Who Are They?
The frontrunners of the riot grrrl scene and symbols of third wave feminism.
Kathleen Hanna was introduced to feminism early on after her mother took her to a rally in Washington D.C. to see Gloria Steinem. Her interest grew when her mom checked out a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique from the library. But the Hanna women had to keep their involvement with the women’s rights movement a secret from Kathleen’s father, who disapproved of such ideas (Kathleen’s parents later divorced).
Once Kathleen went off to college to study photography, she began working as a stripper to support herself. While at school, she worked with a fellow photography student to set up an exhibit that dealt with sexism and AIDS. The school administrators didn’t dig it, so they shut it down, which prompted Kathleen to create her own feminist art gallery with friends Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland. The three eventually formed a band called Amy Carter.
In addition to fronting Amy Carter, Kathleen began doing spoken word performances that addressed sexism and violence against women. She later abandoned spoken word in favor of music. After touring with her new band Viva Knievel for a bit, Kathleen met punk zinester Tobi Vail. Kathleen and Tobi, along with guitarist Billy Karen and bassist Kathi Wilcox, formed Bikini Kill in 1990.
(Fun fact: Bikini Kill was originally the name of a band fronted by fellow riot grrrl musician Lois Maffeo. The name was inspired by the 1967 B-movie The Million Eyes of Sumuru. Tobi adopted the name for the band once Lois settled on a different name.)
Bikini Kill independently released a demo cassette called Revolution Girl Style Now! in 1991, followed by a self-titled EP in 1992 (released via the indie label Kill Rock Stars and produced by Minor Threat/Fugazi front man Ian MacKaye).
The band released its debut album, Pussy Whipped, in 1993 and began touring the UK with fellow riot grrrl rockers Huggy Bear.
(Fun fact: Bikini Kill’s most/only popular song, “Rebel Girl,” was produced by Joan Jett.)
By 1994, the riot grrrl movement was getting some intense media exposure, which was both a good and bad thing. On one hand, Bikini Kill’s message was being broadcast to a much wider audience. But on the other hand, that same message was being subverted by the Spice Girls and co-opted by the female artists of Lilith Fair. Kathleen called for a “media blackout” amongst riot grrrls on the basis that the movement was being misrepresented.
Bikini Kill released its final album, Reject All American, in 1996 and broke up a year later.
Where Are They Now?
Once Bikini Kill called it quits, Kathleen, Tobi, Kathi and Billy all went their separate ways, all of which involved music.
Tobi played with Spider and the Webs and The Old Haunts, among other bands. Kathi joined the Casual Dots and Billy played in Ghost Mom. But it was Kathleen who found the most success.
After adopting the pseudonym Julie Ruin, Kathleen released a solo album in 1997. The project expanded past the album, resulting in a brand new band called Le Tigre.
Le Tigre mixed the politics of riot grrrl music with electronic and lo-fi beats, which was a pretty interesting combo. The band released three albums: Le Tigre in 1999, Feminist Sweepstakes in 2001 and This Island in 2004. This Island was the only album released on a major label.
In 2007, Le Tigre went on a hiatus and each member went on to pursue other things.
(Fun fact: Le Tigre most recently worked with Christina Aguilera on her album Bionic. The band co-wrote and produced the song “My Girls.”)
After her adventures with Le Tigre, Kathleen volunteered as a band coach for The Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, taught an art class at NYU’s grad school and married Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.
In 2010, Kathleen announced that she would be turning her solo act Julie Ruin into an actual band, The Julie Ruin, with former Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox.
But Why Bikini Kill?
The band isn’t getting back together anytime soon, but there’s a new documentary out about Kathleen called The Punk Singer. Plus, there’s always hope for some new Le Tigre material.
What Does Sam Think?
I didn’t get into riot grrrl music until I got to college (the only exception being Hole, but I’ve always considered them more of a grunge band). I took a women’s and gender studies class my freshman year and we spent a few classes talking about third wave feminism and the riot grrrl movement. I was instantly intrigued.
I had heard of Bikini Kill through my obsession with Nirvana (since Kathleen came up with the name for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by writing “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s wall). That was back when I started listening to bands that I knew were huge influences for Nirvana because I was a weird kid and part of me wanted to be a female version of Kurt Cobain.
So I listened to “Rebel Girl” and loved it, but didn’t really delve into Bikini Kill’s discography until later on. When I finally gave the rest of their songs a chance, I fell in love. Everything was so brutal and angry and just true. And Kathleen has a voice that makes any guy’s dick crawl back up inside him (and I mean that as a compliment).
So yes, Bikini Kill is a feminist band with feminist lyrics and politics, but that really shouldn’t scare anyone away. I could write a whole rant about how silly it that feminism is considered a “bad word,” but I’ll save that for another time. Bikini Kill songs deal with real issues and real anger at those issues, including violence against women and sexuality.
My favorite Bikini Kill song, "I Like Fucking," is about, you guessed it, sex. But it dares to ask the question, “Why shouldn’t I be able to enjoy sex?” It’s empowering, as are most BK songs. The line, “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe” really sticks with me.
Bikini Kill is raw, like most punk bands before them. This is music that lives in the moment and has something to say. I really wish every girl could listen to riot grrrl bands like this and feel empowered, but I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Even if you don’t like the music, you have to appreciate the message.
And even though Kathleen Hanna can be a bit of hypocrite sometimes, I still like what she does (but maybe not everything she says outside of her music).
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.