The age of the riot grrrls entered like a screaming woman and exited like a cooing teen. The woman was Kathleen Hanna, the Bikini Kill frontwoman who kicked boys out of her mosh pits and insisted, “I’m not going to sit around and be peace and love with somebody’s boot on my neck.” The teen was Britney Spears, who famously invited her baby to hit her one more time. And the eight years between their eras — 1991 to 1999 — were a glorious time in modern music history for girls who rallied behind Hanna as she dared them to start a revolution.
Still, Hanna and Spears had a few things in common: kiddie barrettes, baby tees, little girl skirts. But as Sini Anderson, director of the Dr. Martens-stomping doc The Punk Singer, points out, third-wave feminists like Hanna dressed like children to reclaim their youth from a male-dominated culture that sexualized them when they were too young to fight back. Alas, poor Spears was shoved into schoolgirl kilts by adults, who then pushed her into pop culture to soothe and sugarcoat a decade of anger.
It’s been more than 20 years since Hanna and friends launched Bikini Kill in Olympia, Washington. Hanna was an art student and performer who was trying to process the attempted rape and murder of her roommate, plus a terribly ordinary terrible childhood: a handsy father who called her a fool for trying to sing; a mother who deliberately dropped her during a trust fall. (Laughs Hanna, bitterly, “She said, ‘Don’t trust anyone, not even your own mother.'”) Around her, the media was fumbling the chance to speak out against sexual harassment with Anita Hill, Tailhook, and the William Kennedy Smith trial. If Hanna couldn’t trust anyone, then she certainly couldn’t trust anyone to say what needed saying. She’d have to say it herself.
“I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me,” belted Hanna in “White Boy.” What’s still striking isn’t just the lyrics — it’s Hanna’s entire presence. Anderson had access to reels of Bikini Kill concerts, and even better than hearing talking heads like Joan Jett and Kim Gordon gush about her influence is simply watching Hanna perform. On stage, she veered from blunt — say, scrawling “slut” on her stomach — to boldly feminine. Instead of shunning girly things, she pirouetted, danced the pony, and adopted a Valley Girl accent, every choice establishing that she was a woman on her own terms. She not only convinced a generation of girls you could be badass in a dress, she even convinced Kurt Cobain.
For younger viewers who might not have been alive in 1991, Anderson dutifully explains that the dress-wearing Cobain, a buddy of Hanna’s, would later release a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that detonated MTV hair bands and their non-killing bikini girls. Hanna also gave him the title, spray-painting “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall of his house. (He fell in love with the phrase before he learned it was a deodorant joke.) Anderson even explains what a fanzine was, though I wish she’d said, “You know, like a Tumblr on paper.”
One of the best revelations in The Punk Singer is when Hanna realizes that her early songs were aimed at the wrong target. As in the lyrics above, she’d been singing to men instead of the women who looked to her as a role model. Her next projects, the solo bedroom record Julie Ruin and the popular pop act Le Tigre, wouldn’t make that mistake. But the later biographical details in the doc — half-jokingly kicking herself for falling in love with Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, who once rapped that girls should do his laundry; her battle with Lyme disease — ultimately seem less important than the larger movement Hanna represented.
I worshipped the riot grrrls when I was a girl. Like Hanna, they owned every inch of their bodies. In high school, I cheered as The Muffs’ Kim Shattuck crushed a beer can on a heckler’s head while wearing a dynamite pair of thigh-highs. But watching this old footage in 2013 is a test of cultural cognitive dissonance. There’s Hanna wearing a sexy onesie that Miley Cyrus would love to borrow. Why are we applauding one girl and booing another? How did Hanna make flashing her thong underwear look like a political statement rather than just more man-pleasing marketing?
It’s impossible to watch The Punk Singer and not ask if feminism is dead. That’s a fair starting question. But a better one is what if it isn’t — what if we’ve just stopped recognizing it? We’ve blurred the lines between aggressive, sexually aggressive, and sexual so much that today’s young stars can’t tell where they stand, especially when they’ve been so thoroughly media-trained that they aren’t used to standing on their own. And if you’re watching The Punk Singer and pitting today’s girls against the grrrls, you’re proving Hanna’s point that we can’t let two women share our attention without thrusting them into a catfight. What if the most punk rock, pro-feminist thing you can do is stick up for Miley Cyrus? I’d like to think we could all join hands, blast a mash-up of “Rebel Girl” and “Party in the USA,” and dance to that.