October 06, 2017

How Riot Grrrl saved my life

Behind the Book by

Jennifer Mathieu's fierce new novel, Moxie, takes a look at the powerful influence of the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement—a punk-influenced wave of feminism—and how it helps a group of teens find empowerment.

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Jennifer Mathieu’s fierce new novel, Moxie, takes a look at the powerful influence of the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement—a punk-influenced wave of feminism—and how it helps a group of teens find empowerment. When Vivian Carter decides she’s sick and tired of her high school’s misogynistic football players and an administration that refuses to stand up for the girls they harass, she looks to her mom’s past and decides to create a feminist zine. When other girls start to come forward with a desire to join in, it looks like Viv is the de-facto leader of a full-blown feminist revolution.

Mathieu shares the inspiration behind her triumphant new novel, her favorite Riot Grrrl musicians and how the movement is still relevant today.

It was the summer of 1993, I was 16 years old, and a long, hot suburban summer stretched out before me like a snake. Anxiety, depression and deep insecurity badgered me as they had through most of my adolescence. I would be starting my senior year of high school that fall, and I was ready for something good to happen in my life.

Alone at my local pool, I flipped through the May issue of Seventeen and an article on something called Riot Grrrl caught my attention. This was pre-Internet, and I had no idea that the piece I was reading had arrived on my radar as the strongest waves of Riot Grrrl were starting to peter out—after all, if mainstream media had caught whiff of it, the movement had to be mostly over. Likewise, I had no way of knowing that I was a 15-minute drive from one of Riot Grrrl’s epicenters in Washington D.C., where I spent weekends visiting my grandmother. All I knew was the article about badass punk rock girls who made their own zines and wrote provocative words like “slut” and “rape” on their bodies while advocating for girls’ rights captured my attention so much I read it over and over until I almost had it memorized. It was my only link to a world I intuitively knew I somehow wanted to join. That fall I wrote Revolution Girl Style Now on a desk in my science class. That was the same fall my Current Topics teacher called me a feminazi because I argued that women should be able to attend military academies, one of several “radical” ideas that got me into trouble in that class.

I was a bit late to the first swell of Riot Grrrl, but the early ’90s feminist punk movement has had an enormous influence on my life, so much so that my latest novel Moxie is all about a new generation of girls who adopt the Riot Grrrl spirit and make it their own. Fortunately, my Riot Grrrl education went beyond that Seventeen magazine article. In 1994, I escaped to Northwestern University outside Chicago and discovered punk music, going to shows where my ears would explode and ring for days after. While I fell in love with boy bands like Fugazi and NOFX, my interest in Riot Grrrl was reenergized when a high school friend sent me a cassette of the iconic Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill. Lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s voice was a punch in the gut in the very best possible way: Gotta listen to what the Man says. Time to make his stomach burn.Never before had I heard a girl assert herself like this, take the world by the throat and demand to be listened to and respected. By the time I discovered the band Sleater-Kinney in 1997, I was all feminism and the feminist punk rock movement had fundamentally changed my world view for the better. Lyrics and zines about body image, self-respect and girl love helped me reject diet culture as much as a girl can in this thin-obsessed world, exit a bad relationship in my very early 20s, and seek out friendships with other girls who were committed to supporting each other and rejecting society’s message that girls should mainly see each other as competition for male attention. I remember seeing Sleater-Kinney live at the Metro in Chicago several times, my face slick with sweat, surrounded by other girls who knew all the same lyrics as me from songs like “Words and Guitar” to “One More Hour.” I felt so powerful, alive and loved.

Moxie is an outgrowth of that feeling. I originally thought about writing a ’90s book and accepting the bonkers idea that would count as historical fiction! But eventually I came up with the story of Vivian Carter, a small-town Texas girl who, along with her friends, transforms Riot Grrrl culture into something new for a new generation. After discovering her mom’s shoebox of old Riot Grrrl memorabilia, Vivian sparks a revolution that takes down a sexist culture that teenage girls are all too familiar with, but she does it with a modern twist.

Something I tried to tackle in Moxie is the fact that the original Riot Grrrl movement was overwhelmingly white. While there were absolutely Riot Grrrls of color, like Ramdasha Bikceem of Gunk fame, one of the few criticisms of Riot Grrrl that I absolutely agree with was the movement’s clumsy tackling of race, which often turned conversations about race into white-centering experiences where white girls asked to be absolved for racist behavior. My beloved Texas is a diverse place, and I wanted my Moxie girls to reveal that. If there’s one thing the newest generation of feminists has taught me, it’s that if my feminism isn’t intersectional, then it is nothing.

I often think back to that Seventeen magazine article that first sparked my interest in the punk rock movement that changed my life. Not as often, but sometimes, I think about that Current Topics teacher who humiliated me in class by calling me a feminazi. It was a true pleasure to dedicate Moxie to him to prove he didn’t wear me down but energized me. Honestly, it felt like a very Riot Grrrl thing to do.


Author photo by Pablo Gomez.

Jennifer Mathieu

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By Jennifer Mathieu
Roaring Brook
ISBN 9781626726352

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