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It’s Time to Stop Calling Femme-Fronted Punk Bands Riot Grrrrl

The Linda Lindas and Destroy Boys set the record straight.
The Linda Lindas
(Credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns)

Two of the young bands rocking out at Coachella this weekend have been trumpeted as the next wave of the ‘90s riot grrrl movement, but there’s just one problem: they don’t want the label.

They are Destroy Boys, whose angry sound and femme-dominated membership has been described by KQED as “a Riot Grrrl Outburst Tailor-Made for Gen Z” and by Last FM as “carrying out the riot grrrl legacy,” and the Linda Lindas, whom W Magazine, NME and Consequence of Sound have all identified as scions of the movement.

While respectful of and even inspired by riot grrrl’s message, these bands see the classification as sexist and reductive. “We get pegged as riot grrrl all the time,” says Destroy Boys guitarist and backing vocalist Violet Mayugba, “and it’s simply because we are not men.”

Their dilemma dates back to riot grrrl’s early fusing of the underground punk sound and ethos with the values of third-wave feminism. The movement spread throughout the Pacific Northwest and Washington D.C., mostly through zines and live shows. Bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney rallied around a specific goal: to create a safe space for women to partake in punk culture and music.

As the movement gained traction, its defining characteristics were misrepresented. Journalists began assigning the label to femme-fronted rock groups like Hole and the Breeders, who in reality aligned more with grunge and alternative rock, respectively.

“At the time, it was like, ‘Two bands that have women in them and are kind of in your face – Hole and Bikini Kill – they must be exactly the same,” says Andi Ziesler, author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “There was a real sense that being a woman in music meant that you must be aligned within a scene, and that the kinder whore and riot girl aesthetic were one and the same.”

The misbranding of femme-fronted bands as riot grrrl isn’t as wide-reaching today as it once was. Many rock acts on Coachella’s lineup this year have femme majority membership and ‘90s influences but aren’t likened to the movement. Momma’s distortion-tinged tracks are moderately paced and heavily layered, earning them comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins and the Pixies. Horsegirl’s similar but shoegaze-y sound is rooted more in Yo La Tengo and Guided by Voices than punk or hardcore. It seems the comparisons are largely restricted at this point to punk bands.

Priests, a group from D.C., has called out the continuing tendency to label femme-led punk bands as riot grrrl.

“I know of male music writers who use ‘riot grrrl’ as a quiet signal to their readers,” drummer Daniele Daniele said in a 2017 interview with Paste. “Ya know, ‘push it to the side, maybe your girlfriend will like it.’ It tokenizes [women], which is so nauseating.’”

Lumping femme punk artists together also takes the focus away from their music, according to Destroy Boys. “Think about the lengths that male journalists will go to to describe Title Fight,” Mayugba says. “But then for us, they’ll be like, ‘Crazy girls rocking their crazy guitars, being insane!’”

Destroy Boys has established a following for its fast-paced tracks, which feature severe guitar lines, frenzied drums and indignant vocals. The band was formed in 2015, when its members were just teenagers. Fans latched onto the feminist undertones of songs like “I Threw Glass at My Friends’ Eyes and Now I’m on Probation,” which came out two years later. But most of the group’s lyrics focus on heartbreak and coming of age. It never claimed ties to the riot grrrl movement.

“I feel like being riot grrrl is a choice,” says lead vocalist and guitarist Alexia Roditis. “We got labeled as that when we wanted to be a punk band.”

The Linda Lindas do have concrete ties to riot grrrl: they opened for Bikini Kill in 2019, soundtracked a riot grrrl-inspired movie by Amy Poehler the next year and went viral in 2021 for their song “Racist, Sexist Boy.” But the band considers the riot grrrl movement an influence rather than a defining aspect of its work.

“We definitely wouldn’t be here without the riot grrrl movement, and those bands have definitely inspired us, and we definitely have connections to them,” says guitarist and vocalist Lucia de la Garza. But “the riot grrrl movement, it seems like it already happened, and even though I think it’s important that everyone sees it for the importance that it held, it’s not necessarily something that needs to continue on, per se.”

Popular understandings of gender have shifted since Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna was screaming into a microphone back in the ‘90s. Sara Marcus, the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, thinks riot grrrls were aware of the toxicity inflicted by the gender binary but not focused on eliminating it.

“There were plenty of gender non-conforming people in riot grrrl, but that wasn’t the phrase – there wasn’t one exactly,” she says. “if you cut your hair short and wore boys’ clothes, that was just being punk.”

According to Marcus, things changed around the early 2000s. “I still remember clearly [going] to the HOMO A GOGO festival in Olympia, Wa., [and] being like ‘Oh, wow, the sort of “girls and women as the we of riot grrrl” does not hold anymore,’” she says.

Roditis dislikes being classified as riot grrrl in part because they identify as gender fluid. “I’m not a girl’” they say. “Sometimes I am, but I don’t really like to have that be the label.” They also take issue with journalists even describing groups as “female-fronted.” “I don’t want to hear that until I hear ‘male-fronted,’ which is never going to happen,” they say.

The irony of tokenizing female and queer punk rockers is that it undermines the progress made by the riot grrrl movement in the first place. Non-male bands are no longer revolutionary. Mila de la Garza, the Linda Lindas’ drummer and youngest member, says it’s not necessarily bad to celebrate all-femme groups, but that we should focus our energy elsewhere.

“I think it’s really cool to be in a girl band, but that shouldn’t be all that you’re seen as,” says de la Garza. “You shouldn’t let that define you.”