Kathleen Hanna has always loved singing, but her success came with unexpected consequences. Hanna tells the story of what it was like to be the face of Riot Grrrl and how the community she advocated for turned against her.
KATHLEEN HANNA: I felt like I could say whatever I wanted and nobody could hurt me. And that was a time where I would have witnesses if anybody tried to do anything to me. And so I could talk freely because I was on a stage and I had the microphone.
ANN FRIEDMAN: In the early 1990s, Kathleen Hanna went to a lot of punk rock shows where the crowd was a sea of men. And so when she stepped on stage herself as the lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, her goal was to change that audience and to make the whole underground music scene more feminist.
Then, she got famous and unintentionally became a punk feminist figurehead in a rapidly growing movement known as Riot Grrrl. She knew she’d be threatened by the male-dominated punk scene that she worked so hard to change, but she did not expect to be torn down by other women who identified as feminists. And when Bikini Kill broke up, Kathleen had to decide whether she still wanted to keep making music, or whether it would be too painful.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It, a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
On this episode: What happens when you create a supportive, nurturing community—and then it turns against you?
FRIEDMAN: What is your first memory of being onstage and performing?
HANNA: Well, when I played Annie in grade school… [laughs] What else is there to say after that?
FRIEDMAN: How old were you?
HANNA: I was nine.
FRIEDMAN: At that age did you think I want to do this forever? I love this so much?
FRIEDMAN: How did you know?
HANNA: I mean the first time when started singing it felt like... I could make a rainbow on a wall by staring at it.
When I started realizing, hey I want to sing. I want to stop helping all my friends who are in bands—all these guys, I was always making them stickers and helping them with their album art and going to their practices. But I was not doing anything myself. I did performance art. And so I was like, “Well, next logical step is just to do a song. If you have enough guts to get up by yourself and do spoken word, singing is no big deal.”
So I was in this band called Amy Carter. Me and my friends had started a feminist art collective in Olympia, Washington in an old garage.
FRIEDMAN: And what did the garage look like? What did the space look like?
HANNA: Well, when we first got it, there was a guy living there and actually I heard that he was about to get arrested and go to jail! So I contacted the owner, got it for really cheap. It had those things that you like, crank the car up on.
FRIEDMAN: Like a lift or a jack?
HANNA: It had two of them. And we had to get those removed. We didn't just have to start a band we had to create the space—literally build the stage. It was kind of like the only way that we would have enough guts to do this, is because we had the space.
FRIEDMAN: Why do you think it was necessary to do it in your own space?
HANNA: It's funny because my initial response is like, oh I want to tell you what happened later.
Because later I realized why I felt nervous. I felt nervous on an intuitive level I think, of like... I just I didn't feel safe or confident enough to go to some regular club. Unless you're on a major label or something, women didn’t really make music.
FRIEDMAN: At that point did you feel like you were already using your music to make a feminist statement?
HANNA: I felt like I was expressing myself. A big thing for me that happened was I started working at a rape relief domestic violence shelter called Safe Place. When you're 19, and you're doing direct services work with women who have been in domestic violence relationships for 40 years, and you're doing intakes in the middle of the night where they're for the 12th time trying to get away from from their husbands or their partners, what do you do with that?
I really started expressing stuff that I needed to get out in order to survive.
CLIP OF SONG “DIE VERMIN” BY VIVA KNIEVEL
To sing and talk about domestic violence and rape and stuff like that onstage in an atmosphere where no one was talking about that at the time felt very... it felt like, I want to hear somebody singing this in the club.
When I got back to Olympia to finish my last four credits, Tobi Vail who is a drummer and a singer, she was like, “Let’s start a band.”
FRIEDMAN: And you were like, “Hell yeah, I’m in”?
HANNA: Yeah of course!
FRIEDMAN: So you and Tobi form the band Bikini Kill, which kind of coincided with the start of the Riot Grrrl movement, this punk-rock feminist movement. Did you feel at the time that you were doing something rooted in feminist politics, was that your intention?
HANNA: Tobi and I were pretty much best friends at that point and when we started Bikini Kill and we were reading all this feminist theory and talking about it. As a band we wanted to take over punk rock for feminists.
For me as a human being, I came to feminism like a lamb to God. I wanted to turn these male-dominated spaces on their head. I wanted to find a way that I could walk into a club where they were playing, like, The Mentors’ “Find Her Feel Her Fuck Her Forget Her” as we walked in, and turn that into a place where women felt welcome.
FRIEDMAN: What did it feel like when you started performing live with Bikini Kill?
HANNA: Playing it really cathartic to me. It felt really amazing. People didn't know what to expect. When we first started playing, they had no idea how confrontational I could be.
CLIP OF SONG “SUCK MY LEFT ONE” BY BIKINI KILL
HANNA: I was just very shocked by the reaction, because I thought people would be super psyched. I was like, everyone's gonna be super psyched that that girl is talking about feminism in punk rock or in the underground music scene, because, there's not that many people who do that. But a lot of the people that I encountered in Bikini Kill were guys who were just total assholes. I met the guys who were screaming, “Show us your tits.” Or, more commonly I just got “shut up.” “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up and play.” I seriously started thinking my name was “shut up and play.”
When guys would heckle me, I would make fun of them. If guys were messing with other audience members in a way that was violent and awful, we usually didn't have security and I would walk out there and physically throw them out the door myself.
To me it just felt like that's what a normal person does. If somebody is telling you to shut up, you tell them to go fuck themselves, and that you're the one with the mic, and they can go to hell.
I felt like I could say whatever I wanted and nobody could hurt me. And that was a time where I would have witnesses if anybody tried to do anything to me. And so I could talk freely because I was on a stage and I had the microphone.
FRIEDMAN: I’ve heard your lyrics and they’re definitely not intended for a crowd of angry men. So what did you do to get more women in the room?
HANNA: I got addresses of every single girl that came to our show, women that came to our show, and then would send postcards personally inviting them and be like “bring your friends.” Trying to also change the audience. We were very conscious that what was happening in the audience was just as important as what was happening on stage. And that was a lot of asking the girls to come to the front.
CLIP OF KATHLEEN: “If anyone is fucking with you at this show, come up front and sit on the stage.”
FRIEDMAN: Were they having to push men aside? I'm picturing a parting of the waves like Moses, which I know was not how it was, but for some reason I can't get that image out of my head. What did it look like to you from where you were standing when that would happen?
HANNA: There was no parting of the waves… The thing is it was very different over time. In the beginning it was a lot of befuddlement. When we would say “girls the front,” people were bummed. A lot of “how dare you do that. How dare you.” But then a couple would come.
We didn't just do that so that girls could see us play our instruments and hopefully start bands. We were also doing it for our safety. Because we were also women in an unsafe position. And we needed those front rows to be women.
HANNA: And sometimes we would ask them to walk us out to our van. Be our escorts.
But then it started to become a shtick that people expected. And so people would yell out to me to do it. And I had started to really have issues with, what did that mean to the men of color in the room? What did it mean to butch lesbians who were often mistaken for boys? There was a lot of questions I had about essentializing the term “girl.” And that was part of the reason why I stopped doing it. Then do I say “OK all the gay kids up front. All the short kids up front.” Oh I could have this whole list of like, anybody with an income below… you know what I mean? It could have just been super ridiculous.
FRIEDMAN: At the end of the night after a show, what did it feel like?
HANNA: Usually directly after, girls and women were coming up to me and sharing their stories with me. The fact that women who wouldn't call a rape relief place or domestic violence shelter would talk to me. I was a counselor. I had training. I wasn't an official accredited counselor, but I was trained by Safe Place. And so I just started using those skills after shows and later on tour. And I feltlike I needed to keep it together and help as best as I could.
I felt sad. I felt sad. After shows I felt empty, sad, and weightless.
FRIEDMAN: What got you to the next point having after a night like that?
HANNA: I guess what got me to the next point is I loved touring. I loved touring. When I was a kid we used to drive across the country every year in a van and camp. And just picking KOAs to stay at. Do they still have KOA’s?
FRIEDMAN: Oh yeah. Kampground of America but with a “K”? Is that right?
HANNA: Yeah, because it’s a little sketchy. I was really used to touring and so I really loved touring. I remember putting my hand on the window one time in our Travelall—that's what it was called, it was like part van, part jeep—and looking out the window and being like, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
FRIEDMAN: So as the Riot Grrrl movement got more recognition and Bikini Kill became the symbol of Riot Grrrl and you were at the front of Bikini Kill… how were you treated?
HANNA: In my small town I was a big deal. In my early 20s, thrown into the national media—that can be really hard especially I think if you're a woman or a person who's marginalized. I felt very pulled out from my community and I really didn't like it.
People seemed so angry at me. Onstage things started to get so violent that I think everyone in my band was like “you’re gonna get hurt, someone's going to hurt you.” It started to feel like... it was ramping up to such an extent it was like, someone's going to do something. So I was really at the end of my rope.
FRIEDMAN: Were there a series of moments when you were like maybe this has got to end?
HANNA: I felt that feeling constantly. I was on my period and I went to Safeway to get some Neapolitan ice cream. I had a thing of super tampons and the thing Neapolitan ice cream. I ran to this girl, who's like a punk girl from the scene, and right to my face she said, “You're ruining the scene. You're a stuck up bitch. How dare you. I don't speak for her.” And I didn't ever want to speak for other women! I was just speaking for myself. I'm fine if people don't want to call themselves a feminist. I don't give a shit. You call yourself whatever you want. That started happening a lot.
Women coming up to me and saying “All I see in you is man-hate. You're giving women a bad name.” And when it is other women in the scene, it was just really painful.
The only way I could please them is if I went away. If I just disappeared.
FRIEDMAN: So was there like a “discuss the relationship” style talk where you and your bandmates sat down and…
HANNA: Hell no! [laughs] No!
FRIEDMAN: How did things finally… when was the point where you personally were like “ok, that’s it.”
HANNA: I mean the moment that I said goodbye to Olympia, I was actually the karaoke hostess and I sang “I Will Always Love You,” and then I flipped off the whole town and walked out. And then me and the bass player Kathi [Wilcox] just drove across the country with my cat in a U-Haul. And it was over. I think I sent an email. Because I wanted people to be able to move on with their lives.
FRIEDMAN: In that van speeding east, were you like “goodbye forever music”? What did you think your next thing would be at that point?
HANNA: I wasn't really thinking. I was just like “I gotta get out of her e.” And my best friend Tammy Rae [Carland] who I had been an Amy Carter with lived in North Carolina with her girlfriend Kaia [Wilson]. And I was like, as soon as I get out this band, I'm gonna move to wherever she is. So I did that. I lived in this attic room in North Carolina in the summer with no air conditioning and no heat in the winter for like 100 bucks.
I just cried for a year. I was just really emotionally trying to figure out how to stay alive. Because Bikini Kill was my family, it was everything to me. Everything. My whole life was that band. All the chickens were in the basket. And I had very little life outside of that band. So it was like getting a divorce from four people. But one of them was actually me like I was divorcing Kathleen from Bikini Kill. And who was I when I wasn’t “Kathleen from Bikini Kill”?
FRIEDMAN: How did you answer that question for yourself? And how did you go from your friend’s house in North Carolina, and crying all the time, to the next stage of your life?
HANNA: I knew I wanted to be with my friend Johanna Fateman. She was in New York. My boyfriend who I was very much in love with at the time was also in New York. And so I left North Carolina for New York. And I was like, “I want to play music with you Johanna.” We borrowed a practice space from someone, we started meeting. We started writing new songs. And we talked at length about what had happened with Riot Grrrl, and in the punk feminist world, and how people were tearing each other apart in unproductive ways.
I just remember looking her one day in the practice space and I was like, “What if we just stop thinking about this shit? Like what have we just stop freaking out about all this bad stuff? And like, we just say ‘thank you’ for everything that we've been given and for all of the activists and artists who we love so much to inspire us. Why don't we just focus on that?”
So we wrote this song called “Hot Topic.”
CLIP OF “HOT TOPIC” BY LE TIGRE: Hot topic is the way that we rhyme Hot topic is the way that we rhyme
HANNA: And we were like, “This is a snapshot of today. People who we like. Let’s make a list. Put it in a song. Call it a day.”
CLIP OF “HOT TOPIC” BY LE TIGRE: Carol Rama and Eleanor Antin Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann You're getting old, that's what they'll say, but Don't give a damn I'm listening anyway
FRIEDMAN: How did it feel to write that song?
HANNA: It felt amazing. Johanna worked, so she would go to work, and we would write. And then I would just stay in practice space and keep working. So I just did tons of takes and think I stayed all night one night and just worked and worked and worked and I just remember being like, “This is what I want it to sound like. This is exactly what I heard in my head and I'm making it happen.” And that really was the turning point for me of like, “I'm going to do this again.”
CLIP OF “DECEPTACON” BY LE TIGRE: Who took the Bomp from the Bompalompalomp? Who took the Ram from the Ramalamadingdong? Who took the Bomp from the Bompalompalomp? Who took the Ram from the Ramalamadingdong?
HANNA: It was seriously “turn your frown upside down.” [laughs] It really was! It was like, the feminist turn your frown upside down-style, nonstop.
CLIP OF “DECEPTACON” BY LE TIGRE: You bought a new van the first year of your band You're cool and I hardly wanna say "not" Because I'm so bored...
FRIEDMAN: So you and Johanna call your band Le Tigre. What was it like performing with her and how was it different than Bikini Kill?
HANNA: It just felt great. I mean it was like, we have what we need for our shows. We had a tour manager—I'd never had a tour manager or a booking agent or any of that before. It made my life a lot easier. I could choose when I wanted to engage with people and when I didn't. Really in that band, I stopped looking to the audience to love me.
You can start to get so measured, but if you sit there and try to become perfect before you say anything or you start censoring yourself before you even write the song, then you stop being an artist. You stop doing stuff. I think it's really important to keep going. I wanted to be one of those people. And I felt like the best way to do it was through music and making music with one of my best friends in the world.
FRIEDMAN: Kathleen Hanna still makes music with some of her best friends. In 2016, her band The Julie Ruin released the album Hit Reset. These days, she’s an ambassador for Peace Sisters, an organization that sends young women to college. And—get this—Kathleen is reuniting this year with Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox to play their first shows since 1997… as Bikini Kill.
CLIP OF “REBEL GIRL” BY BIKINI KILL: … I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah Rebel girl, rebel girl Rebel girl you are the queen of my world Rebel girl, rebel girl I think I wanna take you home I wanna try on your clothes, uh
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp, and I’m your host, Ann Friedman. I'm tuned like a gorgeous grand piano by producers Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell, and scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to Max Linsky out there spinning in the at-bro-sphere, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
CLIP OF “REBEL GIRL” BY BIKINI KILL … When she walks, the revolution's coming In her kiss, I taste the revolution Rebel girl, rebel girl Rebel girl you are the queen of my world Rebel girl, rebel girl I know I wanna take you home I wanna try on your clothes, uh
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Antje Danielson was fired by her best friend.
Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit—and her job.
Charlotte Cho never thought her skincare hobby could be her career.
Soledad O’Brien’s dream job wasn't a dream at all.
Jessamyn Stanley couldn't stop saying "I'm sorry."
Samin Nosrat wanted to be a writer, not a chef.
Glennon Doyle fell in love with someone who wasn't her husband.
Claressa Shields was told to put her Olympic dreams on hold.
Hillary Clinton almost dropped out...of college.
Cameron Esposito got her big break...and then it fell apart.
Amanda Nguyen took Congress to task for survivors’ rights.
Rebecca Traister went freelance and almost went broke.
Audri Scott Williams ran an unlikely political race.
Kathleen Hanna hated being the face of Riot Grrrl.