Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna Inspires with Music, Feminism

By Gabi Bruney, Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010

Hanna hung out with students after she spoke. Emily Ibarra/Contributing Photographer Hanna hung out with students after she spoke.

Kathleen Hanna, third-wave feminist icon and the most famous leader of the “riot grrrl” movement, arrived on campus as a guest speaker last Friday. The former front(wo)man of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, 41-year-old Hanna is entering her third decade in the music industry. She spoke to one hundred assembled students in Exley Science Center’s Woodhead Lounge, reminiscing about her musical beginnings at college and her years as a DIY punk goddess.

Hanna, then a fanzine writer and photography student at Olympia, Washington’s Evergreen State College, had been inspired to volunteer with victims of sexual violence after an attempted assault on one of her housemates. Along with fellow students Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox, Hanna founded Bikini Kill in 1990 to encourage community and feminist thought among young women.  Her vicious lyrics dealt with a variety of feminist issues, including sexism, incest, rape, and domestic violence. The Pacific Northwest was a hotbed of underground punk music and activism, and bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile formed the roots of riot grrrl, an all-encompassing feminist punk ethos that united women around the country through music and zines.

Hanna is also famous for her involvement in Le Tigre, her late-nineties electroclash band formed with Joanna Fateman. 2004’s This Island marked Hanna’s only major-label release, with Universal Records.

Kathleen Hanna’s visit is credited to the persistence of Charlie Ellis ’13, who last year began searching for events to be sponsored by Music House. Around the same time, Hanna made a donation of her zines to New York University’s library.

“So I thought, ‘She’s into education, let’s see if she’ll come and speak here,’” said Ellis. “We’re way cooler than NYU.”

Ellis sent letters to every email address he could find for Hanna, with no luck. Finally, he sent her a Facebook message.

“She put me in touch with her agent, we got funding from the Student Budget

Committee, and organized it through Music House and Open House. The

whole process took six months, from idea to event,” he said.

Hanna’s lecture was alternately humorous, inspiring, and devastating. She spoke of her work with rape victims, of the constant threat of violence in the sometimes-misogynistic underground punk scene, and of the stresses of being the face of a revolution. She also offered advice to student musicians.

Riot grrrl may be dead, but according to Ellis, that doesn’t diminish the significance of Kathleen Hanna’s work.

“From a Music House standpoint, she’s made lots of incredible music over the years,” he said. “But it’s not just that, her ideology is always going to be pertinent, even if it’s not in the media as much as it used to be.”

Surprisingly, Charlie Ellis isn’t the biggest Bikini Kill fan.

“I love her, and I think she’s amazing, but I’m not always listening to Bikini Kill or anything,” he said. “But I recognize her importance to the world. And she’s so inspiring to musicians. She exemplifies just going out there and doing it.”

At the moment, a documentary is being produced about the work and life of Hanna called The Kathleen Hanna Project, a.k.a. Who Told You Christmas Wasn’t Cool. It is being directed by the founder of Sister Spit, an all-female spoken word group, Sini Anderson, and is scheduled for release in 2011.