A Riot Grrrl is Born!

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Helen Razer looks back at a formative night in the 90s.

I’m not quite sure how old I was when I saw her. Probably around twenty-two, because I recall that my face was of an age where it had just slowed down its daily production of zits. Whatever the case, I noted I had begun to look less like a pizza and more like a dormant volcano that night, and I left for the Landsdowne Hotel with a feeling that the youngsters would now describe as “empowered”.

I can’t remember who was playing. Probably Rollins Band, as I recall that they were American, self-consciously shirtless and that they really sucked. Look. It doesn’t matter how old I was or which white bloke was wearing black gym shorts and screaming to a packed room of sycophants about how nobody pays him any attention. What matters is the girl.

She saw that I was naïve and hoping to find a culture where I’d fit in. She had the look of someone who was about to build a culture that would fit her.

Helen Razer

When you’re just on the edge of adulthood, you’re often too busy keeping balance to see that the world is changing with you.

I had no earthly clue that my first decade of being a proper, grownup woman would coincide with the first Western decade where women could begin to grow a little of their own culture in spaces formerly held by men. I had no clue until I saw the girl.

Back then, you could buy cigarettes and light them up in pubs. A fact for which the hotelier was probably then very grateful, as none of these pseudo-straight edge Australian men were drinking.

They were smoking, though, and screaming along with songs about the pain of masculine silence. And looking sidelong at us ten, maybe fifteen, women as though we had taken a wrong turn.

The thing is, I sort of felt I had. The gig felt falsely punk to me; more concerned with inventing aggression than responding to it.

This was rage and sound of a type that didn’t belong to women, and, more than likely, only a few men. Most of whom had packed the room with their sidelong looks and Fugazi shirts and cigarettes, which they held in the air like torches at a rally for a dying age.

It’s fine, of course, for particular categories of people to have particular places and events that address them and exclude others. In any case, if I hadn’t felt so keenly excluded, I might not have looked around for another outsider. And, there she was, ancient petticoat covering most of her bottom half, Kill Rock Stars promo shirt covering most of the top.

I had not, to this point, seen any woman wear filthy underthings in public—underwear as outerwear was common, but always worn in a sexy Madonna way, and never as a true offence. I thought for about a century how I might begin a conversation with her in a cooler way than, “I really like your outfit”.

We’d both moved to the back of the band room, as women did at that time. She sputtered when a bloke waved his ciggie in her face, and I said, “Can you believe that people still smoke?!”, quietly murdering my own cig beneath my Docs.

We spoke about the record label on her shirt, the girl bands it had signed and, of course, about how nobody understood us. Although I suspect she, just a little older, understood me perfectly. She saw that I was naïve and hoping to find a culture where I’d fit in. She had the look of someone who was about to build a culture that would fit her.

A week later, I bought the first of many second-hand slips. A year later, I felt pretty smug about being so on-trend. Nearly thirty years later, I feel so grateful for this moment where I saw the possibility that life could sometimes be a process of building things to fit you, not merely fitting into other people’s spaces.

I’m sure that chick does not remember our exchange. I have never had much luck forgetting it. This was the first moment of “the nineties” as I know them. It was the last time I listened to Rollins.

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