Jessica Hopper was on her way to photography class at her Minneapolis high school last month when she saw it: splashed across her locker was a crude obscenity scrawled in purple magic marker. An effusive 16-year-old with long brown hair, Hopper loves taking pictures more than anything but punk-rock music. When she saw the scrawl, she thought she knew who did it: one of two guys who she says regularly called her names like "feminazi." Just a few days earlier, she had found herself alone in the school darkroom with one of them-a boy, she says, "who touches girls." According to Hopper, he came up and placed both his hands on her shoulders. She told him to stop. "He went,"-she fakes a low, suggestive moan-"'Oooh.' And I said, 'I mean it'." So he started doing the same thing to another girl nearby. "And I said, 'Don't touch me or my friends!'"
All girls get harassed. Most learn during adolescence to ignore it, hoping it will end. But Hopper had an an outlet for her frustration. She's a Riot Grrrl-part of a support network of activist "girls" from 14 to 25 who are loosely linked together by a few punk bands, weekly discussion groups, penpal friendships and more than 50 homemade fanzines. Hopper started her own fanzine last year, which she photocopies for friends and pen pals. She calls it Hit It or Quit It, and every few months she pours herself into her very feminist, very gushy essays, like the recent one that began coyly, "I used to say that I hated men," only to follow with the knockout punch: "I guess I actually did."
The Riot Grrrls are a new feminist voice for the video-age generation, inflamed not so much by economic issues as by social ones-incest, child abuse, abortion, eating disorders, harassment. Patching together wildly mixed ideas from Madonna, Sassy magazine and feminist critics like Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, they've set out to make the world safe for their kind of girlhood: sexy, assertive and loud. The Riot Grrrl credo runs: "We are mad at a society that tells us that Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak... [We] can and will change the world for real." They may be the first generation of feminists to identify their anger so early and to use it.
The Riot Grrrls follow in the very '90s footsteps of groups like Queer Nation or the rap act Niggers With Attitude, who apply a kind of linguistic jujitsu against their enemies. Instead of downplaying the negative stereotypes used against them, they exaggerate them-starting with the very notion of "girls." At last summer's Riot Grrrl convention in Washington, D.C., which drew scores of the faithful to Dupont Circle to talk teen feminism and listen to punk rock, Grrrls marked their bodies with blunt five-inch-high letters reading RAPE or SLUT-an MTV-era way of saying, "That's what you think of me; confront your own bigotry." Courtney Love of the Los Angeles band Hole-who's not a Riot Grrrl but, as Hopper says, "the patron saint of Riot Grrrls"-wears vintage little-girl dresses that barely make it past her hips-all the better to sing songs about rape and exploitation. "I prefer being a minority because it makes me feel special," says Love. As Riot Grrrl wanna-be Camille Paglia says, "It's like Madonna-she dresses like a whore, but she always knows what she wants. These girls are dressed to kill but ready to fight."
Riot Grrrls run the gamut from 14-year-olds who trade fanzines to keep up with their favorite bands to the truly--and sanctimoniously--committed. "We don't have a doctrine," says Molly Neuman, 21, who plays drums in the Olympia, Wash., band Bratmobile. "There's no specific leader, no 10-point program." The nearest thing they have to a founder is Kathleen Hanna, 23, of the band Bikini Kill. A former stripper who sings and writes about being a victim of rape and child abuse, Hanna represents the extreme edge of the Grrrls' rage. But Jessica Hopper is more typical. She's young, white, urban and middle class. She's also a child of divorce: she cherishes her stepfather (or "dad") and father ("biological dad"), who are friends. Every week, she attends Riot Grrrl meetings, where like minds talk about everything from tuning guitar strings to coming out of the closet. And, like most teenage girls, she's a bundle of contradictions. She uses Hit It or Quit It to gush about some "incredibleee cute bass player," but she started a pro-choice group when she was 12. Riot Grrrl embraces this contradiction as the secret strength of girls, calling it a "revolutionary soul force." Riot Girl is feminism with a loud happy face dotting the "i."
For people accustomed to more august models of feminism, the Riot Grrrls might seem a bit of a stretch. But like the women's movement of the '70s, Riot Grrrl is a response to its own times. "We're definitely in a time of gender war," says Naomi Wolf, author of "The Beauty Myth," a best-selling feminist critique. "Teenage girls are either more aware and angry and impatient than older women, or they're even more frightened." At a time when sex is both stigmatized and potentially lethal, the Grrrls are exuberantly pro-sex. In blocky, adolescent handwriting, Hopper writes, SEX ISN'T DIRTY ... AND IT ISN'T 'BAD' UNLESS SOMEONE IS FORCING IT ON YOU. The fanzine Hungry Girl is even more explicit: "SLUT. Yeah, I'm a slut. My body belongs to me. I sleep with who I want ... I'm not your property."
For all its deadly seriousness, this movement isn't just about anger, it's about fun. Nurtured in the punk-rock clubs of Olympia, the trend gets much of its energy and style from music. It's about sex and rock and roll, but not drugs. As part of their cause of self-preservation, the Grrrls are anti-drug, breaking out in homilies so plain and nerdy they'd seem stilted at a school assembly. "Pure foods and a clean lifestyle-the best high," Hopper cheerfully writes in Hit It.
As a formal entity, Riot Grrrl numbers just a few hundred souls, but its influence spreads much wider. Sassy magazine, which now claims a readership of 3 million, runs a constant exchange between Riot Grrrl and mainstream culture. "We took [the use of ] 'girls' from them," says Editor in Chief Jane Pratt. For the December issue, the magazine turned itself over to some of its readers, with interesting results: boldly ideological, but with a mushy warm spot for cute skater boys-sort of like a Riot Grrrl fanzine with a budget. "I think things that are cool have political overtones-bands, magazines like Sassy," says Samantha Shapiro, a 16-year-old senior from New York who guest-edited the issue. "People compliment me on my combat boots. That something so angry is fashionable for women shows things have changed." Shapiro is your typical superwoman-in-training: she volunteers for AIDS and homeless organizations, interns with an assemblywoman, and wrote a New York Times op-ed piece last week praising Chelsea Clinton's every-girlness. She likes Bikini Kill, she says, because "they're being as sexy and as womanly as they can be ... They're about accepting and appreciating differences-enhancing them."
Shapiro isn't a Riot Grrrl, but she's braced for the same issues they are, and with the same mixture of idealism and disillusionment. "I'm never going to be in the sit-home-and-wait-for-my-husband category," she says, then adds, self-deprecatingly, "Like, I kind of want to be president."
There's no telling whether this enthusiasm or the Riot Grrrls' catchy passion for "Revolution Girl Style" will evaporate when it hits the adult real world. Most of the Grrrls are still in the shelters of home or college-a far cry from what they'll face in the competitive job market or as they start to form their own families. But Wolf, for one, is "absolutely optimistic." After all, the older members of this young generation helped vote in the Clinton administration, while teens like Shapiro cheered them on. Says Seattle fanzine publisher Alice Wheeler, a mature 31, "Now that she's moved to D.C., I'm hoping Chelsea will become a Riot Grrrl too."