The Lasting Legacy of Bikini Kill and the Movement They Came From

Image: bikinikill.bandcamp.com
by Lilly-Mae Murphy 
Content Warning: mentions of rape and harrassment

I was fifteen the first time I heard Kathleen Hanna’s shrieking voice, screaming about rape, victim-blaming and abortion. I’d never before heard someone with such purpose and anger in their voice; I thought, this woman must have saved the world. Spoiler alert, she hadn't. Not yet, anyway. But, Bikini Kill and the feminist movement they came from, Riot Grrrl, had a serious impact on the progression of women’s rights and the conversation surrounding gender that re-emerged in the 90s. Bikini Kill were - and are, with news of a reunion - a punk force bringing women to the front, figuratively and literally. These words are a love letter to Bikini Kill - the amazing women who made  noise so loud I can still hear them, years later.

“White Boy” starts with the typical "‘dumb hoes’ got raped because they asked for it." The anger you feel hearing that tired, victim-blaming phrase, echoes through Hanna’s screaming voice. Now, when I listen to this song, all I can think about is Brett Kavanaugh and Dr Christine Blasey Ford.  Hanna sings "I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you/ your whole fucking culture alienates me." Blasey Ford was too alienated, after she bravely spoke out about sexual assault - rape culture is still as brazen today as it was in the 90s.

In 1991, the Anita Hill hearing took place. Similarly, Hill was exiled from any form of public dignity and her assaulter Clarence Thomas was too appointed as a Supreme Court judge. "I will try to scream in pain a little nicer next time" is a lyric I can’t help but interpret as a reference to the brave women who speak out against their abusers and rapists, the women who make a fuss and stand up against the people calling them ‘dirty liars’ about their trauma. I thank these women for their bravery, and I thank Bikini Kill for their combined tenacity and sensitivity when it comes to illuminating the issues that affect all too many women.

Now in the throes of Women’s History Month, we’re inundated with companies marketing clothing and collections with slogans all about ‘Girl Power’ and how cool feminism is (despite usually exploiting the women making the products, but I guess that's another conversation...)

Bikini Kill and other Riot Grrrl bands were making their own t-shirts in the nineties, by hand, and distributing them at their shows. A whole lot of women being visibly supportive of their womanhood and feminism during the early stages of the Third Wave is pretty poignant, and I adore photographs of any Riot Grrrl show for this very reason - women wearing a fuck-you feminist uniform. Riot Grrrl gigs also acted as forums for conversation and shared experiences. Zines were handed out, advice on how to mobilise against misogyny and support for victims of sexual abuse were given at their sets. One of the most notorious moments of Riot Grrrl history was Kathleen Hanna screaming ‘all girls to the front, I’m not kidding’ at one of their gigs. Hanna was done with women having to endure groping and sexual harassment whilst trying to enjoy themselves. The persistence of male entitlement means this still happens today, but Hanna’s methods of being mindful of women in situations she was presented in still inspire me. It was symbolism; girls were being brought to the front in multiple ways, and the legacy endures.

Taboo issues like abortion, rape, body image, homophobia and victim blaming were all getting put on the table as public issues that needed to be discussed. The nineties phenomenon of branding women such as Courtney Love or Monica Lewinsky as sex-crazed psychos and undermining their experiences undoubtedly went hand-in-hand with the narrative that Riot Grrrl was trying to show as being entirely offensive. The painfully misogynistic media coverage actually aided the movement in a way that still occurs today.

One of my favourite Bikini Kill songs, “Thurston Hearts the Who”, is Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman reading a bad review of Bikini Kill over the band playing; a review equating their feminism for misandry, and their sexual liberation as detriment to their opposition of sexual abuse. Member of the U.S. House of Representatives and my favourite woman in politics right now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, using the words and phrases that the far-right use against her as a source of empowerment is absolutely the same energy. 

Don’t get me wrong, there were limits to the brilliance of the Riot Grrrl movement. Lack of inclusivity and the diminishment of the voices of women of colour and trans women cannot be understated or erased. The faces of the movement were all white and cisgender and that was not good enough. But the legacy of the movement has set up a wondrous architecture that illustrates what to do and what not to do.

Right now, we’re seeing a resurgence of Third Wave feminism. Women aren’t taking any shit, misogyny is being exposed and shut down, and plaid is cool again. The same way they hated Bush, we hate Tr*mp. However, this resurgence is happening with intersectionality, and the white-feminism that plagued Riot Grrrl isn’t welcome anymore. Nonetheless, the indispensable and life-changing legacy of the movement lives on. Thank you to Bikini Kill and the other women of Riot Grrrl for screaming about the issues that we all face. Now buy a zine, join a local girl gang and let out your inner Riot Grrrl.