Riot Grrrl & the Second and Third Persona

Re-immersing myself in the past and present of zines has allowed me to reconsider the larger network of youth sub/cultures that have used them for their own action and activism. For instance in Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’s excellent book, feminist punk bands Bratmobile and Bikini Kill circulated their own zines, like Riot Grrrl, to promote their shows in DC, argue against Clarence Thomas’s justice nomination, and advance a DIY cut-n-paste aesthetic to contest glossy, teen-girl magazines like Seventeen. Another example: skateboarding culture in California in the 70s and 80s were helped by zines like Skateboarding Magazine and Thrasher, which featured overviews of skate spots, new tricks, profiles of skaters, and the visual rhetoric within: stunning photography of skaters and the designs of their boards. In many cases these zine scenes were made up of rhetors and audiences who reciprocated roles. The friends who were reading Riot Grrrl or Skateboarding were also in the bands, showcased in the pictures, etc.

While DIY communities exist across and within every age from carpenters to scrapbookers to micro brewers, I imagine that youth subcultures in particular present important affordances to rhetorical inquiry. For one, as teachers, it might help us to draw from examples that our students can relate to; perhaps more importantly for rhetorical theory is how such young rhetors negotiate being simultaneously vulnerable and emerging (that is, powerless but invigorated). This is especially interesting since so often youth subcultures are presented as flipping the script of the traditional rhetoric-action paradigm as action-first, rhetoric-later: the music came before the zines and the skating preceded the photos. Even if this is only a mirage (itself a rhetorical construction) or just a reduction of the rhetorical situation, I wonder why it seems this way? Probably more accurate is to say the action itself posits a certain kind of rhetoric. Certainly tricking rail slides and grinds at a local mall or playing a punk show in a bra has a certain effect on an audience.

In terms of audience, three concepts seem to dominate rhetorical theory: the First, Second, and Third Persona. The First Persona is the implied author, a self-constructed author. According to Philip Wander, the First Persona includes “a speaker and a speaker’s intent,” “the ‘I'” (369). The Second Persona is the listener(s), and conceives of the audience as auditors. Wander defines the Third Persona as “audiences not present, audiences rejected or negated through the speech and/or the speaking situation.” It is what’s negated by the Second Persona: “[t]he potentiality of language to commend being [the Second Persona] carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable, undesirable, insignificant” (370). The Third Persona functions as alienation, but also silence to prevent beings from producing texts or discourse that would circulate in public spaces.

Sara Marcus’s book might give readers a sense of this Third Persona as it existed for women of the late 80s/early 90s punk scene, who struggled to be visible both in and out of that scene. Even within feminist discourses of the early 90s, pioneers like Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill felt alienated by anti-pornography advocates like Andrea Dworkin. As a stripper who also worked as a counselor at a women’s shelter, Hannah felt the effects of the Third Persona running through feminist discourse. That said, after several attempts at writing an starting bands she met Tobi Vail and started Bikini Kill, thus starting a movement and engaging what Edwin Black calls the Second Persona.

According to Black the Second Persona occurs when rhetors use stylistic, idiomatic tokens — metaphors, topos — to tap into an ideology that influences the auditor: “auditors look to the discourse they are attending for cues that tell them how they are to view the world even beyond the expressed concerns, the overt propositional sense, of the discourse” (334). As Black sees it, the modern teleology is a “quest for identity” and as such auditors continually look for tokens that reinforce their imagined life (335). We are encouraged “not simply to believe something, but to be something” (339). As Wander puts it, the Second Persona reveals itself when the audience is “commended through discourse” (369). It “exists as a fact and an invitation” (369). A zine like Riot Grrrl, then, asked its readers to not just become part of the revolution, but to be it as the Hannah/Vail coined slogan was Revolution Girl Style Now.

As Sara Marcus reports, the first issue’s centerfold included a manifesto-like list of imperatives (which she says could be seen as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah’s notes-to-self):

Recognize that you are not the center of the universe.
Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships.
Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.
Recognize vulnerability and empathy as strengths.
Don’t allow the fact that other people have been assholes to you make you into a bitter and abusive person.
Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival. (85)

As Black would see it, the syntax, diction and second-person point of view of the imperatives serve as cues for readers to help picture an imagined life among a very small (at the time) riot grrrl movement that was working its voice into an already politically committed youth subculture of punk and underground music. Perhaps more interesting to me is how the visual rhetoric of cut-n-paste — the appropriated Superwoman iconography and potato chip logos — also serve as stylized tokens to export an ideology. In other words, while the content is fairly banal, the form of the zine is what made the riot grrrl movement persuasive to audiences.

For a time, anyway. As grunge became popular and rock stars like Courtney Love re-appropriated riot grrrl aesthetic in 1993, the original stylized tokens lost their potency. I’m not even mid-way through Marcus’s book but I’ll be curious to see how this narrative plays out. Regardless, the relationship between action and rhetoric may be slightly better understood through theories of audience that make room for more fluidity. Under what conditions, for instance, would an alienated youth subculture, which is born out of a necessity of talking to itself, break free and begin to reach other listeners? In terms of rhetorical theory, perhaps the question goes like this: what theories might account for how the rhetoric of youth subculture use the Second Persona to move away from its status of the Third? And how does this movement, paradoxically, risk sublimating itself back to a status of the Third (that is, via its subsequent appropriation)? Mid-way through my contemporary rhetorics course, I’m seeing rhetorical ecologies as the most useful approach to these sorts of questions.