punk, Riot Grrrl
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Kathleen Hanna, Riot Grrrl, and Punk

Riot Grrrl’s activism and grass-roots activity showed the movement was more concerned with breaking the rules and conventions than breaking through in punk.

Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk
Kathleen Hanna
May 2024

Kathleen Hanna has long aligned herself with punk, expressing her allegiance in explicit ways. From the song “The Punk Singer” under the pseudonym Julie Ruin in 1998 to Sini Anderson’s filmic biography about her with the same title in 2013, Hanna has affirmed that she and her work are fundamentally rooted in the aesthetics and attitudes of punk. With the recent release of her memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk now is an opportune time to assess how Hanna’s career has been informed by punk, but also how punk has been transformed by the Riot Grrrl phenomenon she helped birth and develop.

When punk “broke” in 1991, many observers saw Seattle grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden as responsible for breaking punk out of indie obscurity and into the mainstream, in the process breaking the code on how to reach the masses with a punk-oriented approach. Less recognized at the time was a simultaneous punk movement happening in the same Pacific North-West region. That scene came to be known as Riot Grrrl, and it represented aspects of punk culture, of which some of the shooting stars of grunge and pop-punk were increasingly losing sight.

The primary forces of these parallel punk worlds, Nirvana and Bikini Kill, had crossed paths in prior years by virtue of both bands being based in the hip college town of Olympia, Washington. In the fall of 1990, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl of the former, along with Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of the latter, spent a drunken night out writing pro-choice statements on the town’s abortion alternatives center. Later, back at Cobain’s place, Hanna, recalling a deodorant she had seen earlier in a store, inscribed “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on the guitarist’s bedroom wall.

The Nirvana song derived from this slogan symbolized punk’s penetration of the mainstream rock world. The incident, though, was symbolic of the gender activism and grass-roots activity that would characterize Riot Grrrl, a movement more concerned with breaking rules and conventions than with breaking through. Despite her relationship with Cobain, Vail bemoaned the success motivation of Nirvana and other “lame career-goal bands”. She and Hanna saw the mission of Bikini Kill—and punk—as antithetical to the major label ambitions of the major grunge acts. For them, punk meant creative independence and revolutionary political action.

We could bring the fuck into the fight.

The Punk Singer – Julie Ruin

Riot Grrrls’ objections to the state of punk at the end of the ‘80s went beyond commercial considerations, though. Issues of gender and sexuality had been addressed within punk since its earliest days, but there was unfinished business on these fronts. In contrast to the occasional female-focused acts that had come and gone during the previous decade-plus, Riot Grrrl provided the first (semi-)organized feminist (punk) rock movement.

From the perspective of many female participants, punk always had too many blind spots. Male punks talked a good game about gender equality and inclusiveness, but their female counterparts were often treated as an afterthought. With ritualistic regularity, women were consigned to the sidelines at grunge and hardcore concerts, if only to escape from the boys’ stage-diving and slam dancing in the mosh pit.

Angry and frustrated, Riot Grrrl punk bands sometimes made audacious demands on their audiences for safe spaces and greater female participation. Journalist and author Andi Zeisler explains that “the revolution of Riot Grrrl was the act of simply taking up space—on stages, in mosh pits, on paper, in public,” adding, “The cry of ‘Girls to the Front!’ was about more than demanding an expansion of the mosh pit; it was about foregrounding female experience.”

Riot Grrrl distinguished itself by filtering feminism through punk and vice versa. The results are sometimes associated with what has come to be historicized as third-wave feminism. The first wave revolved around the right to vote, and the second, equal opportunities in the workplace. The third wave, however, was less concerned with women being treated the same as men and more with them being empowered on an equal footing. A war waged less in the worlds of law and politics than in culture, Riot Grrrls and other third wavers demanded to be whoever and whatever they wanted to be. As Hanna exhorts in the anthem “Double Dare Ya” (1991), “I dare you to do what you want” and “to be who you will”.

Women wanted to be free from gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, and abuse but also to be given the right to express themselves in their voices. This desire for creative feminism had been secondary to the women’s movement’s more pragmatic concerns and demands. Some of the Riot Grrrls that made up Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heaven’s to Betsy had studied feminism at Olympia’s Evergreen State College, where their eyes were opened to theorists like Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray. However, learning about feminism was not the same as learning how to be one as an artist. For tips, they looked less to academia than to certain pioneering precedents from punk’s past.

Riot Grrrls’ main contribution to feminist traditions was to empower women to be self-sufficient artists and advocate for women’s rights. Thus, consciousness-raising sessions for these women often involved how they could apply their studies from school to the zines, artwork, poetry, and songs they produced outside of academia. Bikini Kill and others defanged patriarchy by reclaiming and reconstituting language and symbols used ordinarily to offend and oppress women. “Bitch”, “pussy”, and “girl” were given makeovers in the hands of Grrrls, reapplied as terms of strength, body ownership, and self-knowledge, respectively.

Furthermore, Hanna’s semiotic provocations often arrived in visual forms, such as when she would strip down to her bra onstage to reveal the word “slut” scrawled on her stomach. On one level, this aped the hyper-masculine, ready-for-action look of hardcore front-men like Lee Ving of hardcore punk band Fear and Henry Rollins; on another, it playfully messed with the minds of those who objectify and sexualize a woman who acts similarly. 

Riot Grrrls were rock scholars, too, drawing—though sometimes departing—from punk feminist forerunners. Proto-punk performers like Joan Jett, Suzy Quatro, and Joan Armatrading reflected the second-wave feminism of the mid-’70s, often adopting rock rebel poses as an implicit argument that they could be just as hard, rocking, and cool as any male counterpart. These women dressed in leather wore guitars like gunslingers and strutted around stages with swagger. Jett’s persona as a self-confident individual beyond gender containment inspired some of the female punks who arrived in 1976. You can see a comparable identity in Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, both of whom were less concerned with doing things differently than their male heroes than in doing them as well or better.

Such was not the approach for those female punk peers less enamored with a rock tradition that valorized Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen. Those female upstarts, mostly British, had an even greater influence on later Riot Grrrl successors. Although dissimilar in their sounds and styles, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Slits, and X-Ray Spex all boasted singers that introduced new tones and techniques. Moreover, their wildly original deliveries and demeanors were uniquely different from both male and female vocal styles heard before.

They differed from each other, too. Siouxsie Sioux crafted an icy monotone aggression that underscored her dominatrix image. Ari Up channeled the rhythms of reggae music, disrupting their flow with interrupting whispers and screams, her voice soaring high then swooping low unpredictably. Poly Styrene wailed on the cusp of being off-key and out-of-tune, taking the vocal instrument into another zone.

The proximity of Poly’s pitch has a jarring effect while undermining the tired rules of a patriarchal music establishment that dictates what is and is not musical and acceptable. Like so many unconventional female artists in literature, art, and music before her, Poly Styrene was met with a double standard; her experiments were often dismissed as amateurish and incompetent. They would likely have been judged as groundbreaking and innovative if she had been a man. For budding Riot Grrrls like Hanna, she represented creative liberation and de(con)structions of gender norms.

The story of Riot Grrrl, like that of other punk, is incomplete without recognizing the indie infrastructures that facilitated and complemented the DIY ethic within its scene manifestations. For contemporaries L7 and Hole, landing major record label deals might have necessitated certain compromises, but they paid that price willingly to expand their brands. Such was rarely either a choice or option for those bands operating within the parochial confines of the Olympia music scene. Fame and fortune were not the goals of the two Olympia-based indie labels that supported many Riot Grrrl-related bands, either. Although most of these bands ended up signing with Kill Rock Stars, its label-heads had been educated and inspired by the ideas and practices K Records, founded by Calvin Johnson in 1982, brought to the area punk scene.

The Riot Grrrls on the Evergreen campus admired Johnson’s work, both with his band and label, so when K Records organized a five-day International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia in August 1991, many attended in various capacities, as zine makers, artists, film-makers, poets, musical performers, and fans. Featuring over 50 mostly indie and punk bands, the opening night was titled “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now”, showcasing 15 local Riot Grrrl-oriented acts, including Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Heaven’s to Betsy.

Bratmobile were the quintessential K-style band, their twee veneer masking subversive intents. Fed up with the testosterone-fueled music being pumped out by what front-woman Allison Wolfe called the “Sub Pop boy grunge grab-your-dick scene”, she and Molly Neuman went retro musically and developmentally. Emulating the minimalism of (post-)punk feminist groups like Kleenex, the Modettes, and Delta 5, Bratmobile reduced their sound to elemental three-note surf guitar riffs over simple snare taps—and no bass. On top, the band sang “off” of each other in awkward harmonies that evoked a world of playground rhyming and skipping rope.

Bratmobile gently mocked the hipsters with “Cool Schmool” (1993) and celebrated Grrrl power in “Girl Germs” (1993). Unlike their peers, Babes in Toyland and Hole, who employed the “kiddie trope” to delve into disturbing childhood memories, Bratmobile emphasized its associations with carefree play, youthful banter, and lack of rules. The title of their debut album, Pottymouth (1993), is typically ironic, evoking both irreverence and infantilism, repositioning punk against itself in terms of language and attitude.

Willful amateurism, child-like rhetoric, and gender-related satire were common features of the music and the zines that were essential in making Riot Grrrl a subculture rather than just a musical trend. Wolfe’s 1990 zine, Girl Germs, motivated Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail to develop their own Riot Grrrl zine, Bikini Kill. In return, Bikini Kill inspired Wolfe and Neuman to render their ideas in a musical format with Bratmobile. Yet, despite their shared intent to undermine entrenched rockist rules and attitudes, the two bands could not have sounded more different. In contrast to Bratmobile’s twee, un-effect-ed pop tones, Bikini Kill went for a more conventional distortion-driven punk assault. “They were so fierce, and we were so dorky,” Neuman notes.

This contrast is apparent in their language choices. Bikini Kill titled their first album Pussywhipped (1993), while Bratmobile used less inflammatory word choice with Pottymouth. Whereas Bratmobile rejected the bad boys in “Cool Schmool“, Bikini Kill mythologized a female equivalent in “Rebel Girl” (1991), a song that owes much to L7’s “Fast and Frightening” (1990) that had profiled a Grrrl with “so much clit she don’t need no balls”. Whereas Bratmobile favored subtle jabs, Bikini Kill went for knock-out punches, cajoling females to seize their futures in “Double Dare Ya” (1991), demanding (sexual) agency in “Suck My Left One” (1991), and crafting manifesto statements around agitprop slogans like “Revolution Girl Style Now” and “Girl Power”. Hanna’s loud, uncompromising voice, visuals, and rhetorical gestures were at odds with much academic feminism. Still, they found sympathetic ears amongst her peers, propelling Riot Grrrl from Olympia into the beyond and herself into a tacit, if unwitting, leader of the movement. 

The history of Riot Grrrl is sometimes told as an American tale, but it also took hold in the UK, where Huggy Bear employed similar strategies for similar ends. With both female and male members, that band self-identified as feminists but around the slogan “girl-boy revolutionaries”. Titles like “Hopscortch” (1993), “Teen Tighterns” (1993), and “Kiss Curl for the Kid’s Lib Guerrillas” (1992) signaled, as with their US peers, using youth symbolism for both playful and agitprop purposes. In 1993, a US-UK allegiance in recognition of common missions was struck when the band toured Britain with Bikini Kill, later recording a split album with them for Kill Rock Stars. Although neither that album nor either band propelled Riot Grrrl punk into the mainstream, that was never the goal.

Perhaps the greatest musical legacy of Riot Grrrl is that by the end of the ’90s, it became so common to see and hear female and mixed-gender bands that the gender novelty tag dissipated. As Hanna recounts in her new memoir, Riot Grrrls still suffered the slings and arrows of being boxed in by the very gender issues they protested about. Still, sometimes, future generations are the beneficiaries of the trials and tribulations undergone by the pioneering ones. Would subversive multi-media agitators like Pussy Riot exist without the prior practices of Riot Grrrl? Would Queercore or feminist pop? Or the #MeToo or #TimesUp movements? Maybe; maybe not.

Punk may not receive the media scrutiny it once did, but that does not negate that women participate in its cultural offshoots today more than ever—as performers, fans, and citizens. Would such gender realignments within and beyond punk have occurred but for the bold gestures of Kathleen Hanna and the Riot Grrrls, which interrupted male privilege to make music and art in their images for their own (creative) empowerment?

Works Cited

Hanna, Kathleen. Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk. HarperCollins. May 2024.

Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Harper Perennial. September 2010.

Zeisler, Andi. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Public Affairs. May 2016.