As Bikini Kill makes plans for their first tour in 23 years, PKM revisits the roots of the Riot Grrrl movement that the band helped bring to life. Sharon M. Hannon has prepared an annotated timeline of events and red-letter dates. As Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna has said, “Since Trump was elected, there’ve been all these times when the news is on and I’m singing a Bikini Kill song in my head. It’s like I need to hear these songs.”
Bikini Kill, one of the pioneering Riot Grrrl bands of the 1990s, has plans to tour again this year — their first major tour across the U.S. and Europe since they broke up in 1997. Before reuniting for a one-off gig in 2017 to celebrate the publication of 33 1/3, a book about the Raincoats, the group – Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, and Kathleen Wilcox — had not played together in 20 years. They followed that performance in 2019 with a series of shows in Los Angeles and New York, and later in London and Chicago.
This year’s tour, originally scheduled to kick off on March 13, has been postponed, like so much else. At this time, they plan to resume the tour in September 2020.
Why reunite now? As Hanna told Rolling Stone, “Since Trump was elected, there’ve been all these times when the news is on and I’m singing a Bikini Kill song in my head. It’s like I need to hear these songs.”
While we wait for Bikini Kill to hit the road once again, let’s take a look back at the 1990s and some of the key moments in the Riot Grrrl movement. Though entire books have been written, and college courses taught, about Riot Grrrl — what it was, what it meant, what impact it had — here’s a snapshot, a Riot Grrrl primer, in several acts:
Getting people to listen. Seattle, May 1989
Feminist writer and spoken-word artist Kathleen Hanna travels from Evergreen State College in Olympia to Seattle to attend a workshop given by her hero, writer Kathy Acker. Learning of Hanna’s current path, Acker tells her that if she wants people to listen to what she has to say, she should start a band.
A movement and a band. Olympia, Washington, October 1990
Sharing a deep interest in gender issues and writing, Hanna and drummer Tobi Vail, who had been producing a zine called Jigsaw, develop a vision for an accessible feminist movement. Vail calls it Revolution Girl Style Now and names their band-to-be Bikini Kill. Kathi Wilcox soon joins them on bass and later guitarist Billy Karren completes the group. By the following June they are on the road with the Washington, D.C., punk band Nation of Ulysses, spreading the gospel of Revolution Girl Style Now.
Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl” –
An organic movement begins. Eugene, Oregon, early 1991
Inspired by Vail and Jigsaw, two young feminists at the University of Oregon, Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe, create a fanzine, Girl Germs, and start performing music as Bratmobile. By spring break, D.C.-native Neuman and Wolfe arrive in the nation’s capital and jam with guitarist Erin Smith. The trio click. They write and record a few songs, play some shows, and decide to spend the summer in D.C.
The manifesto. Olympia, Washington, 1991
In the second issue of the Bikini Kill zine, Hanna and Vail list 16 tenets or beliefs (known as the Riot Grrrl Manifesto) that they envision for the movement. They include:
BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.
BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticize-applaud each other.
BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.
BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.
BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girltype behaviors.
BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.
Trailer for The Punk Singer, a documentary on Hanna
A name and a means of communication. Washington, D.C., Summer 1991
After winding down their tour with Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill settle in the district for the summer. At the time, the city had a well developed punk scene, a successful and respected record label, Dischord Records, and bands who were politically aware and socially active. But like most cities, the punk scene in DC is heavily male-driven. In the following weeks, the two bands and Jen Smith, a member of the D.C. scene, go to punk shows and talk to young women about the all-girl scene they want to create. To connect with other young women, let them know what’s happening with the bands and zines, and give them tips on activism and politics, they create a mini-zine to pass out at shows. Smith, who had just witnessed a street riot in the city, comes up with the idea of a “girl riot.” They call their new zine Riot Grrrl and feature an article decrying Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the first issue.
“BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.”
The first meeting. Washington, D.C., July 1991
Ready for the next step, they distribute flyers calling other grrrls to a meeting to talk about punk rock and feminism. The flyer reads, “An all-girl meeting to discuss the status of punk rock and revolution will be held at 7 pm on Wed. July 24th at ‘The Positive Force’ house. We’ll be talking about ways to encourage higher female scene input + ways to help each other learn to play instruments + get stuff done.”
About twenty young women attend that first meeting. They discuss skills sharing – creating fanzines, playing instruments, putting on shows – with the goal of creating a new society that empowers women and introducing a new generation of women to feminism. The meeting also gives them a place to talk about their lives and experiences, everything they face living as grrrls in a male-dominated world.
The Riot Grrrl movement that grows out of that summer encourages women to produce and create their own art and music rather than passively consume mainstream culture or the punk scene and youth subcultures that they had helped to shape. And they commit to helping other girls. At their shows, the bands begin calling on the crowds to create a grrrls-only space up front where they can dance without getting hurt.
A night of their own. Olympia, Washington, August 21, 1991
Independent label K Records organizes a punk festival in Olympia and dubs it the International Pop Underground Convention. The first night of the festival features an all-female lineup billed as Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Kicking Giant, Heavens to Betsy and 7 Year Bitch are among the many bands that play. Showcasing the merger of punk rock and feminism, the night eventually goes down in history as “Girls Night” and is credited with encouraging other grrrls to form bands and become more confrontational about gender issues.
Bratmobile, “Not in Dog Years”
The first convention. Washington, D.C., July 31-August 2, 1992
The D.C. chapter of Riot Grrrl holds the first national convention, and more than 150 girls attend the three days of bands, poets, discussions, and workshops on topics including sexuality, rape, unlearning racism, body image, domestic violence and self defense. In a shock to participants, female journalists from mainstream publications also show up. The organizers allow them to sit in but not to quote anyone.
Media blackout. Olympia, Washington, Fall 1992
The week after the D.C. convention, USA Today’s condescending article, “Feminist Riot Grrrls Don’t Just Wanna Have Fun,” appears, sparking a media onslaught. That fall, after a story they find misleading runs in Spin, the D.C. chapter imposes a media blackout.
An article in Newsweek soon inspires grrrls in the Olympia chapter to create a zine, What is Riot Grrrl, Anyway?, to try to take control of their own narrative. In it, they try to summarize the individualistic nature of Riot Grrrl – their opinions vary, as do the needs and desires of each member. Essentially each member is able to determine what Riot Grrrl means to her, something that can’t be explained to the mainstream press who constantly ask what Riot Grrrl is. The one thing the Olympia group can all agree on is a media blackout. They then take the rare step for the decentralized movement and ask members of other chapters to join them.
The movement grows abroad. England, Fall 1992
Huggy Bear, the first British band to directly associate itself with Riot Grrrl, releases its first four-song, 7-inch record and works with others to create a Riot Grrrl zine. Soon chapters begin forming in northern England and Scotland. In February 1993, Bikini Kill arrive for their first UK tour and spend two raucous weeks touring with Huggy Bear.
Footage from the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear tour of the UK. Begin viewing at the 14-minute mark:
Vinyl. May – June 1993
In the spring of 1993, Riot Grrrls still don’t have much music to listen to at home. Bikini Kill’s first record, the six-song EP Bikini Kill, had been released the previous October, but there wasn’t much more. Then, within two months, the Kill Rock Stars label releases Heaven’s to Betsy’s first record, “These Monsters are Real,” a four-song, 7-inch, and Bratmobile’s debut album, Pottymouth. Bikini Kill’s first full-length album, Pussy Whipped, finally comes out later that year.
Controlling their story. August 1993
Riot Grrrl chapters continue to spring up across the U.S. and Canada: chapters form from Vancouver to Dallas, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and a small group in Omaha, to name a few. At the same time, stories about the movement routinely to appear in mainstream publications struggling to get a handle on what these grrrls are up to. Frustrated by the way they are portrayed in these national publications, a group of Riot Grrrls decide they need to actively control their message. The result is Riot Grrrl Press (a catalog of all Riot Grrrl-related zines and publications), created to get the word out directly to grrrls everywhere about the movement. Their first catalog, released in late summer, lists almost 90 zines. Eventually the zines will number in the thousands in the U.S. and Canada alone.
Neither a whisper nor a bang. Mid-1990’s
The initial Riot Grrrl chapters in the U.S. are petering out. Some members feel the media scrutiny is changing the movement. Some graduate from college, move, get jobs, or begin channeling their activism in other directions. Others, seeing their aesthetics and ideas being co-opted for marketing purposes, distance themselves from Riot Grrrl. “It’s scary to see something that at one point in time was really important to you turned into a sound bite,” says Hanna. “It’s gross when things like Riot Grrrl or feminism become a product.” By 1996, only the New York and D.C. chapters still meet regularly.
This is the end? Tokyo, May 1997
After seven years and three albums, Bikini Kill play their last show. “There were interpersonal conflicts,” Vail told the Guardian in 2017. “We’d done everything we wanted to. It just fizzled out.” By 1997, most of the other original Riot Grrrl bands have broken up as well.
But … around the world, Riot Grrrl chapters continue to be formed for years to come.