by Marisa Ragonese

I’m pretty excited to be one of the research bloggers for SPARK, because in my universe SPARK and research are both amazing, and the combination is the amazingest. I’m also extra excited to contribute to SPARK in some small way because doing revolutionary work with girls and women is what keeps me going and has for a long time.  Because when I was younger, I was a riot grrrl.

And SPARK really reminds me of Riot Grrrl.

Let me explain in case you’re unfamiliar: Riot Grrrl was a movement of young feminists that grew out of their total disillusionment and

from the Riot Grrrl Zine Arcvhice at Fales Library, NYU

disgust with the “radical” punk scenes they were a part of. Despite all of punk’s liberation opportunities for world-weary white boys, these scenes were still places where young women were pushed to “play girl to some boy’s boy,” as the song goes[1]– to support their boyfriends’ bands and steer clear of the mosh pit; where girls were sexually harassed when they got on stage, and told to shut up about feminism and focus on humanism; where the norms of culture sounded like: “You know all of those experiences that a bunch of you girls have of being raped, molested, hating yourselves, being taught to hate other girls?  Pretend like all of that doesn’t matter, isn’t political, isn’t connected to the very unequal power dynamics between boys and girls inside your “progressive” communities. Now smile!” As you can imagine- and you probably don’t need to imagine it, unfortunately— it supersonic sucked, and finally some girls in the scene decided they had enough and weren’t going to follow that drummer’s noise.  They starting writing and trading feminist zines across the US about their experiences (these were homemade cut-and-paste magazines, pre-internet). And bam. (This is similar to how second wave feminism started, by the way- when women organizing in what was called the “political left” realized that they were still expected to serve coffee and shut up while men talked about the real revolution, and they were like Forget This Noise and bailed to organize on behalf of women.[2])

And so, following this cross-country networking through zines, in the early 1990’s some girls had a meeting in Olympia, Washington to discuss sexism in the punk scene in person- check out this article for a detailed account of how it all went down- and soon after that initial meeting Riot Grrrl stormed local punk scenes with a manifesto that called girls to action, a flurry of bands (a few of my favorites: the afore-mentioned Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Tattletale, Team Dresch, the Third Sex), and local activism that thousands of girls were a part of.  In addition to the activism and the music and the DIY media, we even had our own fashion aesthetic that sometimes looked like a creative repurposing of little girl gear like ABC hair clips and lots of pink crap, or a fresh rocking of the 50’s housewife look, or sometimes, to quote one of my old riot grrrl friends, like a prom queen who went through a meat grinder. (I found the fashion part of it so fascinating that I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. It was called, ahem, “Deconstructing the Feminist Aesthetic of Riot Grrrl”.)

But the fashion went beyond a snarky re-scrambling or an assassination of the mainstream. One of the most iconic image of Riot Grrrl is a snapshot of Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, the accidental and reluctant young mother of the movement, posing in a bikini top (no irony there) with “SLUT” written in sharpie across her stomach. She was and is still is the kind of feminist (check out The Julie Ruin) who was always a step ahead of most everyone else, and it wasn’t below her to beat boys to the chase and call herself a whore before they could say it. That’s when she wasn’t kicking all of the guys out of mosh pits at her band’s shows (boys to the back!), and explaining herself in interviews by telling people “I’m not going to sit around and be peace and love with somebody’s boot on my neck.” Dude, me NEITHER.

Riot Grrrl had its limits, like any movement. Some girls of color felt like it was a white girl thing in lots of places and in lots of ways. And I agree. Although all riot grrrls were not white, the face of Riot Grrrl was a white one, often resulting in mostly superficial critiques of and actions against racism from and within the movement. And feminism is a terrible place for any girl to be left out of, to be erased in, to feel oppressed by. Furthermore, some girls felt that Kathleen Hanna was, ironically, the unofficial elected leader of it all because of her conventional beauty and her willingness to sexualize herself.  I respect those takes on it.

Despite its shortcomings, Riot Grrrl helped to usher in third wave feminism in the midst of a backlash against women that was being fueled by the new incarnation of the right wing. And so much of that movement, from fashion to lyrics, had to deal with sexuality and sexualization. How could it not? We were girls. Talking about forced sexualization—talking about the ways and reasons that we experienced and resisted the big acts of sexual violence and all of the little acts of sexual violence, the catcalling and the stereotyping and the sidelining of our concerns and stories, even in the name of radicalism as decreed by radicaler-than-thou punk boys, had to be a huge part of all of it, because that was our reality. It was through all of the music, the actions, and yes, as I can attest to from my younger days, the fashion—that we were all finding a way to be sexual and express sexuality, however overloaded it was with anger, pleasure, sadness and pain- and embracing that contradiction was probably one of the most prominent and enduring pieces of Riot Grrrl.  It wasn’t easy to do this, and riot grrrls felt some heat from older feminists for it.

And then there’s SPARK.  Unlike Riot Grrrl, which was fueled largely by the experience-based indignation of girls (and stolen photocopies), SPARK is fueled by scientific knowledge about what’s wrong with the world and how best to fix it: evidence-based activism. SPARK girls are diverse–racially, economially, geographically–and understand that race, class, and sex all work together to support sexism. SPARK is intergenerational thing: feminist adults train and support girls who make up the SPARKteam, a group of 30 girls from the US, Canada, the UK, Indonesia and Singapore, and then those girls do activism that’s in line with SPARK’s dedication to ending forced sexualization.   Recently, the director of SPARK, Dana Edell, teamed up with the founders of SPARK, Lynn Brown and Deborah Tolman, to write an article called Embodying sexualisation: When theory meets practice in intergenerational feminist activism[3] so they could let feminist academics know about the activism SPARK does, and discuss the uniqueness of the movement.

And what would that be? Well, first of all, SPARK is a partnership between girls and adult women. By allowing different women and girls to be experts at different times, the adult feminists involved think that SPARK can be a partnership that is well-positioned to be effective and relevant to girls’ lives. But partnerships are often difficult–anyone who’s been in a relationship or an activist group knows that.  One time, a SPARK girl went on TV to talk about sexualization and the work that SPARK was doing to combat it, and she was wearing a short skirt. The adults worried a little that people watching wouldn’t hear what this girl was saying, because they would see this short skirt as proof that a SPARK activist was “sexualizing” herself–or even being sexual. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference.

And that’s another layer of difficulty to the organizing at SPARK.  It can be hard for girls to walk the fine line between owning themselves through their appearances and being/seeming owned, and just as hard for adult women to understand and support young women as they navigate that space. Because sexism, that beast, has found its way to feminism, so that now we’re hearing it in stereo in the form of “girl power!” that has nothing to do with the power of girls at all; we’re being sold a form of sexism that’s been repackaged as feminism, we’re only hearing about feminism from public figures who fulfill the requirements for what girls should look like, sound like, do and not do.  In most public channels, we only get to see women being sexual if they’re doing it in ways that have been pre-approved by the powers-that-be. I’m guessing you know how hard it can be to navigate through all of this and not leave pieces of yourself, including your feminism, behind. And academics–adults in general–often have the luxury of discussing the plights young people face and the choices they make without having to include their “subjects” in the conversation. Many feminists try hard not to do this because it’s just messed up and insulting and often leads them to not getting it right, it happens all the time.  Real people are messy in theory but even messier in reality, and it’s easier to leave them out a lot of the time. And so the adults at SPARK know how important it is–and how difficult it can be–to center the voices of girls in their academic conversations about what it means to be sexual, sexualized, oppressed, empowered.  They demonstrate that it can be done, and how important it is if they’re really going to be adult advocates speaking with girls instead of speaking for them. Because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference there too.

So yes, SPARK reminds me so much of Riot Grrrl because it’s an activist space for girls to connect with each other in deep ways across difference. And that’s so important, because I think it’s through these connections that we can explore the complexities of being sexualized and being sexual. From there, girls and women can address those complexities through activism that speaks to and through the diverse experiences and struggles of everyone involved. Which means that SPARK is the kind of space where girls and women can struggle with the challenges that a girl faces when attempting to express her humanity, including her sexuality, with dignity. Sometimes that means wearing a short skirt because that’s what you like while making a appearance on public TV (or writing SLUT on your stomach at your punk show) and delivering a brilliant feminist analysis using language that girls can understand.  Sometimes addressing these complexities takes a lot of voices saying a lot of different things in a lot of different time signatures. Influenced by and learning from everyone who came before them, I think SPARK is doing a pretty great job of taking girl activism to the next level, creating more and more spaces and opportunities for all kinds of girls to exist as full-fledged humans.

So, I’ve said enough. Your turn. What do you think? What does SPARK mean to you? If you’re not involved, what kind of feminist activism are you doing, or what kind of activism do you want to do, and why?

Share your story here, or with someone (anyone) because your story can be a lifeline, for real. It can be a roadmap for someone who feels completely alone, it can be a call to action that thousands of girls and women hear, and it can be a million points of connection in-between. I know this is true, because here I am, living in my trillion contradictions that I can tell you about some other time, and I wouldn’t be in this conversation if lots of other women and girls of all different stripes had not reached me from worlds away. I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be me if lots of other feminists did not continue to reach to me across differences and space and time, shaping my feminism and allowing me to shape theirs, and pushing me to do a better job. I know it makes me stronger and a lot has changed since my days with Riot Grrrl, but I still believe. After all these years, I still believe that girls and women can and will change the world if we listen to each other and work together, and we’re going to look and we’re going to feel a million kinds of fly doing it. I see it happening right now. So happy women’s history- HERstories- month to you.  Hope to see you in the streets.

[1]From Bikini Kill’s song Sugar: “I won’t play girl to your boy no more”

[2] Echols, A. (1989). Daring to be bad: Radical feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Vol. 3). U of Minnesota Press.

[3] Edell, D., Brown, L. M., & Tolman, D. (2013). Embodying sexualisation: When theory meets practice in intergenerational feminist activism. Feminist Theory, 14(3), 275-284.