The following is an exclusive Daily Cougar interview with Sara Marcus, author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution,” who visited UH for a guest lecture on Tuesday.
The Daily Cougar: How did you come into the idea for writing your book? What experience or key moment led to the realization that the Riot Grrrl movement needed to be biographied?
Sarah Marcus: The idea to write the book came about because I had been involved with RG when I was a teenager and in the years since I had gone from writing my own zines to writing about music and politics for various publications. Through my work in community organizing, I had started to think about how we had been involved in and created a youth-led grass roots feminist movement. And I was seeing in my rock criticism activities that RG wasn’t being talked about in those terms at all, it wasn’t being seen as an entity that had had a real substantive political component in it. It was going down in history as a group of bands and as even a sound, which it never was in the first place because it was a totally diverse group of sounds encompassed by the bands that had some connection to the movement.
The RG in many of its iterations was specifically all-girl and about creating all-girl spaces. It was specifically about how do we encourage female scene input in scenes where the cultural production was happening largely by guys. There was this sense of, well, instead of the conventional way that girls might get into being cultural producers — which was that they would get brought in by a guy who was already doing it — what if we created female networks of support and started to see each other as being able to encourage us to make stuff? And, so, that wasn’t to say that men can’t be feminists, that was just one particular way to get girls to make stuff and to see each other as cultural producers.
TDC: Why did you biography the movement now? Why does it apply twenty years later?
Marcus: Any sooner and it was still raw and any later and people would forget too much; and cultural nostalgia runs in twenty year cycles. I think it would have gotten less attention if it had come out 15 or 25 years later. I didn’t plan it this way, but I was fortunate to hit the 20-year mark.
TDC: It’s obvious to me that the waves of feminism haven’t died, they’ve simply been reflected in the mirror of time in different ways. I see different forms of feminism being pitted against one another in today’s media…
Marcus: Not a new thing!
TDC: Right! So I’m trying to see where the third wave and RG fit into the modern conversation on feminism. How was it reflected within your Ivy League experience at Columbia?
Marcus: What’s kind of interesting about your question and what you couldn’t have known is that I’m about to start a PhD at Princeton, which actually is very interesting because it’s a very feminist department. It’s totally run by women, and it’s run by feminists and queer theorists, and there’s a lot of performance study. And it’s incredible because within this department, which is why I’m so excited to be going to it, you can see how knowledges are kind of melding and marbling together. Like, the idea that you need to know Renaissance poetry, which I’ll be forced to take a Renaissance class and a Medieval class and at the same time there’s this sense that what we can learn from performance and feminism and what we can learn from not-high culture forms of production are not different from what we can learn in Chaucer.
TDC: Mmm hmmm…
Marcus: And I’m not gonna say that that’s Riot Grrrl’s doing, but — this is a new idea I’m trying to throw at you — but what I’m saying is that these structures are really amenable. And I’m coming in here as a super non-traditional PhD student, and I wrote a book about Riot Grrrl, and they’re like, “Come! We love you!” And so Riot Grrrl is infiltrating the Ivy League institution via my research, in one way.
TDC:: Congratulations on that and thanks for representing.
Marcus: And it’s way cooler than my experience at Columbia, where I often felt pretty isolated, and I often felt like nobody else there had an understanding of where I was coming from culturally. And it was a very strange experience although also super helpful in getting me to understand how much I was going to have to explain in my book, which I wrote as my thesis for my MFA. I came in having come out of this mutually self-reinforcing community of queer artists and female artists. I had to explain everything, I would turn in parts of the book where someone would say, “These girls seem so bratty. How could these girls take off their shirts in public and still expect to be respected?” And, so, I was like, “Okay, man, I’ve got to figure out how to make this translate.” And that was very helpful. However, I don’t think that I changed that institution very much.
TDC: Well, neither did Ginsberg. (Allen Ginsberg was kicked out of Columbia for drawing lewd images of the male form on his dusty dormroom windows.)
My last question is, given the purported struggles between different forms of feminisms in the media, which are often false — and being a representation of the media and myself trying to find a way to weasel along outside of these pre-perceived ideals — where can I place the Riot Grrrl movement in the context of motherhood within femism?
They are creating a new generation, having been at the point of motherhood for some time. Where do they fit in within the odd ends of the organic cotton diaper homesteading revival, and the babyfood comes in a jar, disposable diaper powersuit? If those are the two forms of feminism, which I think they are, because the media is essentially broken down into those two camps, and they’re pitted against each other purposefully, then where does today’s Riot Grrrl fit in?
Marcus: I can’t answer that question because I can’t accept the idea that consumption choices are forms of feminism. I think that that’s what the media turns feminism into — what you’re buying and how does that constitute your identity, via buying. But because Riot Grrrl has always been an explicitly anti-corporate movement, I say torch the whole thing. I mean, torch the whole thing! That’s a good ending, right?