The Riot Grrrl movement of the 90’s is one among many of the underappreciated movements that propelled feminist ideas and influences into the pop culture spotlight. It was a movement based in music that rose out of the punk rock subculture in the Pacific Northwest. Riot Grrrl was about consciousness raising and it wasn’t afraid to be political. House shows and performances became spaces of safety and cultural awareness. It’s an environment that serves as both the background and the motivation for Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.
In her book, Brownstein discusses everything from body image to women in music. Broken up into three sections, the memoir begins with Brownstein’s childhood. She talks about identity as it relates to her own father’s struggle to accept his sexuality and delves into what it’s like to bear witness to a woman’s war on her own body in her discussion of her mother’s battle with anorexia. She enters into this idea of mind/body separation as well saying, ““But there were ways in which I started to disconnect from my body during this time; that’s where the sadness was, not just mine but these other women’s as well.” (p. 38) A lot of the memoir returns to this emotional separation and how Brownstein felt the pressure to pretend like everything was fine despite increasing feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
The exploration of delegitimizing one’s own pain was reminiscent of a Leslie Jamison essay entitled, “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” in which she dissects how women experience, express and emote pain, including an introduction of studies that find women are less likely to be believed when they speak of illness or injury. There is the assumption of exaggeration even though men were found to be more likely of melodrama. It’s startling but unsurprising in a culture that continually denies and de-legitimizes accusations of sexual harassment and rape.
In addition to themes of body/mind awareness, sexuality, body image and mental illness, most of the memoir is spent discussing Brownstein’s time as the guitarist in the all female band, Sleater-Kinney. A lot of what comes up in this section, is what it means to be a “woman in music” and how frustrating it is to answer questions about it. She makes the point that “Anything that isn’t traditional for women apparently requires that we remind people what an anomaly it is, even when it becomes less and less of an anomaly.” (p. 168) She also discusses how female performers are viewed in the public eye.
There’s a section where she interprets our interpretation of the connection female performers have to the narratives of their songs, unpacking this idea that we have a difficult time accepting when a narrative is non-personal. She states that: “When a woman sings a non-personal narrative, listeners and watchers must acknowledge that she’s not performing as herself, and if she’s not performing as herself, then it’s not her who is wooing us, loving us.” (p. 166) It’s an incredibly eloquent way of opening up a dialogue about how we still feel entitled to the affections of women we don’t even know. There’s an ownership of their persons without any consensual agreement.
While Brownstein’s novel is impressively well-written, eloquent, funny and nostalgic, it does avoid the issue of privilege. The biggest issue that I found with the piece was that there’s a severe element of white feminism to it all. Brownstein talks about all of the experiences but fails to ever address how her privilege allowed her to exist in those spaces more easily than in others. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is well worth the read but one must remember to take intersectionality into account when thinking about and applying Brownstein’s ideas.
Featured image here.