Interview with Allison WolfePosted: August 24, 2011
By Danielle Eisenman
Allison Wolfe is considered to be one of pioneers of the Riot Grrrl movement. Raised in Olympia, Washington, Allison created the influential zine Girl Germs with Molly Neuman, with whom she later formed the band Bratmobile. Allison has since recorded a number of albums and singles with other bands, notably the Washington D.C. based Partyline. She also initiated Ladyfest, a music and arts festival for female artists.
Danielle Eisenman: I’ve done some feminist-y stuff like writing a few songs and poems myself. I’m fond of the whole “Olympia” way—that you got to experience in your young adulthood—of doing stuff for fun, not really having to be like, you know—
Allison Wolfe: To be a professional.
AW: Yeah, I’m very fortunate for growing up in that town– a small, liberal-arts focused college town with the history of interesting people and artists and women trying to be doing things. A lot of people would just kind of perform, or read a story at parties, and there would be parties with themes where people were supposed to stand up and do a quick performance. And there was never any approach for it to be professional sounding or skilled in any certain way. Just the idea that anyone can and should be creative and should have something to say, and that it can sound interesting and cool or whatever and not have to be super skilled… I think I was very fortunate to have been immersed in that community. Otherwise I don’t think I would have thought that I could be in a band, or that I could actually do anything around something that I was very amateur at. It supported amateur creativity.
DE: Revolutionary bands like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Bangs, or just any other Riot Grrrl band hold a very important place in my heart and mind, and I feel it should be the same for everyone!
DE: How did the punk message relate to Riot Grrrl?
AW: Yeah, punk rock had a lot to do with– how we (Riot Grrrls) saw the world with our politics and our daily beliefs and things. I think at the time we were very politicized and thought that politics and the political aspects of music were important to us. And I think a lot of us come from a punk rock history. And I think that that sort of history of punk is really bringing down the barriers, tearing down the walls, and confronting authority, and looking for a world that is more based on equality. That is what everyone was always taught growing up, that everyone is equal and blah, blah, blah. But when you grow up and look around, you can see that no one’s equal. No one’s treated equal and no one has been given equal qualities in life. We live in a very higher-optical society. And a lot of that is the problem of corporate capitalism. I don’t know, I think that these days, it’s hard to be, I mean, I am older, and not as involved in the music scene as I used to be, but I still go to see bands play, and sometimes I still play myself. But I haven’t lately. I don’t really see that there are very many bands now, in general, that are coed or all girl bands who are very political.
DE: There are a lot of “modern rock” boy bands that are good for nothing but easy listening, and not that many really political bands; male or female. It’s disappointing.
AW: Not much. There is a cool girl that I know named Karen who puts on shows that are very decidedly feminist. She’s really cool. I think her organization that she runs is called “Strength and Numbers.” You should be able to Google that; just “Strength and Numbers.” She’s very feminist and very confident about it. She really goes for having events that are more politicized in an outward way, you know. But you’re right. It is disappointing and I feel disappointed, about that too. I just don’t see anything going on. Even though there are a lot of bands now and they sound pretty, they just don’t—they’re not very political and it’s been going on for a while. I think there was a huge political backlash in late 1990’s after Riot Grrrl had ‘come and gone’ after Grunge and everything. Everyone had started trying to be un-political. But then we had had eight years of the Bush administration. They were horrible times, really. They were being really conservative and really hard on a lot of people. I feel like people should have been screaming on the streets and doing a lot more. I mean there were a few massive protests, but it just never felt like enough. I feel like the punk rock and alternative music communities should have stepped up and spoken out more. There weren’t any overtly political bands during the first eight years, you know during 2000 to 2008. I suppose now, with Obama, people think that they can just do what they want, but Republicans are taking over Congress. Before, they had at least eight years to do whatever they wanted and they were completely un–apologetic about it. Why should we work with them now? They just want to take away all of our rights as citizens. And human rights as well. I just think the music scene should talk about these issues and be more confrontational.
DE: I’ve gone around at school asking people what they thought about feminism. Usually, their first reply is “What’s a feminist?” Yes, it’s just a name, a label, whatever. But I still feel it’s a pretty basic thing that people just don’t address. Usually, with boys I talk to, they come up with the worst excuses. Somebody that I asked replied with, “Girls have all of the rights they need! You know what they can do that men can’t? They can give the gift of life!”
AW: Well, people who don’t see what we (girls) do are always going to say something like that. They just don’t understand. They have no clue what being a girl in society is like at all. People who haven’t had to live it or experience it are often completely ignorant about what it might feel like, and the privileges he has, he thinks are just normal and everyone has that. But, I think people who are privileged are blind. They don’t see how other people experience the world. Unfortunately, this society will never make men learn what it’s like to be a woman. It won’t be able to make white people know what it feels like to be a person of color. Or, rich people won’t know what it’s like to be poor. The list goes on and on…
DE: Most boys don’t have the normal, everyday worries that us girls do. They don’t hear the voices in their heads telling them “You’re not strong enough to do this!” or, “You can’t learn this!” or, “You’re not worthy enough!”
AW: It’s also just that, the professors of our society get more subtle impressions and get the more obvious things from our past, but that’s not really the problem. The thing that people don’t think about is that even though women are seen as somewhat equal and are populated in equal numbers, we still aren’t paid as much as men for any job. It really can’t be argued. Women just really aren’t paid as much as men. We don’t have equal economic power. And, on top of that, women are still raised in this traditional role where we are exposed to unfairness in the media. We are told that our bodies are our selling points and having to look a certain way is the most important thing. And even if our parents try hard not to raise us that way, TV, ads, and billboards… everything still points to basically the explanations of women’s bodies. Half the women you see in the media are women half-clothed, whereas men are mostly fully clothed. And that’s difficult, you know? That is why it is not equal: the images are not equal. And on TV, it’s always the woman’s dead body that starts the story– it’s never men. Women always end up murdered by their husbands, boyfriends and ex-boyfriends. Domestic violence is a huge issue. But no one ever wants to realize it, or talk about it. You know, it’s just like, God! And you just have to deal with all of it.
DE: My mom works in an office where she is the only woman. She says that there’s a HUGE difference between the way she’s treated and the way her male co-workers are treated. What do you have to say about that?
AW: It’s similar with women in music. More and more, you have women in bands, but you still don’t have a lot of all-girl bands. And the bands which are mixed genders tend to be received better and get more airplay. They are taken more seriously. Their musical abilities aren’t as questioned as much. With all-girl bands it tends to be more that if people think they’re good they’ll just act all surprised, and be like “Oh wow! She can actually play guitar!” They never say that about men. And I’ve seen so many bad boy-bands who are bad in so many different ways. Whether it’s either performance, or the lyrics, or their skill, or whatever, and they play every night at every bar, or every club. And no one ever sits there going “Oh wow, they are such a bad band,” or “I’m surprised that he can actually play the drums.” But, girls in music are always talked about in that way. Because no one can believe that they can actually do something.
DE: My mom has always shied away from the term “feminist.” It’s like feminism has been somehow passed off as man-hate, or wanting to be a man.
AW: Well, some people have that idea, but I think that if you just look at the study of feminism, you would quickly find out that that’s not the truth. I think that the only reason reason it could be called man hating is because men feel threatened by it, so they call it man hate. I think that if a man feels threatened by feminism they probably have a sexism problem and maybe he should check himself out, you know? I just feel that to reject feminism is to kind of reject yourself. It’s almost like self hate. We live in a society that encourages that. It encourages people to second guess themselves and to hate themselves and to fight against each other. We are taught that we must all compete for that one position, that space available for only one of us. Men are given all of the room in the world. They’re always taught that the world is for them, that the world is their oyster and there’s room for all of them, you know? But women are always confined in space and we’re told to fight against each other and to compete because there is not enough room for all of us.
DE: I heard that being a Riot Grrrl had a lot of downsides and the live shows were pretty violent, at least for Bikini Kill. It seems like any band with powerful women would have problems, like Hole, for instance. Was that true with Bratmobile, too?
AW: I heard about some violence and stuff at Bikini Kill shows. It wasn’t Bikini Kill’s fault, and they certainly did not instigate the violence at their shows. It was usually men having a very strong reaction to Kathleen Hanna’s confrontational lyrics. Unfortunately, a lot of people reacted negatively to that. I think it wasn’t any more violent than it is out there in the world in regular society. I think that there are a lot of violent men that are kind of violent all the time, but they look for places (like Riot Grrrl shows) to let it out. If they’re going to feel threatened at Bikini Kill show, maybe they’ll let it out there. Bratmobile didn’t really have too much trouble with that. I mean, I don’t really have great eyesight, and my hearing isn’t too great either, and on stage, the lights from the club are often pointing directly into your face, so I can’t always see what’s going on out there. There probably were some weird things happening, and some guys being gross or something, but I wasn’t always aware of it. I was pretty oblivious. The great thing about being on stage or being a headstrong Riot Grrrl is that you have the microphone, and you have the power to be louder than anyone else. They have to listen to you and you don’t really have to listen to them. I didn’t usually witness or see any of that. Although, the second show that we ever played was opening up for the Melvins and I know that Kathleen was in the audience and she told me that a lot of guys were really bummed that a girl band was opening up for the Melvins. And they didn’t get it; whereas, the Melvins loved having a band like us. They didn’t like all of these stupid boy bands opening for them anyways. I think their audience was a little freaked out by us. Kathleen said that she could hear people yelling in the audience that they wanted to kill us. Luckily I didn’t hear any of that at the time.
DE: Did stuff like that do anything to your self-esteem? Did it make you shy away, or want to fight back even more?
AW: I think it usually had the effect of making us want to fight more. At first, it’s a little disappointing to hear that people don’t like you or your band. But we just thought “Okay, they’re really scary, ignorant people,” and yeah, it just made me want to fight back and just be louder, and more obnoxious. I know one time, when Bratmobile was touring with the Donnas during the first Bush election, if you want to call it an election. We were in Dallas, Texas, and I said something against Bush on stage, and afterwards, our rhodie came up to us who was selling our merch, a little guy, and he said “Hey, a bunch of big scary jocks have been coming up to me, yelling about the things you said on stage.” They said ‘Hey, this is Bush country and you should tell your singer to shut up,’ and they were really threatening him. My response was to just talk more about Bush on stage, and I yanked out a pen, blacked out one of my teeth, and I drew a mustache on and just kind of was being crazier. Often, that is my reaction. I’m just like “Okay, you want to fight?” you know? Not that I want to be violent, or anything, I’m sure I would probably get beat up in two seconds if I tried to fight, but I believe in being confrontational to our society and that you should always just step up the confrontation if people are trying to shut you up when you know that you’re right.
DE: Was there anything you gained from Riot Grrrl? What good things did you get from it?
AW: One thing that was important that I got from Riot Grrrl, and from being in the different bands that I was in and writing fanzines, is self-esteem within myself and other girls. I think that a lot of girls suffer from self-esteem problems during the middle school years. I felt that in my own life. Being in a band and yelling on stage and stuff—it did help with my self-esteem and stuff. Riot Grrrl was kind of encouraging more self-esteem in all girls. And it was just kind of reminding people, you know, don’t keep it all inside. If you’re feeling really crazy, or if you’re feeling like the world is against you, or you really have something to say, you’re not crazy, you’re not wrong, and it’s really just the society that’s messed up; not you. Don’t let the society mess you up and make you think that you’re wrong, or that you’re a bad person or that you’re insignificant, or you’re not equal, or something, you know? I think it’s really important that it was helping girls raise their self-esteem, and it was also a great community. We sat around a lot where we had meetings and did activities and talked about politics, you know, all sort of politics. It was a really important political awareness time for all of us and a community building time. We would network with a bunch of girls and bands all over the country and that was before the internet. We were doing that through fan mail.
DE: Did you ever doubt yourself in Riot Grrrl?
AW: Oh yeah! I still doubt myself. Probably less so then because we were at an age where we felt like we could take on the world, and we were all in women’s studies classes and various political classes in college at the time. We were learning so much, and you feel so self-righteous when you realize how messed up the world is. We were given all of the tools we needed and the words to talk about it in an academic sort of way. So, I think we felt pretty righteous in what we were doing and felt that it was important, and it meant the world to us. We thought it should mean the world to everyone else, too. I think, in a lot of ways, we were pretty confident, but we didn’t think that we had all of the answers and we knew that there was a lot more to find out. We also knew because of our own personal experiences and backgrounds that our experiences were limited. We knew that we could reach out to a lot of girls who were sort of alternative minded and in to punk rock music. We didn’t think that what we were doing wouldn’t speak to all girls and women in the whole world. I think we just saw ourselves as a strain of feminist struggle. You know, one small part, but still an important part. I thought that even if we could just change the attitude and the hearts and minds of people within our own town, we could beam within our own community, you know?
DE: Is there anything else you want to add?
AW: Just that it was a strain of what people call “Third Wave Feminism,” but it was still primarily girls who were in a somewhat punk rock scene. It was really just a type of feminism where we were struggling against sexism within the punk rock scene. But also, we were interested in academic feminism and often taking classes at universities about feminism. But, I think we often felt that sometimes, the language of academic feminism didn’t really speak to our lives in a simple, young girl, punk rock sort of way. The thing I think we were trying to do with Riot Grrrl was to find (or create) an intersection/cross-section between punk and feminism. We felt that the punk rock scene was still somewhat of a boys’ club (sexist, as society is) and that the academic feminist world didn’t always speak to our experiences as young punk girls. So basically, we wanted to make feminism more punk, while making punk more feminist. Much academic feminist dialogue seemed to skip the experiences of young girls altogether, or to not really validate girls until they come of age as adult women. We also believed in reclaiming words, images, portrayals that had often been used against women or had been seen as sexist, and using those things to confront a sexist society and expose a more complicated feminist consciousness. It seemed more realistic and exciting, provocative.
DE: Okay, thank you so much for giving me the chance to interview you! You were the model interviewee!
AW: You’re welcome! No problem!