The Riot Grrrl Controversy

Image

“SPITBOY are the best girl band around. They piss all over every Riot Girl band I can think of. They’ve got more power in their dirty little fingernails than Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna and Kat Bjelland put together… Tonight, these four women, sweaty and angry, but also (between songs) witty and endearing–have stolen my heart… Spitboy are uniquely inspiring, not only for their awesome bile, but also for their straightforwardness. They hate sexism, not men. They know exactly what they’re talking about and how to articulate their righteous aggression.”

—From Melody Maker April 10, 1993

   London, England

   “Live!” review by Lucy Sweet                           

We weren’t trying to piss on riot grrrl bands. But we did understand that the comparison, or being labeled a riot girl band, wasn’t going away and neither was what had now become rivalry between female punk bands who ultimately had the same mission: to speak out against sexism. It would have been easier to say we were a riot girrl band, but we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area during the early days of their movement. And we stood for just about everything they did, only we didn’t want to be called girls.

It happened in Washington DC, an already strange city, which added to the days angst.  After getting lost on one way streets and roundabouts, we found our way to the venue we were scheduled to play that day, a sort of loft space storefront on a swanky tree lined street with Victorian architecture, a strange place to play after playing church basements and Elks Lodges in the mid-west.

I followed Adrienne out of the van, staying at the heels of her clunky boots, as I often did during times like these.  Adrienne was outgoing and became even more so when in doubt; whereas, I tended toward standoffishness. We weren’t playing with any riot girl bands that day, but members of Bikini Kill and the guys from Nation of Ulysses who they were all hanging around with were there for the show. Punk bands from the bay area, where every other band wanted to play, or played as often as they could, were a draw, and women came out when Spitboy played. Bikini Kill and their friends had come out to see us play, to see what we were all about.

Adrienne marched up to the door of the venue looking for the guy who had set up the show to find out where we should load in. I figured I could get past the intimidating moments of meeting new people, new scenesters, faster if I hung with Adrienne while she went around, smiling wide, her straight-toothed smile, her blue eyes sparkling, introducing herself to people, laughing easily, shaking people’s hands, and hugging those who wanted a hug. I stopped at shaking hands. I didn’t want people I didn’t know hugging me or touching me, men in particular, no matter how much they liked Spitboy, and not when I was already feeling tense about being on riot grrrl territory.

Like riot grrrl, hugs had become a sore subject too. Earlier in the tour, on our way out of some city, this guy, a friend of our tour contact had offered to give us all hugs. Apparently, I was the only one in the band who found this creepy.

“Everyone tells me that I give the best hugs. Do you want a hug?” the young man said, holding his arms out, waiting for one of us to step in. He was a pale-faced, chubby dude, not fat, just a little husky, the kind of punk guy who was probably vegetarian who rarely ate vegetables and who subsisted on mainly cheese and bread and beer or soda.

“Sure, I’ll have a hug.” Adrienne smiled wide and stepped forward.

I took a step back and looked toward our dented blue van.

“You do give the best hugs.’ Adrienne turned to Karin who was standing at her side. “Karin, you have to get one of his hugs.”

Karin stepped forward and let this guy hug her, hugging him back.

I could see the guy’s face as he hugged Karin, his head over her shoulder, his eyes scrunching with the squeeze of his arms, his goofy smile.

“Okay, I’ll have one too,” Paula said.

 I stepped to the side to avoid his line of vision once he opened his eyes.

“Thank you,” Paula said, once he released her. She smiled a real smile, her freckles dancing about.

I looked down at the ground, to where the asphalt met the dirt on the side of the road. I could feel all eyes on me.

“Do you want a hug too?” Huggy Bear Boy smiled and stepped in my direction.

“No, I don’t,” I said before he got too close. “Thank you,” I added.

Huggy Bear Boy stopped his forward lumber, and there was an awkward silence as he lowered his arms, like two long animal balloons out of air.

In the van, I felt like I had to explain myself, as if our ‘body is mine’ motto didn’t extend to fans.

“But he was nice,” Adrienne said.

Karin and Paula were in the front seat waving at Huggy Bear Boy and his friend as we drove away. I waved and forced a smile because I didn’t want to look like a total asshole.

“That was probably the most action that guy’s gotten in days, maybe ever,” I said once we had driven a block or so.

“Todd,” Karin said, shocked but she laughed anyway because she knew it was probably true.

Even though I didn’t want to be hugged by fans, unless I felt some kind of real connection, like after a conversation, I was oddly confident in other ways, and I didn’t usually get nervous before playing live, but I was nervous the night we played in front of members of Bikini Kill and Nation of Ulysses. In short, I was intimidated. Then a tall guy came up to me before we took to the stage ( which wasn’t a stage at all, just a piece of the floor in the back of the venue, opposite the glare from the front windows) to ask if we required the men in the crowd to stand in the back of the room, like they were told to do during a Bikini Kill set. I couldn’t believe my ears, but I now had someplace to direct my angst.

At my drumset, sitting on the stool, I pulled my backup vocal mic up to my mouth, “Before we play, we’d just like to say that we don’t expect men to stand in the back of the room. We’re not a riot girl band.”

All the air sucked right out of the room as soon as I said it. Mouths dropped open and silent. It was as if someone turned off the sound.

Being the hot headed one, I had nominated myself to say something first about what we realized had become an elephant in the room, but I had chosen my words poorly, spoke too soon, shat where I ate. But there it was out in the open, we were a female punk band in 1992, but we were not a riot grrl band. And it was probably best for the rest of the band that I had been the one to say it, the one who would became the most hated Spitwoman of just about every riot girl thereafter because I was the scrappy one, the only one who didn’t grow up middle-class, the non-white one; I had thicker skin.  But they backed me up; Spitboy was great this way. We did sometimes discuss possible approaches and reactions to familiar crowd responses, but we never shut anyone in the band down who felt passionate about about a something, and when one of us spoke first on a topic, there was always room for another of us to chime in and add her two cents. In this case, Adrienne stepped into recover some sense of decorum.

“Please don’t block a woman’s view; don’t stand in front of someone who is shorter than you are. Just use common sense.”

I appreciated Adrienne’s attempt to soften the blow of my comment, but my hands and knees, which started to shake the second the words, “We’re not a riot girl band,” came out of my mouth and I saw the stunned looks on people’ faces, wouldn’t stop. We knew that this one comment, saying this one thing that we had discussed with one another privately, in public, would forever alter our relationship with one of the most influential women’s movements in the punk rock scene nationwide. Still we had discussed it, and we, Spitboy (even before boys in the DC crowd came up to us and thanked us after the show) had made the deliberate decision not take a separatist stance. It was true, we hated sexism; we didn’t hate men, and neither did Bikini Kill, really.  Though if we could go back and do it over again we would have gone about it, I would have gone about it a bit differently, but not much, not much differently.

Claming It: What I Learned From Punk Rock Anthropologist Aaron Cometbus — Con Safos

ImageAaron Elliott, Mr. Cometbus, told me that that my band Bitch Fight should stop saying we were from San Francisco and say we were from Tuolumne instead. I was eighteen and Aaron Elliott, the drummer of Crimpshine  and East Bay scenester was my boyfriend. Aaron was the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer, someone like him, but not, all at the same time. I was taken with his long-armed, pointy-kneed, awkward drumming style, full lips, and bleach blond hair, and I let him pursue me until I was ready to break up with the mysterious, oft-distant, stage-hand boyfriend who said he was Italian, even though his mom and sister looked distinctly Mexican. Aaron liked my brown skin and thought it was cool that I was from a small town, a fact that Bitch Fight hoped to put behind us, and we weren’t really from Tuolumne once Elka Zolot jointed the band.

I had moved to San Francisco  from Tuolumne in 1987, just two weeks after I graduated, left town with my band mates Nicole Lopez and Sue Ann Carney, seeking to make a name for the band we started in high school and to attend City College. The band, Bitch Fight, was appropriately named for our constant bickering, petty jealousies, and our gender, as there were not many women playing punk rock, and we knew that, and felt it was worth pointing out.

Having grown up in Berkeley, Aaron Elliot had a sort of a romantic or idealized notion of what it meant to grow up in small town, and he never tried  to understand why the Tuolumne Bitch Fight girls didn’t want to claim it. He was right that it made us different,  made us who we were even, but there were plenty of things he did not understand. He definitely did not understand, and I didn’t know how to explain to him what it was like to be a minority, a person of color in a small town, a place that had tried to grind me down.

Sure, Aaron was different too, nerdy, awkward, and punk rock, but the punk rock part, that was just an attitude, ripped jeans, and weird shit tied to his wrists, things he could take off. And his attitude represented a major flaw common in the Bay Area punk scene. People of color in punk were often viewed as the white versions of who we really were. My last name was Gonzales, but I didn’t speak with an accent, the black kids in the scene didn’t act “ghetto,” and” scenesters like Eric Yee  didn’t substitute an ‘L’ sound for an ‘R’ sound, all facts that were commented on with the following “compliment” — you’re the whitest Mexican/Black guy/Asian that I’ve ever met (shout out to Kendon Smith).

And while I wasn’t at all able to articulate my feelings, my annoyance with Aaron’s opinion about what I should claim and how, I did know that growing up brown in a sea of whiteness, on welfare, being poor, the instability, and the shame, that it was all still too close. But I get it now, what Aaron meant about thinking Nicole, Sue, and I should claim Tuolumne even though he never tried  to understand why we didn’t want to.

But Aaron Elliot’s directive about what I should claim, no matter how misdirected and naive it was at the time is something I never forgot. Long after I stopped reading his love letters, hoping to run into him somewhere unexpectedly, listening to Crimpshrine, and long after playing drums and writing lyrics for Spitboy and Instant-Girl, touring Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the United States twice, going back to college, getting married, and having a son, Aaron’s ideas about my small town made some sense to me.

Ten years after Instant-Girl, Spitboy’s offshoot band, played its last show, and once settled into my tenure track teaching position, I wrote two personal essays about growing up in Tuolumne. I wrote “Blondes Have More Fun,” and “Queen of Chlorine” and then Aaron’s words came to me. He had wanted Bitch Fight to claim Tuolumne, and we never did, but there I was writing a somewhat humorous memoir about the most painful, trying, and agonizing years of my life, and the town I sort of pretended I wasn’t from for so long — there I was claiming it.