Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Riot Grrrl

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What bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney taught me about relationships.

Riot Grrrl: Bikini Kill

“Rather than waiting for the playing field to become level, women were realizing that they could start their own league.” So writes Marisa Meltzer in her new book, Girl Power: the Nineties Revolution in Music, about the early-’90s emergence of the riot-grrrl scene. The young-feminist rock movement, born in Olympia, WA and Washington, DC, inspired girls and women across the world to pick up instruments, start bands (even if they were still learning to play), spill out their hearts in fanzines, connect with each other through letters, and organize for what they believed in. Bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, Heavens to Betsy, and Team Dresch encouraged women to start a “revolution, girl-style now.” (The term “girl” or “grrrl” wasn’t meant to infantilize women — it was a celebration of the more pure-hearted, confident days of youth.)

In their zines and in their songs, riot grrrls wrote about issues long thought too shameful to address publicly — abortion, rape, eating disorders, and sexual harassment, to name a few — but the music was raw, not academic. Former Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist Corin Tucker said it best: “[Riot grrrl] was the first time I’d ever seen feminism translated into an emotional language.”

When I was in college in the mid-to-late ’90s, riot-grrrl music and zines introduced me to the idea that love is about more than romance. I learned through riot grrrl that women could be their fierce, pretty, freaked-out, independent selves with or without a romantic partner — that we could, in fact, be anything we wanted to be. Which doesn’t mean I was — or am — immune to the pressures of society’s romantic-industrial complex. Far from it. I was — and am — a feminist who really wants a boyfriend. But if riot grrrl has taught me one thing, it’s that I don’t need to apologize for my thoughts and feelings. They’re mine, they’re messy, and they’re okay. Here’s what else I learned:

1. Expect a struggle.

“When [DC band] Chalk Circle played shows,” writes Meltzer in Girl Power, “men in the audience would wolf whistle, yell at them to take off their clothes, call them bimbos, or resort to the tired adage that they were ‘good for girls.'” In other words? They were ridiculed, they were humiliated, they were shot down, and they kept right on playing. Which is something I’ve tried to do, too, despite being knocked on my ass by countless (no, really, I’ve lost count) crappy dates. Not to mention all the false starts, dashed hopes, and blindside-breakups I’ve experienced during my ongoing search for romantic bliss. I know better than anyone: it’s not easy to scrape your ass up and keep moving when every ounce of your bruised ego is itching to crawl into the crevices of your couch, never to emerge again. But you know what? Like Kathleen Hanna once sang with Bikini Kill, “I will resist with every inch and every breath, I will resist this psychic death.” I’ll keep going. Because the alternative — abandoning the idea of loving and being loved — isn’t an option.

2. Only connect.

Riot grrrl was one of the last youth movements before the internet made it easy to communicate across the globe. That’s part of why riot grrrl was so powerful: women weren’t reaching each other from behind computer screens. They were connecting more authentically: face-to-face at shows, and through zines and letters.

After I published two issues of a personal zine back in college in the late ’90s, letters from readers around the country swamped my mailbox. My zine was tiny! Imagine the reach of bigger zines like Girl Germs by Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile.

Genuine connection is key — a fact I’ve learned the hard way from gazillions of internet dates. I’ve leaned heavily on the internet to meet guys for the past few years, mainly because it’s easy. These experiences have only solidified my desire to meet someone organically, in the “real world.” I just don’t know if connecting behind a computer screen can ever have the same energy and electricity as spotting someone from across a bar, or being introduced to someone at a party. Which is why one of my personal 2010 resolutions was to get off the freakin’ internet — or at least rely on it a little less — in my love quest.

3. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Like some of the best punk bands of the 1970s, certain riot-grrrl groups were ridiculed for not knowing how to play their instruments. Of course, they didn’t give a damn— they made up for any lack of technical skill with boatloads of rage, passion, and all-around aplomb. Bands like Beat Happening even celebrated their deliberate amateurism with slogans like “Learn how to not play your instrument.”

This lesson is one that most love-hunters would be wise to apply to their romantic pursuits: learn how to not do it right. Learn how to fuck up, how to fall on your face, how to embrace looking stupid. None of us knows what we’re doing when it comes to love; in the realm of the heart, we’re all amateurs. Now let’s take our clothes off and make out, shall we?

4. Love yourself, dammit.

Okay, so it’s the cheesiest love cliché expressed, like, ever. But it’s kind of true, isn’t it? As hard as it is to find someone to love in the first place, it’s that much harder if you don’t love yourself first. It’s a stumper. I’d like to believe that I don’t need to master the art of self-obsession to find someone fabulous, but maybe I just need to like myself a little bit. And I think I can do that.

In any case, riot grrrls were firm proponents of loving oneself. In their fanzines and in their lyrics, they wrote of “girl love” — loving other women — as well as self-love. For lots of riot grrrls, loving oneself meant being okay on your own, without a dude, a woman, or anyone else to take care of you. As Bikini Kill wrote in “Don’t Need You”: “Don’t need you to tell us we’re good/Don’t need you to say we suck/Don’t need your protection/Don’t need your dick to fuck.” Riot grrrl was about asserting your autonomy — being comfortable in your skin, regardless of romantic status or who was sleeping with whom. Important lessons, no?

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