Making it like a riot-grrrrl

I have returned to this piece in the context of the #digdiv2015 conference that is happening right now in Edmonton CA and I find a glaring problem – it’s fine on gender and it completely sucks from anything like an intersectional perspective. I’ll work to write a new piece drawing on this great event that I’m at (after I take time to enjoy mama’s day) and that piece will do better. For now, I want to acknowledge here that this piece does not discuss race, sexuality, ability vectors as it should
I’d like to take a moment to see what a synthesis of two threads within recent DH debates yields for our conversations about creating an inclusive community.

The first is the idea of “making” – specifically the notion that there is something of a “do it yourself” ethic within DH – and the second is the conversation about women in the field – in particular thinking through the possibility of a feminist technosocial context within DH.

Dan Cohen tweeted this morning about Fugazi front man Ian MacKaye’s DIY approach to archiving, reminding me of a recent set of conversations about Trevor Owens’ summer post about DIY and digital humanities. Owens was ruminating on his observation that a number of his DH colleagues were also songwriters, former band members, cooks, gardeners, and zine publishers. As he put it: “one of the defining features (of DH)… is pervasive kind of scrappyness. It’s about having a do it yourself mindset.”

A colleague asked what I thought about his argument. In my response at the time I suggested that I had seen similar trends amongst my DH colleagues, but I also said:  “I’m not sure that any of this is unique to DH – I know a lot of DIY academics generally…”. The question of a DIY ethic has stuck with me over the last several weeks and in various conversations people have conveyed a similar sense that DIY is pretty pervasive amongst academics of a certain generation, and perhaps within a cultural moment for relatively affluent Americans generally (there are some class issues around DIY’s availability as a “movement” rather than an everyday reality that I won’t get into here).  I don’t think DIY is unique to DH. But there is something about DIY that is “sticky” for DH. It is clear that appeals to making, doing, building, and to a special DIY culture have been part of the authorizing rhetoric of many DH projects and recent conversations about what constitutes DH work.
“DIY” refers to a set of related, but not identical traditions. The first aligns with our current “DIY Network” – a home improvement cable channel with a clear lineage to the 1950’s variant of DIY that emphasized the importance of competency in material arts – the heyday perhaps of the shop class. The lineage moves from a masculinized return to personal competency into a 1970s green, “return to the land/homesteading roots” approach and then into a more commercialized form today represented by the range of home improvement, gardening, cooking, and arts programs on cable. It’s worth noting a certain kind of gender binary within this later form – with the feminized Martha Stewart genre working in tandem with the “Men of HGTV” genre that features attractive men who advise on addition location, tear down walls, and re-plumb bathrooms.

“DIY” also refers to an anti-corporate, self-promoting, self-publishing movement closely associated with punk and indie music.  This is the kind of DIY evoked by  Owens’ post, in which skills are learned and tools are mastered in the service of a fledgling band. This is a “scrappy” DIY that isn’t afraid to rent the legion hall, that has enough privilege to sincerely believe that “there is a version of whatever it is that you want to do that you can do right now with only an investment of your time and energy.” It is a “Henry Rollins School.”
Now, I don’t know Owens and it might be a little unfair to place him at the center of the debate, but re-reading his post helped me crystallize why I was struggling with what seems to be a benign claim – that DH is DIY – it seems harmless right? Doing it yourself is enabling, empowering, and authentic – right? Wrong. In so far as DIY names a movement for which Rollins, former lead man for the punk band Blackflag, can function as an emblem it is a hypermasculinized set of practices and cultural spaces.

But there are other possibilities – DIY names a very diverse set of practices, from Arts and Crafts through to punk, and Rollins is not emblematic of the entire field of punk. While the women of punk remain a minority, are at risk of being lost to cultural memory (see Helen Reddington’s The Lost Women of Rock), and could be subject to a culture of sexual violence that makes Stephen Ramsay’s locker room anecdote (in his reply to Posner’s recent post) look tame, they remain powerful figures of feminist intervention, self-fashioning, and cultural production.
There’s a lot that Patti Smith, the Slits, and the Seattle riot-grrrrls might offer in the way of models and warnings. But if the DH in which I participate is going to be DIY, I want to it be more like a “riot-grrrls School” than a “Rollins School.” This means a sophisticated DIY infrastructure that favors women – spaces, practices, active interventions that make it possible for women to enter into and promote themselves..
I want this not because I ever felt excluded from the DH field. The opposite is true – the Women Writers Project was a great place to learn text encoding and to be introduced to a vibrant and exciting field. I remember being struck at my first TEI conference by how many interesting women were there and how supported I felt by everyone in the community. I want a riot-grrrl, proactive, perhaps even radical, feminist DH space because I’ve had the privilege of not feeling excluded and I’d like to use that privilege to address problems that loom large within DH not because DHers are bad or insensitive but because of the gendered differentials that have shaped and continue to shape the academy, access to and use of technology and knowledge, and monetary flows.
Ramsay’s anecdotes about a locker-room culture at computer technology events and his frustration as a teacher were familiar reading. While teaching at Harvey Mudd, a science and engineering college that takes pride in current near gender parity in admissions, I saw over and over again the difficult positions that young women find themselves in when training in science and technology fields. I heard the faculty (of both genders) who confessed to having no faith in the women in the room “because the history of their participation in this class demonstrates that they are less likely to succeed.” I saw the calendar of female students in little clothing and provocative positions that hangs in certain labs. I reached out to young women who cried in frustration because they just wanted to be treated like they belonged there, rather than like some sort of anomaly or remediation case.

— Addition —
It is worth saying that I think Mudd is a great place to teach and to be a student. What I’ve related above constitutes three instances where gender issues became clear to me during my time there. I don’t think that this should characterize HMC and given the way that gender issues can play out in STEM fields, I was not surprised to see such issues arise. As I note in a comment reply below, I think HMC works to address issues when they arise and that is a good thing for all involved.

Now at the neighboring women’s college, I have advised theses on gender and gaming culture that have emerged from student experiences of sexual harassment online and in game rooms. We’re all aware that these experiences move up and down the professional/education chain. I wrote for Day of DH about my frustration at STS at having only women attend the “Editing Digital Feminisms.” I felt the palpable excitement in the panels on games and noticed the gender disparity there – not quite the locker room, but there was a “man-cave” kind of vibe. I don’t want either the locker room or the man cave for my students, my colleagues, or myself.

We talked in the “Editing Digital Feminisms” panel that day about different models – about graffiti, fashion shows and chiffon, and queering our practices. Today I’m adding the zines, music, art, and performance of women-centered punk to the list of models. There’s a lot of work to do to ensure that we have a vibrant community – do you know who produced Bikini Kill’s first self-titled album?  Ian MacKaye of the aforementioned DIY archive – the DC punk scene might have some insights to offer…
For more on that see and Girls To The Front

10 Replies to “Making it like a riot-grrrrl”

  1. […] 3/3/12 10:12pm: Both Jacque Wernimont and Roger Whitson respond to these and related questions circling around the DH in this post. Share […]

  2. “In so far as DIY names a movement for which Rollins, former lead man for the punk band Blackflag, can function as an emblem it is a hypermasculinized set of practices and cultural spaces.”
    Yes, but there are scenes other than the riot-grrrls you mention that are actively reclaiming and transforming the label “DIY” such as the steampunk and cosplay subcultures. So, there is a lot of grassroots activity helping reform the idea of DIY and making it more gender-inclusive (I know many a steampunker or cosplayer who proudly states that she or someone she knows made most of her costume, using recycled materials at that!).
    Hopefully going more grassroots and taking cues from subcultures that have queered the DIY paradigm already will help address the institutional problems, what you describe as “the gendered differentials that have shaped and continue to shape the academy, access to and use of technology and knowledge, and monetary flows” and which I think you’re totally spot-on about. The institutional issues are large, but not insurmountable.

  3. “I want a riot-grrrl, proactive, perhaps even radical, feminist DH space because I’ve had the privilege of not feeling excluded and I’d like to use that privilege to address problems that loom large within DH not because DHers are bad or insensitive but because of the gendered differentials that have shaped and continue to shape the academy, access to and use of technology and knowledge, and monetary flows.”
    Great post! I am reminded of this 2000 essay by Hilary Chute (
    about the riot grrrl school and the important work of self-definition for feminist scholars, thinkers, DHers. Above all, this school emphasizes community and networking, and groups like Ladie Learning Code and PyLadies play a hugely important role here. I would love to see more groups like these nationwide! A THATCamp dedicated to feminisms?

  4. […] lives on, and stuff like sewing and crafting was part of DIY feminist culture. (Just as it was for Jacqueline Wermont!) We taught each other to sew and knit, and, yes, we put many a bird on […]

  5. Jacque: I really appreciate how you think through the maleness in McKaye’s DIY. In my own confrontations with his approach, I found thinking him through Third CInema to also be of real value: “”When I refer to ‘contemplative’ spectators, I mean ones who do not move beyond the passive-contemplative level; inasmuch as ‘active’ spectators, taking the moment of live contemplation as their point of departure, would be those who generate a process of critically understanding reality (including, of course, the show itself) and consequently, a practical, transforming action.” (Tomas Guiterrez Alea). Glad to have found your blog! Alex

  6. […] e-textile and softwear at our future iterations of the studio session. Or we may just institute a Riot Grrrl studio series or a […]

  7. Been enjoying following this issue trace its way across the blogosphere, like the DIY/historical perspective, but have to stick up for my alma mater here — I’m Mudd class of ’99, meaning I was there when gender parity was not yet on the horizon (my class was 27% female), and the experiences you describe were not my experience of Mudd. I’m in no way saying they aren’t important or didn’t happen; I just don’t want people to come away thinking that Mudd is somehow uniformly bad or unwelcoming on gender issues. My (male) department chair in particular was aggressive about recruiting and valuing female talent among both faculty and students, and — while I *did* find, for all that I had tons of CS-major friends, that there was something unpalatable about the CS culture (among the students, not the faculty) — and while it’s impossible to go to a school that’s a quarter female without being acutely aware, of both good and bad ways, of your sex — overall my experience of Mudd as a woman was highly positive. I didn’t feel like I was less valued, or that anyone — *anyone* — questioned my competence or my belonging.
    (And all of us wanted there to be more women. And all of us were scared that doing that would lead to their competence and belonging being questioned. Mudd was taking the right steps to advance gender parity in my day, but I don’t know the details of how they’ve pulled it off since.)

    1. Andromeda – thank you for the comment! You’re absolutely right that there is a lot that is really great at Mudd and that women very often find it to be a supportive, friendly place. I’d say that Mudd has actually come some good distance in addressing some of the issues that cropped up a couple of years ago – so in addition to being a largely welcoming environment, the college has been proactive in addressing issues when they arise. One of the really hard things about campus cultures is that they are so temporally dependent. The make up of a particular year or set of years can really shape an experience. I’m very glad to hear that your experiences were largely good, despite a sometimes “unpalatable” culture – we need more women in CS!!

      1. Oh, I’m glad to hear they’ve been working on those :). I’ve been super-impressed at President Klawe’s work addressing the women-in-CS thing (and let the record show I was not one of the, like, two female CS majors I know from that time, although I’ve ended up writing a fair amount of code recently).
        And yeah, I am keenly aware that my late-90s perspective is less and less reliable by the day!

  8. Hi Jacque have you looked into the maker movement much? This movement which is combination of craft and technical hobbyist and entrepreneurs seems to fit what you are hoping for quite a bit more. The more commercial end of the movement is represented in the make magazine and their on line presence .

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