The everlasting legacy of Bikini Kill and the riot grrrl movement
In the front row of Bikini Kill’s first show in 22 years is a child sitting on her father’s shoulders. She is watching women of various generations form circular mosh pits across the floor as lead singer Kathleen Hanna belts out the lyrics to “Rebel Girl.” “Is this everything you dreamed of?” says one woman in the crowd to another. Her friend’s response: “Everything — and more.”
For fans of the pioneering riot grrrl group, the announcement of a brief reunion tour more than two decades on from Bikini Kill’s last proper trek was something they never dared wish for. Here you felt their gratitude. The following evening, the band blasted through 27 songs in less than 90 minutes (they will continue their comeback run next week in New York City before heading to the U.K.). “Imagine if I did cocaine; I’ve had half a cup of coffee,” commented Hanna on her stamina. There were chants of the riot grrrl mission statement “Girls to the front” as the crowd gave themselves permission to do what they wanted; Hanna checked in on them regularly to ensure they were comfortable. Above all, everyone enjoyed themselves, including the Bikini Kill frontwoman, who wore a sparkly shift dress while sporting her signature up-do beehive. “I’m actually for really really really real having fun,” she told the crowd, before chuckling in her faux Valley Girl accent. “So thank you so much.”
A lot has changed since Bikini Kill was founded in Olympia, Wash. in 1990. But the group is more prescient than ever, with music that speaks to the need to trample the patriarchy, banish sexism, protect the safety of those who identify as female, and become allies of more marginalized voices. When I last caught up with Hanna, in 2018, she said she hadn’t revisited the Bikini Kill catalog in years, but recently found herself listening to records on a trip to New York. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, when do I take a breath?!’ I never leave space in these songs!” she says. “It’s just like a drill. There’s a lot of sounds that are just in your face the whole f—ing time. It’s unrelenting. And I love that about it but I didn’t understand what the big deal about that band was. It was just normal to me. It was what I wanted to do. Why were people freaking out about it?” During the group’s heyday, Hanna and her bandmates didn’t watch their performances back; it wasn’t what DIY groups spent time on. Doing so now has given her a different perspective on it all. “We were a really weird band! Totally nuts! It was the most powerful force in the world and we were also about to fall apart at any second. I think that tension is really interesting. It’s hard not to watch.”
Donita Sparks, singer and guitarist from ’80s L.A. punk upstarts L7, remembers seeing Bikini Kill come up once their band were already well on their way to immortalizing themselves in the canon of outrageous rock & roll exhibitionism. L7 were renowned for their feminism as well as their garish onstage antics. They spearheaded the Rock For Choice benefits in 1991, which Bikini Kill eventually played. Sparks can’t recall when the two bands first collided, but remembers staying with Bikini Kill when L7 toured through Washington, D.C. in 1992 (Bikini Kill had since relocated there). “Bikini Kill were a bit younger than us and straight out of college,” says Sparks. “They had a lot of chutzpah. That was very infectious.”
While L7 started their activism in cities, Bikini Kill began on the grassroots level of college campuses alongside bands such as Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney. It was still the underground, but they had easy access to books and ideas and dorm rooms. “[Hanna] was using a band as her delivery mechanism for her politics,” notes Sparks. “We wanted to be a really good band.” It’s a fair critique. Bikini Kill were never renowned for being a great sounding band. It was all about messaging. “It was a different approach. We were both pied pipers on different scenes.”
For younger activist musicians, the discovery of Bikini Kill came long after the band had disbanded, in 1997. Lauren Mayberry, the lead singer of Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches, recalls becoming obsessed with the group after they were namechecked in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You. “Since I was a teenager I loved them, but only when I got older could I figure out how to employ [their] ethos in a practical way,” Mayberry tells EW. “When I was 17 I found so many other artists, bands, and authors through it that challenged my way of thinking.”
While Chvrches aren’t sonically inspired by Bikini Kill, Mayberry has looked to Hanna to dictate how to navigate being a public-facing figure. “It’s okay to have convictions,” says Mayberry, who used to run a women’s collective in Glasgow called Tuck Your Cunt In (TYCI), which held the city’s only screening of The Punk Singer, a 2013 documentary about Hanna’s life. “It’s okay to be vulnerable and pissed off because you’re being emotional about the right thing. Bikini Kill were so formative for me in terms of showing me that you can just build your own road.”
Bikini Kill fandom also found its way to Victoria Ruiz of Rhode Island punk outfit Downtown Boys. “I grew up in the Bay Area as a woman of color from a traditional Mexican-American family,” she says. “It was hard to know the fundamentals about underground DIY punk. That’s why I wanted to go to New York.” There, she found herself in a record store where a Bikini Kill sticker was pasted onto a shelf. “I was like, ‘Who’s that band?’” She soon found an album and played it in-store. “I couldn’t believe how much the lyrics resonated with me. Like, ‘Wow, these are grown women who made this band, who are writing and saying these things. It was so affirming as an 18-year-old to hear that those feelings never go away, that I might always have a problem with the way people treat me and see me. Here was a source for how to express myself in the world.”
Alternative solo performer Lauren Ruth Ward recalls her riot grrrl gateway via Hanna’s late ’90s outfit Le Tigre at the age of 14. “I heard the song ‘Deceptacon’ in a skate video online,” she says. One Google search of Hanna later had her devouring Bikini Kill and Hanna’s later project, the Julie Ruin. “Everything she does is an energy,” she says. “It’s so unapologetically intense. Kathleen Hanna is 100 percent one of the reasons why I do what I do.” Like Hanna, Ward was also slightly older when she started to play music, having had a previous career in hairdressing. For her, watching back original Bikini Kill footage was of paramount influence. “She’s just so in her mind back then,” she says, of Hanna. “Doing her job, up there fighting for what she believes in. Kathleen would lose herself in that way and I feel like we’re lacking that aggressive messaging right now.”
It’s the need for Hanna’s voice that remains imperative; a leader both onstage and off it, one who’d counsel her fans in the back alleys after shows about their own traumas. “I grew up in a small town and trends help small-town girls,” Ward concedes. “Back in the riot grrrl days feminism wasn’t so well known — they needed to be aggressive about it.” Ruiz, now 32, is equally elated for the reappearance of such an uncompromised visionary. “All of it’s still relevant,” she says. “There’s something about Bikini Kill being the founding mothers of DIY punk that’s important to artists — to have existing relevant leaders still active in what they’re fighting for. The legacy of Bikini Kill isn’t some fond distant memory of my youth. Rather it’s what I still need to listen to in order to grapple with the angst, the terror, the difficulty, and the resilience of being who I am.”
The influence of Bikini Kill still permeates the underground, but its mainstream appreciation is notable. Sparks sees it every time she logs onto Netflix, especially in female-driven comedy shows. She cites series such as Russian Doll and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as possessing the same sense of humor. “They’re talking about real shit,” she says. “Smart-talking women being funny, self-deprecating, sisterly, and feminist. The Lena Dunhams of comedy were influenced by gals like us. We helped spark it.”
When it comes to the evolution of riot grrrl and radical feminism, Ruiz especially sees big challenges, but is encouraged by the increased pluralism of the movement. “We have to deal with transphobia, the patriarchy, racism,” she says. “We’ve managed to make small breakthroughs with the gender binary, breaking through some dogmas that create problems for us.” She points to women of color and the Xicana riot grrrl movement. “I also see a lot of people who may not even identify as cis women who are riot grrrls.”
“It’s insane when you think about how long the artists have been talking about the same topics and how little has changed,” offers Mayberry, commiserating on the deep-seeded inequalities and prejudices that continue to haunt the disenfranchised. “The point is to ensure that there isn’t one kind of feminist; it has to be open, inclusive, about more than straight, white women. We’re not there yet.” It takes someone like Hanna, who has battled Lyme disease in her later years, to stick their head above the parapet, which in turn takes a huge toll on a person, emotionally and physically. That’s why it’s important that Hanna’s incumbents continue to do the work on the ground.
“I don’t know where feminism would be now without a voice like hers,” adds Mayberry, who admits that the documentary The Punk Singer made her “cry my face off” just as Chvrches were starting to gain traction. It gave her an insight into what the public takes from those they admire at the expense of remembering the humanity at the center of all struggles. “Kathleen Hanna is not a concept, she’s a person,” she says. “That’s what makes it even more powerful.” It’s not enough for Bikini Kill to live and breathe. There have to be new upstarts to carry the torch.