The Forgotten Women of Punk: Spitboy’s Michelle Cruz Gonzales on Riot Grrrl, Dystopias, and More

The second interview of Flavorwire’s Forgotten Women of Punk series is with Michelle Cruz Gonzales, drummer – and one of the lyricists — for the ‘90s political hardcore group Spitboy. (You can read the first interview, with Osa Atoe of Shotgun Seamstress, here.) Michelle has focused on writing and teaching since Spitboy’s breakup; she’s been published in several anthologies, blogs at Pretty Bold Mexican Girl, and is working on a book about her days in Spitboy, entitled The Spitboy Rule: Tales Of A Female Punk Band, which is due out next spring from PM Press.

Michelle’s recollections of her Spitboy days and observations about the way she situates herself in the history of punk are lively and thoughtful. We talked about about those subjects, along with the fact that not every punk woman was a Riot Grrrl, dystopias, the recent Epicenter Zone reunion, and the value of punk spaces and memoirs.

Flavorwire: I first saw Spitboy back in the ’90s, and it really struck me that you guys were resistant to the narrative that every “girl band” was a riot grrrl band. That’s stuck with me for a long time: the idea that riot grrrl was a very specific movement, and that there were other movements that had similar goals and worked in tandem/in parallel at the same time, but were not part of riot grrrl. Can you tell me a little bit about where Spitboy came from and the historical movement that you situate yourselves in?

Michelle Gonzalez: Spitboy formed in the SF Bay Area in 1990. I’m not sure exactly when riot grrrl formed, but it seems we formed right before [it] or just at the same time, but without knowledge of the other given the geographic distance and [the fact that there was] no internet back then. 1990s Bay Area feminists, adult women, insisted on being called women — wimmin, even —because anything less felt disrespectful. When men get to be called men and women are called girls it highlights the speaker’s belief in the gender-based hierarchy. Making a point to call ourselves women was a way to bring attention to those inequalities. The name Spitboy itself comes from an alternative creation myth – one in which a male child is made from the woman’s body. Spitboy was cut from that cloth, and it would have taken a major shift in feminist identity to say we were riot grrrls. Spitboy was also very uncomfortable with using our sexuality as power, sort of encouraging objectification. We did, however, have a great deal of respect for what [riot grrrl] stood for.

Was Spitboy your first band? Have you been in any bands since? Are you making music currently?

I started my first band with Nicole Lopez and Sue Ann Carney, my childhood best friends. The three of us grew up on welfare in a very small town and somehow managed to be friends all through high school and become punk music fans together. I think that growing up on welfare under Reagan and being raised by single moms might have had something to do with it. That band was called Bitch Fight –we all moved to the San Francisco together after graduation and played shows at Gilman and around the Bay Area. We were even on a Lookout Records compilation, The Thing That Ate Floyd. When Bitch Fight broke up, our guitar player ([who was] originally from LA) later formed The Trash Women, and I did a stint on guitar in Kamala and the Karnivores, [eventually] recording with them. As soon as Kamala and the Karnivores broke up, I started looking for other women to play with, and I knew I wanted to go back to drums because I’m really not a very good guitar player at all. Today, I spend most of my artistic time on writing, but I do play drums and sing in an English department band with a bunch of colleagues – we play a couple of shows a year.

You have a memoir coming out soon, The Spitboy Rule. Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to write the book and about the material we’ll find in it?

The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band is my second memoir, [but] the first to be published. The first is about growing up Chicana in a small town. This one is mostly about Spitboy, but it does include a lot of my history growing up in that small town, starting Bitch Fight, getting bullied, and going to see The Clash at the US Festival at 13, and having my mind totally blown. I came home and cut off my feathered hair right away. There are also pieces in the book about touring, recording, band dynamics, audience response, and race, class, and identity.

I’m part of an online writing community (Literary Kitchen) lead by Ariel Gore of Hip Mama magazine, and one of her writing prompts got me writing about Spitboy, and I got a lot of great feedback. I really had no idea the stories would be of such interest and/or that I actually already had a somewhat built-in writer’s platform as the drummer of Spitboy, an audience. I realized all this when I posted my first piece “The Spitboy Rule” on my blog. A built-in audience for a writer is a lucky thing to have, so I spent all last summer writing more pieces, realizing with each new piece that I was telling a unique tale totally worth sharing more widely.

I’ve always really loved this piece — a friend of mine shared it right after you wrote it and I immediately started following your blog. It really says volumes about intersecting lived identities and survival methods as well as being a great piece of punk memoir. I’d like to know a little bit more about how your identities (punk, writer, Xicana, and so forth) have informed who you were and who you’ve become, and whether you find them useful, constraining, or both.

“Come Out With Your Hands Up” was a really fun piece to write. Spitboy really did get pulled over by cops at gunpoint. It was so surreal that I wasn’t all that scared. I was also really young and with a group of white women, so we didn’t have the kinds of fears that say, my husband, a dark-skinned Mexican with an accent, or a black man would have. One of the things I try to convey in the piece is how much times have changed. Spitboy was touring before 9/11. It really seemed of practically no consequence to go into Canada to make money without visas and to smuggle merchandise across the border.

I think it’s good punk memoir too, but I also know that reading a punk memoir from the perspective of a person of color is going to make this a very different or unique experience for the reader. I worked very hard to show my perspective and to question my own assumptions, to ask that the reader see as many different sides as possible.

As for my identities, the book does deal with my discontent about being a person of color and the shame I still felt in the punk scene about growing up on welfare, but one of its most important themes is the idea that we are all of our identities all of the time – we can try to compartmentalize them, but that only works for so long. Once Spitboy, and later Instant Girl broke up, I needed to walk away from punk because to a large degree it had encouraged compartmentalization. I went back to school, got married, had a son, but look at me I’m back again because being rebellious and political and DIY are all things that I have always been – punk is a part of my identity too.

I know you’re focusing on teaching and writing about dystopias right now, and I agree with you here that dystopian literature is all about questioning authority and reality in the same way that punk is. Can you elaborate a little more on your thoughts on all of this? What do you think about some of the dystopian literature that’s become mainstream, like The Hunger Games?

So many bands, especially punk bands, reference 1984 or Orwellian concepts. Orwell, in particular, was a huge influence on a lot of people in political punk bands. In fact, Joe Strummer is like the punk George Orwell – both their fathers were diplomats, both were born in a colony. Take a song like “London Calling” by The Clash; it’s totally apocalyptic – very dark and dystopian, or on the eve of a dystopia.

I told my literature students last year that The Hunger Games is the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to my dystopian lit class. It’s good for the genre because it brings awareness to the genre and creates interest in classic dystopian novels. It’s good for my class because the students have a frame of reference and they get less freaked out or depressed when they read 1984. They have a better understanding of the purpose of a cautionary tale.

The bad thing about the The Hunger Games is that the writing is pretty weak, and it’s hard for anybody, not just students, to be able to separate something they love from the fact that it’s not really written, that there are better written books out there. On the other hand, sometimes, perfect art isn’t the point.

Clearly, The Hunger Games, and its female protagonist, who’s keenly aware of the power of image, came at just the right time given its popularity. Since The Hunger Games, much of the new dystopian lit has been written for the young adult audience, the perfect audience for what the genre has to offer: angst ridden characters, rebellion, feelings of helplessness and paternalistic oppression, all that. Still, it would be best to write a book that shows more and tells less with solid prose and an awesome message.

How was the Epicenter Zone reunion? I was really sad I couldn’t make it — it just wasn’t on the cards money or time-wise for me.

The reunion was good. It started of unsure of itself, but once it got going it was great, inspiring, and with just the right amount of quirk. Lynn Breedlove’s Homobiles were so great. I was really nervous the morning of [the show], and I actually started reading How To be a Chicana Role Model on the BART train for courage. I don’t normally get nervous before readings because I’ve been performing in front of audiences since I started playing the flute in the third grade and I “perform” as a teacher daily during the school year, so feeling so nervous threw me. It was unsettling reading after a bunch of bands, trying to command attention all on my own with a story, and a personal one at that. I get punchy when I’m nervous, so I just put that energy into my reading and I feel it came off really well.

Any further thoughts on the value of memoir?

Memoir is such a deceiving genre. It’s quite counterintuitive that others would find my specific experiences that interesting, or that they could be universal, but good memoir doesn’t just focus on experiences, it also offers a specific perspective and/or reflection on the experiences. I’m lucky with The Spitboy Rule because everyone wants to be a rock star, or has a rock star fantasy, and while Spitboy were not traditional rock stars, the stories are about playing music, creating art, touring the US and overseas, friendships with other bands, and other behind the scenes topics. Memoir can be subject to hasty bad writing, but a well-written memoir can change a life.

Any further thoughts on how women have been historicized in punk and hardcore?

Not all, but a lot of the punk herstory coming out right now is through the lens of riot grrl. If women in bands not associated with riot grrl aren’t documented somehow, they will be forgotten, erased. As I worked on my collection and more and more riot grrl ephemera was making its way into academia, I began to feel a great sense of responsibility to document Spitboy’s experience — a band that was together for six years, released several records, and toured the US a number of times, as well as Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Additionally, like with Alice Bag’s Violence Girl, it was important for me to tell a story, or show a side that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. [The stories of] women of color, or people of color, in punk: people seem really hungry for those stories right now too.