Counter Culture Classics: Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill album coverThis summer I found myself standing in the narrow aisles of the stacks of New York University’s Fales Library, reaching inside a shallow cardboard box to touch the thin fabric of a musty dress. “That,” exclaimed the excited librarian of the Riot Grrrl Collection, “is the dress from the cover of Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped.”

Founded in Olympia, Washington, in 1990 by Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill helped kick off the riot grrrl movement, a feminist punk revolution that quickly swept across North America. Riot grrrl’s DIY ethic encouraged young women to pick up guitars, learn three chords, and take over the clubs that previously only hosted all-male hardcore bands. In those pre-internet days, word travelled via handmade flyers and ‘zines cobbled together with scissors, glue, and illicit late night photocopying. These fragile pieces of paper, like the dress from Pussy Whipped, were the Holy Grail of female empowerment and agency for thousands of teenage girls.

I admit that when I first heard Bikini Kill, and lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s distinctive nasal growl, I thought they were too abrasive, too scary, too hard. I wasn’t ready for their message, which was in direct opposition to everything mainstream culture found acceptable. Bikini Kill didn’t behave like ladies. Bikini Kill didn’t believe in propriety. Kathleen Hanna spit and cursed and owned her sexuality, prowling the very edge of the stage in micro-mini skirts, daring anyone in the audience to try and grab her. Frankly, I found Bikini Kill intimidating.

But as I ventured out of my teenage bedroom and into the real world, I found myself running up against the misogyny and violence that Bikini Kill sang about. Just like I needed feminism to give me strength, I needed Bikini Kill. In three short albums, Bikini Kill managed to cover issues of sexual assault, domestic abuse, incest, eating disorders, and poverty. These thirty minute bursts of noise became my feminist Bible, with each three minute song standing as a psalm of righteous indignation. Now, when rape culture rears its ugly head, I have “I Like Fucking” and its last lines, “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.” When men harass me on the street, leering at me and my girlfriend, I always return to the power chords and defiance of “Rebel Girl,” which marked the first time I ever heard someone express the power that can be found in being queer. Bikini Kill’s rebel girl embodies revolution–a queer revolution, an outcast revolution, a feminist revolution–“in her kiss,” screams Kathleen Hanna, “I taste the revolution.”

The riot grrrl movement was imperfect, often falling into the same trap as the mainstream feminist movement in prioritizing the voices of middle class white women, and eventually ending up co-opted and repackaged as the Spice Girls. Despite these problems, the net result of riot grrrl was a sea change in the music world. Rock clubs and guitar shops never returned to being all-male spaces. Teenage girls kept picking up guitars and learning to play. The space that Bikini Kill helped carve out was permanently occupied by queer and trans and all-girl bands. Women’s voices and self-expression became important enough to be collected by university archives. Kathleen Hanna went on to form Le Tigre with J.D. Samson, and J.D. Samson went on to form MEN, a queer dance band that I saw play at Toronto’s Sneaky Dee’s last year. When J.D. sang the opening lines of Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya,” the crowd went wild. “Hey girlfriend, I got a proposition, it goes something like this: Dare ya to do what you want. Dare ya to be who you will. Dare ya to cry right out loud. You get so emotional baby.” Bikini Kill broke up in 1998, but revolution grrrl style now is forever.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012.