At Oberlin’s Fourth Feline Riot, Girls Own the Night


Photo Courtesy of Nancy Boutilier

Visiting Assistant Professor Nancy Boutilier rocks out on bass guitar during last year’s Feline Riot show. The annual concert that showcases women and femme-identifying musicians will take place at the Cat in the Cream April 10.

Kiana Mickles

Are you a woman or femme-identifying? Want to start a band? Never performed in front of a live audience? Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Nancy Boutilier says, “Come join us!”

Boutilier and Associate Director of Admissions Kristen Surovjak were members of the punk band Backbone for five years before they first organized Feline Riot at the Girls Rock Camp in Portland, OR. Since moving to Oberlin four years ago, the Feline Riot annual concert has showcased women’s talent in a genre often dominated by men. In the event’s title, “Riot” is derived from the riot grrrl movement of the early 1990s, which brought feminist discourses and politics into underground punk. This year’s annual Feline Riot will be held at the Cat in the Cream April 10.

While the event does not solely feature punk acts, Feline Riot is heavily influenced by bands like Bikini Kill that were unapologetically feminist in their lyrics and performances. “We grew up in the DIY movement,” Boutilier said. She and Surovjak emphasized the lack of a designated space for female musicians to showcase their music, so they created one themselves.

This attitude is also evident in the various merchandise — posters, stickers, T-shirts — created for the event. One shirt, which Boutilier donned for our interview, is neon yellow with the words “FELINE RIOT 2015” encircling a bright green venus symbol that resembles a cat’s head.

Oberlin band Big Whoop will make one of its first public appearances at Feline Riot. The band is composed of College sophomore singer Camille Pass, double-degree sophomore bassist Margaret McCarthy and first-year drummer Maya Howard-Watts. The band emerged last year as an Avril Lavigne cover band. Pass first attended Feline Riot last year, and the positive energy of the event got her excited about the performance this year. This time, however, she brought her whole band.

Pass described the Oberlin music scene as difficult to navigate, since there are not enough events that showcase female talent without tokenizing. “There are [either] people who want to have events like this for women and femme-identifying people, but they don’t actually follow through, … or [there are] men looking for a specifically femme act for their all-male show to balance it,” Pass said. “Nancy doesn’t allow that to happen.”

Pass said that she often worries about being limited as a female musician. “There wasn’t really a space for me on campus as a solo singer-songwriter besides Open Mic Night, and then I also felt put into a hole of ‘girl with an acoustic guitar,’” she said.

Feline Riot features genres ranging from rock to punk to folk. The celebration of female talent attracts femmes as young as seven and as old as 60, including Oberlin students, city residents and College faculty. Boutilier says she was disappointed that Twila and the Biohazards, composed of Biology department faculty, will not perform this year. “This has always been a joyful event and historically supportive for all women,” Surovjak said.

Another aim of Feline Riot is to close the “confidence gap” among performers and to disprove the idea that women must attain perfection in order to succeed. One of Boutilier and Surovjak’s inspirations was a case study that outlined the limiting effects of women not having enough confidence. “Men only need to feel 60 percent confident to feel qualified, while women need to feel 90 percent confident,” Surovjak said. Pass expressed similar sentiments about how her band members are treated. “There’s this stereotype that women don’t understand all the chords, they don’t understand all the fancy techniques,” Pass said. “[People have said,] ‘Are you sure [about] what you’re doing with that amp?’”

Boutilier and Surovjak designed Feline Riot to be a space where perfectionism is not the ideal. They instead want performers to grow on stage and have fun at the same time. “Music is the medium, performance is the empowerment,” Boutilier said.