by Chanelle Adams
April 25th, 2106
Many of us have dreamt of starting a badass girl band. Few of us have been as public and reflective about the process as Michelle Cruz Gonzales, who had no idea picking up a guitar in rural Toulumne, California would lead to a life-long journey in punk feminism.
So who better than to write about the complex topics of authenticity, creativity, and race in feminism than Gonzales, known professionally as Todd, the Xicana non-riot grrl drummer from Spitboy?
The Spitboy Rule (May 2016, PM Press) is a tell-all road diary – first a zine, now a book – in which Gonzales offers a glimpse her life as a Xicana punk drummer in the 90s – an experience that has been largely written out of history, save for zines and blogs such as the POC Zine project.
After a beautifully insightful introduction by Martín Sorrondeguy, of openly queer punk band Limp Wrist, Gonzales takes you through it all. As a reader, you go on tour as her bus breaks down in the middle of Wyoming, the band stops driving because their period cycles all sync up, Kurt Cobain dies, and Gonzales and her bandmates eventually break their Spitboy rule: no boyfriends on tour.
For me, reading The Spitboy Rule was like a throwback Thursday. Gonzales’ journal-like writing chronicles her experiences coming of age in the 90s punk scene. Now a professor of English and Creative Writing, Gonzales’ memoir convincingly brings the reader right back into the mentality of being a teenager; the trap of simultaneously looking to fit in and stand out, and an exhausting oscillation between self-consciousness, self-righteousness, vulnerability and outright stubbornness. For Gonzales, being a Xicana in a majority white punk-sphere makes the usual punk teen complexities that much more difficult to navigate, an experience that many punks (and ex-punks) of color know all too well.
Gonzales rejected riot grrrl from within the heart of riot grrrl territory: her band, Spitboy. While the third-wave riot grrrl movement, in all of its gender equality glory, was liberatory for many, present-day romanticization of the movement flattens the complexities of ‘90s feminism. Feminism is not (and never was) a monolithic ideology or singular movement, especially when it comes to issues of race, transphobia and classism.
While Gonzales admits she shared many commitments with riot grrrls, Spitboy was decidedly not a riot grrrl band. Some of the major differences were that Spitboy didn’t want to be called girls (during those years, Michelle went by her nickname “Todd”) and the band did not require men to stand in the back for their shows (which riot grrrl band Bikini Kill notably demanded of their audiences).
The story of Spitboy shows riot grrrl bands weren’t the only feminist and transgressive hardcore punk ’90s spaces. Instead, bands like Gonzales’s pushed on tensions within the movement from outside.
Mimi Nguyen, author of Evolution of a Race Riot, longtime zinester, and brilliant scholar, offers a preface to the book. She provides the context of dominant attitudes in punk such as “racist cool” and “white supremacy camouflage” in punk’s “bro-dominant scene.” Punk is a dominated by white cishet men from the suburbs who are mad at their moms. This makes punk an especially difficult space to navigate for anyone who occupies space outside of that narrow experience. The racialized and gendered tensions in punk, as Mimi has written and talked about time and time again, often reveal themselves in racist lyrics, appropriation, and exclusivity.
Reaching Gonzales’ story submerges the reader into the complexities of navigating this reality.
As a woman of color raised by a single mother in a predominantly white town, Gonzales was certainly an outsider to the scene. “As a Mexican American, a Xicana in a hick town, I was never allowed to forget that I didn’t fit in, that I muddled their waters.” In some ways, the punk scene provided a respite. But, as Nguyen’s introduction foreshadows, Gonzales’s escape from rural California into her musical career wasn’t an escape from racism. As she documents, Gonzales navigated the casual racism within punk in the “post-racial” ‘90s. “I could never pass really,” Gonzales writes, “but I did vacillate between being quite vocal about my Xicanisma and trying to just fit in with everyone else because going it alone was too exhausting.”
A turning point for Gonzales within the punk scene was Spitboy’s third release “Mi Cuerpo Es Mio” (My Body is Mine). In a way, this was Gonzales’ coming out as a person of color in a punk world that treated her as different, but did not call racism by its name. When a white riot grrl called out the album title for being cultural appropriation, it became clear to Gonzales that she was passing as white. Gonzales writes:
During my days entrenched in the scene, I never tried to pass for white, but my nickname was Todd and people didn’t always go by there last names. Familial ties were less important than what band you were in, zine you wrote, or city you were from, and a lot of us were from broken or dysfunctional families anyway… Although I looked quite different from the rest of the Spitboy, my ethnicity didn’t often come up in conversation, not in the Bay Area. In the 1990’s, people were still trying to be colorblind, to not see race, or to pretend not to see it, as the case may be… Apparently my body was invisible.
The book hit close to home for me. Ironically, in all of its whiteness, riot grrrl was my access point into feminism. I think it was because of my frustration of knowing I was an outsider, but not having the tools to express it. As a black queer woman raised by a single mother in a house we would never own, punk music spoke to me. But at shows, it would feel obvious that I did not belong. I was not a middle-class white boy who hated my mom. I would have my ass-grabbed and get called a N-r with people I’d go to shows with. Like Gonzales, I picked my battles.
I am reminded of one summer I spent in Providence when I saw Malportado Kids perform.
Victoria Ruiz, also of Downtown Boys, in all her glory sang along to aggressive dance music “Mi concha no es bastante blanca para ti“ (My pussy isn’t white enough for you) while a parade of mostly white toddlers spawned from white Providence crust-punks joined the stage in their intricate robot costumes made of cardboard and recycled materials. Everyone cheered. I, a Black woman, next to my Mexican-Persian best friend, laughed. I watched as these children danced with a carefree attitude while a Brown woman sang about her pain in the background. I wondered, is this what post-racial looks like? Does it mean ignoring the differences for aesthetic connections in punk, or was I actually witnessing a negotiation between identities that come to punk for different reasons?
“We are all punks, but we are not all punks
the same.” Nguyen’s introduction captures the sometimes invisible
differences in punk communities at the heart of Spitboy,
I think there are echoes of this sentiment in feminism more broadly. We are all feminists, but we are not all the same. Feminism has done its fair share of excluding intersectional approaches to issues such as race, sexuality, class, ability, migration status, etc. It is that difference within community that is essential and heartbreaking in Gonzales’s journey.