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Taking Back Girlhood: The Power Of Bratmobile’s Sneering Debut

On November 21, 2018

If we could harness and bottle raw adolescent feminine rage — in all its intensity and urgency — and distribute it to the general populace, we’d probably launch our society into progress of unfathomable heights and depths. Until then, Bratmobile’s 1993 debut album Pottymouth gets pretty damn close.

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In October of 1991, in Washington, D.C., at a cultural moment chillingly familiar to today’s, women gathered around and beyond our nation’s capitol in support of Anita Hill and outrage at her sexual assault by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. While the irate echo of women beginning to question how far feminism in its current form had actually taken them rang across the country, Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe, two-thirds of the band Bratmobile, released the first iteration of their new zine: Riot Grrrl. A wildly important, and wildly imperfect, movement was bubbling with electricity and Bratmobile was positioned around the center.

Wolfe and Neuman met in 1989 as students at University of Oregon, where they pushed back against academic feminism with a distinct breed of bold critical scrutiny.

“I remember being in women’s studies classes and Molly and I would use the term ‘girl’ to talk about ourself or other women, and we would get shushed or silenced,” Wolfe told Rolling Stone in 2016. “‘Women! You have to use the term.’ I was like ‘Well, what about people who really are girls age-wise – why can’t we reclaim words and use them ourselves, how we want? And why are those stories and realities and experiences of young girls invalidated by so much of them as well as the rest of the world.’ A lot of what we were doing was kind of trying to bring in something that wasn’t academic and just be like, ‘Well, this is feminist too.'”

The two saw a void in the strain of feminism they encountered at school where girlhood should lie and decided to fill it with a feminism that was loud, raucous, young, bold and distinctively punk rock, starting with their first zine, Girl Germs, which was first released in winter of 1990. As Girl Germs gained substantial popularity and its influence began to spread, K Records’ Calvin Johnson encouraged Wolfe and Neuman to start a band. Working with very little technical skill and no instruments of their own, but a infinite well of passion, they played their first gig with borrowed instruments, supporting Bikini Kill.

They continued to write songs throughout their sophomore year in college, eventually relocating to Washington, D.C., where Neuman is originally from. There they met the third and final Bratmobile member, guitarist and fellow zine queen Erin Smith. Over the next two years, they harnessed their youthful rage, political momentum and feminine power to write, record and release their debut, which was soon to become a seminal text of the Riot Grrrl movement. It was recorded by Nation of Ulysses’ Tim Green who, according to Sara Marcus’ book on Riot Grrrl, Girls to the Front, was paid with a slice of cheese pizza and a bottle of black hair dye.

There are few albums that embody the unmatched passion of the height of the Riot Grrrl movement more than Pottymouth. And there’s no album that does it with as much contempt, or as much fun. Even if you know what you’re getting into, even on your 100th listen, Pottymouth is jarring right out of the gates. Four seconds into pressing play, lead singer Wolfe thrusts a shameful accusation your way with abandon: “Admit it: Innocent little girls turn you on, don’t they?”

It’s an appropriate opening line for a band, and an album, whose primary rhetorical devices involve the subversion of feminine youth and innocence. Take their name, for example: “Brat” is defined in the dictionary as “a child, typically a badly behaved one.” Their album itself is splattered with effectively simple, childlike language (pottymouth, cool schmool, girl, baby), alongside a vast array of jarring expletives and imagery.

Having barely played instruments prior to the formation of Bratmobile, their sound is one of confident, youthful reckless abandon: Wolfe’s nonchalant wails for vocals, Neuman’s rushed crashes for drums, Smith’s sneeringly sloppy guitar shreds, and lyrics that truly do not give a single fuck (“You want to stab me and fuck the wound”). Descriptors of their sound and rhetoric are previously most commonly reserved for boyhood: reckless, manic, wild, moody, free, empowered, dominant, raunchy — anything but innocent. Pottymouth plays inside an impossible dichotomy put forth by society; on one hand, as an agent of oppression, women are belittled and infantilized long past when they mature, and on the other, actual feminine youth — the ideas, interests and lives of young women — is invalidated at every turn. Girlhood has been taken and manipulated. Pottymouth sought to take it back.

With this reclaimed and re-defined manifestation of girlhood, and a reclaimed and re-defined space that Bratmobile helped pave, Pottymouth hits listeners with a whiplash 17 songs in under 28 minutes that smash so hard and fast, you have to confront them. When you turn on Pottymouth, flashes of challenges to establishment, intimate partner violence, power dynamics and patriarchy swarm you in a strange mix of panic and catharsis until, all of a sudden, it’s over and you’re left with silence, residual adrenaline, revolutionary ideology and the pulsing rage of awareness.

While the Riot Grrrl movement as a whole lacked the intersectionality to be anything close to an all-encompassing feminist savior, that same pulsing rage of awareness fostered by work like Pottymouth is as relevant as ever, and as powerful as ever. It reminds us to celebrate and create spaces of “girlhood” — in the broadest, queerest definition possible — because, as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna wrote, to conclude a manifesto for the moment, “I believe with my whole heart mind body that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”

Profile Picture of Amileah Sutliff
Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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