By: Erin Margaret Day
Bikini Kill have been in the music news a lot lately. They got back together for some reunion shows recently, and I made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to reconnect with my feminist punk roots. Functioning as leaders of the “riot grrrl” movement, Bikini Kill called for “revolution grrrl style now” and spearheaded a feminist praxis in punk music that aimed to center women in the male-dominated scene. They demanded “girls to the front” of shows, would pass the mic to audience members to talk about their feelings and experiences, and encouraged other young women in the music scene to refuse to stand by the sidelines merely observing the culture their male peers were producing anymore. More than a sound or a genre, it was a philosophy and approach to feminist cultural creation—in ideas, art, music, and writing. If the research I have done recently on revolutionary women in music has taught me anything, it is that women being on stages at all is fundamentally revolutionary, because it was not allowed for almost all of recorded time, and women’s music-making continues to be permitted, supported, funded, and given serious consideration significantly less than male music-making. (I have worked at Riotfest Chicago for the last three years, and the line-up generally hovers around twelve percent female. Something all-male Swedish punk band, Refused, had the audacity to discuss while performing on my stage in 2016). The same oppression women face in music is replicated in almost every other field of industry, as well. Many of the stated aims of the movement remain enormously important.
But there are problems with organizing a movement around gender. One of the unfortunate outcomes of the riot grrrl movement’s focus on merely getting women on stages making noise together is that there is this sort of ongoing ghettoization of music made by women that doesn’t actually have much sonic similarity. Fantastic all-female bands, such as Grass Widow, get put into the same Spotify categories as milquetoast ones, like Best Coast and the Dum Dum Girls, as well as generating constant comparisons to the earliest examples of women in punk: X-Ray Spex, The Slits, and the Raincoats—which is deeply unfair, because those bands all have very distinct sounds. While they definitely influenced each other, as well as many other bands, they are distinct, and if anything, they inspired the people who listened to them to move closer to themselves—to locate their own distinction. All-female bands who inspired riot grrrl were not riot grrrl bands, and all-female bands who have followed since are not riot grrrl bands, either. Not even all riot grrrl bands were all-female; Bikini Kill are a great example, but most people don’t realize that, because they kept their original lead guitarist, Billy Karren, out of nearly all of their promotional materials. Even within the core period of the movement, there was a diversity of sounds. There was also, however, a diversity of problems. Diversity itself was probably its greatest problem.
One of the big phrases of the movement is “every girl is a riot grrrl.” It works well as a revolutionary call for unity, plus: femininity is a difficult space to occupy. To be consciously, fervently feminine, and not allow being “a girl” to limit what you can or will do, is a deeply revolutionary concept. But not all women—even some of the ones who are considered supremely revolutionary—are riot grrrls. In music alone: Loretta Lynn doesn’t identify as a feminist, and did not live a feminist life in most respects; Velvet Underground drummer, Moe Tucker, said she never faced different treatment or noticed any problems in the music industry in relation to being a woman or how women were treated, and attended Tea Party rallies later in life; electronic music pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, considered herself post-feminism, and found feminism kind of annoying; and Nina Simone was a Black separatist, whom I seriously doubt would have been an interested participant in the Mr. Lady or Chainsaw Records message boards—centers of riot grrrl activity after the advent of the internet–if she was invited to the forum while she was still alive. (And they did, in fact, co-exist for a number of years). It is also of critical importance to consider the racialization of the term “girl” in the U.S. and how applying that term to your movement might immediately alienate young Black women, for whom the quest to be seen as a woman is at least as old as Sojourner Truth. While riot grrrl tried to make their white feminism intersectional (and mostly failed), Black women’s feminism has always been intersectional, because all Black women exist at actual constant, compounded intersections of oppression.
The principles of riot grrrl are probably one of the earliest manifestations of intersectional third wave feminism—feminism that seeks to understand sexism in intersection with other forms of oppression—yet you may notice that transphobia is not discussed in the manifesto, and while the movement aimed to address racism, its leaders were entirely white, as were the local scenes of its major epicenters: the Pacific Northwest and Washington, D.C. Though much more diverse riot grrrl scenes did exist in Los Angeles and New York, the center of the movement was in white culture. The fact that it was largely based out of the Pacific Northwest, one of the whitest areas in the nation, is maybe a rationale for how white it has been and remains, in addition to the racial and economic divisions of America, which have made punk music culture distinct from other forms of rebellious, message-focused music that originated around the same time, like hip hop. But this regional distinction does not explain why the riot grrrl scene in D.C., a city that is about half Black, was majority white, also, and the struggles of its few Black participants to be seen, heard, and considered as more than just a token or diversity footnote. Even in the Pacific Northwest, there were indigenous women teaching themselves drums to Sleater-Kinney on the reservation, and they were never invited to the girl power meeting.
In fact, as of the past week, Carrie Brownstein (guitarist and vocalist from Sleater-Kinney) hid the comments of a woman and fellow musician on the Saddle Creek Records label who said she was a huge fan, had done this very thing, and felt it would be really meaningful if Carrie would actually use her social media platform to mention that it was National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls on May 5th. The comments of others who called out how out of step it was with the whole philosophy of this scene were also disappeared: just like those Native women and girls. So, white women building a supposedly intersectional culture of women’s resistance and empowerment on native land are perpetuating the erasure of those women and the rest of their communities from the culture of this land as it presently exists. Bikini Kill have recently been trying to use their platform to raise awareness of current bands constituted by the many groups of people they originally failed to elevate, yet when one of these bands, FUCK U PAY US, who opened for Bikini Kill at the Hollywood Palladium on May 1st, were harassed by the venue staff for being Black, queer, and gender-nonconforming, Bikini Kill did not respond to calls to show up for them or make a statement of any kind. What makes their performative gestures of allyship worse is that all the opening bands they selected who were Black and Latinx are significantly more interesting and worthy of everyone’s time. Participation in punk music by female, gender-nonconforming, and non-white folks has actually exploded in the last decade, so why are we still focusing so much on the people who failed to include them and continue to not show up for them when it matters? The world needs less fan-oriented documentaries and articles that fail to say anything complex or interesting about seemingly untouchable white leadership figures, and more conversation about amazing Black queer feminist punk zines like Shotgun Seamstress, decolonization-focused feminist punk collectives like Xingonas in the Pit, and the recently deceased Fed Up Fest here in Chicago.
Considering the enormous do-it-yourself ethic and anti-capitalist sentiment of the band, the shows also bring up another massive dilemma. One of the band’s earliest performances was at the International Pop Underground Convention of 1991 in Olympia, Washington. Events took place all over the city and featured bands on the cutting edge of independent music culture exclusively. Ian MacKaye, already an established and iconic figure in U.S. punk culture, could be found taking small amounts of money at the door to attend. Bikini Kill performed at “Girl Night: Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now,” an event credited as the beginning of riot grrrl. In these early days, they had a sliding scale for admission to their shows: three dollars for women and five dollars for men, with a one dollar discount available to men who showed their solidarity by wearing a dress. (One wonders which rate transwomen were expected to pay.) For the reunion shows, Bikini Kill opted to only play a few shows in three major cities (New York, L.A., and eventually London), and they chose huge venues where tickets were sold through Live Nation. A scalping disaster ensued, in which fans paid many times the original thirty dollar cost, soaring even to $900 per ticket.
In addition to the expensive tickets, fans traveled from all over the country and world to attend these shows. Considering that we are essentially living in a hybrid nightmare of fictional universes—as residents of Gilead with Wilson Fisk serving as president—it would make sense for a band that were revolutionary leaders to address many of the enormous sociopolitical issues we face currently: the massive roll back on abortion rights and protections for LGBTQ people, the countless families separated at the border, the thousands of children who have been sexually abused in immigration detention, and the fact that our president is a super-racist, hyper-capitalist serial rapist—to name only a few. The political landscape we are presently situated in has been cited by bands like Bikini Kill, and now Team Dresch, as the reason for these reunion shows, yet all they did was play through most of their catalogue without authentic enthusiasm and speak briefly about the importance of continuing to support women in your local music scene. (Just imagine how much money we all could have spent supporting women in our local music scenes with all the funds that people blew on overpriced tickets, cross-country transportation, and all the $17 beers poured from a bad tap!) Despite many shouts of “girls to the front!” as more and more men pushed through the crowd, these demands were ignored by Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer who originally called for this at shows, and then later responded to with: “that’s up to you.” It is up to us, ultimately, but you’re the one with a microphone who can speak to everyone at the same time, or even refuse to play until people listen, so why are you refusing to use your platform to improve the show for the people who actually give you a platform in the first place?
Riot grrrl and the associated queercore movement also failed another whole population of people it was really important to: young transwomen. These women also saw themselves reflected in the punk music scene for the first time through riot grrrl, yet they were often denied inclusion. I haven’t read a single article about the Bikini Kill reunion tour that addresses the fact that Kathleen Hanna has never apologized for one of her other music projects, Le Tigre, playing Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2005, six whole years after a young transwoman was seriously traumatized for attending the trans-exclusionary festival. (Team Dresch and the Butchies also unapologetically played this festival.) Even when people showed up to her shows and tried to foster dialogue about it: Hanna constantly refused. What was really surprising to me, when I spoke with participants in the Mr. Lady Records boycott, was that transmen were very much permitted into these spaces; transmasculinity was just seen as the logical outgrowth of lesbianism, being a “tomboy.” Transmen weren’t really men, and transwomen were certainly not women. Kathleen Hanna can be seen in interviews recently stating that she sees the increase in trans activism as positive, and Bikini Kill have a new trans guitar player, but there has never been an apology or formal acknowledgment of harm. A lot of this cultural history has been buried. These record labels no longer exist, and neither do their message boards where a lot of this conversation took place and was documented. (However, it should be noted that Julia Serano was a huge lurker in those forums and that the book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is informed heavily by observations of activity on those message boards, so that is somewhere you can go to get a sense of what the temperature was like.)
Another stated aim of riot grrrl was fighting discrimination toward people with disabilities, yet the show I attended proved to be a disaster for my best friend, who is becoming disabled by late stage Lyme disease that went untreated and undiagnosed for two decades. There was no place for us to be where they would not get pulled into a mosh pit in which their cane was used to pull them around and eliminate the possibility of exiting. Once we ascended the stairs to the balcony in order use the bathroom and to be safe, but also see the show, my friend was winded from the climb, and security would not allow them to even lean on something while they caught their breath. There were multiple completely vacant roped off VIP sections, and the show was almost over, but we were not allowed to sit there; nor did my friend have the stamina to go back downstairs and across the enormous crowd to get to the disabled seating, which was about four chairs that were all taken anyway. Since Kathleen Hanna also struggles with Lyme disease, the lack of consideration for people living with chronic illnesses is particularly confusing and disappointing.
When riot grrrl began to get appropriated and mass-marketed in the mid-nineties, Bikini Kill distanced themselves from the movement. It seems, however, that the Kill Rock Stars roster have increasingly become rock stars themselves, are spiritually arid as a result, and the actual meaning and direction of the movement is largely lost outside of the fans its core principles were enormously important to. Many of these fans are losing faith, if they hadn’t already buried the movement when Le Tigre put out their “I’m With Her” Clinton campaign song, or during all the years Kathleen Hanna refused to show up for important conversations within the movement she was so instrumental to. Truly revolutionary bands found ways to circumvent the music industry: mixed race all-girl orchestras of the Big Band Era and the people who put them up on the road in the Jim Crow South risked death to make those performances possible, the Staple Singers worked the church circuit and sold records out of their van, Talking Heads faced the closure of many theaters due to economic recession and eschewed the remaining options of bars and arenas for pizzerias with some intentionally odd openers. Why sell tickets through Live Nation? Why play in venues that actively exploit your fans and create wholly unsatisfying live music experiences? True revolution is difficult, and it is often terrifying…and it is easier both to incite and to abandon when you have literally anything else to do. It appears in 2019, Bikini Kill are ‘just so busy rn.’
© COME AWAY WITH EMD 2020