The Original Riot Grrrl

Kathleen Hanna is the only person in the world who could possibly make me wish I were back in high school. I mean this in the best way possible, of course.

Back in the 1980s, during my preteen and teenage years, there were some female musicians who kicked butt, like Blondie’s Deborah Harry, Pat Benatar, and maybeeven the Go-Gos. But most of the music I listened to back then was being made by moody boy bands like the Smiths or the Cure.

To a girl growing up in a small Midwestern town, rock music mostly seemed like a guy thing. Sure, Prince had the ambiguously silent Wendy and Lisa, Morrissey was as sensitive as any woman, and the Cure’s Robert Smith wore lipstick, but when I turned on MTV, women were usually playing supporting roles, like the identical (fake) guitar-swinging hotties in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video. While I couldn’t imagine myself being one of them, I couldn’t imagine standing out front, playing a real guitar, either.

Oh, what I would’ve done for someone like Kathleen Hanna!

Born in 1969, she began publishing the feminist zine Bikini Kill while attending Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. The zine eventually morphed into a band by the same name. Pledging their support for other female musicans, artists, and zinesters, the members of Bikini Kill dubbed themselves riot grrrls. The name sparked a pro-girl rocker movement that continues, perhaps in watered-down form, to this day. (For a look at Hanna’s Riot Grrrl Manifesto, go to http://www.virtue.nu/rytgrleurope/mfkh.html.)

When Bikini Kill burst onto the scene in 1991, I was already in college, where there was a women’s collective and a feminist literary journal and lots of guys who thought girls with self-confidence, black hair, and big shoes were sexy. So I viewed Hanna and the whole riot grrrl phenomenon with a kind of detached bemusement. As an oh-so-mature 22-year-old, I thought, “So that’s what kids these days are into.”

Then I actually started listening to her music. I still remember the shiver of excitement that ran through my veins when I realized that here was a woman who was getting sweaty, yelling, and jumping around in combat boots, and who, on top of all that, was singing bold, feminist-inspired lyrics. In the years since, I’ve begun to see Hanna’s influence on other cultural icons–call it the Girl Wide Web, if you will.

Without riot grrrls, there would be no Spice Girls, no Courtney Love, no Jane magazine. There would be no Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena, Warrior Princess. The movie Charlie’s Angels never would have been made the way it was if not for Hanna and her contemporaries.

Reading this, Hanna probably would be feeling bad about now, but she should know that some truly excellent things also have her fingerprints all over them. What about the original Sassy magazine? or Bust? or Bitch? And what about the movies Set It Off and Girls Town? Then there are other musicians who I like to think may have inspired her, or vice versa: Babes in Toyland, Sleater-Kinney, Roxanne Shante (her 1988 anthem “Go On Girl” still makes me want to bust my buttons with girly pride), Queen Latifah, and even Ani DiFranco.

As we age, we all run the risk of repeating ourselves, of sounding bitter and tired. But Hanna’s been able to stay fresh, to change with the times. Her latest band, Le Tigre (she’s also recently recorded under the name Julie Ruin, among others), has been called “a brilliantly innovative melange of lo-fi indie pop and New Wavy machine music.” Have a listen to these lyrics from the 2001 recording Feminist Sweepstakes:

What about that nice cool breeze? And hear the buzzing of the bumble bees. Just live beyond those neighborhood lives and go past that yard outside and push through their greatest fears and live past your memories tears cuz you don’t need to scratch inside. Just please hold onto your pride, and . . . so don’t let them bring you down and don’t let them fuck you around cuz those are your arms, that is your heart and no no they can’t tear you apart.

If I’d heard Kathleen Hanna earlier, my high school memories might have been a whole lot more memorable. But even now, her infectious idealism continues to make me want to crank the volume and roll down my car windows. What more can you wish for from a girl with a guitar?

Andy Steiner is a senior editor of Utne Reader.

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