On Anime Grrrrls and Riot Girl Red

Around this time every year, I write a post about spring time.

I don’t mean to be redundant. It’s just that, when Spring arrives in Boston, you can’t not talk about it. Even the birds won’t shut up about how great it is to not cooped up and cold. I woke up this morning to their singing, and a damp breeze pushing the wooden blinds in my window. I opened my back door, and a neighbor walked by, whistling. The birds echoed his song in an enthusiastic chorus.

This is probably the best time of year in Boston. There’s the relief after a the long winter, excitement with anticipation of summer, and most people are happy about the return of the Red Sox. There are other yearly rituals too: the geese wander along the river and major roads. Ben and Jerry’s gives out free ice cream. And my personal favorite: Anime Boston descends on the Prudential in a colorful free-for-all of otaku of all ages, bouncing around in varying states of personal hygiene. Among these festivities, Mayor Walsh declared last Thursday Riot Grrrrl Day, in honor of Kathleen Hanna coming to town to give a lecture. My friend and partner in feminist-sci-fi-crime Jessica Critcher and I got to see her speak.

We donned our riot grrrl finest, springtime dresses and leggings, me in vegan doc martens and her in spike boots “for hurting men’s feelings.” The final touch on my ensemble was the bright red lipstick that I used to wear, back when I was a chibi-punk.

It’s funny. Even though I’m constantly thinking of stories and remembering things long gone, I don’t always grok the actual passing of time. When I read these buzzfeed articles about the 90’s, I’m usually left pretty alarmed. Just the other day I wrote “2013” as the date. But seeing Kathleen Hanna reminded me of those days. And it offered me insight that 13-year-old me couldn’t really grok at the time.

I was listening to Bikini Kill and making mix tapes and shopping at the Garment District. I was helping friends dye their hair. We stomped around the city in our boots and made a lot of noise–but we didn’t really know why. I was angry as hell but I couldn’t articulate it. I just knew that it felt right to be doing the things that I was doing, trying to fit a certain image that I felt was representative of that anger, while also serving as a shield myself from some of the daily bullying that I had to confront in middle school.

My mother was disapproving of these antics. She supported my creative endeavors–encouraging me to write and read or paint, and even put the costumes together for my school plays (even the plays that I wasn’t cast in). But she would not allow me to dye my hair, or wear my bright red lipstick. We found compromises on my clothes, and I waited until I got to school to put on my lipstick-war paint.

It was a pretty typical battle of You-just-don’t-get-it-MOM, but now I can appreciate how she wanted me to use my intelligence and creativity to express myself, and not just rely on my appearance to tell my stories.

Kathleen Hanna spoke about how people these days have all this 90’s nostalgia. (I admit, I am guilty of this). She told the audience at the Wilbur, “People tell me, don’t you wish you could just go back to the 90’s? And my answer is–no….. I actually don’t wanna see a Riot Grrrl revival. I wanna see what comes next.”

There was a Q+A following her talk, and I was tempted to shout from the balcony, “What do you think comes next?”

But I already knew the answer. I was glad to have Jess by my side, because we come next. What we are creating, how we are talking, the ways we are interacting, has been years in the making, and the women who have blazed trails before us. Not just our music idols, but our mothers and grandmothers and teachers. The authors we’ve read and admired. We are using our experiences as fodder in stories–when Jess organizes for Socializing for Justice, when I work with my students. It all bleeds together.

As much as I might briefly lose myself in nostalgia when I remember dial-up internet or payphones, I know that we have made some progress since I was a kid. I can see it in advertisements–albeit slowly. There are campaigns now like #ImNoAngel that at least talk about challenging the notion of the perfect body, whereas slogans for deodorant used to be “Strong Enough For A Man, Made For A Woman” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). But I see it most when I teach comics.

Growing up, I really wanted to get into comics. I was a kung fu girl and a Star Wars geek. I viciously fought over the controller when I played Super Mario World with my brother. Comics–particularly X-Men–felt like a natural extension of the interests that I was pretty much born into, but as a girl, I had no entryway into that world. When I asked my neighbor about his comics, he told me, “You wouldn’t be able to get into it.”

Now, twenty years later, half of the students in my comic book classes are girls. They can sit and draw and their chops are better than the boys. Their ideas are sharp. They raise their hands and make references to superheroes comics or movies. They don’t have the brooding moodiness that I had as a product of the 90’s. They speak out when they feel like someone is in the wrong.

That is progress: one foot in front of the other. Not necessarily grand gestures, but small experiences that all add up like a collage, leading to what comes next. So stay tuned, there is more to come.