Tracie Morris and Alice Bag had never met before they joined me for “The F Word Vol. II” panel last night. And yet the pieces they presented — Tracie’s improvised exegesis of 1950s Hollywood femininity and Alice’s excerpts from her memoir Violence Girl — complemented each other fiercely. It was an emotional night at the Orange County Museum of Art, with an attentive audience of second-, third-, and no-wave feminists.
Following is an approximation of the remarks I made to launch the panel.
Twenty-two years ago, I moderated a panel called “The F Word” at the annual CMJ Music Marathon in New York. Tracie Morris, GB Jones, Kathleen Hanna, Erin Smith, Jean Smith, Chin-a Panaccione, Tinuviel, and Sha-Key were the punks, poets, rappers, and activists who joined me for this discussion of politics and representation. This was back when not only would it have been unheard of for the world’s top pop star to gyrate in front of a giant feminist sign at the VMAs, but when the very idea of this panel at an alternative music conference was attacked by some hipsters. The F Word featured key figures of the then thriving Riot Grrrl movement, but at this venue for college radio, grrrls were still marginalized as too punk, too feminist, not cool, even dull – political in a post-political milieu.
I remember a well-known hipster tastemaker wrote a scathing letter to The Village Voice in which he dismissed the event as “boring” and generally inconsequential. Here’s a measure of the power of the media and of industry tastemakers back then in that almost pre-internet era: One asshole’s pointed dismissal of The F Word colored my own recollection of the event for decades, until earlier today, when I watched a video of the panel that had been recorded by RG documentarian Abby Moser. I myself had forgotten just how star-studded this panel was, and the electrified atmosphere in the overflowing room. Footage from “The F Word” is featured in The Punk Singer and Moser’s own Grrrl Love and Revolution: Riot Grrrl NYC, but I myself had relegated it to a footnote in herstory. This is the crucial, political importance of documentation: Without Abby’s footage, “The F Word” panel might have been forgotten.
This is also the importance of the Alien She exhibit. Curators Ceci Moss and Astria Suparak have captured for the first time ever the visual impact of a scene that is primarily known for its music. Original gig flyers paper one wall. There are stacks of fanzines, old and new. The brilliant multimedia work of Miranda July occupies one corner; Tammy Rae Carland’s photos fill a room with humor and pathos. On an art-world level, Alien She has restarted a conversation about the convergence of punk and feminism, just like The Punk Singer and Moser’s film have done in cinema, Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front and The Riot Grrrl Collection have done in literature, and Pussy Riot has done on the geopolitical stage.
I had the funniest sensation after I first saw Alien She. I entered the adjacent exhibit: After being surrounded by these feminist and queer images, the art in the next room seemed to me jarring and, well, patriarchal. My gaze had been inverted by seeing through Alien She’s eyes; then, viewing women from the back for the billionth time, or lying prone and splayed, was now revealed for what it was: obvious, objectifying, cliched. It’s the feeling I used to get at Riot Grrrl meetings: that suddenly I was in a room where the way I saw the world made sense to others, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Two decades ago, still reeling from the ’80s Backlash, we called feminism the F Word because we knew it was suspect and mocked. Now, even pop stars declare themselves feminists; it’s cool, even marketable. Inspired by Alien She, I wanted to also restart that conversation of 1993 with this “F Word Vol. II.” I’m honored to be joined by one of my conspirators then, Tracie Morris, and the musician and memoirist Alice Bag.