In one corner of the hushed reading room of the Fales Library & Special Collections, housed on the third floor of New York University’s Bobst Library, squats a strange object. Amid the gray carpeting, carved busts, glass-encased cabinets, and dreadful oil paintings crouches a two-drawer file cabinet covered in stickers that read “Mr. Lady,” “Slut,” “Pansy Division,” “Giuliani Is a Jerk,” “Suck It Boy,” and “Free Mumia.”
This battered artifact, donated by the musician Kathleen Hanna, forms the seed of Fales’ new “Riot Grrrl Collection.” Beginning this fall, students, professors, and independent scholars can peruse assorted materials related to Riot Grrrl, the political movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s that imbued feminism with punk rock’s clatter and crash. Hanna and Johanna Fateman, who now play together in Le Tigre, have already donated lyric sheets (including “Rebel Girl,” by Hanna’s former band Bikini Kill, translated into French); the original glittery cover art for Bikini Kill’s first album; zine flats replete with cut-and-pasted found images; and a handout offering instruction on girl-friendly moshing. Photographs and scrawled notepads from Excuse 17’s Becca Albee will soon follow. Contributions from Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe—as well as Bikini Kill’s Kathi Wilcox, and Carrie Brownstein, of Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney—are expected as well.
Riot Grrrl took off in the early ’90s, taking its name from a zine of young women’s writings edited by Neuman and Wolfe, with the help of Hanna and her bandmates. Originating in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, D.C., via a loose collective of female musicians, artists, and writers frustrated with an increasingly male-centered and commercialized punk-rock scene, Riot Grrrl soon spread around the country and the world.
Like many feminist movements, Riot Grrrl consisted largely of white, middle-class women, but it held that young women, no matter how different, could form communities of mutual encouragement and support. Through conferences, demonstrations, zines, and music, Riot Grrrl encouraged women to use punk’s DIY ethos to address issues of abuse, bias, and empowerment. According to the “Riot Grrrl Manifesto,” written by Hanna and first published in Bikini Kill Zine #2, Riot Grrrl existed “BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.” As music historian Mark Andersen asserts in the documentary Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, these manifestos and songs helped young women “to believe that the drama of punk was their drama, that the drama of life was their drama.”
After a series of trivializing articles appeared in Newsweek, USA Today, and some alternative press outlets, many in the Riot Grrrl movement called for a media blackout, which left much of Riot Grrrl unrecorded in anything other than private and piecemeal fashion. A Riot Grrrl archive would thus function as a remarkable resource, providing scholars of feminism, gender theory, and music history with a trove of unpublished and undocumented primary sources. As Jenna Freedman, a librarian who maintains a zine collection at Barnard College, explains, “I think it’s just essential to preserve the activist voices in their own unmediated work, especially because of the media blackout that they called for. What the young women have to say in the unedited, un–’corporate stamp of approval’ way is really powerful.”
Nevertheless, it’s still strange to imagine that file cabinet amid Fales’ climate-controlled stacks. Asked how she feels about having her personal materials enshrined in this demure setting, Hanna replies, “I don’t really think of them as being ‘enshrined.’ I think of them as being safe and not ending up in the trash.”
For Lisa Darms, a senior archivist at Fales and the creator of the Riot Grrrl collection, the preservation of these documents far outweighs any apparent incongruity. Darms, a classmate of many original Riot Grrrls at Olympia’s Evergreen State College, dreamed of this project even before she began archival studies: “But I was like, ‘Too bad, no institution would ever house that.’ “
And yet NYU is just the sort of institution that would. Fales boasts 275 collections of millions of unique items. In recent years, the school has also acquired the Downtown collection—an amalgam of works and ephemera by Village artists and organizations that includes not only books and films, but also Mabou Mines’s theater backdrops and a box of magic tricks that artist David Wojnarowicz once owned.
Of course, archives alone can’t entirely re-create the vigor of the movement—its all-girl mosh pits, its smeared lipstick and sweat. Darms hopes that an oral history project might eventually supplement the archive. And Hanna admits, “I don’t think any archive could capture what it felt like to see Heavens to Betsy play at the Riot Grrrl D.C. convention in ’92. I mean, I wanted to sob while simultaneously pulling my hair out and screaming in the street.”
But that doesn’t make her any less passionate about donating to Fales. In fact, she seems to have caught archive fever. On her blog, she recently announced the creation of a “Bikini Kill Archive,” urging fans to add their own reminiscences, “your reaction to a song we wrote, something weird that happened at one of our shows, a personal anecdote or just WHATEVER.” She has received more than 150 responses so far.
Though Hanna’s archive is growing fast, Darms warns that the Fales collection will take some time to build. “I think about this in five-year increments,” she says. Hanna did experience some qualms about parting with her file cabinet (“Knowing it wasn’t doing anyone any good sitting in my basement was a big motivator, though”) and its trove of photos, set lists, and zines. And she has, for the moment, retained her journals and correspondences. Yet, she says, she felt pleasure and relief upon donating: “I had realized that before I could truly move on with my work, I had to make peace with my former projects,” she says. “Part of that included making sure they were archived properly. I am horribly nervous about feminist erasure, which has a huge impact on everything I do.”
Happily for Hanna, Riot Grrrl shows little sign of effacement: Macmillan recently issued Marisa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, and Harper Perennial will soon publish Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Also, as Freedman notes, “Right now, Riot Grrrl is definitely going to grad school. There are a lot of women in library school and in PhD programs who seem to be researching Riot Grrrl.” Hanna, who was herself inspired by books recounting ’60s and ’70s feminist activism, hopes that “this archive will spawn some great books of its own.”