Riot Grrrl Icon Bikini Kill Is as Important as Ever

Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill Photo by Debi Del Grande
Before Bikini Kill cemented its name as a feminist punk legend, the band was integral to catalyzing the underground punk movement in the Pacific Northwest.

Founded in 1990 in Olympia, Washington, the quartet — originally made up of vocalist Kathleen Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox, drummer Tobi Vail, and guitarist Billy Karren — sought to break down the patriarchal constraints of a music scene that had long been reserved exclusively for white men. Defined as much by feminist lyrics and powerhouse playing as well as its longstanding commitment to bringing more women into the greater punk movement, Bikini Kill emerged as one of the most influential voices in establishing the feminist riot grrrl movement and music genre of the early 1990s.

Among the riot grrrls’ many goals were to create safe spaces for women in live music, encourage independent and empowered creativity through DIY zine-making, and promote their radical conception of “girl power.” Bikini Kill, along with other bands like Babes in Toyland and Bratmobile, was instrumental in carving out the movement’s feminist priorities from the beginning. After all, it was in a 1991 issue of a Bikini Kill zine that the "Riot Grrrl Manifesto" was first published. Among the goals listed for this “angry grrrl revolution” were to “make it easier for girls to see [and] hear each other’s work,” to reject “someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t,” and to “take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings.”

The movement spread rapidly, from Washington to Washington, D.C., and extended beyond the realm of music: Riot grrrls organized marches against rape culture, held weekly organizing meetings, and otherwise advocated for “revolutionary” resistance against capitalism and sexism alike. The coining of the term “girl power” remains a testament to the band’s significance within the riot grrrl movement but also the broader movement’s commitment to creating more accessible avenues for women in punk.

And though imperfect — the movement suffered from co-optation by more commercial “girl power” groups like the Spice Girls and has since been criticized for excluding LGBTQ+ communities, women of color, and otherwise marginalized groups — the riot grrrl legacy is strong and far-reaching. Indeed, Bikini Kill’s own unapologetically feminist slant can be seen in countless riot grrrl-inspired bands and artists that have followed, from Sleater-Kinney in the late ‘90s to Paramore in the late aughts.
It is this complex and resonant legacy that Bikini Kill (which reunited in 2019 with Hanna, Vail, Wilcox, and new guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle) will carry onstage with them at its May 27 and May 28 shows at the Ground in Miami, put on in collaboration with Little Haiti’s Sweat Records. The shows, which were rescheduled from 2020, are some of the band’s first few before they embark on a months-long world tour that will see them through September.

With this new tour underway, the band’s and riot grrrls' legacy becomes one that now has room to grow in more ways than one. Speaking with Pitchfork in 2019 about “girls to the front,” a rallying motto that Bikini Kill helped popularize in the ‘90s, for example, Hanna said, “In this day and age, it doesn’t mean the same thing for a white cisgendered woman to say ‘women to the front.’ When there were three women in the room, the point was to bring those three women to the front — but not when it’s 80 percent.”

At the same time, unapologetically punk tracks coming from artists like Olivia Rodrigo and viral sensations the Linda Lindas (who have opened for Bikini Kill) are proving that the riot grrrl ethos is as relevant as ever. Indeed, as women in the U.S. face year three of a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed them, a Supreme Court that is primed to take away basic reproductive rights, and a backlash to #MeToo that appears on the not-too-distant horizon, it’s no wonder that Bikini Kill’s messaging and activism have proven a touchpoint for emerging artists and young people. In such a political landscape, songs like Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and “Don’t Need You” provide a necessary respite from and an avenue of resistance to the norm.

“These same issues still exist,” Vail said in an interview with the Guardian back when the band first reunited in 2019, referencing the persistent problems that the riot grrrls fought tooth and nail to address back in the ‘90s. “Being a woman in public is very intense, whether it’s in the public eye or just walking down the street at night by yourself.”

Today, the riot grrrl movement more broadly is finding resonance on TikTok. This renaissance has maintained the subculture’s aesthetics and politics, only this time, it's led by Gen Z creators frustrated with just how little has changed since Bikini Kill first stepped on a stage over 30 years ago and defined “riot grrrl” with their electric guitars in tow. Younger generations are recognizing the many similarities between then and now, which is exactly what makes this upcoming Bikini Kill tour so exciting. It’s an opportunity to spread the band’s ongoing feminist message even further — and jam out to some great punk music at the same time.

Bikini Kill. 8 p.m. Friday, May 27, and 7 p.m. Saturday, May 28, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; Tickets cost $39.95 via
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Sofia Andrade is a journalist and undergraduate at Harvard University. A Miami native with roots in Ecuador, she often writes about issues of gender, migration and Latinidad in arts, culture, and politics. Along with the New Times, her work has appeared in Slate, the New York Times, and the Harvard Crimson.
Contact: Sofia Andrade