Three minute thesis: punk feminism in the '90s

Three minute thesis: punk feminism in the '90s

We catch up with the winner of LJMU's Three Minute Thesis Competition, PhD candidate, Gemma Griffiths to find out about her research.

Watch Gemma recreate her Three Minute Thesis during the launch of the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History.

The Three Minute Thesis competition challenges PhD researchers to get in front of a general audience and convey their research through an extremely concise, yet compelling presentation. Gemma took on the challenge. Using storytelling techniques and breaking down complex concepts, she made her research accessible for the audience and wowed the judges with her unique delivery.

Gemma’s thesis investigates how avant-garde punk-feminist writer Kathy Acker influenced riot grrrl zine writing in the 1990s, particularly its effect on poster child for the movement – lead singer of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna. She examines how this lineage of punk-feminist writing responds to the media-driven backlash against feminism, which centred on the themes of work and sex and also saw the concept of 'post-feminism' gaining traction in the nineties.

Intrigued by watching Gemma’s presentation, we tracked her down to find out more.

Gemma GriffithsWhat is it about this subject that interests you?

“I’m fascinated by American culture in the nineties in general, but specifically because of the competing discourses on feminism that arose around and during this period. These include the preceding backlash against feminism in the eighties mainstream media, followed by the emergence of third-wave feminism in the early nineties, as well as the concept of ‘post-feminism’ gaining traction in this decade. This is the climate in which riot grrrl (1991-1996) emerged and was active, and I want to understand how punk feminism contributed to feminist discourse during this tumultuous period in feminism’s history.”

What are some qualities of Acker’s literature and why did her writing influence Hanna?

“Acker’s novels are renowned for being experimental, postmodern and for performing a gendered critique of late-capitalism. Her narratives frequently centralise the female protagonist and are often pornographic, violent, transgressive and blend fiction with autobiography. I think Hanna was influenced by Acker’s unorthodox approach to form and her representation of women’s experiences within this unconventional narrative style. It supports the idea that women’s experiences are too complex (particularly in relation to sex and power) to be told through traditional narrative styles. One of Hanna’s aims with her riot grrrl zine writing was to disrupt an uncomplicated and monolithic conception of femininity and I think Acker’s narratives and writing style speak to that aim. Hanna was very much concerned with dissecting her own, oftentimes harrowing, experiences of being a woman in patriarchal-capitalist culture and I think reading Acker’s unflinching and partly autobiographical narrative critique emboldened her in that aim also.”

Riot grrrl
Riot Grrrl convention poster, 1992 Wikimedia Commons.

What are the particular qualities of riot grrrl zine writing?

“In my thesis, I focus on drawing out the postmodern and avant-garde literary aesthetics and devices employed in grrrl zines to highlight their artistic sophistication and complexity as feminist artefacts. Riot grrrl incorporates artistic devices in its literature that connect it to the literary avant-garde. This is where tracing Acker’s influence in riot grrrl zines becomes significant, because of Acker’s notable status within the late twentieth-century literary avant-garde and the implicit artistic quality ascribed to her writing. The zines include a number of creative writing pieces that incorporate postmodern aesthetics and devices: pastiche, fragmented narratives, intertextuality, as well as attempts to manifest a linguistically ‘feminine’ style of writing according to the tenets of écriture féminine (a strain of French feminist literary theory). Riot grrrl zines also contain visual art forms that legitimate its status as an artistic movement: collage, drawings and photography.”

“I do see flashes of riot grrrl in women’s groups today…I can see the riot grrrl aesthetic in the women’s sport, roller derby, for instance. Check out the Liverpool Roller Birds.”

What are some of the ideals of the riot grrrl movement? Are these applicable to today’s women?

“I think the core ideals of riot grrrl were to raise the social status of girl culture and girl-lead production, to resist internalising the logic of patriarchal-capitalism and to break down the psychological barriers that keep girls and women isolated from one another. Riot grrrl preached this ideal of ‘girl love’, which is predicated on the assumption that girls and women are pitted against each other in patriarchal culture and that this prevents us from politically galvanising. I think these ideals are still applicable today. The mainstream media still aggressively pits women against one another.”

Do you think we are living in post-feminist times?

“That depends on how you define ‘post-feminism’. If you define post-feminism as a term that signals the end of feminism as a valid social project according to the logic that feminism has already achieved all its aims, then I’d argue no, we are not living in ‘post-feminist times’. If you define post-feminism as a concept and theoretical category that blends elements of feminism with patriarchal femininity – a category that threatens backlash as much as it holds the potential for innovation (a perspective that critic Stéphanie Genz assumes) – then I’d say we are living in ‘post-feminist times’ in so much as we are surrounded by manifestations of post-feminism in popular culture.”

Gemma joins previous Three Minute Thesis winners at LJMU: Raihana Sharir in 2016, Sam Scott in 2017 and Sally Kah in 2018.

Interested in finding out where studying English could take you? Take a look at our English courses. If you’d like to take your studies further with a PhD or masters, have a look at our staff research interests within the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History and get in touch (masters applications contact: Colin Harrison and for doctoral applications contact Joe Moran).


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