“All girls to the front!” In the middle of a dirty, dimly-lit punk show, the music has crashed to a stop, allowing the band’s spritely singer to command the audience. She paces the stage, microphone in hand. Her black hair is pulled into a messy ponytail, and she stares out into the crowd unapologetically in a plaid bra and black mini skirt. The room buzzes with uncertainty, but her demeanor makes it clear that disobeying is not an option. She waves her arms wildly, all at once beckoning and threatening her audience. “I’m not kidding.” As the band explodes into their next song, a row of teenage girls lines the stage, gazing up in wonder at this feminine force of nature. They move in unison, some even throwing flowers onto the tiny stage, in a bubble of safety from the punk boys violently dancing behind them. Thrashing across the platform, she shrieks over the pounding bass. “We are Bikini Kill, and we want revolution… GIRL! STYLE! NOW!”
This is Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of Bikini Kill and founder of the “Riot Grrrl” movement of the early 1990’s. Hanna became the movement’s icon—as the first popular feminist punk band, Bikini Kill had a colossal influence on the shift of women’s role in the world of punk music, but, more importantly, in the cultivation of an “alternative” third-wave feminist community. Ambassadors for female autonomy, each of their shows played like a standoff against the patriarchy.
The only effective way to document such an influential project is by focusing on the raw “truth” rather than listing an assortment of facts—detailing individual experiences of Bikini Kill, not rewording the band’s Wikipedia page. To find and convey this truth, it is necessary to look deeper, specifically into the impression of the project on the lives of its creators, its fans, its critics, and the public. Brian Phillip makes this point in his article “Death and Information”, stating that “truth… is always a matter of particular, lived experience—of so many hundreds or thousands or millions of particular experiences, or of one particular experience” (Phillips, 2013). Bikini Kill isn’t just an abrasive, disbanded punk group—they were the start of a movement. To properly tell their story, we need to look past mere facts and hone into the way that they changed people’s lives. As the first popular feminist-punk band and inventors of the “Riot Grrrl” movement, Bikini Kill was the symbol of the Riot Grrrl movement, promoting abrasive, unapologetic feminism in young girls and inspiring a generation of Riot Grrrl bands.
The early 1990’s marked the beginning of what came to be known as the “third wave” of feminism. The foundation of this wave was solving the shortcomings of the second wave—namely, the previous era’s exclusivity with respect to LGBT and non-white feminists. Third-wave feminists focused on criticism of the media’s portrayal of women, and on everyday sexist terminology and harmful female stereotypes. Issues of racism and homophobia were often discussed in the same sentences as women’s oppression, as the movement was eager to give a voice to female minorities. In Bikini Kill’s short lifespan (1990-1997), third-wavers accomplished a lot—the United States Senate voted to allow women to become combat aviators in 1991; 1992 was deemed “The Year of the Woman” when four women entered the United States Senate (joining the two already there); The Gender Equality in Education Act of 1994 banned classroom discrimination and gender stereotypes; and The Vagina Monologues, a scandalous feminist play, premiered in New York in 1996.
Music was also in a transitory state. The 1980’s saw the birth of “hardcore punk”—a faster, more abrasive take on the original “punk” of the 1970’s. In the 1990’s, however, punk rock, built by the angry “outcast” youths, was just becoming hip in America. Major corporations tried to profit off of the rebellious punk image, with record labels trying to add an “edge” to their mainstream pop artists and car companies trying to amp up their TV commercials. This was largely prompted by the success of Nirvana—once the Seattle-based grunge band had garnered worldwide attention, punk started to make the transition from a strictly “outsider” culture to a genre being played on Top 40 radio stations. In 1993, Green Day and Bad Religion both sold millions of albums worldwide after being signed to major record labels, and the same happened to Rancid, Offspring, and NOFX in 1994.
In my Own Words
My Bikini Kill “truth” started in my sophomore year of high school, when I discovered “Riot Grrrl” by chance. I was browsing the shelves of Atticus, my favorite bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut, when one of the spines caught my eye. It was neon yellow, and screamed at me with graffiti-style red letters: Girl Power! The Nineties Revolution in Music. I started the book on the car ride home and absolutely devoured it—I finished it within the week, and quickly tore through it again with highlighters and pens, marking and dog-earing every inspirational moment. Bikini Kill, more than any other band, struck a chord with me. I wasted no time reading more books (Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution was another favorite), buying my local record store’s inventory of Bikini Kill albums, and printing out photos of Kathleen Hanna to hang above my bed. Bikini Kill’s punk-rock brand of feminism truly changed my life. I stopped treating girls like my competition and started seeing them as my allies. I started questioning gender norms, in music and in my everyday life. And, with my two best friends, I even started a “riot grrrl” band, for which I wrote the lyrics and melodies for our songs. We played tiny shows around the state, and wne night, a young girl came up to me after our set, exclaiming that she wanted to start a band just like ours. It was an indescribable feeling—we were to her what Bikini Kill was to me. They made me realize that my age and gender didn’t impede my ability to make an impact—Why couldn’t I get onstage and scream? Why couldn’t my friends and I change the world?
Impact on Others
It is easy to type “Bikini Kill” into Google and garner pages and pages of facts about the project. In 1990, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail connected through their mutual interest in feminist “zines”—small, independently published magazines. They decided to start a band to spread their female-power message, and noticed Kathleen Hanna, a fellow student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Hanna, a passionate activist, was caught up in her feminist artwork and poetry at the time, and her vivacity made her the ideal frontwoman. With Kathleen Hanna on vocals, Kathi Wilcox on bass, Tobi Vail on drums, and their friend Billy Karren on guitar, the band’s majority-female lineup and abrasive sound shook up the Olympia music scene. “I wanted to be someone who helped girls who’d been abused feel less alone because I’d been one of those girls,” said Hanna, “I also wanted to make sure young women knew that feminism wasn’t dead just ’cause that’s what all the books and magazines were saying” (Van Syckle). They signed to the Kill Rock Stars record label, and released 2 full-length albums, 2 compilations, and a handful of EPs, and started a zine titled “riot grrrl”, which was later adopted as the name for the feminist punk movement as a whole. “Riot Grrrl” meetings began popping up across the country, giving women of all ages a safe space for discussions about relationships, abuse, love, music, friendships, art, and feminism. “Every show was a battle and kids were fighting for their lives. It was intense to be at the center of all that female rage and terror,” Vail said (Hopper). As Bikini Kill toured around the United States, new “riot grrrl” bands were quickly followed, as Hanna’s unapologetic energy opened girls’ eyes to a world of possibility. In Tobi Vail’s words, “Bikini Kill wanted all girls to start bands in all towns as a means of creating culture. We believed that if girls created culture en masse, that multiple female perspectives would be represented and things would start to change” (Hopper). The band parted ways in 1997, leaving behind an impressive discography, a gaggle of feminist bands citing Bikini Kill as their main influence, and a nationwide community of self-identified “riot grrrls” set on changing the world.
For many other young fans, Bikini Kill was a gateway for feminism and creativity. Jessica Rosenberg and Gitana Garofalo conversed with Riot Grrrl enthusiasts across the country in their article “Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from Within”, and found that many cited the discovery of Bikini Kill as a turning point in their lives. Zine-maker Jessica Farris “…found out about Riot Grrrl through a zine type of thing. I heard…Bikini Kill…It just went from there. I thought, ‘Oh, there’s all these people out there.’ I really identified with what they went through. I really wanted to be part of it” (Rosenberg, Garofalo). The group even inspired some listeners to come to terms with past trauma and encouraged them to get help: “I listened to Bikini Kill. People online sent me zines. It was also around the time I started dealing with my abuse,” said Jamie Rubin, involved with the movement since age 13, “I realized I had to start dealing with this” (Rosenberg, Garofalo). Musicians in the mid-1990’s were similarly struck: Well-established bands caught wind of the buzz around the project and felt their strong message. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon “had a Bikini Kill fanzine before [she] saw them play”, and thought “it was really exciting to hear about so many girls organizing and making their own systems” (Hopper). Newer bands found inspiration in the validation of female punk musicians. “Touring before Bikini Kill and after… it was drastic,” said Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey, “Sometimes there was a girl playing bass, but you didn’t have girls singing their stories” (Brockes). Bratmobile, “had a big sister/little sister relationship with [Bikini Kill]”, according to drummer Molly Neuman, and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein cited the band’s track “Feels Blind” as “…the first time someone put into words my sense of alienation” (Hopper).
Most of the criticism the band faced came from third-wave feminists expressing their disappointment in Bikini Kill’s focus on straight, white, cisgendered women. Kathleen Hanna, especially, came under fire for her involvement with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, an event that specifically bans the participation of anyone who was not born a woman. Though transgender rights activists have attempted to reach out to Hanna, hoping to give her a chance to prove her solidarity with transgender women (a group even unfurled a large banner reading “Apologize for Michigan!” at one of their shows), Hanna declined to comment on the issue. Lesbians and women of color often felt out of place at organized “riot grrrl” meetings, as they were in the minority. In her Bitch Magazine article “Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl”, Laina Dawes, an African-American feminist, writes, “While I was a teenager during the grunge and Riot Grrrl era, for some reason I was (at the time) more drawn to hyper-masculine, testosterone-saturated grunge and metal bands… I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn’t for me. It was for white women” (Dawes).
Bikini Kill ended in 1997, when growing tensions grew unbearable. “I cried for like a year,” Hanna reflected, “I just felt like I lost my family and my band at the same time and I didn’t know who I was anymore” (Van Syckle, 2013). Kathi Wilcox recounted, “A lot of our band was just survival. It was exhausting. So when we broke up, it took us years to re-fortify… Now, we can finally say, ‘Yeah, what we did was important and we’re really proud of it.’ And we can keep it in print” (Brockes, 2014). Kathleen Hanna started recording solo electronic songs in her bedroom under the moniker “Julie Ruin”, and later started a new electro-political band called Le Tigre. Le Tigre was active from 1998 until 2001, when Hanna was forced to stop touring due to her debilitating late-stage Lyme disease. Today, she and Kathi Wilcox are back on their feet with The Julie Ruin, a full-band reincarnation of her earlier project. Tobi Vail went on to organize the first Ladyfest with other Riot Grrrl veterans, and now works as a freelance music writer. Despite their messy breakup, the band ultimately feels excited about the progress of women in punk music, and their role in this shift. “I don’t say ‘girls to the front’ any more,” said Hanna proudly, “because they’re already there” (Hopper, 2014).
Today, feminist punk is not so much a movement, but is becoming commonplace in women-made music. Pussy Riot serves as an extreme example of modern-day “grrrl power”, reimagining, with their loud sound and attention-grabbing uniforms, “riot grrrl” ideas in protest of the Russian government. On a more mundane level, American pop culture is warming up to the concept of powerful female musicians: Acts like Tegan and Sara, a duo of lesbian sisters, blend seamlessly into mainstream popular music, and celebrities like Taylor Swift, who previously distanced herself from the label, have embraced feminism as a way of life. When it comes to the marketing and spreading of feminism, music is a very effective tool—it engages audiences, it creates a subculture community, and it encourages women to be explicit in conveying their feelings and experiences. According to Kathleen Hanna, “we’re starting in the fourth wave… there’s a lot of women who have critiqued Riot Grrrl in terms of class and race, and all of these critiques are leading to new projects” (Van Syckle, 2013). When discussing music, it is difficult to convey its honest impact with facts and statistics—Bikini Kill, in the grand scheme of music, was not extraordinarily well-known. They didn’t play an outlandish number of shows, nor did they break any music-selling records. However, by focusing instead on the experiences of those truly impacted by the band, we can glean the astonishing importance of Bikini Kill to “alternative” feminism. This is how Bikini Kill should be remembered. This is the truth.