Queering Categories, Bringing Wreck

illustration by Cristy Road

by Kate Wadkins

In sync with Sarah Lawrence’s recent call for papers for 2011’s Women’s History Conference, I am syndicating my review of the plenary panel from this year’s The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More with RE/VISIONIST (it is also currently published in this year’s Women’s History newsletter). Specifically Ngo and Nguyen’s papers, in the context of the Conference at large, really inspired me to pursue my thesis work on masculinities in punk rock. Watching other scholars dare to take on pop culture subjects like music gave me hope and certainty that cultural production is worthy of an historical treatment.

This article is also timely as it preempts the publication of International Girl Gang Underground, a compilation zine about the way riot grrrl has influenced punk feminist cultural production over the past twenty years. Nguyen’s early iteration of her paper, “Aesthetics, Access, Intimacy” or “Race, Riot Grrrl, Bad Feelings” will be included in the zine, nestled in among scene reports and personal stories from all over the world.

“I quit punk like 8 times,” Mimi Nguyen confessed to a full auditorium at Sarah Lawrence College’s 12th Annual Women’s History Conference: The Message is in the Music: Hip-Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More, recollecting her contentious relationship with punk rock. As the first panel of the morning opened up, the groggy, packed audience, comprised of women of all ages and ilk, quickly awoke to Nguyen’s sharp wit and powerful presence. For the plenary panel, Fiona Ngo and Mimi Nguyen, both assistant professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discussed grassroots punk scenes and their internal racial dynamics. A third panelist, Sarah Lawrence alum Christa D’Angelica, presented on what she termed a “second wave” of riot grrrl that traversed from zine[1] pages to dial-up modems in the late 1990s.

The Message is in the Music was a fairly radical idea: rather than presenting the typical trope of “women in music”, the conference took a deeper look by tabling questions like, “How does music reflect sites of agreement and conflict among different groups of feminists?” and, “How do young feminists’ uses of music compare with those of earlier generations?” Situating hip-hop, riot grrrl, and Latina music on the same agenda, the conference offered a queering of categories that is rarely found in most dialogues on feminism in music. In her book Check it While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, hip-hop feminist Gwendolyn D. Pough defines the term “bringing wreck” as a way to describe Black women’s many methods of disrupting oppression and representation. In a way, it is a hip-hop feminist approach to queering, or exploring “the ways in which meaning and identity is (inter)textually (re)produced” via cultural artifacts.[2] The Message is in the Music “brought wreck” to the idea that music movements like hip-hop, riot grrrl, and Latina music do not exist in conversation with each other; it “brought wreck” to the fact that each of these movements is usually associated primarily with one racial group. Indeed, the conference’s inclusive policy—panelists are encouraged from all disciplines, regardless of academic background—“brought wreck” to traditional scholarly practices.

photo courtesy of Mimi Nguyen

On the plenary panel, Fiona Ngo brought us to the first wave of punk; the 1970s in Los Angeles, CA. Ngo, an historian, counts herself among a recent trend of “feminist cultural geographers” that observe the economic, social, and political landscapes surrounding cultural phenomena. ”Cultural geography” seems to mean focusing on one location, observing migration to and from there, as well as the place’s historical conditions and how they came to be.

Punk rock, as well as riot grrrl, has traditionally been viewed as a movement by and for white suburbanites. Ngo, on the contrary, discussed the multiracial landscape of punk in Los Angeles that came to be via the de-industrialization of the city and subsequent white flight to the suburbs.[3] As the audience laughed along with Ngo’s warm demeanor and choice to play songs for us “just because I can,” we yearned to learn more about this cultural moment that found The Go-Go’s practicing in the basement of a multiracial tenement in the mid-1970s.

Mimi Nguyen critiqued riot grrrl, a girl-fronted punk rock movement of the 1990s, by suggesting that race was often a “stumbling block” for participants, as well as for the authors of riot grrrl history. Riot grrrl has garnered a lot of attention in 2010, starting with the donation of the Kathleen Hanna Papers to New York University’s new Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library.[4] Nguyen “brought wreck” in a big way, complicating the overwhelming riot grrrl nostalgia flooding blogs internationally by highlighting white privilege in the movement. Nguyen has written for punk publications (most of them now extinct) like Punk Planet and Maximum Rocknroll on this very subject.

Nguyen criticized riot grrrl’s “aesthetics of access” or “aesthetics of intimacy”: an emphasis on the personal that permeated through song lyrics and homemade zines essentially defining the movement. She pulled zines from her archive and projected them on a huge screen in front of the audience, so that the riot grrrl aesthetic could be easily understood by anyone in attendance. This “aesthetic of access”, access to “the secret hearts of girls”, as Nguyen said, became a site for white guilt among other things. Zines often served as confessionals where issues about race and privilege were discussed but not taken seriously. In one example, the author states that they only thought about race after a friend’s prodding. With this brief mention, the white author then feels relieved of any reason to reflect on their privilege; they are automatically seen as absolved. White zinesters (zine authors) would proclaim their lack of friends of color in this same method of absolution-by-admission. Perhaps more importantly, Nguyen highlights another way that the “aesthetic of intimacy” may have been problematic for people of color who did, or would have wanted to participate in the movement: would the riot grrrl of color have to function as a “representative of the race”?

Nguyen’s comment about “quitting punk” illustrated the way many marginalized people feel within white dominated movements. Women, people of color and queer folks alike have written extensively about how punk rock culture can be completely isolating to them. On the other hand, with its do-it-yourself ethos, punk rock offers the tools for positive things like grassroots organizing and creative self-expression. The potential for social change within punk and riot grrrl creates a tension: the simultaneous acceptance of marginalized folks within the subculture versus its constant recreation of social hierarchies.

Nguyen “brought wreck” in yet another way, by commenting on the tendency of feminist history to characterize women of color feminisms as “interruptions” to a narrative, as brief moments of crisis to be criticized, learned from, and left behind. One of her major points is that “how we narrate the interventions of women of color is crucial to how we remember feminisms and imagine our futures.” I nodded along with my classmate, and could feel the room around me brimming with interest, questions, and an overwhelming sense of urgency: Nguyen’s argument speaks to our sense of history and feminist frameworks.

This idea of “how we remember feminisms and imagine our futures” was crucial to the conference itself. By bringing a plurality of feminist elements in music together—Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More—the conference allowed us to remember these feminisms together, and in conversation with one another. The conference’s policy to include a multitude of voices as well as its radical re-situation of feminism in music allowed for a new narrative to be constructed. The Message is in the Music, and we as feminists must be sure to listen. ▢

Kate Wadkins is a Brooklyn-based artist and writer pursuing an MA in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the founding web editor of RE/VISIONIST and co-editor of International Girl Gang Underground, a compilation zine. She has written for Maximum Rocknroll, For the Birds, Elevate Difference, and Sadie Magazine, among others. On the weekends she manages Storefront gallery in Bushwick, and she has proudly interned for Le Tigre. Kate is a founding member of For the Birds Collective as well as a coffee enthusiast, bass player, and rabble rouser.

[1] A zine is a book of text (and images) independently published, usually on photocopiers, by its author. Disseminated throughout states and countries (usually via postal service), they have a cut & paste aesthetic, and are generally ephemeral publications.

[2] Nikki Sullivan, “Queering Popular Culture,” in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, (New York: NYU Press, 2003) 190.

[3] Unfortunately, as the panel began late, Ngo was not able to fully develop the deep connections she saw between economics, privilege, and place that created this unique situation.

[4] Kathleen Hanna is one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement. She played in Bikini Kill, wrote a zine by the same title, and later formed feminist dance-punk band, Le Tigre.

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