Feminism in Music: The 1990’s

Women in music were voicing their opinions on misogyny within the music industry far prior to the 1990’s. However, in the 1990’s, feminism was popularized within music through two movements: first, through “girl power” feminism within mainstream music, and second, through the riot grrrl movement within alternative music scenes. The term “girl power”, originally coined by riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, was used in the mainstream music industry by groups such as The Spice Girls, the British all-female pop group who rose to popularity within the global music market within the late 1990’s. However, these two movements within music were vastly different in their social and political messages.

Girl power, according to The Spice Girls, refers to an expression of strength, independence, power, and confidence; girl power is about, “standing up for your rights and dignity…[and] for one’s opinions and beliefs”, according to Dafna Lemish. However, girl power as defined by The Spice Girls is contradictory in that, first, The Spice Girls advocate for the power of women to make their own choices and be independent– but only if women fit into dominant notions of sexiness. Therefore, girl power as conveyed by The Spice Girls “is essentially a very narrowly defined sexual power”. In addition, The Spice Girls tell girls and women that they have the power to be anything they want, and the power to do anything they want. However, The Spice Girls don’t communicate what exactly it is that girls and women can aspire to; all that girls and women internalize are the images of The Spice Girls, of, “the glamorous sphere of female stardom, a world nourished by the female ‘look’”, and therefore, that is all they know of to aspire to. The Spice Girls’ version of feminism, shown through their expressions of girl power, is seemingly feminist and transgressive; however, closer analyses reveal that The Spice Girls’ version of feminism is structured to work under, and reinforce, the dominant discourses found within the corporate music industry, such as the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.

Compared to the mainstream music of the 1990’s, such as The Spice Girls, the riot grrrl movement was a direct challenge against the corporate music industry. In the early 1990’s, a group of women within the punk music scenes in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. established the origins of what would be known as the riot grrrl movement, a social and cultural movement whose participants fought back against misogyny within both punk music scenes and the corporate music industry. The term “riot grrrl” was coined in the early 1990’s, inspired by antiracist riots in Washington D.C.; artist and musician Jen Smith wrote Alison Wolfe, vocalist of the riot grrrl band Bratmobile, a postcard related to the recent riots in which she expressed that they needed to start a “’girl riot’”, referencing the anger they felt towards a society and culture that dismissed women’s experiences. Then, in 1991, a zine was created by Molly Neuman, drummer of Bratmobile, with the name Riot Grrrl Zine; the term “riot grrrl” gained momentum and became the name of the movement. In the term “riot grrrl”, the word “girl” is meant to signify “girliness”, or girlhood; for those who participated in riot grrrl bands, exemplifying girliness within their music, dress, zines, and lyrics allowed for, “an aesthetic and political response to dominant representations of female sexuality produced by the corporate music industry”. By exemplifying girliness, riot grrrls were able to symbolically fight back against the corporate music industry’s practice of marketing women artists’ sexuality in order to promote their music.

A quote and picture from Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile
Example of a riot grrrl zine from the 1990’s

In addition, the riot grrrl movement wanted women to realize their own agency as cultural producers, in an attempt to include more women within the independent rock music scene. Riot grrrl’s advocacy of bands with only women in them was a response to “the practical recognition that rock ideology (e.g., the equation of rock guitar playing with phallic mastery) has dissuaded many young women from learning how to play ‘male’ instruments”. While the riot grrrl movement attempted to be inclusive of all people, the movement was largely white and middle to upper-class women. Early riot grrrl music and lyrics did address some issues related to race, in particular white privilege, however, this one-dimensional strategy of addressing racial oppression did not create coalitions with women of color within the movement. In addition, because the riot grrrl movement existed within the larger white, punk community, this made it difficult for women of color to relate to the participants of the movement.


  • D’Angelica, Christa. “Beyond Bikini Kill: A History of Riot Grrl, from Grrls to Ladies.” Order No. 1468617 Sarah Lawrence College, 2009. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 7 May 2016.
  • Lemish, Dafna. “Spice World: Constructing Femininity The Popular Way.” Popular Music & Society 26.1 (2003): 17-29. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 May 2016.

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