As a disaffected high school student in Kentucky with an abiding interest in punk, a ’zine at my disposal and access to the US Postal system in the early 1990s, a significant part of my education included a growing awareness of the then burgeoning “riot grrrl” movement, which blossomed out of Washington DC and Olympia, Wash.
Most of what I knew about riot grrrl was gleaned from personal testimonials and band interviews in ’zines and a 1991 copy of the inaugural Kill Rock Stars compilation album. Riot grrrl bands featured prominently, with Bratmobile’s “Girl Germs” and Bikini Kill’s “Feels Blind” leading each side, while contributions by Nirvana, the Melvins and others rounded out the album.
Riot grrrl issued a frontal challenge to the testosterone-fueled boys club that hardcore punk had become, with angry, all- or mostly female bands calling out sexual harassment and rape, while creating space for women to flourish creatively and set their own terms. The bands were unabashedly feminist, while also refusing to countenance homophobia in the scene. They wrote and sang about sexuality from a female perspective instead of as the object of male desire.
Bikini Kill and Bratmobile planted the flag. And while Sleater-Kinney came along somewhat later in 1994, they’ve traveled further in the broader culture. Aided in no small part by Carrie Brownstein’s weaponized electric guitar, Sleater-Kinney’s music deepened the musicianship of the genre while slightly de-emphasizing the political provocation of the first wave.
Sleater-Kinney has attracted critical acclaim as a rock band leading up to their breakup in 2006, and continuing with their well-received reformation last year. While admittedly I haven’t followed their career all that closely, I’m grateful Sleater-Kinney has maintained relevance for one simple reason. They carried the legacy of uncompromising feminism through the cultural retrenchment of the 2000s, a period when sexist tropes and traditional gender relationships became resurgent in popular culture.
Brownstein is even better known as the comedic actor who co-stars with Fred Armisen in “Portlandia,” a show whose gentle mockery of hipster enthusiasms presents a counterpoint to the righteous fury of her work with Sleater-Kinney. Aside from the fact that “Portlandia” is some of the funniest TV around right now, I’m glad the show has raised Brownstein’s profile to give her a platform to publish a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and to trace her own story as a woman and an artist through the riot grrrl rebellion to the present.