If wanted to pin point a moment that birthed my inner Riot Grrrl, I’d look no further than 1999, the year I met Kathleen Hanna (then touring with Le Tigre). We met in an old abandoned warehouse in Lawrence MA that we fondly called “The Loft Space.” It was above a recycling center that smelled like a mix of hot garbage and sour grapes. That night Le Tigre performed and the sound sucked, as it did on most nights and I could tell Kathleen was kind of frustrated, but she didn’t mind taking the time to talk to me and flash me one of those smiles that says, “I know, sister-it’s gonna be okay.” I was 19 years old and full of fear and angst. I had baby bangs, doc martens and was wearing a robot tee shirt. In front of me was this woman was screaming truth in my ears to an electronic beat. There were things I hadn’t expressed to anyone and there she was, saying it loud with a resounding: “Fuck shit, up and don’t apologize for it.” I had already picked up a pitch black, Ibanez bass that I got for as little coin as possible. I had barely played it though. I was a sophomore in college and too worried about what everyone was thinking and doing (also, only boys were in punk bands). But that summer, the summer I met Kathleen, I hunkered down and learned A, G, F, C–enough chords to get me by. It was only a few weeks later, that I was bracing that same stage, guts churning, covering “Rebel Girl” The fire was lit.
Realistically, I didn’t have a damn clue what feminism was. All I knew was I was tired of being called “fat”, “slut”, “whore” and a bunch of other bullshit terms that our sexist culture uses to keep women ensnared in self-hatred. I was blessed enough to be surrounded by an amazing group of rule-breakers, men and women–White, Black, Asian, Latino–that were tired of the dominant culture too. That summer, a bunch of us met, talked, read, talked, laughed, cried, protested, hooked-up, didn’t hook up and laid a foundation of fellowship at a nearby, radical bookstore–the only one in a 60 miles radius. We had a place. You need your people–that’s what Kathleen impressed on me last night during her talk at the Wilbur Theater in Boston.
Boston’s beloved Mayor, who’s quickly getting a high-five from sports fans and gen x’ers alike officially declared April 9, Riot Grrrl Day in Boston. Okay, Marty? Wait? What? When did this happen? Amazing. At the beginning of the show, the proclamation was read and an emotional lump lingered in my throat, which swiftly turned into a loud holler along with my fellow riot grrrls and boys. God Bless you, Martin Walsh.
Jumping onto the stage with a geometric dress and adorable, platform shoes, Hanna quipped about how “fucking nervous” she was. After a long battle with an unknown ailment that was finally diagnosed as Lyme’s disease, Hanna says she’s at about 80 percent health wise, but explained it’s a daily regimen of self-care, including therapy, medication and rest, although she didn’t seem to pause once the entire night, cracking jokes and answering every single question that came flying her way with poise and enthusiasm.
She spoke my life pretty much. Two hours flew by. It was like we were having a one on one conversation over coffee. She spoke of her early years in college where she was told what”art” was by a professor (cuing a portrait by Ansel Adams) while she was becoming painfully aware of a culture of date rape and street harassment. Hanna then launched into a slide show of feminist artists that her friends introduced her to, including Jenny Holzer, explaining that she discovered that art had a much larger meaning than what she was being taught, and how language, logos, tee shirts, post cards, fliers, and almost anything in between can be art.
“All of a sudden I realized that art can be about something. It doesn’t have to be silent and it doesn’t have to be hanging in a gallery.” Kathleen Hanna
Hanna than discussed how art helped her heal from a culture of violence against women, and described a very pivotal moment, where a male band member hurled a disgusting comment at her. It was then that she decided she was going to be a band.
Hanna hit back, blasting out in the 90s, (first in the band Viva Knievel) and then Bikini Kill. In her talk, she was honest and detailed about the the absurd sexism that her and her band mates dealt with on the road, but explained how her background in crisis counseling played an integral part at punk shows, often coaching young girls after shows. Bikini Kill also championed a policy of “Girls To The Front,” which encouraged a space upfront near the stage so that girls could feel safe at shows and Hanna is forthright about how she didn’t hesitate to kick men out of shows who were inappropriate.
“We were a messy, sloppy band. We didn’t want to make something seamless and perfect. We wanted the other freaks and weirdos to see us and say, “I could do that.”
Bikini Kill’s involvement in the third-wave feminist movement is undeniable. Young women started writing zines, playing shows and hosting consciousnesses raising meetings at punk houses. The Riot Grrrl movement eventually spread to almost every part of the country. The movement went through many changes, explained Hanna, who was careful to not candy-coat the imperfections of Riot Grrrl, specifically the issue of race. On the resources flyer she handed out was a list of critiques of Riott Grrrl. She explained that critique is incredibly important and is what will propel feminism into the future.
Hanna sat down and jumped around for a lengthy Q&A, where she fielded questions from audience members about trauma, Courtney Love, the use of the word “bitch” in gay culture. It was like we were sitting in a really large, punk house just talking about everything and anything. A software engineer asked about how to deal with sexism at work, a young gay man asked about his use of the term “bitch,”a young punk girl with pink hair asked if she could give Kathleen a pin from her jacket, another sufferer of Lyme’s disease asked what Hanna’s regimen was. We were all there. I kept thinking, “More of this, please?”
She wanted to end the night with a song. So she sang “Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic,” as original artwork streamed behind her with images of Angela Davis, Yoko Ono, James Baldwin and a veritable list of rule-breakers. That beautiful lump in my throat re-emerged. Audience members leapt to their feet and started dancing. The energy was palpable and my 19 year old self felt proud–proud that she found her voice and continues to find it. Proud that she was surrounded by folks who cared about their voices too. In this culture, women especially are taught that we have to waver this “magical unicorn” level of art. We don’t. We just have to do it. It doesn’t matter. We’ll get criticized anyway, as Hanna is quick to point out. The point is just to do it and enjoy it.
Hanna will soon be touring with her band The Julie Ruin, performing songs from the original album plus new stuff. You can find a bunch of resources on her website: http://www.kathleenhanna.com/