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Gaming has found its riot grrrl, but hasn’t found its Sleater-Kinney


I am not old enough to have been a part of the riot grrrl movement. I did not live in the right place. I am not the right gender to have truly been affected by it. But it entered my life, and was part of shaping who I am.

Now, before I go too far into my personal history, let’s talk about what the riot grrl movement was. At the most basic level, it was a lot of fed up girls and women that liked punk rock, that decided they were going to go at punk rock on their own terms. It was the 90’s, they were feminists, they were angry, and the music reflected this strongly.

I first came across the term “riot grrrl” without thinking about punk rock or feminism. I spent much of my adolescence as a diehard fan of the Beastie Boys, to the point where almost anything they plugged or mentioned was worthwhile to me. I heard that Adrock’s wife was this woman named Kathleen Hanna, and that she was in a band called Le Tigre, and used to be in a band called Bikini Kill. This was in about 2004. I went to my trusty Kazaa Lite and downloaded a few Le Tigre songs, and a few Bikini Kill songs. I really got into Le Tigre, and have memories of listening to them on burned CDs in my discman while waiting for Halo 2 to find a game for me to join. They had a bouncy feminine charm to them, but also had a bit of an edge. I had always known I liked music with female vocalists, but had never found anything that really appealed to me. Le Tigre, for a time, were it.

A few years later, I started to get more and more into punk rock. I don’t think I ever fully qualified as a “punk kid” or anything like that, but I became increasingly interested in bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag. I found out where a few local record stores were and spent hours browsing their selections, sometimes buying albums without having heard a single song on them because I had heard the band were good or the art was cool. I came across a Bikini Kill album and decided to pick it up. Although it was only about 25 minutes long, and I later found out it was Bikini Kill's last album, Reject All American was my first large dose of riot grrrl.  

I enjoyed what I had heard of Bikini Kill, loved their passion and felt good about agreeing with the messages they had. Though extreme at times, I felt they brought a fresh perspective to punk rock and addressed problems that many male-fronted bands wouldn’t dare touch. They had songs not just about gender inequality, but about sexual abuse and rape. No trigger warnings.

My collection of riot grrrl albums is actually pretty small, mostly because there weren’t a ton of notable riot grrrl bands. I have a lot of respect for the scene and the foundation it built, but when you really get down to it the most important part of music is, well, the music. Bratmobile is worth mentioning, and I like Slant 6. From what I understand, though, the most important part of riot grrrl was that it brought more girls and women to punk rock. Girls were picking up guitars, playing shows, being a part of something. They weren’t groupies or girlfriends, they were bands.

When the dust began to settle in the mid 90’s, when the scene began to fade away a little bit, there was Sleater-Kinney. An all-female rock band, fronted by two women (who were dating each other at the time). One of them came from a riot grrrl band called Heavens to Betsy, the other from a queercore band called Excuse 17. Sleater-Kinney was their side project, named for the street their practice space was located on.

Sleater-Kinney’s first album is what you might expect form a riot grrrl band: aggressive, a bit messy, and fiercely feminist. Songs like Sold Out, How to Play Dead and A Real Man call out the importance women place on men, and level a rallying cry against it.

This wasn’t the first album I heard, though. Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out was one of the albums I bought because I heard the band was good and the cover was kind of cool. I knew they were associated with the riot grrrl movement, but didn’t really know what to expect. I put the CD on when I got home and fell in love almost instantly.

This wasn’t messy at all, this was tight and focused rock music. It was a relentless post-punk guitar-and-drums explosion driven by Corin Tucker’s ferocious wail. It wasn’t simplistic or rough, it was economical. 2 guitars, 2 voices, 1 drum kit. Words and Guitar, as one song on the album puts it.

It wasn’t the riot grrrl I knew. This was a band making great music, and they happened to be female. They happened to come out of the riot grrrl movement. They were encouraged to pick up instruments and raise their voices by people like Kathleen Hanna, but they took it in new directions. They may have had to deal with men shouting “show me your tits” from the crowd, but they dealt with it tactfully and cleverly by wearing t-shirts that said “show me your riffs” and they carried on.

Sleater-Kinney, despite their origins, decided early on that they didn’t want to be classified as a “girl band”, or even thought of in terms of gender. I am sure they would still call themselves feminists, to this day, but above that they focused on being a great band. Their music was priority one. The message came after that, if you cared enough to listen. This emphasis of music over message was the key difference between Sleater-Kinney and riot grrrl, but riot grrrl's message paved the way for a band like Sleater-Kinney to exist.

Sleater-Kinney put out seven fantastic albums before going on indefinite hiatus in 2006. One of them is now the co-creator of Portlandia. Though they may have moved away from an explicitly feminist message, they remained distinctly female throughout their time as a band. Not just by the fact that women were singing, but through the subject matter of the lyrics and the often feminine nature of the music itself.

How does this relate to gaming? Well, a few ways. There has been a large rise in female and feminist voices in games over the past few years, especially in the worlds of blogs and indie games. Though abrasive to some people, their intentions are valid and just. These women just want to be a part of the world of independent video games, they want to be heard and they don’t care if they need to get in your face to do it. Those condescending tweets and angry blogs and Feminist Frequencies (Feminist Frequency is actually pretty low key) are all a result of this. The games coming out of these women may be simple twine games or flash games, but they’re there. Like the noisy and simplistic punk rock of riot grrrl, these are the first steps. This is gaming’s riot grrrl. It might rub you the wrong way if you’re coming from the outside, but these are important steps. 

What I’m waiting for are truly notable, acclaimed indie games made by women. Not just teams with one or two women, not just mainstream games with female staff, but games made by women. Games that are distinctly female, and may be informed by feminist rhetoric or counter-culture aggression but are not defined by it. Indie games with the appeal and quality of the biggest indie hits, but developed by women. Sleater-Kinney were never mainstream, but they were certainly in the upper echelon of indie music in their day. They worked hard to be get rid of the “girl band” label, and they achieved it. I look forward to the day that a creative, personal indie game hits it big and is made by a group of women because, well, why not? And people love it, and enjoy the game for what it is, without thinking too hard about the gender of the creators. I look forward to gaming’s Sleater-Kinney.

The final bow on this analogy is the inclusion of Heavens to Betsy in Gone Home. It’s perfect that one of the more progressive games of last year, one of the games most praised by feminist gaming commentators, features music by a riot grrrl band. A riot grrrl band that featured a member of Sleater-Kinney.

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About Adam McDonaldone of us since 3:24 AM on 11.13.2011

I live on the west coast of Canada and like video games.

I got an SNES for Christmas in 1992 and haven't looked back (though I don't know many 4-year-olds that regress back to being babies).

I have some game-making abilities and am always trying to learn more.