parks had a seat in the front of the bus.

Sit-ins challenged segregated lunch counters


Black and White "Freedom Riders" rode side-by-side through the South on segregated buses.

III. Background: Punk

Late 1970s U.K. Punk rock - fashion, extremism call into question the status quo of freedom, freedom of speech.

The Sex Pistols defined early U.K. Punk: "No Future" / "Anarchy in the U.K."

St. Petersburg Times: Pussy Riot’s unsanctioned concerts are reminiscent of The Sex Pistols’ infamous boat concert, when the band rented a boat to premiere “God Save the Queen” to spoof the Queen’s Silver Jubiliee in 1977, by playing live on the Thames, passing Westminster Pier and the Houses of Parliament.

“In this story with the Sex Pistols we find it odd that the boat was rented by the band itself,” Pussy Riot said.

“It’s difficult to find an element of protest when you perform on a boat that you have paid for; on the contrary, it’s a type of commercial performance. There’s no connection to Pussy Riot in this, because we didn’t rent and are not going to rent anything; we come and take over platforms that don’t belong to us and use them for free.”

IV. 1970s punk offered more opportunities for women to form bands.

The slits, 1977-78 (R.I.P. Ari Up)

Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, 1978 (R.I.P.)

"Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard... but I say, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!"

V. D.I.Y. In the 1980s, U.S., punk bands began to live a do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) lifestyle, touring and selling within a network of like-minded people who felt they did not fit in with mainstream society.

"Our band could be your life": the dream was to live--and work--on one's own terms, rejecting mainstream values. But the intense energy in the movement often gave way to violence and substance abuse.

Minor Threat, "Straight Edge" HarDCore punk, early 1980s.

Straight edge punks made a deal with bar and club owners: They would mark X's on their hands so they would be identified as underage and unable to drink. In return, they would be allowed to hold shows.

Later - 1988 - Fugazi, Post-punk with an ethical slant.

Fugazi's song about rape, "Suggestion"

While, elsewhere in the country, the front of most punk shows remained a relatively scary place. St. Louis, Missouri, the same year:

VI. Riot Grrrl

A group of girls in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, DC responded to the situation within the scene (start 5:00)

Kathleen Hanna discusses the Herstory of Riot Grrrl

Bikini Kill practicing "Girls to the front"

Explicitly feminist lyrics

Bratmobile, from "Affection Training"

I learned somewhere that living with dudes 
Means you pick up their wet towels, 
Dirty underwear and find their 
Ignorance cute somehow 
I ain't 
I ain't done 
"I ain't never done nothing" 
See Mr. Whatever describe himself 
It's frightening to feel worthless 
In the eyes of worthlessness 
My fear has nowhere left to go 
Impossible- I can't get me no no... 
All the girls are fighting over 
The dummest boys who run this town 
I watch myself get watched like TV 
But I'd rather run you down.

Also often inspirational and easy for anyone who feels like an outsider to identify with.

"Resist Psychic Death," Bikini Kill

Your world not mine Your world not ours 
Your world not mine Your world not ours 
I will resist with every inch and every breath 
I will resist this psychic death 
I will resist with every inch and every breath 
I will resist this psychic death 
There's more than two ways of thinking 
There's more than one way of knowing 
There's more than two ways of being 
There's more than one way of going somewhere 
Silence inside of me silence inside 
Silence inside of me silence inside 
Silence inside of me silence inside 
Silence inside of me silence inside 
I will resist with every inch and every breath 
I will resist this psychic death

VII. Riot Grrrl "zines," flyers, and pranks engaged the world at large and built a network of young women writing and performing for each other.

Riot Grrrl flyers, including some from Riot Grrl Omaha:


An early zine suggested that riot grrrls write and draw on their hands to help them identify each other as "pro-revolutionary." Kathleen Hanna sometimes wrote on her body for performances or photo sessions.


In her subsequent bands, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, Hanna has also highlighted gender and politics through fashion and appearance:


Hanna and her bandmates also integrated spoken word into their music and performances in order to illustrate and protest sexism.

"Phone message" from Hanna that leads off her song on L.A. punk Mike Watt's compilation album, "Ball Hog or Tug Boat":

VIII. The D.C. Punks digest the news of Pussy Riot

Positive Force founder Mark Anderson in the Washington Post:

"The sentencing this month of three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot to two years in prison for “hooliganism” showed once again how authoritarian leaders fear the power of art and thus unwittingly undermine their own power.

"After all, who had heard of this confrontationally named group until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparatchiks decided to make an example of them, to help quell a growing chorus of dissent? I had not, even though I am a punk activist and historian who was an early supporter of D.C.’s Riot Grrrl movement, a key inspiration for Pussy Riot.

"Without overreaction by the Russian authorities, the band’s theatrical anti-Putin “punk prayer” at a Russian Orthodox cathedral would have touched almost no one beyond the handful present for the action. Now the three young women — Nadezh­da Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich — are internationally known and have been deemed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, and their band’s racy name has become something akin to a household word. Conversely, Putin appears not only oppressive but scared, weakened by a show trial that was intended to solidify his rule.
. . .

"Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich face incarceration — and, for two of them, separation from their young children — but they can take heart that their message has been heard around the world, given extraordinary power and resonance by the Putin regime’s foolhardy actions."

Wait, did I just read "the P-word" in the Washington Post?

A feminist re-use of language in order to reclaim the power of a word used to objectify people? If so, feminism enters the company of...

...popularized by Queer Nation, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) organization. The group was controversial for its practice of "outing" closeted homosexuals. However, the normalization of the word "queer," a slur at the time, has been a success:

Similarly pervasive is the re-use of the "N-word" by rap artists, though many commentators insist that its use merely spreads racism rather than counters it.

Critics argue that this re-use of hurtful language for one's own purposes merely internalizes and reproduces racism, homophobia, or sexism.

Other recent feminist re-uses of words and uses of bodies include:

"Slutwalks" - In response to the shaming of sexual assault victims by suggesting that their dress or behavior invites sexual assault. Started in Toronto in response to a police official's statement, while discussing a rape case, that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

Femen - started in Kiev, Ukraine, to protest the sex trade and raise awareness of women's rights and gay rights.

But music is more than language and protest - it is culture.

St. Petersburg Times: "[Pussy Riot] cites American punk rock band Bikini Kill and its Riot Grrrl movement as an inspiration, but says there are plenty of differences between them and Bikini Kill. 

“What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse, non-standard female image,” Pussy Riot said. 

“The difference is that Bikini Kill performed at specific music venues, while we hold unsanctioned concerts. On the whole, Riot Grrrl was closely linked to Western cultural institutions, whose equivalents don’t exist in Russia."

Punk music has been used for activism, even civil disobedience, as Pussy Riot and Riot Grrrl show. However, it is also written and performed to move people joyously. The hardcore kids jumping off the stage, the fans pogoing to Amy Pickering and Fugazi, the girls dancing in the front row, Poly Styrene herself, are not marching or fighting, they are dancing. For fun. Making music that friends and fans think is great is its own accomplishment.

Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney says, "I consider myself a cultural activist rather than political activist because I don't organize politics. I think that I can see, though, that having women in positions of cultural power is really important for young girls. I can see that we inspire young girls at our shows, and I think that's important."

Sleater-Kinney, whose Corin Tucker was a member of Riot Grrl Olympia: Everything any of these three have ever touched has completely rocked.

VIII. Questions for discussion:

1. The Riot Grrrl movement happened before the internet. Has the internet helped or hurt the chances of such movements occurring?

2. Are there still places or events where girls and women are made to feel unwelcome? If so, what can be done to change this?

3. Are confrontational strategies such as those used by Femen and Pussy Riot effective in bringing about change? What other strategies are available?

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