Defining My Girlhood

[TW: Abuse]

 My childhood was destroyed and turned into something that damaged me by a patriarchal societal upbringing that intersected with transphobic views that smothered my reality and my possibility to find myself in a haze of physical, psychological and emotional abuse from parents and others. I never had a childhood for these reasons, much less a girlhood, but I’m relearning that it’s not too late to reconfigure and claim my own girlhood and define my childhood on my own terms.

My own sense of self had been muted for so long that my only outlet for expressing how I felt was through the vicarious nature of art, and specifically television, movies and music. Little tremors of power coursed through me in the images of Sailor Scouts because they stood up for themselves, which wasn’t something I had the voice or know how to do against a father who routinely made sure I evaded all things feminine or face his wrath in the form of a beating. My father thought he was beating femininity out of me and masculinity into me, but what he was doing was completely eliminating my sense of self and setting me up for later bouts of depression, submissiveness and PTSD.

I recently viewed childhood favourite Labyrinth in a cinema, and while I was always struck by how much I saw myself in the lead character Sarah one scene had slipped out of my mind, but came flooding back in torrents during this viewing. I was already crying a good deal throughout, because fellow gender weirdo David Bowie had passed away recently (he’d mean something to me much later in life), but one line of dialogue made a memory come back to me that I had forgotten. The memory was that of a young version of myself re-enacting Labyrinth in my backyard saying “You have no power over me” over and over again. Those words are a deliberate statement of reclamation. I wish I had the strength to say those words to my father when I was that young, but I never began to put those words into sentences until almost twenty years later. “You have no power over me”.

Fast-forward about ten years from that childhood memory and I’m listening to Bikini Kill, and finding a saviour in the words of Kathleen Hanna. I’m scribbling the words “Feels Blind” in bathroom stalls in the high-school I dreaded going to every day and on my bedroom wall as a kind of motto of my own sense of self. The bridge of the song features Kathleen singing her fucking lungs out, screaming the words “Women are well acquainted with thirst, How does it feel? It feels blind”. The muted nature of my life in my teenage years was an endpoint that I thought at the time would end in suicide, but getting into Bikini Kill was like a curtain being pulled down, and I finally had a voice of my own to speak and scream that I wasn’t satisfied. Kathleen’s voice was like a flurry, a kick, a shot of confidence. Bikini Kill pulled me down a rabbit-hole that got me into feminism and queercore bands like Team Dresch along with other all girl rock bands like Sleater-Kinney.. The all-girl part was really important to me, because I didn’t need a masculine voice to comfort me.. I needed reconciliation and support in knowing that I wouldn’t be alone in feeling the way I did from another woman, and Kathleen was that person for the longest time. Today, I have “Feels Blind” tattooed on my wrist, because I wouldn’t be alive without Bikini Kill.

When I finally moved away from my parents in the Summer of 2014 I told them I was going to Philadelphia to make movies. They knew I had contacts in Philadelphia who were making films of their own so I told them a lie to free myself. I went to Target after a 14 hour drive up the country (soundtracked by various Riot Grrrl acts) and bought some tops and jeans I could be comfortable in. I shed the oversized, masculine clothing on my body, and stepped into my own skin for the first time in my life. That was truly the first step in redefining my own girlhood, but I still lacked the language or the know how to get by on my own as a woman. I wasn’t socialized to know these things. I was an on-looker with all my best girlfriends while growing up, but now it was my time to learn what I wanted to, and what kind of person I would be. I’d be carving out my own journey and figuring out my own sense of self.

I’ve been struggling for a very long time trying to reconcile why my childhood turned out the way that it did, but the short answer to the question is that it’s the default considering how violent our society is towards transgender people. Today, I’m making a statement to free myself again from the burden of a broken childhood and the absence of my own girlhood while growing up. I am a girl, and I’m finding things out about myself every day. I’m turning into myself. I had a neglected girlhood, but I know it was present, because I could feel it, and I had a reckoning when I lived vicariously through other girls I looked up to in art. That my own girlhood was attempted to be stamped out by my own father’s ideas of patriarchal upbringing doesn’t matter anymore. I’m going to take the moments I can remember and cherish them, even if they were just in movies, and I’m going to hold onto them. They were the moments that eventually sculpted me into the woman I am today. My girlhood was observation. Looking into a window of a house I always wanted to enter. I’m finally here, and everything I ever wanted is now in practice. Everything I do makes me the woman that I am. That is my girlhood. That is my truth.

Female Filmmaker Project: Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)

Rachel Talalay wanted to make an action picture that was like nothing else currently on the market. She was fed up with the idea of female action heroes whose characteristics were identical to that of men, but transferred to a female body. She loved the Tank Girl comics and with it saw a chance to make good on that promise of a completely unique woman action hero with an adaptation of that text, and in some ways she completely succeeds, but the film as a whole suffers from some unfortunate pacing and narrative decisions that nearly undo an incredibly unique character.

The 1990s saw a birth of grrrl power and riot grrrl aesthetic that informs the type of character Tank Girl exists as. Part Wendy O. Williams and Mad Max with a riot grrrl mix tape in her walkman the titular character is a punk ideal while exhibiting the same underground comic aesthetic she was birthed from in the 1980s. To say the least she carries the entire world of her movie on her back, and the film lives and dies by her frequency on screen. Lori Petty perfectly encapsulates the kind of character Tank Girl needed to be and appropriately sets herself apart from every other woman character in the history of the comic book to film medium. Often, women characters are relegated to being love interests even in the best comic book adaptations (Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) , but this is Tank Girl and this is 100% her movie up until the narrative is blindsided by a handful of Kangaroo mutants (who are present in the comic) who I would lovingly refer to as Jar-Jar’s by just how much they disrupt an otherwise good movie.

Tank Girl is at it’s very best when it is loosely jamming many different parts of cinema (comic book animation, dance sequences, music video montage) together into a jumbled mess that fits the kind of thrown together look of the titular character. Riot Grrrl is an easy thing to come back to when discussing the form here, but the collage like nature of Tank Girl is reminiscent of zine culture that came out of Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s. Tank Girl’s feminism is most present in how the main character carries herself, and as a production it’s one of the few pictures of the time that seems actively influenced by the form of riot grrrl music and art. It’s ironic then that Courtney Love was the mastermind behind the soundtrack as she always kept the genre at arm’s length due to the limitations of the genre’s Stepford quality in bands cannibalizing each other and none of them being able to stand apart, whether that be true or not is an entirely different issue. Sprinkled throughout the set design are even more remnants of that music’s influence on the preceding’s as “Lunachicks” stickers are taped all over Tank Girl’s hideout. This all mirrors the look that Arianne Phillips put together for the lead as her ripped stockings, paint brush fingernails and goggles is a constructed look that exists totally for the inner self of Tank Girl and no one else. Her clothes don’t really match, they don’t fit perfectly and they are tattered, but it completely works, because really there are no rules as to what is or isn’t an acceptable look, and if her clothing wasn’t optimal it would betray the attitude Petty gives off in her performance. It’s similar to another film I looked at earlier this year, Desperately Seeking Susan, where so much of the film’s visual language comes from the fashion of Madonna. Both of these film’s wouldn’t work nearly as well if the clothing wasn’t on point, but in both cases these characters became fashion icons in distinctly different ways.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Naomi Watts (Jet Girl) whose short time here accompanies Lori Petty’s performance remarkably well. Watts is a side character but as a Velma to Daffney or even Jane to Daria she is absolutely perfect, and their friendship works so well because they’re extremely different from one another, but end up banding together and bonding to survive through the post-apocalyptic wasteland  of Australia (also centered around water if you want to get back to Mad Max comparisons). Malcolm McDowell seems to be having fun as well as a tongue in cheek villain who literally would dissolve his henchmen into water and drink them on sight to intimidate his fellow employees.

Tank Girl cannot sustain it’s eccentricities, energy and formal decision making throughout though, and as Talaly described, studio edits ran amok of her vision. I truly believe her, as the third act sees a detour into silliness that doesn’t really feel tonally acceptable to the first two acts. Jet Girl and Tank Girl take a detour to stay with the rippers (The Jar-Jar’s) for a while and the movie gets side tracked and slows to a crawl. The narrative leans further away from Tank Girl and Jet Girl and the movie loses complete grasp of pacing and trudges towards the credits until finally things are resolved and Tank Girl rides off into the sunset. Talalay also struggles with shooting competent action so the final third isn’t in her forte of zingers, verbal comedy and music. As much as I dislike the last 30 minutes of the movie though the first 90 or so showcase something that Talalay truly wanted to make, and one that feels unabashadly 90s in a way that situates itself firmly in a time of third wave feminism. Today’s comic book heroines could learn a thing or two about how Tank Girl carries herself……even though I’m pretty sure no studio would be willing to greenlight a superhero character who happens to be a woman, and give her this much freedom twenty years later, and knowing that regression makes me sad. It also makes me appreciate Tank Girl despite finding it heavily flawed, because there really isn’t anyone else like her.

Smells Like Girl: Hole’s “Live Through This”

A young woman in a babydoll dress plucks away at a guitar shelved off from the world in her room while her parents are away. Her pain and hurt are burrowed deep inside of her, and she doesn’t know if her days will get any easier. The kids at school make fun of her for being different. Her hair is messy and she has no interest in the mindless jocks that snap her bra in the gym. She sits on the bleachers alone with a forged excuse in her mother’s hand writing so she doesn’t have to participate. She slides headphones out of her backpack and a journal. The album begins to play as she scribbles down poems of teenage angst. 
And the sky was made of Amethyst
Everything starts in medias res. Live Through This drops you into Courtney Love’s world immediately with a single line that sets the tone for everything to come. A sky coloured deeply in violet, like a bruise after weeks of abuse that just won’t go away. It’s the blues coming from a woman in anguish and her feelings are splayed open for everyone to see. Her guttural screams that punctuate every moment of the song show a woman in pain. “Go on take everything, take everything, I want you to” becomes a rallying cry, a cathartic moment of release. When all you want to do in this world is fight back at all the pain that’s clouding over your life like a never ending storm a moment like the chorus of this song echoes powerfully and deeply. The song is an exercise in release from Love’s shouting vocals all the way down to the descending riffs that close the song. It doesn’t exactly end with everything being better, but the blunt power of pent up anger gives one a feeling of temporary ease.
Live Through This is filled with misfit ballads. You hear songs on pop radio about girls who want to have fun, and those pining for romance, but you’ll find none of that here. It’s an album about those women on the fringes who don’t get songs written about them and all of them are aspects of Courtney Love. As much as she wants to distance herself from Riot Grrrl (she even criticizes RG on “Rock Star“) her lyrical themes fit with the premise of that movement. However, instead of telling girls to be strong she lets out a resounding cry that fragility is acceptable. This is most recognizable on “Doll Parts” when Love bellows with despair “Some day you will ache like I ache” and it stings. It feels true. In hindsight of just losing her partner it’s even more resonant. It’s bent over a church step, crying with endless grief. It’s an album of stark moments of her psyche. She’ll sing on “Plump” “They say I’m Plump, but I throw up all the time”, and it’s one of the more incisive moments on the entire album. She can’t win due to society and the eating disorder metaphor works for Love’s life. They want her to be a rockstar, they want her to be a good mom, they want her to be clean, they want her to be a role model, they want her to be the one who died instead of Kurt.
Underneath the pen of Courtney Love this album finds it’s strength, but the musical structure also captures the Loud-Soft dynamic of Pixies inspired Grunge at the time that fits these lyrics remarkably well. The majority of the songs on Live Through This start out softer in the verse letting Love’s voice coo and wrap around gentle drumming and plucky guitar chords then burst open for moments of intensity and distortion while Love screams. The real star of these instruments is Love’s emotive voice. Her band perfectly compliments everything she wants to do, but the affectations of her vocals create one of the finest vocal records of the 90s. She can display buzzsaw power in songs like “Violet” and delicate frustration on “Doll Parts” while showing Allison Wolfe a thing or two about bratty sarcasm in “Rock Star”. As much as I love the band here the show is her’s and it’s her statement of where she was in her life at the time, and it’s one of the definitive albums of the 90s.
However, it’s a shame Live Through This will never be viewed that way. The elephant in the room is that Courtney Love has been dubbed the Yoko Ono of her generation by misogynists and fools alike. She’ll always live under the shadow of her martyred spouse. Cobain’s death and drug usage are fetishized by those who love dead rock stars, but Love was eerily like Kurt, and she’s hated for the same reasons Cobain is worshiped. If she were a man she’d be a god. She’d be the saviour of rock music and the last true rock star of her generation for her authenticity and lyrical prowess. Courtney Love isn’t a man though so she’ll be hated forever for “destroying” Nirvana. If we lived in a fair society Love’s vulnerability, lyrical openness, and uniqueness would be beloved, but we don’t, and those who love Courtney are always going to be in a position where they have to defend her. I love Courtney Love. Through all her problems and issues she’s always been a tremendous artist and Live Through This is an album I often go to when I need to know I’m not alone in feeling like I’m about to fall apart. I just wish I had been smart enough to realize all of this when I was sixteen when I needed it the most. She’s an icon in a babydoll dress, smeared make up and bad hair and I’ll love her and this album forever.  

Let’s Call it Love Part 2: Beginnings

I don’t think there is any argument that Sleater-Kinney’s debut album is their weakest. It really isn’t even as good as previous LP’s by their former bands Excuse 17 or Heavens to Betsy. This album found Sleater-Kinney still honing in on their sound, but for the most part everything is all here. The riffs that play off each other, the harmonies of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and the lyrics that made personal experiences into something political are all on Sleater-Kinney. They would just get better and better as the years went by, but this is a damn good start, and a touchstone record in the riot grrrl genre. 
I mentioned in the last entry that Sleater-Kinney would not often categorize themselves as riot grrrl until later in their career. In 1995 it was an important movement that had sadly been hijacked by corporations and turned into more of a buzzword for fashion than feminism (something they would talk about on #1 Must Have years later). Sleater-Kinney’s roots were in riot grrrl and it’s never more apparent than their first album which could be used as a definition for what the genre is about both musically and lyrically. It has everything from the shoestring production, the raging voices of women, lyrics that centered topics like abuse and oppression of women. It was definitely a riot grrrl record. 
The album begins with Don’t Think You Wanna which is a vague song where Corin speaks about Angels and regret which would not have been out of place on a Heavens to Betsy album. There are a lot of shorter songs on this album that feel more like the band figuring out how to make music together and this is one of them. It doesn’t feature the harmonic qualities of their best moments which makes it a little forgettable. However, they move right into their first bona fide classic song after Don’t Think You Wanna. The Day I Went Away is about leaving. Sleater-Kinney have always written songs about departure of relationships and family with an added twist of frustration due to lack of love (One More Hour on Dig Me Out). This song has all the introspective sadness that Sleater-Kinney is so great at. Carrie pleas in the bridge of the song “please remember me” as she leaves. From a structural standpoint it’s much more advanced than some of the more punk numbers on here that come and go in less than 2 minutes. Corin and Carrie doubletrack the vocals at the end of every line and in doing so the song feels massive. They would get more complicated in how they would mix their voices on the next album. The Day I Went Away was one of the first Sleater-Kinney songs I gravitated towards, because I wanted so desperately to leave a town that was too small for my life. I don’t necessarily think the song is about a relationship between a parent and child but that’s how I took to it, and I still come back to it when I feel lost and frustrated over the fact that my own parents are never going to understand why I can’t be the person they want me to be or live in a place that would reject me. The best songs are those that have personal attachment. This is one of those songs. 
A Real Man calls back Bikini Kill’s Sugar from their 1993 album Pussy Whipped in its lyrics. I fucking love riot grrrl songs that take aim at the idea that women are tools for male pleasure. I loved when Kathleen Hanna sang Oh baby you’re so good, You’re so fuckin’ big and hard, You’re such a big man, You’ve got such a big cock, Push it in deeper now, oh deeper, harder, I’m almost cumming, as a total lie. Corin has her own Kathleen Hanna moment here as well when she sings Don’t you wanna feel it inside, They Say that it feels so nice, All girls should have, a real man and then responds with I don’t want your kind of love. It’s a powerful statement, and while it may not be the great song it’s something that punctuates the feeling of all riot grrrl albums. 
If there’s one recurring theme on Sleater-Kinney’s debut album it’s a feeling of damage in the midst of strength. The guitars sound muddied and broken, only to come alive in choruses to fight back with sharp edges to their sound. In a way the vocals take on this same quality where Corin or Carrie talk-sing only to scream at the right moments. HerAgain is a song that epitomizes all these qualities. There’s a feeling of sadness that engulfs this song and many others here. I think it’s one reason why I loved this album from the start. Joy Division’s totemic sadness was never something I could relate to, but Sleater-Kinney was something that clicked. Their music fights back on sadness instead of wallowing in it. Corin’s voice is aggressive here and when I was younger I needed something to voice my frustrations and her voice was everything. 
The middle of the album has the band running back over themes of sex in How to Play Dead (Carrie’s take on “A Real Man”), Sold Out,  and Be Yr Mama. What’s especially great about these songs is the guitar work, and it is at its most playful and complicated on Be Yr Mama. The band would make this song a live staple and it’s easy to see high with its high energy and the escalating riffing from Carrie and Corin. 
Slow Song is my favourite song on Sleater-Kinney’s first album. Music is at its most important when it can reflect a personal feeling in a person. I think that is what makes it feel more personal than other art forms. Your favourite bands and songs become a part of you. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Slow Song. It was on every Sleater-Kinney playlist I ever made. There is one line in this song that on paper seems so simple, but the lyric has always struck me as huge (there’s a similar moment on Don’t Talk Like on The Hot Rock). That line is “feeling so down, I’m feeling so down” and it’s just a moment where Corin spoke for me. She does that often. I don’t even know why this song is important to me. I’ve never been able to figure out why this song latched onto my soul. It’s just a slow song. 
Laura MacFarlane’s tenure in Sleater-Kinney is rarely talked about, but she was their drummer on the first two albums. Most people associate Janet Weiss with Sleater-Kinney when they think of drummers but Laura came first and she was always solid. Lora’s Song is the only song where she sang lead vocal, and it’s kind of awesome. She has a very different voice than Corin or Carrie, but it’s powerful nonetheless. The chorus is especially strong when her voice seems to break free and soars. It would have been interesting to have seen the future of Sleater-Kinney as band with three rotating vocalists but it wasn’t meant to be, and I wouldn’t trade Janet for the world. 
There are three classic songs on their debut album and the last of these is The Last Song. It is also one of the very best songs in the history of riot grrrl. It’s a song about breaking free of a harmful relationship. It’s closure in the screaming, gnashing, powerful voice of Carrie Brownstein. She gets final say in how this ends and tells on the person that was hurting her. It’s the greatest personal as political moment on Sleater-Kinney’s first album. It deserves a place on any riot grrrl best of playlist as well as Sleater-Kinney.

Let’s Call It Love: Part 1: A Look at the Music of Sleater-Kinney

I’m going to talk about every single Sleater-Kinney song ever recorded. This won’t be an objective analysis. This is a labour of love for a band that feels only secondary to breathing and water in terms of importance for my existence. I cannot go a day without listening to Sleater-Kinney and while favourite bands tend to come and go in waves I think they are around for good. I’ve said that about other important artists in my life, but then that’s the thing that’s so beautiful about music in particular. It can fade as you mature and grow older, but in that moment those notes and those words mean fucking everything to you. Music is like an attachment of soul and the one art form that feels like it morphs you into the person you are and who you want to be. It can lift you up in moments of need and fix all your problems in 3 minutes or 15 if you’re into progressive rock, and it’s a kind of magic. It’s a rhythmic alchemy brought to the world out of nothing by these god’s who stand on stage and produce life through sound. It’s powerful and Sleater Kinney feels like a direct reflection of everything I am. I think favourite bands always kind of feel that way. They belong to you right? When I’m listening to them they feel like something vital to my life. There’s no way I can ever repay them for the support they’ve given me so I’m just going to keep on listening for the rest of my life.
First a little background information
Sleater-Kinney would hardly ever label themselves as a riot grrrl act during their heyday (something they would discuss more openly after they went on hiatus) but their genesis is very much steeped in that sound. After all Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are the Foremothers of riot grrrl acts like Heavens to Betsy, Excuse 17 and Heartless Martin. In 1994 the first Sleater-Kinney music was released in the single You Ain’t It/Surf Song for Villa Villakula Records. They would also record two other songs for that label in Write Me Back Fucker and a cover of Boston’s More Than a Feeling. These first recordings reflect a band that already had their sound set in place. It was just rougher around the edges. 
You Ain’t It is lyrically about as forwardly-snotty-fuck you-riot grrrl as this band ever got, and it kind of rules. It’s the same kind of rock is not just for men attitude that many riot grrrl bands possessed from this same time period. What I truly love here is the wailing (I bet I’ll use this word a lot) braggadocio in Corin’s voice of not giving a fuck about boy bands. In 1994, and still to this day really, women are still seen as novelty acts in rock music. You’ll see the term “Girl rock band” get thrown around a lot as a buzzword as if it was another thing that needed to be gendered to the point where you had to separate women from men just because it was unfair to compare the two, and it’s bullshit. The riot grrrl movement in general was as much about feminism as it was about punk rock, but it certainly broke down barriers and told girls they could do anything in the world they wanted to and be better at it than men. In the sound of the song though it proved the band was already working out their formula. The guitars are already twisting and contorting around each other and Corin and Carrie are already using choruses to launch a harmonic attack in vocal and guitar. It’s awesome for reasons that don’t just align with my own punk rock feminism. It’s a hell of a start, and they’d get so much better. 
Surf Song is the b-side to You AIn’t It and it has the same roughness of all the Villa Villakula recordings, but unlike You Ain’t It’s brash riot grrrl aggression Surf Song feels absolutely light. What song wouldn’t feel light with lyrics like “Let’s go down to the beach today, Let’s go down to the water and play” ? Sleater-Kinney would rarely go for the type of sweetness that is found in this song, but it’s ultimately one of my favourites for that very reason. I searched all over the internet for this song so I could somehow have it with me at all times. I would complain to my boyfriend that I couldn’t ever find “The Sleater-Kinney Beach Song” and I’m sure I whined about it constantly, but oh the elation when I finally found it. I would download it (sorry you can’t find the Villakula recordings anywhere anyway), and have it forever. Oh! And the pen pal letter in the middle that Carrie writes to Corin where she complains about the band name and talks about new wave bands? It’s like friends in the back of a high school year book and my heart melts. The kind of friendship I’m lucky enough to have with one person. You know who you are.

The other two songs on the Villakula set are Write Me Back Fucker and MoreThan a Feeling. Write Me Back Fucker (great title btw) is maybe the least interesting song of these early recordings. The most notable thing about it is the title and the bridge, which just soars due to Corin’s voice. It’s almost kind of funny the previous song had an entire letter segment and this song is actually about a break up via letter. I don’t think they are in any way connected but I think that’s a neat fact. The first truly special moment in Sleater-Kinney’s career is their cover of More Than a Feeling . The song has that same DIY sound as the others on this label. It’s a sound I’ve grown to love in early riot grrrl recordings (especially Bikini Kill’s Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah), and followed Sleater-Kinney up through their first album the following year. There are multitudes of things I love about this song. The soft build up of the warm guitars in the verse, the harsh reimagining of the chorus with Carrie’s primal screams that she would make even better use of on Last Song the following year, and then there’s the outro where the guitars just sing and Corin wraps her voice lightly around the melody and it’s a thing of absolute beauty and cements this as the best version of this song. Sorry Boston, Sorry Nirvana.