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Kathleen Hanna: The birth of Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl

“I would much rather be the obnoxious feminist girl than be complicit in my own dehumanisation.” – Kathleen Hanna.

At only nine years old, Kathleen Hanna was prying at the fabric of the world and the inequities underneath that cloth. She had just attended a feminist rally with her mother and her worldview was changed indefinitely. “My mom was a housewife and wasn’t somebody that people would think of as a feminist, and when Ms. Magazine came out we were incredibly inspired by it,” she told BUST Magazine. “I used to cut pictures out of it and make posters that said, ‘Girls can do anything’, and stuff like that, and my mom was inspired to work at a basement of a church doing anti-domestic violence work. Then she took me to the Solidarity Day thing, and it was the first time I had ever been in a big crowd of women yelling, and it really made me want to do it forever.”

Now, after five decades as one of the most prominent Fender-clad feminists, she has certainly made good on that childhood vision. Those early experiences in a “crowd of women yelling,” planted a seed of passion to ensure her voice would be heard forevermore. By the time she came of age, she attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and worked nights as a stripper to pay for her tuition fees.

However, it wasn’t a passion for feminism alone that led to the activism and artistry that followed, circumstance played its hand in such a way that illuminated the conservative ways of the patriarchy. While at college, she partnered up for a photography exhibition with her friend Aaron Baush-Greene, detailing the issues of domestic violence, sexism and the AIDS epidemic, but the exhibit was halted by school administrators before it had even opened. With this red tape branded onto her sensibilities, she teamed up with a group of friends and set about creating the Reko Muse, an independent art gallery with a feminist focus.

Akin to the narrative of Patti Smith who came before her, she began her foray into the arts with spoken word performances, but then an encounter with the counterculture novelist Kathy Acker would soon change her tact. “Acker asked me why writing was important to me,” Hanna told The Nation, “And I said, ‘Because I felt like I’d never been listened to and I had a lot to say,’ and she said, ‘Then why are you doing spoken word – no one goes to spoken word shows! You should get a band’.” And with that advice ringing in her ears, the firebrand in waiting decided to back her performances with the adrenalised wallop of subversive rock ‘n’ roll. 

After appearing in a slew of short-lived punk acts, Bikini Kill was the vehicle that Katherine Hanna settled on in 1989. The message of the group was the get more girls into punk, the incendiary, establishment toppling, genre of choice. Their simple presence in the industry was enough to captivate some. Confident women with guitars and an eye for capturing the zeitgeist were now on the covers of LPs and that alone inspired generations that were coming of age and looking for an act to champion. 

With this simple act of placing women back into the forefront of alternative pop culture, feminism was reinvigorated and the Riot Grrrl movement was born. Fanzines were popping up overnight and along with punk, they formed the perfect paradigm of subversive activism. The DIY ethos of both pursuits provided grassroots footing from which the status quo could be usurped without ever having to play by their rules to begin with. 

This explosion of underground feminism culminated in Girl Night, a show on August 20th, 1991, in Olympia, Washington featuring 15 all female-fronted bands. The key to this catalysing evening was that it brought the wave together and eviscerated the notion that the whole thing was merely a separatist fad. Everyone was given equal billing on their own views could be heard. As Hanna says herself, “There’s just as many different kinds of feminism as there are women in the world.”

While the structure might not have been in place for the Riot Grrrl movement to sustain, the seed of inspiration had been sewn and flowered many young feminists of the future. Through that act alone, the culture of society had changed. However, there is still more to be done. Although the demographic of alternative music has changed dramatically in the last thirty years, a study by the University of Southern California recently found, that across the 800 top songs from 2012-2019, less than 23 per cent of artists and less than two per cent of producers in the chart-rank sampled, were women.

Without the legacy of Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement, it is hard to know just how much more damning those statistics would read. As Hanna hopefully concluded recently, “To make Riot Grrrl move into the future in a new way with a bunch of new names a bunch of new energy, younger people have to learn about it and apply it to their own lives and own modern conversation. And they are.”

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