A crowd of girls stands staring up at the stage, their mouths becoming gates to teenage hell as they sing along. Bright lights shine on the singer, screaming into the mic as her bandmates rage on around her. Some girls in the crowd pass out fliers for meetings and handmade booklets, spreading the word of riot grrrl. This is the story Sara Marcus tells in “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.”
“Girls to the Front” is a novelesque history of the late ‘80s-early ‘90s riot grrrl movement, made up mainly of teenage punk feminists in Olympia, Wash. and Washington, D.C., though the intrusion of the media helped the movement to spread throughout the country. These young women were tough, determined, and creative, spreading their ideals through all or mostly-female bands and self-published fanzines.
Marcus thoroughly, emotionally, and loyally covers how it started, the impact on the nation during its heyday, and its ultimate downfall via bad attitudes and alienation. Readers learn of the simple start of riot grrrl through meetings to discuss anything and everything that teenage girls deal with. Marcus moves on to examine the bell curve of the riot grrrl movement, from meetings, to conventions, and eventually falling apart.
Marcus holds nothing back in her book. She not only admires the efforts of the riot grrrls but also admits to the negative aspects of the community and movement.
While the book certainly covers the strong and determined beginning of riot grrrl, which can be easily discovered in other chronicles of the movement, Marcus also shares the issues that arose as time went on and which do not always get brought up as thoroughly. While the racial exclusion can be found in other resources, such as the documentary “Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl,” Marcus goes deeper in her examination by discussing not only race, but also class differences and hierarchy within the community. She examines the way class differences between the Washington, D.C. punks, for example, eventually drove a wedge between the middle-class punks and riot grrrls and the self-identified working-class riot grrrls.
Despite the difficulty of admitting flaws in a movement that sounds so beautiful, Marcus honestly and unavoidably discusses where it went wrong, refusing to idealize the riot grrrl community no matter how tempting.
Marcus also does not shy away from more emotionally disturbing topics, including recounting an instance when Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna kicked a man out of one of the band’s shows, only to find out weeks later that he had killed an ex-girlfriend. The revelation, along with the outpouring of threatening hate mail, showed Hanna, Bikini Kill, and others in the community the dangers of women speaking out.
Marcus’s description of this incident and how it affected riot grrrls causes chills when readers consider its implications on a larger scale. This and other examples provided throughout underscore the importance of exactly what the riot grrrls were doing, as well as the dedication involved despite the threats endured for even the most simplistic feminist efforts at the time, like playing in a band or holding the riot grrrl meetings. The book reads much like a novel, with detail and imaginative description of scenes throughout the riot grrrl history. Marcus’s language is inviting and honest as she gives readers, particularly young women, cause for getting misty-eyed at the idea that women had not only banded strongly together like this, but also fallen apart.
The picture painted for readers is one which may leave them wondering where our riot grrrl movement is today when it could be just as important as it was then.
It is an emotional ride through the strong uprising of angry youth culture to the downfall of the same community. While the first two-thirds of the book give a general positive feeling to the movement and its efforts, by the end, the entire movement begins to fall apart through its own lack of inclusion.
Additionally, in an attempt to fend off hierarchy, one is inadvertently imposed, with the most hardcore and angry girls coming to be in charge simply through their violent and confrontational attitudes.
In the epilogue, Marcus updates readers on the most recent status of riot grrrl in its online incarnation and efforts. She somewhat hurriedly closes up the story, but also suggests the idea that there isn’t much left to talk about for the time being. All of the original members of riot grrrl have grown up, moved on. “Girls to the Front” chronicles the evolution of riot grrrl to all but extinction and leaves readers wondering, where does riot grrrl go from here?
Sonya Cheney can be contacted at