Afro-Punk. Directed by James Spooner. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2003. 67 minutes.
Grrrl Love and Revolution: Riot Grrrl NYC. Directed by Abby Moser. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 42 minutes.
By now, punk culture has enough history and social fermentation to have become a global cultural force. This has also led to ample cooptation by the market, which has effectively branded most of punk's originary significations of anger and discontent with the capitalist system. While commodification is real and some of punk’s most subversive meanings seem to have become a fashion statement at best, punk as a liberating social formation continues to endure and proliferate, identified by its politics of production.1 However, even the most “authentic” forms of punk demonstrate the contradictions and complexity of the politics of signification at the heart of any culture of resistance. The films reviewed here, Afro-Punk and Grrrl Love and Revolution, confront us less with the more normalized idealization of punk as a culture of liberation than with the notion that power is always part of any form of cultural struggle.
Afro-Punk depicts the experiences of African-American punks in mostly white scenes. Through interviews, its subjects reveal the allure and transformative effect of punk as a cultural movement of dissent, rage, and political action. There is not one single subject in the film who did not experience a natural connection with punk as a form of self-expression or as a place in which otherness was accepted. Nicole, one interviewee, saw punk as “a place where we could feel comfortable, and that we could fit into something.”
Yet, Black punks’ cultural identification is at odds with the expectations of what Blackness should be, in punk and elsewhere. Throughout the film, these punks reveal their experiences of exclusion, otherness, and racism in the punk scenes in which they participated. Back in their African American communities, they were marginalized and punished, sometimes violently, for distancing themselves, through music and style, from what was considered “Black culture,” even if the effect was the opposite. As Tamar-Kali Brown stated in the film, “my choice to look the way I do is just based on me relating to traditionally African American aesthetic, [and] it was through punk that I had those senses reawakened.”2
Similarly, Grrrl Love depicts, through footage and interviews, the experience of female punks within male-dominated punk scenes and their efforts to forge, through the affirmation of their feminist punk identity, their own place within punk culture. Like the subjects of Afro-Punk, riot grrrls were naturally drawn to this community, only to struggle with the seeming incongruity of being a woman and punk.
By fully embracing the punk DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos to create their own bands, zines, and feminist punk philosophy, what started in the early 1990s as riot grrrl in Olympia, WA, quickly spread throughout the United States as a feminist movement in its own right, with gatherings and conferences in different cities. All-female punk bands, such as Bikini Kill, were appropriating the rage and social justice discourse of punk to offer a female perspective on neglected topics such as incest, harassment, and sexuality. Through its DIY productions, riot grrrl was able to articulate a punk position that embraced anger, energy, and dissent without succumbing to prevalent macho punk tropes as those portrayed in hardcore, for instance.
Through the 1990s, the movement grew and gained media attention, and Grrrl Love reveals the contradictions and struggles that have permeated punk as a site of struggle. In one scene, footage shows riot grrrls confronted with the lack of women of color in their gatherings. The tension of the accusation is palpable as one riot grrrl questions: “How are we making or not making this a space where women of color would want to be in?”
This important question reveals a crucial dimension about punk: that a truly transformative cultural formation must constantly engage in critical self-reflection if it is to transcend the hegemonic relations of power that are always at the center of any cultural struggle. That is, as a movement of increasing influence and openness, neither punk, nor any culture of resistance, is exempt from its own problematic power relations. In this respect, Grrrl Love offers a feminist ideal that can be appreciated, both directly and indirectly, in the film: feminism as a self-reflecting theoretical, methodological, and pragmatic lens from which to discern, and act upon, the ever-emerging disparities in any sociocultural context.
1 Punk culture has been analyzed for its politics of production as a rejection of capitalism, even as punks’ relation with capitalism is problematic. For a critical examination of punk modes of production, see Stacy Thompson, Punk Productions: Unfinished Business (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).
2 For a more detailed analysis of the experience of African American punks in the film Afro-Punk and a conceptualization of levels of marginalization, see Rubén Ramírez-Sánchez “Marginalization from Within: Expanding Co-cultural Theory through the Experience of the Afro Punk,” Howard Journal of Communications 19, no. 2 (2008): 89-104.