Where Is My Mind?: Girls to the Front’s Sara Marcus

Published on The Deli Philadelphia – Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010

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by Annamarya Scaccia

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot GRRRL Revolutionis a lyrical narrative chronicling the powerful, and often misconstrued, radical ‘90s feminist era of Riot Grrrl. Written by Brooklyn writer and former Philly resident and City Papercontributor, Sara Marcus, it’s an unyielding movement, as the book suggests, “of pissed-off girls with no patience for sexism and no intention of keeping quiet”. Five years and 150 interviews later, Marcus uses an authoritative but prosaic voice to tell the tale through the intertwining stories of the girls on the frontlines of Riot Grrrl, making art and music, piecing together ‘zines, holding meetings, organizing conventions and doing whatever activism was needed to get the message across of female empowerment and that violence and discrimination against women are not OK. The Deli had a chance to chat with Marcus, who will read and discuss the book this Saturday for this month’s Sugar Town installment at Tritone, about Girls to the Front, what Riot Grrrl means as a scene and a movement and the future of feminism.

The Deli: It took you five years to put together Girls to the Front: The True Story of the RIOT GRRRL Revolution. Why such a long time span?
Sara Marcus: I wanted to make the book as good as I possibly could, and that takes time. I did a ton of research for this book. I interviewed about 150 people all over the US, as well as Canada and England; I traveled to archives and special collections; I had to track down ‘zines and photos and videos from people’s personal holdings. It was rather arbitrary, in fact, that I stopped writing when I did. It was mostly because I had a word limit from my publisher, and I had already surpassed that limit and didn’t want to cut any big sections in order to write new big sections. So that meant I was done writing and had to start editing it down instead.

TD: Rather than writing Girls to the Front as a dry, straight-up journalistic non-fiction rendering of the Riot Grrrl scene, you used the stories of individuals and their experiences in a lyrical narrative, really tying together the frontline of the movement. How important was it for you to write in that way?
SM: The questions of style you talk about were absolutely central to my idea for the book. I had read a lot of academic papers on Riot Grrrl that didn’t manage to capture the excitement and energy of the era, and I was determined to figure out a way to write the book that would channel the passion and help the reader to really understand, as much as possible, what it was about this movement that was so thrilling to people. Additionally, I just wanted to write the kind of book that I would want to read, and my favorite kinds of nonfiction are the kinds that do interesting things with words and sentences and structure in addition to just telling a good story.

TD: You start off the book talking about your adolescence in Maryland, all the anxiety, alienation and passion that came with it, and how you got into the Riot GRRRL scene. It really helps establish familiarity with the reader, that you’re not just another music journalist writing about a genre but a person a part of a revolution who felt an overwhelming need to get the story straight. Was it a conscious decision to begin the book with your story?
SM: Yes, it was a conscious decision–by somebody else! I hadn’t planned on writing about myself in the book at all; I saw my own experiences with the movement as rather marginal compared with the major players. But when I started working with my agent, she read the other parts I’d written and she said, “Where were you during all this?” She was the one who asked me to write a preface about my own experience before we sent it around to publishers, and once I’d written it, I realized that this was only fair. I had asked so many other people to share their personal experiences for publication, so it was only right that I do the same myself.

TD: Most define Riot Grrrl by the likes of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, who you profile in the book, regarding it more as musical genre rather than an era of strong, deeply felt feminism. Such a narrow viewpoint does minimize the impact of the revolution, but, at the same time, would you say it was necessary to have a focus on the music in order to get the feminist message across, especially since, unlike today, there wasn’t the Internet to bring us all together so easily?
SM: Yes, the music was an incredibly useful way of getting the word out. Touring with a band was one of the few methods available to young people for spreading a message broadly in the pre-Internet era, and it was also a perfect medium for the message of female self-empowerment. In punk bands, you could see so many of the political principles of Riot Grrrl playing out in highly theatricalized form: girls insisting on their right to take up space, to make noise, to not always be pretty (but to be pretty sometimes if they wanted), to create community with one another, to craft their own image even it was starkly different from the accepted options for female self-presentation. And, as artist Dan Graham so memorably explored in his movie Rock My Religion, going to a punk show is not that different, energetically, from participating in a religious ceremony. So it’s a great place to become politicized. You’re primed for something life-transforming.

TD: You also talk about the way Riot Grrrl was regarded from the outside, as this group of man-hating “femininazis”. Why do you think such a stigma was attached to it? Was it because society just couldn’t or didn’t want to handle a group of outspoken girls fed up and angry with how women were being treated and wanted to see it changed?
SM: Well, yes! I mean, the stigma attached to Riot Grrrl was not much different from the stigma that’s been attached to feminists of every stripe ever since there’ve been feminists. No matter how radical or how conciliatory, feminists are always “too radical”, “going about things the wrong way”, “trying to be like men”, blah blah blah. The only thing that was special with Riot Grrrl was that much of the opposition was coming from within punk scenes–within communities that were supposedly all about bucking the system and opposing mainstream values and creating new ways of being. But even this wasn’t without historical precedent: Second-wave feminists also met with similar derision and opposition from the antiwar left back in the early 1960s, and the same thing happened when abolitionist activists in the 1800s started talking about women’s rights.

TD: You’re very open in the book about the internal conflicts within the Riot Grrrl movement, yet in the epilogue, “The Feminist Future”, you mentioned how you feared betraying the movement by talking about them. Why did you feel that way? Isn’t it necessary to mention the conflicts in order to really capture Riot Grrrl’s true tale?
SM: Yes, you’re right that it’s necessary, and that’s why I included it. I guess I just didn’t want those things to overshadow all the positive aspects of the movement. But I think I figured out a way to balance it all out.

TD: Each era of feminism seems to have defined the next, so has Riot Grrrl defined the feminist culture of the 21st century? What is the feminist future to you?
SM: There are multiple feminist cultures of the 21st century, and Riot Grrrl has certainly had a strong influence on some of the most visible of those. I’m talking about the feminism of cultural critique and creative expression–the feminism of blogs, from the most grassroots Tumblr on up through Jezebel and Double X; the feminist artists (many of them raised on Riot Grrrl) who are making waves in the art world; the girls’ and ladies’ rock camps that keep proliferating. In the feminist future I envision, we keep transforming the culture at large, while also figuring out how to link up these creative acts of world-making with political action.

TD: What’s your favorite thing to get at the deli?
SM: In Philadelphia, I always love getting Kreme Krimpets! You can’t really find Tastykakes in New York so it’s a Philly treat for me.

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