The ability of music to encourage cultural movements has been evident for decades, developing into a multitude of subcultures and social revolutions. Bikini Kill and the the Riot Grrrl movement is a prime example of this idea. Based in Olympia, Washington and Washington, DC, Bikini Kill was a feminist punk band formed in 1990. The group was created when nineteen-year-old college student Kathleen Hanna met with author Kathy Acker, whose writing focused on forms of sexual extremity. Acker advised Hanna that she should be in a band as there is more of a community for musicians than for writers, understanding that people were more likely to go and see a band as opposed to a spoken word gig. Although at first feeling rejected, she eventually took the advice and formed Bikini Kill with Tobi Vail on drums, Billy Karren on guitar and Kathi Wilcox on bass. Vail had been writing and publishing Jigsaw, a feminist zine that Hanna appreciated. Together they created further zines which focused on feminist issues, radical politics, punk rock and a do it yourself aesthetic, providing a national system of support for females in music. Through the mix of their political lyrics, confrontational live shows and publications, the precise nature of community that Kathy Acker had been referring to was born. Bikini Kill and lead singer Kathleen Hanna in particular are credited with instigating the movement known as Riot Grrrl, shorthand for the feminist music activism of the decade. While instrumental in the production of an influential zine and a member of the scenes most passionately discussed band, Hanna stiffens at the suggestion that she was the leader of the Riot Grrrl movement.
With the Riot Grrrl movement thriving between Olympia and Washington, DC throughout the nineties, mindfulness-raising gatherings were held, with conversation often concentrated on issues such as sexual abuse, feelings of insecurity and the absence of female unity. Riot Grrrl press tables, selling zines at shows, graffiti on footpaths and the popularity of female performers such as PJ Harvey and Courtney Love (although not necessarily linked to Riot Grrrl) were accurate expressions of the spirit of the time. Many consider Kathleen Hanna a significant figure in the movement not merely for her charisma but also on account of the fact that she was able to highlight a vast array of issues in Bikini Kill’s short-lived career. There are a number of women considered Riot Grrrl figureheads like Patti Smith and Kim Gordon however it was the 1990s Pacific Northwest group that directly inspired the scene. Bikini Kill defied gender stereotypes and their tedious constraints, perplexing perceptions about what it meant to be female. They confronted issues ranging from workplace sexism and reproductive rights to domestic violence and rape. On Double Dare Ya, Hanna snarls, “Dare you to be what you want, dare you to be what you will, dare you to cry right out loud,” providing fans with the voice of a revolution. She became a branch of the feminist movement, considered by some a younger Gloria Steinman (American journalist, socio-political activist and feminist). Through her words and her style, Hanna reflected what her peers were thinking and influenced how they were voting.
Perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the Riot Grrrl movement was that it only involved women. Bikini Kill had a male guitarist in Billy Karen and a number of men were actively involved within this subculture, in combination with those that sympathised. Mosh pits were a staple of the punk, hardcore scene, littered with masculinity. Deciding that they excluded women, Hanna made an effort to accommodate females at Bikini Kill shows, ensuring that they could experience the show in a safe manner. With cries of “girls to the front,” Hanna further emphasised the power of the movement and the link between the music and the culture.
It is considered a rarity that a social movement sincerely originates as a product of zine culture however in the case of Riot Grrrl, the zine community welcomed them, reading, collecting and sharing the dozens of publications in circulation throughout the decade. With names like Chainsaw and Sister Nobody, zines included anything and everything from guitar lessons to dealing with an eating disorder and served as a channel for the socio-political messages of the girls as well as a creative outlet. Many believe that the Riot Grrrl movement would not be as recognisable a phenomenon without zines.
The do it yourself, punk philosophy of the Riot Grrrl movement opposed the overriding masculine culture of alternative music. In addition, shows were created to be safe places where females could enjoy themselves without being assaulted. Members of Bikini Kill went as far as to write a Riot Grrrl manifesto and publish it in their zine, stating that they saw girls as a “revolutionary soul force” with the power to change the status quo. Lines from the manifesto included “us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways,” and “we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.” These powerful instances of girls rioting were a much-needed spark in a society seen as post-feminist and a catalyst for what became known as third wave feminism.
While this youth subculture and cultural rebellion never quite emerged into a full-blown street storming, Riot Grrrl provided a model for young women, raising awareness about issues such as slut-shaming and rape culture while in turn, leaving a permanent mark on alternative music. Kathleen Hanna realised that whether someone called themselves a feminist or not, just by being in a band predominantly made up of females, that was all that would be focused on by the media. Regardless, Bikini Kill felt that if all girls were to form bands, it would change the world, so actively encouraged females to start bands as a way of cultural resistance. Endeavouring to inspire female participation and construct a feminist community through the punk scene, Bikini Kill utilised touring to create an underground network and a forum for numerous female voices to be heard.
Though a relatively short lived phenomenon of the nineties, the shadow of Riot Grrrl has adopted a fabled quality. In recent years, a steady stream of documentaries, histories and archives has emerged to devotedly comment on the relics of the movement. Prestigious apostles of Riot Grrrl range from Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson to the imprisoned members of nonconformist Russian group Pussy Riot. Documentaries such as The Punk Singer focus on the life and career of Kathleen Hanna and her effect on the subculture. Books like Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus attempt to project the origin, trajectory and lifecycle of the feminist movement. A general resurrection of the 1990s has aided in fuelling a revival of Riot Grrrl, in combination with the coming-of-age of young feminists in the Rookie-generation, in a world where legislative threats to reproductive rights and sexual assault loom as threateningly as they did two decades ago. Today, traces of the movement are everywhere from punk bands such as Skinny Girl Diet to handmade zines in basement venues and the daring activism of groups like Pussy Riot. Not to mention the new wave of girls using websites like Tumblr to forge their individual identities with the aesthetic and attitude reminiscent of rebel icons past.
Twenty years after their initial release, Bikini Kill’s First two records are being reissued on a label established by the band members to preserve their output. According to Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker, “Even though the riot-grrrl community has come to dwarf the songs in historical memory — that was the point, really — the music is still a pungent tonic.” A number of bands today cite the Riot Grrrl Movement and Bikini Kill in particular as significant influences. Aforementioned Russian group Pussy Riot, two of whom served time in prison for hooliganism, are among those who recognise the impact of Bikini Kill and the cultural movement they encouraged. Kathleen Hanna feels that feminism alternates between interest and criticism. The internet age allows women to easily access their own history, meaning that young feminists no longer feel as if they are reinventing the wheel. The writers at Rookie magazine continue to articulately highlight poignant issues that were talked about during the nineties such as sexual harassment. As a result of such publications, Hanna identifies that the one girl in the class that speaks up and says that something is sexist does not have to feel alone.
The idea that cultural identity is defined by the music an individual consumes can be recognised in Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement. Thinking critically, while this ephemeral movement did little to change they way in which society views feminism long term, it was an important subculture that laid the foundations for what we now know as modern feminism, providing young women of the following decades with the tools and inspiration to continue the fight for equality through music and other various creative outlets.