During the early 1990s in Oklahoma, Catholic prep schools didn’t exactly impress punk music, rebellion, or third-wave feminism on their charges, but Anya Jack, a senior at Cascia Hall, could feel an undercurrent of female solidarity swelling. Soon, she bore witness to it.
After graduation and a move to Austin, she noticed a few homemade flyers advertising various Riot Grrrl meetups and a “zine” — a handwritten, photocopied, and self-distributed fan magazine about Riot Grrrl action and Bikini Kill, a predominantly female punk band out of Olympia, Washington.
Kathleen Hanna, the 23-year-old lead singer of Bikini Kill, turned up the amps at Emo’s, where Anya Jack (now Anya Jack Whaley) worked. Hanna gripped the mic and began bawling the lyrics to “Rebel Girl”: “When she talks, I hear the revolution / In her hips, there’s revolutions / When she walks, the revolution’s coming.”
“For me, it was freeing; it was fun; I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Anya said in an interview from Texas. “There was a group of like-mined people who wanted to be a part of this punk thing — we had the same feelings and desires — but it was more of a liberating thing; there was not a dedicated thought-out process to it.”
The Punk Singer, which premiered at SXSW in 2013, is a film about Hanna’s life as a provocateur, singer, feminist, and enigma. During it, Hanna is frequently — in many venues and on a wide range of turfs — commanding women in the crowd to come from the rear to the front of the stage and take back their space. The film not only captures this essence of Riot Grrrl’s esprit de corps, but also traces the trajectory of the Riot Grrrl movement through 20 years of footage of Hanna’s life, in-depth interviews with the members of Bikini Kill and other musical groups at the forefront of Riot Grrrl, and its activists, from zine writers to indie record-label owners.
The film also explains the reason in 2005, after she had left Bikini Kill and formed Le Tigre, a left wing, electroclash band in New York, Hanna stopped recording music for eight years — she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.
“What consumed me was how much of Kathleen’s life we were going to squeeze in the film, not only about the place from which she came, but her emotions along this ride and her personal drive,” said filmmaker Sini Anderson, who co-founded Sister Spit, a parallel spoken-word poetry movement in the 1990s. “I hope people who see the film realize there is another option about how we live in this culture — even among feminists… There is space for everybody and taking each other down is not the way.”
Hanna and Bikini Kill, which regularly toured Texas clubs, derived much of its onstage power by confronting male aggression. Hanna was filmed at times wading through the audience and removing hecklers, according to an interview  Hanna did with The Guardian.
“It’s not very much to spend five dollars to come and yell at someone. Guys would come to yell really horrible stuff, call me all kinds of names, sometimes be physically violent. And later, when we charged $12 a show, it didn’t happen. Because no one’s going to pay $12 to harass this women’s band,” Hanna recalled. “But it became this thing — like, oh, she kicks guys out. We played clubs that didn’t have any security. People could get away with a lot of shit, and if I wanted to get someone out, I had to physically do it myself.
“I remember playing in Oklahoma and this guy was messing with me, and I said, ‘That’s enough, get the fuck out of here. For five dollars? Go and get your money back.’ ”
Hanna, who formed The Julie Ruin with former Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox, had to cancel the summer leg of The Julie Ruin’s tour on May 13, 2014, due to her relapse from Lyme disease.
Inspired by independently produced music, symbolized by vintage, dissonant clothing, and galvanized by feminists and zines, informal Riot Grrrl gatherings turned up from New York and Washington, D.C., to the flyover states and back to the “Left Coast” in the early 1990s. Each group came up with a version of Hanna’s manifesto, which proclaimed that the “punk rock you-can-do-anything idea is crucial to the angry girl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural loves of girls and women everywhere.” Most loosely existed on college campuses, art galleries, or coffee houses; later gatherings manifested through more formal conventions and concert festivals.
“Riot Grrrl provided people outside the coastal metro centers with a way to connect with people in their own cities and towns in places like Oklahoma, through networks, through zines, through concerts and conventions,” said Sara Marcus, author of the book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. “It also provided a framework wherein young people who held feminist ideals and who may have not been very widely held or accepted within their communities could join a nationwide conversation that in the pre-Internet age wasn’t available through other means.”
And as with any good rebellion, mainstream media backlash ensued. Magazines and newspapers, such as Newsweek, lambasted the new crusade for sullying feminism, calling Riot Grrrl “feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’ ”
Kathleen Hanna mandated a press blackout on all media surrounding Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl and refused all interview requests, saying that the media did not take seriously the ideas put forward by the movement or the bands. Riot Grrrl eventually splintered and lost momentum with the breakup of Bikini Kill in 1997. Other bands, such as Sleater-Kinney and L7, continued outspoken feminist punk. In 1998, a Riot Grrrl group purportedly formed in Norman, Oklahoma.
“More diverse opportunities for cultural conversations about feminism and gender and this attitude of speaking from the gut and being uncompromising is a mindset that comes straight out of Riot Grrrl,” Marcus said.
Anya remained in Texas and heard many more underground female rock and punk bands come through Emo’s and Bottom of the Hill, another Austin club. She eventually took the informal, do-it-yourself knack put forward by Riot Grrrl to help build one of the first roller derby leagues in the United States, the TXRD-Lonestar Rollergirls.
“Kathleen Hanna may have become the face of the movement, but she didn’t start the movement — it always existed and it will always exist; that spirit and energy is not going away,” Anya said. “If you were at one of her shows at the time, the spirit was contagious… [she] drove the movement further and faster than it would have otherwise gone. And I am happy that she paid it forward.”
1. Hanna did not reply to repeated requests for an interview with the author.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 13, July 1, 2014.