Feminist Fury -- ''Burn Down The Walls That Say You Can't''
TWO GIRLS - HOW OLD CAN they be? - are screaming into a microphone with a rage beyond their years. Betrayal. Rape. So many girls scraping away flesh. These are their themes, on this sharp winter night, in a rented hall in Seattle filled with other young teens.
"They say Karen Carpenter died of heart failure due to bulimia," the two harmonize in harsh chords. "But it was heart failure due to demand." The demands of a Barbie-doll culture, a slim-fast world, high spiked heels, low-cut dresses and women in bikinis selling beer in commercials.
The words spit out and explode, and the two girls are screaming now and shrieking and accusing and crying and their hands are pushed into their twisted faces and their bodies are rigid and thin.
Karen Carpenter wasn't killed by bulimia, they declare angrily. Karen Carpenter was murdered.
The crowd is stunned and then rips into applause. Despite the melodrama, they are taken by this mix of poetry, hard music and feminist manifesto. The boys nod, but the girls surge forward and offer hugs to the duo. Sisterhood makes another claim on the very young and angry.
At a time when some women consider feminism a dirty word and have adopted sorority-style values instead, a counter-group of girls and women have jabbed rings through their noses and hiked up their skirts, mocking contrite nice-girl standards. They don't want to be cheerleaders, they don't want to be groupies, they don't want what life is handing them on a big silver tray stacked with makeup, fashion magazines and a million hygiene products.
To them, past feminist movements never paid off. Equal pay lags. Domestic violence is so common that four women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends every day in the U.S. Abortion rights are unresolved. Life is often dangerous and unfair and these girls know it, even if they don't know what difference their defiance and unity will make on statistics.
The anger flows. It comes out in music. In actions. In small group meetings to explore this youthful brand of radical feminism. These are children of the late '70s and '80s, rebels who reject society's insistence that they play by the same old rules, rules they say have betrayed them in the form of abusive fathers or aggressive boys.
As the saying goes, what exactly is it about the word "no" that you don't understand?
Many labels have been pasted to this fledgling movement, ranging from Riot Grrrls to Feminazi, but it's useless to lump them together. They are as diverse as the rank experiences that draw them together - experiences many of the older ones first shared as students at The Evergreen State College. That's the avant-garde institution on the outskirts of Olympia, where women's studies have given voice to a lot of pent-up rage and triggered a movement that now claims angry members nationwide.
CANDICE PEDERSEN RUNS K Records, a small company in Olympia that puts out punk and alternative music from its unheated offices above a Chinese restaurant. The walls are dirty white, the carpet is green and stained and there is a cloth cheerleader doll in one room, complete with pompons and a crushed-in face.
Pedersen has short dark hair, black-rim glasses, heavy green stockings and forceful opinions. She is 27. She has seen the rage unfold. The issues, she says, are simple: "Rape, sexism, gender biases. The basic idea that there are different rules for boys and girls. How come if I have sex with a lot of people I'm a slut? If my boyfriend has a lot of sex, he's a man."
She is standing in a room full of records and tapes, beneath a blown-up poster of Madonna, an icon for all those women who don't bow to men. At K Records, women musicians are being recorded as aggressively as the boys.
All-girl bands such as Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy have surged in number and popularity. Call it punk, alternative, girl grunge, whatever; when they hit the stage, all the nice-girly stuff goes out the window with a hard slam of music that twists convulsively through the air like a wild bird shot at close range.
Pedersen approves. She believes in the power of music, and is glad women are tapping into it - despite how threatening that feels to some men.
"When women do something for themselves, it's construed as being anti-male. Well, if we have to go through five years of reverse sexism so we can have the same thing that men have, that doesn't compare to 2,000 years of sexism against women," she says. "I get so frustrated when a woman does something, it's considered sexist instead of self-ist."
She pauses. "I run K Records. I'm often considered my partner's secretary."
Outside, the air is blue and cold and people are hunkered down in a corner coffee shop. They look nothing like the legislators who are in town for state business. This group is young and punk and alternative and you can't help but notice the woman with short hair dyed a screaming siren red. It is accented with little white bows. She is showing it off to admiring friends. It really is something to behold, something to stare at, something to compliment for its sheer gall.
That doesn't mean she wants to discuss it. Like so many other young feminists in this town, she is wary of the media's fascination with her radical looks and the ideas behind it. Standing, she shakes her red hair and says, No, No, No. She will not talk. She will not be shaken down by an institution that has no way of comprehending what she stands for.
It is an awkward moment. Her attire is crying for recognition; her head is shaking its reluctance. Trust is not given lightly. And perhaps for good reason. Newsweek, The New York Times, USA Today and other publications have written trendy features on Riot Grrrls, patting them on the head with articles about those crazy, willful girls and what will they think of next?
Newsweek: "Riot Girl is feminism with a loud happy face dotting the `i.' "
USA Today: "From hundreds of once pink, frilly bedrooms comes the young feminist revolution. And it's not pretty. But it doesn't wanna be. So there!"
Thus the woman in red turns away, and can you really blame her?
HER RETICENCE IS shared throughout the movement, which has spread across the country and to cities such as Washington, D.C., Olympia's sister-city for feminist outrage. Some of the bands that got started in Olympia moved east and have followers that number in the hundreds or thousands or who knows? There is no census count on Riot Grrrls, but they do attend concerts in droves. On one recent Sunday night, at a rented hall about three miles from the White House, dozens of teenage girls and boys turn out for a concert that includes the Riot Grrrl band Siren.
The three young women play hard and meaningfully and when they stop, the crowd claps. These are boys and girls with pimples and baggy pants, and they don't want anything to do with mainstream America outside. Siren leaves the stage but will not talk to the press. Nor will their fans.
"You can't trust them," one girl says. "We've been screwed over time after time and we're sick of it."
Said girl then walks back into the dance hall and hugs another girl with short hair. They kiss on the mouth. Solidarity reigns. The media have been spurned.
Another young woman watches this repudiation and steps away from the wall in dark, heavy boots. She explains: The press has tried to smooth off the rough edges of their lives, has dolled them up when they don't want to be dolls, has exploited their confessions about being hurt by incest, rape and betrayal.
She crosses her arms, says not to take it personally, and goes back inside the dance hall to watch an all-boy group called the Universal Order of Armageddon. The band yells and shrieks and falls down on the floor at the end, writhing like snakes in a hell pit. The end, indeed, seems near.
Riot Grrrls have received a lot of attention in Washington, D.C. There was a convention here last summer and hundreds attended. There was no designated leader - in deference to individual empowerment - but just enough organization to form discussion groups about everything from a father's improper touch, to rape, confused sexual identities, and the rejection of super-model standards.
"The best thing about these sort of groups is that it puts power in the hands of people who assume they don't have any," says Jenny Toomey, a singer and guitarist with a Virginia-based band called Tsunami.
That power comes from music - forming a band, not watching one. It also comes through the written word. To reinforce their independence, these groups are creating their own fanzines: pamphlets filled with poems, essays and pages of journals that are torn out and photocopied and distributed among those who share their alienation and angst.
In one, called Girl Germs, the writing is anxious and indulgent, but honest and far beyond the bounds of white picket fences. Sex is an urgent subject: Girls attracted to boys. Girls attracted to girls. Girls attracted to boys and girls and uncertain about both.
"Sometimes I wish I could hang out with girls and not talk about guys. Like last night, I didn't really wanna be with that guy, but my friend said it would be fun. I had a much better time talking about it with her than doing it with him. Me and her, we talk about sex a lot. Sometimes I think about touching her and knowing how, but then, I don't know; it just gets to scary. It makes me just want to hide, so I do."
And this: The story of a young Asian woman who was ridiculed by a white boy and who, in response, stood up in class and gave him the finger. "i think i shocked the hell out of everyone but they said nothing. they were probably surprised by my confrontation because asians usually avoid confrontations."
Girls also have written about incest, rape and other assaults - only to have their identities revealed in stories by the press. "Who wants to have your incest outed in The New York Times and read by your friends?" asks Toomey. "Once it's written about in The New York Times, it takes away the ability to speak on the line or honestly about issues."
And without the honesty, what's the point? The fanzines are meant to identify intense feelings, meant to bring aliens into the fold. As Toomey says, "It really opens up a world for weird 14-year-olds in Iowa."
Lex Gjurasic is a weird 15-year-old who lives in Seattle. She is starting her own fanzine, in which her exquisite weirdness will be explored. She will also interview bands, offer opinions and feature "A Lovely Ladies Corner."
"Hillary Clinton once said she'd rather be out working than staying home to bake cookies," she explains. "Well, for those who want to stay at home to bake cookies, this column's for you."
Then, in the next breath, the young woman is saying this: "I consider myself a Feminazi. I believe men and women are equal and that's that. I take it as a compliment when a guy calls me a Feminazi or a slut. I'm a slut. I do what I want with my body."
Gjurasic stops, letting the shock register. Once you embrace a term, she says, you disarm those who would use it against you.
She smiles, revealing braces. She has dark shoulder-length hair with shades of deep purple showing through. She attends Holy Names High School, a private school on Capitol Hill for girls. "I like it because there are no guys there. I can come to school without makeup and not have to worry. When there are guys around, we're different. Totally different. Some girls giggle, and toss their hair. I can't put up with that."
Nor can she tolerate the sexism she feels around her every day. She tells this story about taking the bus downtown one night with a girlfriend. First, two guys drove by and starting yelling at them: "Hey, I got $50!"
In response: "We screamed and yelled `male vomit!' and they left us alone."
Then, when the girls got downtown, other men started whistling and shouting catcalls. "We role-played like we were lesbians in a fight."
She frowns: "It's not safe. It really isn't."
Gjurasic has boyfriends, but only those who can accept her feminism. That's true of her girlfriends, too, although they do disagree about the relevance of a new feminist movement. "A lot of my girlfriends think Riot Grrrl is pointless," she says. "They say we should worry about other things like the environment and politics. But I say, how can we have world peace if men are dominant over women?"
With that, she gathers her books and the thick black journal from which her fanzine is being created. It features a modern-day sketch of Alice in Wonderland - a woman in a short dress, with cigarettes and dreadlocks. "Alice in Wonderland," says Gjurasic. "I'd consider her a Riot Grrrl in her own sense."
JUST WHO IS AND who isn't a Riot Grrrl or Feminazi or member of the radical feminist family is a topic of confused intensity. While many young women on campuses and in the punk-rock world identify with it, others are distancing themselves from a movement they perceive to be a man-hating secret society. That's overstating the case, but the image persists and has led to some vocal refutations.
Here is a story to illustrate the point.
One night in Tacoma, a music club called the Red Roof Pub is packed. It is all military haircuts and grungy attire and enough smoke to get the Asarco smelter up and going again. They are waiting for the final act, an all-girl band called 7 Year Bitch; you can buy their T-shirts for $8. The shirts feature the naked, full-body profile of a busty woman, the same woman you've followed down the interstate, gracing the tire flaps of big trucks, driven by big men.
Sales are slow. The band is not. 7 Year Bitch blasts away on stage; two guitarists, a drummer and lead singer. Their music is hard and discordant, sung by a blond woman in a girly dress with short sleeves, revealing tattoos. This band, it has been widely noted, recently lost a guitarist. Stefanie Sargent suffocated in her vomit last year after drinking and using heroin. Nice girls don't die of drug use. The members of 7 Year Bitch are not nice girls.
Selene Vigil rages into the microphone, her mouth twisted and her eyes angled off to the side beneath heavy eyeliner that intensifies her glare. She is magnetic. She reaches inside for another hard song. It's called "Dead Men Don't Rape." The crowd moshes wildly. It's mostly men up front, slamming into one another as if it's a contact sport. Women join in, and hold their own, if you can call jumping into a moving chainsaw holding your own. There is a random anger in the air, a drunken rage that pulls a security man to his feet. He fiercely locks arms with one of the dancers, an older guy who looks like Col. Sanders, but with dark hair and a menacing snarl. The security man has hate in his eyes as he hustles the colonel onto the sidelines. The man does not stay there. He likes this band, pumping his fist overhead when they sing "Dead Men Don't Rape." Does he even hear the words? Does he even care? Vigil is growling from the bottom of her lungs.
In the manager's office, the band talks. The media have been getting it all wrong, they say, lumping 7 Year Bitch with the Riot Grrrl movement and they are not Riot Grrrls, even if Rolling Stone insists on calling them that, which the magazine did in a recent, mostly positive review.
"We're not part of it," says drummer Valerie Agnew, who is sitting on the edge of a desk, under a giant velvet painting of Elvis when he was thin. "I have problems with them theoretically - a lot of their standpoints are knee-jerk and reactionary. We don't hate men."
If so, what about their song "Dead Men Don't Rape"? "A lot of people relate to that, men and women," says guitarist Elizabeth Davis. "I love it when guys in the audience sing along with it."
Agnew nods in agreement. Rape is hateful, and that's a message for everyone - not just for women, from an all-women band. "I'm not leery of saying straight up that I'm a feminist, but that's not why we started the band."
TAMMY WATSON IS THE lead singer for Kill Sybil (all of them?), an edgy punk band that includes another woman and a man. She is a 25-year-old bleached blond woman who is, on this night, wearing a little-girl dress and singing big into the microphone. While setting up for this and other gigs, misunderstandings can occur.
"People ask me: `What band are you with?' Not, `What band are you in?' `Where's your backstage pass?'
"I'm in the band."
In other words, she's not a groupie. She's not a cheerleader. She's not a stewardess. She's In The Band.
Watson's mouth forms a canyon when she sings. She is not demure. She is at you full force, fist twisted downward by her side. She knows how to take care of herself, but that doesn't mean she's safe. When she walks home at night, she walks quickly and with the awareness that she's never alone. Not really. Not with so much violence just waiting to happen and waiting to happen to women. She has been followed. She has been chased. Some of her girlfriends have been attacked. She is angry.
"When I'm home alone and hear the floor creak, I jump," she says. "When a man's home alone and hears the floor creak, he thinks it's the wind."
This is the critical difference, the chasm, the gap that is fueling yet another feminist movement. Riot Grrrl or not, many women are touched by the same issues of personal safety, sexism, respect, self-esteem and everyday challenges to their inherent well-being. No one wants to play victim. They do want fair play. Alice Wheeler speaks to that in dramatic terms.
She's been around punk rock half her life. She was one of the first members of an all-girl band and she now photographs the scene. When she was younger, the rock world saved her from a harsh world at home. She won't publicly share the details, but she will say this: The Riot Grrrls are righteously angry.
"Sisterhood is important. Otherwise you are alone and an outsider, like I always felt in the past," she says. "I grew up in Nebraska and I was a punk rocker and I had blue hair and got written about in the papers. There were very few punk rockers in the late '70s in Omaha, and I knew them all.
"I think girls today are dealing with the same issues: abuse, harassment, what it's like to grow up female in America. But it's scarier now. You're more of a target. There's a backlash because a lot of men are really mad because women have started standing up for themselves. So, whereas men used to say, `Hey, little lady, aren't you beautiful today,' they are afraid to say something like that, because it's considered sexist, and take it out in other ways. They criticize the way you dress, say you're not sexy enough or call you a lesbian. When you try to confront them, they totally deny it and try to make you seem like the crazy one. We have a long way to go."
So Alice Wheeler, 30 years old, proudly calls herself a Riot Grrrl. She attends meetings, goes to concerts and reads the fanzines. There, she is sustained when she reads words like this: "I want to be heard. Over the noise. Over the music. Over the drums. Over all."
Linda Keene is a Seattle Times reporter. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer. Alice Wheeler is a Seattle freelance photographer.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.