Girls to the Front of the Room

In Girlhood by ssml4 Comments

If you had met me as a teenager and asked me what my hobby was, and if I had elected to answer you, I would have told you two things. I scoured record conventions on the weekends looking for Joan Jett bootlegs and I went to punk rock shows. Between the years of 1988 and 1991, I probably went to hundreds of punk shows in the Chicagoland area. It was an energetic time in the Chicago Punk scene. The shows were all ages and they were always really cheap or free. They were in houses, church basements, bowling alleys, warehouses and clubs in the city. A lot of my political consciousness was shaped listening to those bands and going to those shows. They wrote earnest anthemic songs about resistance and defiance, disease, apartheid, homelessness, unity, racism and corporate greed. It was serious minded music about real things that happened in the world. I experienced liberation in the volume and the aching ethos that came through those simple chord progressions, sloppy bass lines and crashing drums. The voices of boys screaming into microphones, veins showing in their strained necks until their voices went hoarse and they collapsed in a sweaty puddle on the floor was the sound I wanted to send out of my own body. I wanted to be a cellular explosion of  emotional energy. I wanted to lie spent, soaked in my own honesty while the vibration from distortion rose from the ground and filled my empty chest cavity. I didn’t know the power in the sound of my own voice. I thought I needed to be screamed for and that was the truth.

Another truth about those shows is that they were really hard to navigate as a teenage girl. In many ways it actually sucked to be a girl at those shows. I watched how guys handled themselves on the floor. I quickly understood that most guys were either taking up space or defending the space that they had claimed for themselves. I’d stake out a spot that I most wanted to see the show from and try to emulate the guys who were defending their space. I kept a low center of gravity, I bent slightly at the knees, I kept my elbows out to the sides, I pushed back, but not enough to lose my balance. The fact of the matter is that there was no amount of righteous anger or desire that could have kept my almost one hundred pound, 15 year-old girl body anchored to those floors. The intensity of my intention to be part of what was happening was no match for intensity of the energy that surrounded me. I can’t tell you the number of times I got pushed over, punched in the shoulder or knocked in the head by the combat boot of some guy who jumped off of the stage into the crowd. I was repeatedly swallowed up in a mass of shirtless boys, limbs, fists and feet flying, throwing their bodies at one another until I was pushed through the crowd and spat out the at back of the room. None of this felt intentional. If anything, I felt like more of an after thought. I actually just felt invisible most of the time. I didn’t take it personally. And I never felt specifically targeted in those situations. I did however feel noticed, targeted and totally annoyed when inevitably some guy(s), usually at the back of the room, would try to get into my pants or at the very least try to get my get my phone number so he could try to get into my pants later when he wasn’t busy throwing his body against other dudes at punk shows. No thanks. That just wasn’t what I was there for. I would meet up with my male friends outside after the show and we would drive back to our suburb. They would be completely exhilarated, their heads and shirts soaked, recapping the show, talking a million miles a minute about the songs and the band and the dicks who punched them. I would realize how much of the show I had missed and feel pissed about it. I liked my friends; they were good guys. And I deeply envied them. I wanted to jump around, blow off steam, yell at people, push people around and then scramble up over the tops of them. I wanted to sweat out all of the injustices of the world in a sea of movement and not be worried that I was going to be tossed out or that someone was going to try to violate me in some way. As much as I did not want to admit it, I knew that there was part of that experience that was not designed for me. There was a freedom and a cathartic release in those shows that was just not accessible to me. The need in me to experience that freedom and release was persistent though. I kept going back trying to satisfy it, even if  it were only for few minutes at the top of the set and some other fleeting moments here and there.

I just didn’t imagine it could be any different. It simply  didn’t occur to me.

In 1991, I graduated from high school. And I came out as a lesbian. I moved to California. I started having sex with women and learning about lesbian feminism. A new political consciousness emerged within me. I was introduced to Womyn’s music. I stopped going to punk rock shows. I had a new hobby. It was called loving women. In 1991, Bikini Kill put out a cassette called Revolution Girl Style Now!, though I wouldn’t learn about them until four years after that. When I did learn about them, I really wished I had learned about them sooner.

I went to see Sini Anderson’s documentary, THE PUNK SINGER about Kathleen Hanna the other night. It’s a great film and there is a lot to say about it. I’m only going to say one thing right now. Something that really hit home for me was watching the footage from those early Bikini Kill shows. Her stance on the stage, bringing girls to the front of the room and sending guys to the back, screaming unapologetically about the oppression of girls, Inviting girls to speak up  and to make it known if some guy was messing with them during the show were all things that were desperately needed. Punk shows needed the kind of revolution that Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill brought to them. Girls who were part of the punk rock scene needed to be brought into the experience and to see themselves reflected in the music and in the culture of the shows. Riot Grrrl culture put them front and center.

If you have a chance to see THE PUNK SINGER, please do. I feel certain you will be glad that you did. Kathleen Hanna is on tour with her band, The Julie Ruin. If you can, go to the show. Support her work. And if you ever have an opportunity to tell her that she’s done good and important work, say it. She has. Say it for a bunch of reasons that will all be true. For her bravery, for her creativity, for speaking out about things that are hard for girls to speak out against, for cleverly confronting the way the media belittles female musicians and tries to pit them against one another, for telling hard truths on the faith that we would believe her. For being badass. If you don’t say it for yourself, say it for the girls who got shoved to the back of the room at punk shows and say it for the ones who got called right back up to the front.



  1. Griffin

    This was exceedingly interesting to read. So many conversations could be started from this piece. It’s interesting that looking at male culture from the outside you came to envy and long for many of the same things I came to reject or revile as a male: the physicality, the blind chaos of bodies forever contesting with one another for dominance or space. It would also be interesting to hear more about what exactly happened to that restless drive after you moved out to California. In what way did that longing survive, and what form does it have today? I would happily read 10,00 more words on the subject. And I can’t wait to read what you are going to write next.

  2. Valerie

    I knew nothing about this world and your piece opened understanding for me. I certainly understood the desired and determinations at that age even if I kept banging my head against a different outlet (super goody two shoes and fundamentalist religion). Thanks for writing and sharing. Well written!

  3. moira

    Thank you so much for this. I have lately been more focused on some of the less positive ways riot grrrl manifested in the scene I inhabited as a girl who, at that time, didn’t want to be a girl/didn’t think I was a girl. Your piece gave me a lot more perspective and even made me remember a lot of things I hadn’t been remembering. This is really important history.

    1. Author

      Thanks! I think it’s all really important and also complicated. Have you been writing about that? I would love to read it.

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