As an angsty teenage girl, little was as comforting to me as Alanis Morrissette’s gritty voice and beautiful words. Growing up, it was hard to know how to convey all of the big emotions society told me I shouldn’t have. Female punk music became my outlet. “Just a Girl,” by No Doubt, and “Paper Bag,” by Fiona Apple were my anthems. Through their unapologetic outcries, seemingly apathetic to the imposing eye of the patriarchy, these women taught me it was okay to get angry.
Women are taught that their emotions shouldn’t be expressed, much less amplified with guitar riffs. The media has traditionally viewed women as objects embodying the simplistic emotions that men wish to see—pain, pleasure, fear. Women are boiled down to commodities digestible for the male gaze. While women have historically spoken out in their own lives and demanded their voices to be heard, mainstream media has forced them into commercial standards. The patriarchy lens which shapes the music industry robs women of their individual voices. But, tired of their voices being ignored, these female musicians learned to scream.
In the 90s, a group of twentysomething women, sick of disappearing behind the shadow of the patriarchal industry, started the Riot Grrrl movement. Their goal was to create feminist empowerment through punk rock. In their music, Riot Grrrls addressed “taboo” topics ranging from abuse to female sexuality to discrimination in the music industry. Instead of being passive and silent, as girls should be, they reclaimed their youth and power through evocative lyrics and vocals. By repurposing the word “girl” into a growl, they subverted the term responsible for frequent female belittlement and emphasized the anger that fuels the movement.
Riot Grrrl was a movement of defiance—against the patriarchy, against music conventions, against the mainstream media. It was revolutionary in its ability to connect women in a fundamentally female space, one where they were for the first time unburdened by industry standards. This movement was intrinsically tied to independent media. Many artists of the time rejected commercialization by producing and releasing their own tracks. Instead of focusing on their commercial reach, Riot Grrrl prioritized fostering a supportive community. It was one of the first cultural movements that allowed women to embrace their emotions without worrying about social perception. Topics society would normally deem too unimportant or brash for women to sing about were tackled with unapologetic honesty.
As liberating as it may have seemed, Riot Grrrl was far from a perfect solution to the erasure of marginalized voices in the media. Riot Grrrl uplifted female identity, but lacked intersectionality. The form of rebellion popularized by the Riot Grrrl movement was contingent upon the privilege to speak out without severe consequences. Many Riot Grrrls had comfort waiting for them when the movement fizzled out. Further, in opening up space for honest communication about real-world problems, they turned only to those around them: other white women from similar backgrounds. These punk activists pushed for social expression, not societal changes. The movement gave middle-class white women a new power to explore complex emotions publicly, but often left Black and Queer communities out of the conversation. For women of color in the 90s, their race was often perceived before their womanhood. Riot Grrrl did not leave space for conversations on the importance of uplifting all traditionally silenced voices.
In their rejection of the hypermasculine punk music scene of the 80s, Riot Grrrls failed to acknowledge that it was Black women who paved the way for the genre’s existence. The “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, shook the musical world with her unconventional style and vocals. Her innovations laid the foundation for a musical and cultural shift from jazz and blues to rock; many of the first rockstars, such as Elvis Presley, took notes from Tharpe’s experimental electric-guitar sound. Tharpe was also one of the first musicians that ushered in the lyricism essential to the punk movement. As an openly queer Black woman recording music in the 1940s, she sang about relationships and sexuality with revolutionary openness, breaking all social conventions in doing so. Her music not only laid the groundwork for modern rock and punk, but also inspired Black and Queer musicians to continue to blaze new trails in the music sphere. One such trailblazer, Poly Styrene, frontwoman of the 70s band X-Ray Spex, took the newly emerging punk scene by storm. As a biracial woman, she offered a perspective unlike most others at the time. She too helped pave the road for the feminist punk rockers of the Riot Grrrl era through her use of poetic and political lyricism, and the influence of her experimental music remains relevant today. Punk wouldn’t exist without Tharpe, Styrene, or other Black musicians who dared to express their feelings and stories, and yet they are so often left out of the spotlight.
Three decades later, young people are still angry—at the world, the older generation, and the future. This has brought a resurgence of punk music, shaped by new experimental mixes and a shared nostalgia for the music of the 90s. Unlike the feminist punk movement it draws from, today’s punk scene offers a more inclusive lens. Intersectionality has taken a well-deserved center stage in conversation, as the key to the punk movement is the expression of identity and the exploration of struggles that marginalization poses. The modern punk movement draws from Riot Grrrl in combating the flaws of the historically male-dominated scene. However, it takes this a step further in promoting self-expression outside of the traditional limits.
The COVID pandemic contributed to a resurgence in punk through self-recorded and “bedroom”-produced music. Mannequin Pussy, a woman-fronted indie punk band, exemplifies the new generation of unabashedly self-expressive punk music. The band members explain the process behind their most recent album, produced after months in quarantine: “The anger, frustration, loneliness, and resentment of a year spent locked away all come sputtering forth. And once they've rushed out, once the air clears from their tumult, there's suddenly a little more space to seek out calm, to find solace.” At their recent performance for Georgetown Radio’s Spring Concert, Mannequin Pussy showed how much meaning punk music can hold. As Missy Dabice, the lead singer, transitioned from screams to soft whispers, you could feel her emotion reverberating with each scream, gasp, and movement. Halfway through the set, she had the audience stop, take a deep breath, and scream. Through this deliberate release of emotion, each audience member became a part of the punk scene. In the safety of this community, at Dabice’s encouragement, we explored an unfamiliar vulnerability. Punk music has the unique power to tap into complex emotions through its unapologetic honesty and power. It translates anger and isolation into human connection. Especially for marginalized people accustomed to pushing down their emotions in order to survive, this encouragement and support offers an essential outlet. Mannequin Pussy, instead of stopping at anger, shows that people can be more complex than the media would like us to believe. They push the limits of genre and societal binaries.
Photo of Missy Dabice (Courtesy of Sydney Worrell)
At the end of the concert, Mannequin Pussy’s bassist, Colins “Bear” Regisford, came to the mic to sing lead vocals for their final song, which was a poignant reaction to the continual murder of Black people by the police. The song showed a crucial new aspect of the punk scene: music that allows for both deep introspection and generative dialogue. Punk music provides a community for these difficult topics to be addressed outside of the restraints of mainstream society. However, it is important to note that the punk community is still restrained by gendered and racialized power dynamics. Many punk spheres, including the crowd here at Georgetown, are still dominated by white men. This was made painstakingly clear as Mannequin Pussy’s performance was juxtaposed by a crowd of mostly white kids moshing carelessly. While the movement’s artists and works have become more diverse, its crowds have not entirely caught up. Punk creates a safe space to explore emotion, but these spots are often filled by the people society has always afforded them to. Punk requires people to reflect on their connections to these societal failures and allows them the space to listen and feel. By opening up room for brutally honest conversations on difficult issues, punk musicians seek to denounce the exclusivity that plagued the scene in its early days. And while new voices are getting heard, it is important that the audiences truly listen and embrace the politics intrinsic to the community.
Punk music is and has always been about more than the music. Punk, and specifically female punk, is about community, independence, and most of all, anger. In our current times, wrought with outrage over politics, discrimination, and systemic injustices, punk music has gained a new significance. Female punk rockers have come a long way from their predecessors in complex and inclusive expression. This is a movement for anyone that has been silenced. It is a defiance against societal norms and commercial tropes that demands to be heard. However, the new punk scene needs to learn from its history of exclusion to fully achieve its goal of creating a community outside of the mainstream; one in which marginalized artists can get unapologetically angry.
Micaeli Dym is a freshman in the SFS studying Culture and Politics.