Young Adult Fiction -- the New Riot Grrrl

I came up during the girl power epoch (not to be confused with the popular Spice Girls phenomenon) of the nineties. These were the riot grrrls, activtists, and feminists rallying against domestic abuse, rape, patriarchy, racism, sexism, ageism, and sizeism. This subculture expressed itself through music, performance art, (fan)zines, politcal action, along with other art forms.

It was an exciting time where the vibe of girl-girl support more than lifted many of us out of the boy-clubs of the eighties and the apathy of the grunge era. For some, riot grrrl was a term scratched onto notebooks and worn like a badge of pride, while for others it was a radical lifestyle bringing the spirit of DIY to everything from formally organized meetings to working against political injustices. Words like slut and queer were embraced and celebrated along with every girl along the spectrum from teen queen to woman warrior. We were girls with long hair and shaved heads, girls with baby-doll dresses and spiked bracelets, we were vegans and volunteers.

Music and 'zines were, in my experience, the two main art forms riot grrrls expressed themselves as a way to overcome abuse, flipping off the dominant powers that be, and taking back our own power, lives, and bodies. Popular bands that spoke the language these girls understood were Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear (and MANY others.) The grrrls themselves were picking up instruments and starting bands with a discordant, sweaty, sonic edge rocking underground clubs, festivals and collectives across America and abroad. The 'zines of the day opened the window of self-expression through poetry, graphic art, and often a raw outpouring of rage or heartfelt honesty. There are still a few left in circulation, but with the advent of blogs, they mostly faded away (that's a post for another day.)

I resurrect girl power, not that it ever went away because, duh, but for those in the know it was a step forward in not only the expectations we had for ourselves through action and a new way of thinking but upped the way we treated and interacted with our fellow women (womyn) and girls (grrrls.) I see we can keep moving in that forward progression. But as a writer/reader I see a relationship between the wave of feminism that brought us riot grrrl and the incoming tide of popular young adult fiction starring girls like Katniss from Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent, just to name a couple recent novels—made into movies—where the main character is tough, ready to wreck the dominant paradigm, and knows what she wants. Sure, these are fictional characters in fictional worlds, but they're an archetype of a strong female ready to take whatever comes her way, overcome adversity, and fight back (and fight hard.)

I see teen girls taking up archery, writing fan-fiction, and incorporating the girl-strong ethic directly in their lives. These tween and teen readers, who are just on the surface of figuring out who they are, gain because through depictions of fierce characters, they believe in themselves just as surely as those of us who found blue hair dye and were brave enough to use it, we who marched in Washington, rallied to take back the night, and chanted along to songs like Rebel Girl.

Yes, along the way the main characters in these novels experience romance, and get help from her fellows, guy and girl alike. But there is no prince charming, no valiant rescue, or hapless damsel in distress. Part of growing up is exploring who we love and how, including loving ourselves (that last one is the message I'm starting to see emerge and hoping I'm at the forefront as a writer in my forthcoming young adult fiction.) And these authors, brave women behind the pen who are creating characters, are in fact informing us of their deepest inner truths, that we can be strong, courageous, and successful and not apologetic. We can actually lead a revolution for the next wave of young women pursuing their dreams in whatever vocation or form they take.

Looking back the girl power period, I was just a guest in a very deep and personal movement, but it resonated with me, took root, and germinated. Over time, my personal sense of power and agency has unfolded and been expressed in ways that I hope to pass onto my children. But if they look back and think I was a dork, I hope (we) authors will continue to write strong female characters that help positively shape generations of rebel girls to come.

I don't expect the young girls reading these books to take up arms and lead an army into a war against oppression, but with each example of girls overcoming trials, we get stronger individually and as a whole. One of my greatest lessons from the riot grrrl movement and modern young adult fiction is we girls are strong enough to stand on our own, we've got what it takes, we're here and we're not going anywhere nor are we backing down, but it's also okay to ask for help and what makes us different doesn't have to alienate, but in fact has the power to unite. Together we're stronger. Always.

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