Kathleen Hanna and the Birth of Riot Grrrl

Sophia Satchell Baeza

To coincide with the European launch of 'The Punk Singer', we have an exclusive clip from the film with Allison C Wolfe of Bratmobile, academic Tammy Rae Carland, and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney...

With their call for Revolution Girl Style, Riot Grrrl began as a grassroots third wave feminist movement in Washington DC in 1991. American grunge and the Hardcore punk scenes, it turned out, were a big, intimidating sausage-fest of drunken assholes, or as lead singer of Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna called them in her 1991 Riot Grrrl Manifesto the “beergutboyrock that tells us we can't play our instruments.” Women got together to talk about cool stuff – like punk, zines and what to do about the raging sexism in rock and society in general. Then they started making their own culture – one of home-made zines, records and books by and for women. Suddenly, women could take over the means of production and create their own female-oriented subculture. What had previously been a ‘bedroom culture’ of private diaries and secret mixtapes, spilled out onto the streets, into protests, conferences, zine-swapping parties and hardcore gigs. New bands sprung up in the early 1990s: bands such as Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill. Grunge went femme, and started looking a hell of a lot more interesting.

But there was also a wider array of social problems that riot grrrl found itself in the midst of, and the summer of 1991 was an incendiary period for politics as much as grunge. Anita Hill testified to sexual harassment by the supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas, and was publically mocked in the media. The Christian Coalition's Right to Life attacked legal abortion. In the same year, Naomi Wolf published the second-wave feminist classic 'The Beauty Myth', in the halcyon days before 2012’s 'Vagina: A New Biography' (2012) would go on to express the new age ‘earth goddess’ perspective of a white, middle-class, dinner party sexuality. And everyone was listening to Nirvana. On that note, Kurt Cobain named the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after a night on the drink with Kathleen Hanna.

Kathleen spray-painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a wall, and Kurt, stoked on heated conversation on poetry, anarchy and punk rock, had enough of a revolutionary hard-on to make it the title of his hit single. Actually, Kathleen was talking about a deodorant: Bikini Kill drummer (and Kurt’s then girlfriend) Tobi Vail’s favourite pit spray: Teen Spirit.

Kathleen Hanna, center, in Bikini Kill.

“Girls to the front” was one of their policies to confront female marginalisation in rock. By calling all girls to come up to the front of the crowd, Bikini Kill experimented with creating a safer space for women in hardcore gigs. “ALL BOYS BE COOL FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIVES,” Kathleen screams in a bra and panties, possibly with the word ‘SLUT’ scrawled on her body. They also challenged the cheerleader porn aesthetic of middle America, taking bras, knickers and the language of misogyny and subverting it so it twerked on the stage and cooed ‘daddy’. It wasn’t pretty – it was angry, political, and awkward. It was the dinner date that talked about sexual molestation over a milkshake. And it only takes a few clicks on YouTube to see how much people love Kathleen Hanna for it: “Kathleen is cooler than a Slurpee!!!!!!”

No Alternative Girls (1994), a short starring Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna, included the balaclava-wearing that spurred on a certain group of Russian female anarchists to start a Pussy Riot. Oh, and Courtney Love eventually caused some minor controversy by punching Kathleen in the face. Because sisterhood requires a bit of diplomacy sometimes, and occasionally people have to go and ruin the fun.

Riot Grrrl didn’t herald the beginnings of third wave feminism – we’ll give that to the emergence of post-structuralist Queer theory, and the work of Judith Butler – but it did help define it aesthetically as much as formally for a new generation of indignant feminists. We have it to thank for Pussy Riot and for alternative female magazines like Rookie Mag, Bitch, Bust and the Vagenda, for the development of feminist subcultural punk zines and comics, and for the aesthetic of girl rock bands since. But it also gave us Miranda July, so… On that point, the legacy of Riot grrrl is, in my mind, a mixed one. Some critics accused it of exclusivity – towards non-white, non-middle class women. And exactly how encouraging it was of queer culture is up for debate. Then there’s the gendered language of eternal girlhood, and the problems that brings to the table. But it also heralded a new conversation, a new style and a new means of production to shout revolution girl style, one that has proved immensely influential on online feminist girl culture.

New documentary The Punk Singer sheds light on its Head Grrl: the punk prefect of lady grunge Kathleen Hanna. A good introduction to riot grrl, the film delves into this, her story, while unfortunately never digging far beyond the surface.

'The Punk Singer', a documentary about Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, is released on 23 May. For more info head over here

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more