I Can Sell My Body If I Wanna: Riot Grrrl Body Writing, Feminist Resistance, and Neoliberalism: An Illustrated Lecture with Leah Perry

Riot_Grrrl_Convention_1992_by_RockcreekOn July 28, 2016, Professor Leah Perry of SUNY-Empire State College gave a lecture at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn titled “I Can Sell My Body If I Wanna: Riot Grrrl Body Writing, Feminist Resistance, and Neoliberalism,” based on her essay of the same name. Riot Grrrl was an underground feminist punk movement and subculture that originated in the 1990s. Perry’s talk focused on the ways in which the movement, in her view, reflected neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism, a ubiquitous, though still enigmatic, term, is a late-20th century ideology that revolves around the  notion that government functions best when it encourages the free market, and that a growing, unrestricted economy will necessarily serve the public interest.  The result of this style of political economy is the privatization of public resources and a focus on individual innovation and self-cultivation as engines of human progress. Neoliberalism as a concept has grown beyond its political and economic agendas to shape culture, popularizing ideas of personal expression and achievement.

In Perry’s view, Riot Grrrl’s practice of body writing, which involved members inscribing public confessionals on their bodies (such as “slut”) as a form of word reclamation and a performance of shamelessness as a resistance to patriarchy, as well as the group’s performances and other cultural productions, such as the creation of zines, resulted — perhaps inadvertently — in associations with neoliberal ideology. First, body writing as an aspect of the Riot Grrrl subculture was a practice that Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the all-female band Bikini Kill and one of Riot Grrrl’s most visible members, is credited for having pioneered. Hanna was a central subject of Perry’s analysis. Much of Hanna’s motivation for becoming involved with feminist punk music relied on her desire to express personal frustrations with patriarchal systems, as well as the self-hatred and forced submission that Hanna argued were a consequence of patriarchy.  Her frustration and anger are evident in her powerful, emotionally charged lyrics and sounds, which belie more traditional expectations of female musicians as soft, melodic, and sensual in their performances.

Hanna’s view of feminism evolved from this anger at the enforced codes of female behavior, but it also encompasses sadness about what patriarchy expects of male behavior and values as well. Much of her feminism seems to have been motivated by her experiences and those she witnessed and observed around her. Although Perry claims that Riot Grrrl was a diverse movement with “women of color who were very much a part of shaping the identity” of the movement, as a whole, Riot Grrrl’s brand of feminism tended to center on the experiences of white, cisgender womanhood.[1] Many Riot Grrrl bands did not responsibly speak out against racism in punk music and culture. Hanna herself once assisted in organizing a workshop about racism, but found that the white women in the group were more interested in discussing the ways in which they felt discriminated against, instead of allowing room and providing support for the women of color in the room to express their feelings as well.[2]

According to Perry, Riot Grrrls’ performances of shamelessness through body writing (as in in this photo of Kathleen Hanna) had a number of problematic aspects in their supposed inclusion of all women and resistance to a western patriarchal system. For one, though Perry does not explicitly state this view in her essay, black magic marker, though impermanent to represent the fluidity of politics and self, was often exclusive to lighter-skinned people since magic marker is often less visible on dark skin. Additionally, this performance of shamelessness, while attempting to express feminist liberation through the reclamation of sexuality deemed deviant by mainstream society, was not an apt method for feminist resistance for women of color whose bodies were already cast as “hypersexual and sexually deviant.”[3] As Perry recognizes, “women of color did not have the same binary between being respectable or disrespectable.”[4] Thus, the practice was exclusionary to many women.

Additionally, though, the practice of body writing and expression of shamelessness significantly reflected neoliberal ideology, according to Perry, in that it centrally involved individualistic resistance to oppression. As previously stated, individualism is a key component of neoliberal ideology, given that neoliberalism as a political concept involves increased economic competition and decreased state intervention in the lives of citizens. It espouses the idea that individuals’ hard work and effort leads to success, and that, relatedly, every individual has a personal responsibility to take care of their own needs.

We see this concept of personal responsibility clearly in Riot Grrrl’s practice of body writing and performance of shamelessness. Their performances are, in and of themselves, individual acts of resistance. According to Perry, they conceive of “change as an individual rather than collective endeavor.”[5] Many members of Riot Grrrl would possibly disagree with this statement, though, and argue that Riot Grrrl was intended as a supportive and collective space for women to express anger and heal.

Perry additionally questions whether practices of shamelessness have the potential to be liberatory for all women, as well as divorced from neoliberal thought. Can women of color perform shamelessness as a means for their own liberation? This question becomes complicated, I think, due to the complications surrounding the historical and symbolic relationships to shame and shamelessness among different groups of women of color. Perry asks her audience to continue engaging in this questioning with the “spirit of the Riot Grrrl practices of consciousness raising, creative resistance, and community building,” emphasizing that the movement did also practice and embrace redeeming political action, such as the politicization of emotions and struggles that many women and girls considered merely “personal.” Through online communities and physical meeting spaces, Riot Grrrl members were able to establish collectivity in their movement, which produced a sense of community and solace for some.

I feel that these accomplishments, as well as Kathleen Hanna’s openness to critique and reflection regarding her own flaws in creating an inclusive space in Riot Grrrl, are important to note for feminists and historians looking back at Riot Grrrl as a movement and studying their most visible members. At the same time, I contend that critique of the movement is vital. Riot Grrrl was composed primarily of white middle class cisgender women. Additionally, its structure and ideology reflect the socialized perspectives of its leaders. While careful not to endorse the espousal of identity politics, I do think that it is necessary to consider the ways in which social teachings (i.e., the roles and behaviors that social beings learn and internalize from their environments, which often is influenced by external perception of identity), rather than merely identity categories, impact the directions and actions that individuals, such as Kathleen Hanna, take in processes of leadership and creation. I encourage further consideration of this perspective, and also thought towards diversity in democratic leadership. People with varieties of experiences, backgrounds, and identities coming together in leadership often produce a unique and necessary multiplicity of perspectives. This, of course, facilitates the comfort and inclusion of all people, and hopefully also prevents the creation of spaces and events which echo the “oppressive social structures that create a need for” political resistance.

 

Notes
[1] Julianne Escobedo Shepard, “Kathleen Hanna: Five Things You Didn’t Know,” http://www.spin.com/2013/09/kathleen-hanna-the-julie-ruin-riot-grrrl-five-things-you-probably-didnt-know/
[2] Ibid
[3] Leah Perry, “I Can Sell My Body If I Wanna: Riot Grrrl Body Writing and Performing Shamelessness Feminist Resistance,” http://csalateral.org/wp/issue/4/i-can-sell-my-body-if-i-wanna-riot-grrrl-body/
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid