From Riot Grrrl to Real Girl

Kathleen Hanna’s new memoir, Rebel Girl, gave me flashbacks to discovering my gender identity as an uncertain teenager, when I dug myself deep into Riot Grrrl, its burning messaging giving me a sense of control in my life.

In Depth
From Riot Grrrl to Real Girl

Most punk shows exist in damp, dark basements where bodies smash themselves into one violent, wriggling nucleus in the middle of the room. Though many spectators feed off this frenetic energy, letting the music get their hearts racing, my blood pumped with anxiety when I first started hanging around punk scenes as a teenager. And so I would watch the pit from the side, avoiding any errant fists or getting bodychecked by men twice my size.

But I wasn’t afraid to lose myself in the crowd when I saw Bikini Kill a few years ago. When legendary frontwoman Kathleen Hanna performs, she claims the space that she occupies with a scorching scream. “Girls to the front,” she instructs at her shows, making sure anyone who has felt similarly small in a crowd can finally experience the liberation of a mosh pit, getting out all aggressions by jerking your body with abandon. 

I was in the crowd surrounded by my best girlfriends at their first show in Seattle in over 20 years, and we all screamed along to the band’s introductory manifesto: “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution, girl style now!” I filled my lungs and threw myself into the pit of fellow Riot Grrrls, making up for all the crowds I was pushed out of.

In her new memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk, Hanna documents her journey from the evergreen mist of the Pacific Northwest to fronting the legendary bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin. From the stage and on record, Hanna’s lyrics are determined and radical, amplifying messages about abortion rights, domestic violence, rape, and sex work set to urgent punk rock, making feminist messaging accessible to anyone who will listen. 

While attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Hanna’s art form of choice was spoken word poetry. A meeting with the revolutionary author Kathy Acker at a lecture encouraged her to start a band if she wanted to be heard;  “Most people go out and smoke when someone gets up to do spoken word, but people want to see bands” Acker told Hanna. She discusses the hostility she faced when getting involved in the Olympia punk scene, mostly from enraged men who would taunt the band with threats of violence which would only grow in severity as her career grew, but Hanna’s reputation still stands strong today because she never let her adversaries shut her up.

The stories told in Rebel Girl are full of vivid detail that show she always had the glittering aura of a performer. Hanna writes tenderly about first discovering how to sing, with much more care and reverence for the skill of musicianship than one would expect from a scrappy punk vocalist: 

Almost as an experiment, I opened my mouth and sang “Away in a Manger” as loud as I could. I walked towards the wall and noticed how the sound bounced off of it and got even louder. Hearing my voice bouncing back at me was like watching light refracting off a mirror. A mirror I could finally see my whole self in. If there were words my body could have said, they would have been “Right now is perfect. Right now, nothing bad is happening.”

Later on, Hanna writes about early Bikini Kill tours, when she finally felt that she was doing what she was meant to do, or how her friendship with Kurt Cobain and an off-the-cuff joke she made ended up becoming the title for one of the most famous songs in history, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then at the turn of a page, these charming anecdotes mutate into stories of trauma and survival, from the barrage of sexually inappropriate comments from her father while growing up or her dissociation while being assaulted by a close personal friend. But that is the point of Rebel Girl; not to gloss over events or to paint a happy picture, but to give an intimate look at how she became one of the most unwavering political voices in music.

The memoir gave me a newfound appreciation for Hanna as a writer; she stretches her prose out into poetic phrases, whereas her lyrics are typically terse, assertive, and urgent. This is not to knock the brusqueness of Hanna’s lyricism, of course, which was always a crucial part of her appeal. Even 15 years removed from the heyday of the Riot Grrrl era, I remember how “Rebel Girl” broke my consciousness wide open in middle school, and showed me a model of femininity in which I could picture myself. “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood,” Hanna sneers over a guerilla drum march. Whether “that girl” was a friend, a crush, an extension of herself, or an amalgamation of them all, I knew I wanted to be her. After all, who wouldn’t want to be the fearless muse Hanna proclaims as “the queen of my world”? 

I dug myself deep into Riot Grrrl as an uncertain teenager, its burning messaging giving me a sense of control in my life. I would click through the Riot Grrrl Wikipedia page, discovering the shattering wail of Sleater Kinney and the low-fidelity riffs of Bratmobile, but Bikini Kill was the centerfold I always turned back to. I didn’t have the words to describe the discomfort I felt about being perceived as a boy my entire life, but discovering Kathleen Hanna’s music became a turning point for me. Maybe I couldn’t yet call myself a girl, but I had no issue proclaiming myself as a Riot Grrrl.

It was difficult to explain how much I felt like one of these women.

Upon discovering her music and lyrics, I saw myself in Kathleen Hanna’s words more than anything else I knew before. I did all the research I could about her, and as I learned about her turbulent upbringing, it reminded me of my childhood caught in the sweaty grip of domestic violence. When I was 16 my mother and I lived in a women’s safehouse for a summer after escaping my father’s clutches, but I was comforted knowing that Hanna got her start volunteering in shelters and that there was a way out for me. Even if I couldn’t talk about my own life experiences, whether due to avoidance or embarrassment, Kathleen Hanna put an unshakable voice to everything I could not say out loud.

Despite several childhood instances that show my tendency toward femininity—playing with dolls, dressing up—identifying with Riot Grrrl was the first time I really had to grapple with my gender directly. Riot Grrrl prompted me to join my school’s feminist club and attend Planned Parenthood rallies, but I was often asked why a boy would care so much about women’s causes. 

It was difficult to explain how much I felt like one of these women, not just a fan of their music. Whether it was the way Riot Grrrls dressed, talked, danced, or held themselves, I knew my mind and body aligned much closer to them than anything else I’d known before. I would try to find easy explanations to people’s questions, or just to reason with myself, leaning into the role of a “male feminist” the best I could. But it stung to feel on the opposite side of where my heart really lived: with all the girls in the crowd. I wasn’t just an emphatic ally to Riot Grrrl; these traumas and causes felt like my fight too. 

However, when I was alone in my room, I didn’t need to explain anything to anyone. I could put on sloppy makeup and torn-up band shirts and imagine myself at a Bikini Kill show with all the other girls. I’d thrash around in a moshpit of one, screaming along to the lyrics of “Magnet” until I felt them in my bones: “This is not the life for me. I’ve got the love that’s strong and not weak.” When Hanna “dares you to do what you want, dare you to be who you will,” in “Double Dare Ya!”, she gave me permission to make my life and body however I saw it. Even if just in my imagination, I didn’t feel removed from my real identity listening to these lyrics; I was simply another girl in the crowd. 

Along with Hanna’s anecdotes from her life and career, she also takes the time to hold a mirror up to the movement she laid the ground for and assesses what could have been done better.  

Hanna has, in the past, distanced herself from Riot Grrrl after national coverage reduced everyone involved to man-haters, ignoring the real political issues they spoke about, with her as the culpable figurehead.

The pressure was too much to deal with at the time, but with her memoir, Hanna finally has enough distance to assess the shortcomings of Riot Grrrl. She compares the movement to “a three-headed hydra—super complicated, at times beautiful, but also potentially destructive,” especially when issues of internalized racism and classism reared their heads. Hanna uses an example of how a majority-white workshop in Washington, D.C., devolved into discord over the fallacy of reverse racism, which made Hanna realize that she’d been at least partially responsible for the movement’s overwhelming whiteness, and her role in “numbing out the ways in which [she] hurt others through neglect and denial.”

It’s rare to see public figures admit their flaws and spell out how they intend to work on them, which makes the critiques in Rebel Girl so valuable. Hanna never uses her perspective to make herself the good guy; instead, she gives herself an honest analysis that helps bring Riot Grrrl’s causes into the modern feminist landscape. In recent years, Hanna has made a point at concerts to specify that her “girls to the front” proclamation includes everyone: trans, genderqueer, nonbinary—whoever feels they belong there. I needed to hear this when I was younger and wasn’t sure if I was able to claim the same space. Hearing that corrective now gives my past self the validation that I needed, and my current self peace in taking up space where I feel the most safe.   

In 2017, fresh out of college, I packed up my life in New Jersey and moved to Seattle, craving a Riot Grrrl space of my own. With the name Kurt in Seattle, everyone would ask if I moved there for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but I always correct them and say I moved to be more like Kathleen Hanna—even if only by proximity.

My gender wasn’t fully defined by the time I got here—not that I think it ever really is, for anyone—but it was easy to find my own group of girls, with a mutual love of Riot Grrrl first drawing us together. Riot Grrrls just have a way of picking each other out in a crowd: Our cut-off jean shorts, ripped-up band tees, and motley collections of black ink tattoos are our calling cards. We would parade through the streets, feeling like the coolest girls in the city. When we go to punk shows we take up our space in the pit and get any creepy guys kicked out of the club when they felt entitled to touch our bodies. We’ve spent many nights at bars where we would electrify when Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” would come up on the speakers, tossing our drinks to the side to dance from the moment Hanna sings, “Who took the bomp?” When the state fair sets up in late summer, we drive down blasting “Carnival” and scream Hanna’s words in each other’s faces as we walk through the gate; “I’ll win that Mötley Crüe mirror if it fucking kills me!”

It felt like fate when we finally saw Bikini Kill together that night in 2022, and then Le Tigre a year later. Whether on those nights with my friends or in the embrace of the moshpit with all the other Riot Grrrls, I realized I did not feel separate or different from anybody else in the pit. I  didn’t have to question my gender anymore, I knew I was finally the rebel girl I always wanted to be, and I have Kathleen Hanna to thank for that. To read her life story now, Rebel Girl is a reminder that Riot Grrrl will always have a place for anyone who is down with the cause.

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