In the early 1990s I was a teenager. Confused (as many) and angry at something, nothing or maybe everything. I knew something was wrong but couldn’t put my finger on it. I spent from 11 to 16 in the confines of an all-girls’ school where I learnt nothing about how to interact with boys on a day-to-day basis. The single sex school I attended was a crummy, badly designed building with inadequate facilities. Meanwhile, the boys school across the road looked more like something out of a Harry Potter movie, with towers and old staircases and a feeling of academia.
The year I first heard Bikini Kill and the other riot grrrl bands was the year I was taking my GCSEs. The options I appeared to have would mainly lead me to become a secretary, a seamstress or someone who could look after children well. I soon became bored by school and spiced up my day walking down the corridors with my Walkman on and singing these riot grrrl tunes as I marched to class. I felt a revolution building inside of my belly and knowing that there were other women out there, however distant they seemed, who shared my fire and anger gave me strength and confidence.
The band, Bikini Kill, had started in 1990 in Olympia, Washington and were fronted by feminist Kathleen Hanna. Through gatherings, fanzines and music, they started a revolution to get women involved in the music scene at all levels. The music became another way of expressing their frustration with inequality and Hanna pioneered the ‘Girls to the Front’ movement, allowing women space at the front of their gigs; a space that was (and is still) overwhelmingly occupied by the male members of the audience.
Since then the ‘Girls to the Front’ movement has become synonymous with so much more. Hanna was a skilled writer and lyricist and her most politically motivated piece of writing was the Riot Grrrl Manifesto which details the demands of the Riot Grrrl movement in a push towards having a level playing field in their artistic expression. Their songs were hard-core punk at its grittiest with often radical lyrics which were progressive and years ahead of where feminism found itself in the early 90s. Their lasting legacy was the track Rebel Girl, a song which gives admiration and respect to the strong, individual and sexually liberated female.
Anyone who knows the song will be familiar with the unity felt through the lyrics (“They say she’s a dyke but I know, she’s my best friend yeah!”). The music has a militant beat and as you listen to it you get the feeling you are walking alongside your sisters, an unstoppable feminist possy. (“When she walks, I hear the revolution coming/ In her hips there’s revolution”). It encourages you to lift yourself - “That girl she holds her head up so high” - and you find yourself holding your crown as “Queen of the neighbourhood” firmly in place as you walk, steady and purposefully, to the unrelenting beat.
The music said it all
At 15, I didn’t understand terms like patriarchy or androcentricity. I hadn’t been taught ideas on consent or female sexuality. Slut shaming, which wasn’t even a term back then, was a day-to-day occurrence at an all-girls school, and nobody even mentioned the fact that there might be more than two genders and that those genders may want to help each other out in gaining equality with intersectional feminism.
My teachers, and even peers, weren’t telling me anything I needed to know about my own existence and emancipation, but Bikini Kill’s music said it all. Songs like White Boy: “I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you / Your whole fucking culture alienates me”; Don’t Need You: “Don’t need you to say we’re cute / Don’t need you to say we’re alright” and Resist Psychic Death: “There’s more than two ways of thinking/ there’s more than one way of knowing / there’s more than two ways of being / there’s more than one way of going somewhere”, from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah album inspired me to search for another way.
Inspired by the music that was blasting through my headphones, I walked out of school in my final year with both middle fingers raised and expletives on my tongue. Kathleen Hanna’s voice had inspired me to stand up and say “no more” - she seemed to understand me. She didn’t know me, but she knew the beat I needed to walk to; she knew the screams and lyrics I needed to hear. “Rebel Girl you are the queen of my world”.
She empowered me.
So much has changed
Bikini Kill went their separate ways in 1998 and, since then, so much has changed. Hanna went on to work on two musical projects including the band, La Tigre, and solo project, Julie Ruin. In the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, Hanna talks in depth about how her diagnosis of Lymes disease, which put an end to her performing career in 2005, affected her life and how she now equates this to her feminist stance: “I don’t care if people don’t think feminism is important because I know it is. I don’t care if people don’t believe that late stage Lyme Disease exists, because I have it, we have it, and we help each other.”
Hanna talks about how she looked to other women to help her get through some of the hardest times in her life including the abuse she suffered in her childhood. She felt that the feminist community could pull together and support each other through thick and thin. Other women believed her and that helped her become strong again.
The new ideas surrounding intersectional feminism seem to be echoing Hanna’s message: that together, the feminist community can find strength, and each individual can be supported by others. In a 2016 interview for Mojo, Hanna talked about how feminism now needs to be tackled on a cultural level: “You have to change the culture to change the laws”. She noted that a shift in the feminist culture was necessary and that each generation needed to bring something new to the table, but far from re-inventing the feminist wheel that she rolled back in the 1990s, Hanna has taken on the new generation’s ideas and contributions to the feminist discussion: “Let’s make it cool not to hate people. Let’s make black pride cool. Let’s make gay pride cool. Let’s make being female-identified cool. It should be!”
The new generation of Riot Girls
With the social media revolution of the present day, the young girls who are now the age I was when I first heard Bikini Kill are a lot more clued into the terminology surrounding feminism and are well versed in ideas of consent. If Hanna and Bikini Kill were able to inspire a generation of individuals to fight the patriarchy back in the early 1990s when they could only rely upon meetings, ‘zines and music to get their feminist message out there, then I can only begin to imagine what this might mean for modern riot grrrls and feminists.
The new wave of feminism has been changing the rules and challenging the establishment in the same way that Bikini Kill did back in the 1990s. With campaigns for equality now online, riot grrrls can easily find each other through the many Facebook groups, blogs and instagram accounts: She’s a Punk Podcast, Loud Women and Women in DIY Punk, are all shouting loudly across the global network and raising awareness of the newest and loudest grrrls that are making waves with their own take on feminist punk.
Meanwhile, blogs like Chester-based Grrrls with Guitars have a team of writers around the world scouring their local scene for the best new female talent while also providing edgy articles on the bands, like Bikini Kill, that are pioneering the modern day riot grrrl movement.
Could it be that these globally accessible movements can bring about the positive change for full inclusion of all genders that the music industry so desperately needs? Will we see a more mainstream return of the ‘Girls to the Front’ movement? Will there be a level playing field for female identifying musicians? Will the media give these musicians air-time, magazine covers and the exposure they deserve?
The legacy of Bikini Kill is still relevant to today’s Rebel Girls and the hype that has been created around their return only goes to show how excited the Riot Grrrl community is by them getting back together. People await with bated breath to hear Hanna scream again and are on tenterhooks to see how her story will unravel as she brings an updated version of feminism to the punk rock scene.
The new generation of Rebel Girls can be found across a broad section of the media - the character of Maeve in the Netflix series Sex Education is a perfect example. The revolutionary fire in my belly, that I felt when I first listened to Bikini Kill all those years ago has been reignited too and by the bands that are radiating out of the underground waves, with the progressive ideas and the new wave of feminism clearly manifest in their defiant lyrics and edgy videos: Skinny Girl Diet’s video Silver Spoons sees the leather clad trio riding around the streets of London taking on men who are being aggressive towards women and when one tries to get away, he is confronted by a big group of the women they have saved, again more than hinting at strength through unity. The songs of their latest album Ideal Woman hold a feminist message for the new generation of Rebel Girls with tracks like Warrior Queen, White Man, La Sirena and Ideal Woman, exemplifying how music can be a key driving voice in the feminist fight. Meanwhile, Hands Off Gretel are furthering the revolution with songs like Bad Egg, Queen of the Universe and I Want the World, as the lyrics and hard edgy punk rock sound incorporates the philosophies, energy and middle finger in the air kinda attitude in the same way that Rebel Girl did all those years ago.
Some argued that Riot Grrrl had its day in the 1990s, but the return of Bikini Kill shows just how relevant it still is. Feminism has grown, the music industry has changed, but thanks to these grrrls that are still out there producing music in their individual and non-apologetic way, feminism within the music industry has a stage from which it can scream loudly against the patriarchy.
Stephanie Burgess is one of the original riot grrrls, having played in punk bands throughout the 90’s. She currently runs her own fanzine and blog ‘Marina is Red’, which forms part of her postgraduate research into female representation in the Spanish alternative music scene, but also covers Riot Grrrl and feminist bands across Europe. She is an avid fan of alternative music and has an extensive record collection dominated by female musicians. She can still be found most weekends flicking through the vinyls and CD’s at her nearest music shop.