Not a Riot Grrrl Band: Musician Michelle Cruz Gonzales Sounds off on Punk Feminism
by Kitty Lindsay
Los Angeles Review of Books
February 3rd, 2018
FOR WOMEN WHO came of age in the 1990s, women-led rock bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile struck an empowering chord with their in-your-face hardcore punk style and patriarchy-smashing lyrics. The introduction of these female-fronted bands into pop culture kick-started the feminist-focused punk rock revolution Riot Grrrl, a music movement that continues to reverberate today in the girl-powered anthems of Ex Hex, Pussy Riot, and Tacocat.
Spitboy, a hardcore punk band formed in 1990 in Berkeley by drummer-lyricist Michelle Cruz Gonzales, was not a Riot Grrrl band — and she won’t let you to forget it. In her memoir, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band, Gonzales hits all the right notes in the telling of her band’s unique contributions to punk and feminism, with unabashed details of the sexism, classism, and racism they incurred.
Recently, I spoke with Gonzales about Spitboy’s unapologetically feminist agenda and her inspiring journey of self-discovery.
KITTY LINDSAY: What did the punk rock scene in the Bay Area look like at the time you started Spitboy?
MICHELLE CRUZ GONZALES: I lived in San Francisco for about a year and a half, then I moved to the East Bay, and the punk scene was definitely male and predominantly white. There were a lot of women and people of color in the scene — I was there and I’m a Xicana — but they just weren’t as visible. I definitely saw other people like me in those days, but as a woman playing music in that scene, you felt a little bit like a novelty act.
In your experience, did you find the punk rock scene to be a welcoming space for women?
Gilman Street strove to be a welcoming space for women because it has always, and still does, strived to be a place for everybody and a safe place for young people; no alcohol, no violence. But it wasn’t always a safe place for women. I was groped in the pit several times at Gilman and other places, too. There are always people who come with evil intentions and there are guys who don’t care anything about consent. I remember having my rear end pinched, and I turned around and punched the guy who did it.
Punk rock is an aggressive art form. What attracted you to the hardcore genre of music?
It started with The Clash being very political, singing about Latin America and Latin American issues and struggles. I grew up during the Reagan era in Tuolumne, which is a very small, very white, conservative town in California, and my mom was a single mom. There really is nothing like being a single mom in a conservative American era, than being the daughter of a Xicana single mom in a conservative era to politicize you at an early age. I became very aware that things weren’t fair in my life and for my mother, and that the government was using us as examples of people who ought to be criticized for being drains on the economy. That made me very angry.
I was also bullied a lot at school; bullying puts a chip on your shoulder. I looked like an outsider; I was Othered by people from a very early age, and then being politicized through Reagan and through having a single mom, I just latched on to the anger of punk rock. When I found that some bands were actually singing about political issues that I could relate to, it seemed like a no-brainer.
What inspired Spitboy?
My first band, Bitch Fight, broke up and I was really sad. I joined another band, Kamala and the Karnivores, briefly, playing guitar. It was a pop-punk band that I loved, but it wasn’t a political band. The songs were very, very feminist, but they were more feminist break-up songs, feminist love songs; which is cool, but at the time, I wanted to get back to playing drums and writing lyrics.
So when Kamala and the Karnivores broke up, I started looking for women who wanted to be in another female band like Kamala and the Karnivores and Bitch Fight, but who wanted to play harder music and wanted to be political and sing about women’s issues and I just happened to cobble together the right people.
Why was it important that Spitboy was an all-female band?
I didn’t ever really want to play music with men. From a very early age, I remember being around men thinking, “They’re a club and I will never be a part of that club.” There were subtle things; language and mannerisms, that men have, that showed me that women might not be taken as seriously. It made me angry. So when I started playing music, I wanted to be in my own band. I never considered being in a band with a man. If I’m going to be in a band, I’m going to be in a band with my girlfriends.
Feminism plays such a large role in Spitboy’s artistry and identity. Was that a conscious choice?
Yes, it was conscious. When I met Adrienne Droogas [who would become Spitboy’s lead singer], she was making a feminist zine. I met her with [bassist] Paula Hibbs-Rines and I said, “I want to put together an all-female band and sing about women’s issues.” We came with this fully formed idea. Paula knew [guitarist] Karin Gembus and invited her. I had already written a song called “Seriously,” about being sexually harassed, so that sort of set the tone.
Did you ever worry that Spitboy’s hardcore feminist message might alienate some audiences?
We decided it wasn’t going to be a concern of ours. This is our message, and we won’t play places that aren’t into that. We figured the right places would book us.
But there was also this other element to it, too; that alcohol and men in the audience is a really bad combination for a band that sings about feminist issues. If you want to get harassed at a show, play at a bar and lecture men about feminism.
A lot of people don’t want to go to a punk show and get a lecture, but we didn’t care. We want to be a band for women in the scene and while we’re at it, we’d like to tell the young men a thing or two and maybe prevent harassment, prevent rape, or get people thinking about these issues. We knew that we were alienating some people, but the music was loud and fast and angry, so it was a combative, and we just thought, we’re never going to break into a major label. That wasn’t our aim, so we didn’t really spend a lot of time worrying about that.
In your book, you wrote about an uncomfortable moment during a gig when you announced to the audience, made up of Riot Grrrl musicians, that Spitboy was not a Riot Grrrl band. What were the differences between Spitboy and Riot Grrrl bands, and why was it important to you to distinguish yourselves from that movement?
We had been on tour for a couple of weeks and even before the tour, in interviews locally or around California, we’d always get asked about Riot Grrrl. Usually the question would be: “Are you a Riot Grrrl band?” We’d always say no, but we tried never to say anything negative because we believed pretty much everything that Riot Grrrl espoused.
We were all for the Riot Grrrl ideals about girl love and not being competitive and supporting one another, but as Bay Area feminists, we did not want to be called “girls.” That was just a really big thing in the Bay Area feminist scene, in particular. We felt like we were grown-ups and had earned the title “woman” and that’s what we wanted to be called.
Then we had an issue with the boys-to-the-back thing. Riot Grrrl bands would play and they’d tell all the boys to go stand in the back. It’s actually a brilliant thing that they did; it just made us really uncomfortable. As a woman of color, it felt a little like the back of the bus. Even though men are dominant in our culture and we live in a patriarchy, I didn’t like the separatism.
The reason why I said, “We’re not a Riot Grrrl band” onstage at that show in front of members of Bikini Kill was because the men had come up to us before we played and asked, “Do you want us in the back?” At the time, we didn’t know the Riot Grrrl rule, so we’re like, “What? No, that’s horrible.” We’re not here to tell people what to do. We’re here to share our ideas and tell you about some injustices that woman face. I could have been a little more diplomatic, but I was young and we were learning a lot of things as we went.
During the Spitboy years, you played drums under the stage name, Todd. How did that moniker come about? How did assuming this identity affect your visibility as an Xicana musician in the punk rock scene?
The name was originally given to me in high school by my crush, Kevin. He was a drummer in the jazz band. He showed me a couple of things when I started teaching myself how to play the drums. He had a foster brother who my Bitch Fight bandmate Nicole Lopez became friends with, and his foster brother could never remember my name. One day we were all hanging out and he called me Todd and I’m like, “Why are you calling me that?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know, when I lived in Modesto in this other foster home, I had a friend named Todd and his girlfriend’s name was Nicole, so I just think Nicole and Todd.” Then Kevin started calling me Todd. Kevin could’ve called me anything and I would’ve answered — so much for my feminism — and after that, everyone at school started calling me Todd.
When I first started getting into punk, I cut my hair really short. I’m a mountain girl and mountains girls are always somewhat androgynous, so the name Todd fit me right away. It’s somewhat cooler in punk to have a name that’s not so normal, but it hindered me because we only used our first names on our records and people didn’t see me as an Xicana. My name was never an indicator of my identity as a Mexican American, and I started having that prototypical fractured identities that a lot of Latinos and people of color have in the United States. People don’t see you as American, but you’re not a Mexican national either, so the name Todd didn’t really help because, in some ways, it prohibited other people from seeing me for who I really was.
Your book strikes a chord for me in terms of your personal journey toward understanding all the identities you inhabit — Xicana, drummer, and feminist — and all of their intersections. During your time in Spitboy, were these identities ever at odds with one another? If so, how did you reconcile them?
Sometimes I didn’t. For me, Mexican misma, was connected with class. In terms of the band, there were major class disparities between the rest of the band and myself. Two of my bandmates were very upper-middle class and, on tour in particular, the differences in the way we saw the world clashed and I realized, “Wow, they don’t see me the way I see myself,” and I thought, “How much have I participated in my own invisibility and the erasure of my ethnic identity? How much have I contributed to that or participated in that and how much of this is how they grew up and see the world beyond their own experiences?” I think it was a combination of both.
Much of it can be explained by the fact that we were very young. We were navigating some very sophisticated things in our early 20s and we didn’t always do it right. We didn’t know how to talk about class differences and we just said things based on how we saw the world and assumed everyone else saw the world that way.
As an Xicana feminist musician, what did you learn through your experience as a performer in Spitboy?
Mainly I learned that I’m in charge of my identity and that that means I have to be vocal about my identity. I have to be patient with people who don’t have direct experience with my culture. I also have to demand that people allow me to identify myself the way that I want.
There are so many practical things that we learned how to do on tour that I was able to apply once I went back to school and that I use at my own job as a teacher. I try to be interesting and dynamic and never boring in class, and all the years that I performed in Spitboy, I just learned about a sense of audience. I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to go on and do all the things I had if I hadn’t been in Spitboy. I didn’t grow up with a lot of privilege or around people who went to college. The women in Spitboy did go to college and that inspired me to go back once the band broke up.
The years in the band made me realize a band is not an identity. A band cannot be your identity. It’s just your job. Our identities are way more complex and meaningful than that. That’s probably the most important thing I learned.
The Spitboy Rule is as much a critical historical text as it is an intersectional exploration of personal identity. What do you hope resonates with readers?
The ideas about identity, and the gentleness with which I tried to approach writing about identity and the understanding that I try to have for the other people who were kind of navigating my identity with me — even though we didn’t all realize that was happening.
The fact that Spitboy was an all-female band that could easily be erased from history, especially since we weren’t a Riot Grrrl band; but we existed. When I first started writing the book, I just wanted to write about Spitboy; the experience of being in a feminist band and being the only person of color in that band. As I got about half way through writing it, Carrie Brownstein’s book [Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl] came out and Kim Gordon’s book [Girl in a Band] came out, and I realized I had to make sure that everyone understood that Spitboy was not a Riot Grrrl band, but that we were around at the same time and we were just as important.
In my book, the Riot Grrrl chapter was originally called “The Riot Grrrl Controversy.” But I changed it on purpose to “Not a Riot Grrrl Band” to create the opportunity to have that discussion about what it was like to be an all-women punk band that started at the same time as Riot Grrrl, but was not part of that scene. When people think of women’s punk bands, they think of Riot Grrrl. Those two things have become synonymous and that is really upsetting because it potentially erases a lot of bands. I realized that one of my jobs in finishing the book is to make sure that didn’t happen.
Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and a regular weekend contributor at Hello Giggles. Her writing as appeared in Ms. magazine and on the Feminist Majority Foundation blog, The Establishment, Los Angeles Review of Books, AwesomenessTV, and Theatre Is Easy.