Kathleen Hanna was barely out of her teens when she was plucked from an Olympia, Washington punk club and hailed as the face of modern feminism. With her band, Bikini Kill, Hanna led the Riot Grrrl movement and became the voice of a generation of girls who were, as she put it, “angry at a society that tells us Girl=Dumb, Girl=Bad, Girl=Weak.” In short skirts and her signature high ponytail, she destroyed feminist stereotypes and used her sexuality to challenge objectification in a patriarchal society, and in doing so, introduced feminism to a much wider network of girls—like me. The problem was, she never asked for any of it.
As the de facto leader of the Riot Grrrl movement, Hanna faced resentment from the outside and from within. But instead of giving up, the singer channeled her rage into lyrics, spitting scathing criticisms of American culture, as relevant and as poignant today as they were when she first sang Bikini Kill’s seminal anthem, “Alien She.” As Riot Grrrl began to fade, Hanna continued writing music as a way to both espouse her beliefs, and sort through her emotions, first with electro-clash outfit, Le Tigre, and now with The Julie Ruin.
Along with Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox, guitarist Sara Landeau, drummer, Carmine Covelli and keyboardist Kenny Mellman, The Julie Ruin crafts socially conscious alt-pop. Their latest release, Hit Reset, is fun, yet emotionally wrought—a new beginning in which Hanna overcomes a painful childhood and debilitating illness. Feminism, anger, sarcasm—it’s all there, as is a more refined Hanna, eloquently articulating her battle with Lyme Disease and instances of everyday sexism.
“Mr. So and So,” is a cheeky satire on mainsplaining and faux-feminism, while “I’m Done,” with Helen Love-inspired Nintendo synths, shows Hanna taking control. “Be Nice,” combines lo-fi production with Hanna’s guttural howl, as pop-punk ballad, “Record Breaker,” showcases the singer’s true talent with words. Title track and album opener, “Hit Reset,”is catchy, saccharine pop that embodies the ethos of the entire record: “At least I made it out at fucking all,” she growls, “It’s a tightrope that I walked, […] little girl you’re just like me.”
With Hit Reset, Hanna proves her staying power—she’s definitely more than just the pretty face of Riot Grrrl. Though it’s not hard to understand why she earned the title: she was confident, captivating and passionately outspoken, and after 30 years, she still is.
BULLETT talked to the ultimate Rebel Girl about her band, Beyoncé and Bikini Kill.
Tell me about Hit Reset.
Hit Reset is a record that was largely inspired by the idea of getting rid of bad crap in your life—whether they’re memories or ongoing people who are like vampires, dragging you down—if there was a button that you could just hit. It was really just about writing songs about getting rid of stuff, so I could just hit reset on my life and move ahead.
The songs on this record feel darker than a lot of your previous work. I know you had a long struggle with Lyme disease, and many songs, like ‘I Decide,’ seem to really be about reclaiming your personal space. Is that directly related to your illness?
Everything is related to my illness in the same way stuff is related to my gender, or where I live—I can’t really pull it apart. But I do know that the last record, I was kind of trying to cheer myself up and now that I’m so much better, I’m able to actually deal with some of the feelings I had. I just didn’t want to talk about it when it was going on because everything in my life was Lyme. […] But on this record, I felt like that was part of the past that I needed to let go of because it really connected to my past trauma as a kid. That’s why there’s a house on the cover instead of a reset button. When you’re ill, you’re trapped in this body that just either feels like it’s on fire or it’s freezing, or it’s doing something weird and really uncomfortable and you’re like, ‘I can’t get out of here.’ It kind of brought back my childhood where there were times when I was like, ‘This is really sucking, my family is really sucking, and I can’t get out of here because I’m six and I can’t just run away and join the circus.’ I couldn’t even do a somersault, anyway.
I feel like there’s a duality on the record—a lot of anger, but also a girlhood innocence that’s present in a lot of your work. What do you attribute that to?
The song I wrote best in was ‘Alien She’ in Bikini Kill, and it was like, ‘What is my feminist self? What does it mean to be a feminist in the world, to do feminist work? To me, it’s just about doing feminist work, it’s a verb, so I don’t stress out about it so much. At the same time, I do feel this battle between my upbringing and being brought up female and to feel a certain way about myself and to think I don’t deserve things—all these different internalized sexist things that happen—and I think that that battle is sometimes represented as kind of an innocence and an innocence lost.
The Julie Ruin
If feminism for you means doing feminist work, do you consider music to be a part of that feminist action?
Feminist music, feminist art—that’s my life. That’s what I make and that’s what I consider it, because a lot of it also has to do with being a part of a community that has been built around different bands that I’ve been in—not thinking of them as fans or people who are going to buy units, but like, actually having contact with them and feeling like the most successful person in the world because girls tell me all the time, ‘You helped me get through my adolescence,’ or ‘I thought I was the only one.’ Growing up thinking that sexism is your fault, and when you learn that it’s not your fault, that it’s a systemic thing that happens all around the world—it really takes the pressure off, it allows you a lot more movement in the world. I remember when I found out, when I was like 19 or something, and I was just like, ‘Whoa, I thought this was just my own personal affliction, but look at all these women who are also going through this shit.’
A lot of women refer to that as their feminist awakening. When did you have yours?
My real a-ha moment, in terms of my career, was when I was like, ‘What if I took this on the road?’ I was so freaked out about other women living their whole lives thinking it was totally normal they got paid less than men and that they had so much less opportunity. I just couldn’t let that stand, and it just seemed like music was such a great medium to bring people together and create community. Of course, I thought everybody would be like, ‘We love you Bikini Kill, you’re so great,” but that’s not exactly how it was.
Lately there’s been a lot of talk about ‘celebrity feminism’—people like Beyoncé calling themselves feminists. Some people think it’s diluting the movement and others think it gives more girls more access to the ideology. What do you think?
There’s been a longstanding part stereotype, part truth, that feminism is for white women—that it was made for white women, that it was built around white women’s needs. But there’s been so many women of color who are very strong feminists who have led the movement. […] But in the modern imagination, and also, in truth, feminism has felt like an exclusive white club. To have an African American celebrity who’s also talking about civil rights in her music—for her to come out and say that she’s a feminist, how could anybody question if that’s a great thing? She just told tons of women and little kids, whatever their race, ‘I stand with this word—I get to own it too. It’s mine, I can turn it into whatever I want.’ To me, the idea of feminism is that there are as many different feminists as there are women in the world—and feminist men in the world. And female-identified people. However you want to slice it, Beyoncé saying it is the sound of 400 thousand kids typing the word feminist into the Google search.
So you think Beyoncé’s helping to make feminism more intersectional?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: putting the word feminist or Black Power, next to your name in any way shape or form as an artist, is not the way to make a shit ton of money. She has enough power and enough money already that she can take that chance. I don’t have that—I’m not Beyoncé. For her to do that, it totally admits that she does have a certain privilege in the world as a massive pop star who makes a ton of money, and she’s using her pedestal or soap box to actually say something. And she’s putting it in her music. Another way women do feminism, is by showing themselves as three-dimensional human beings. I love the part in Lemonade where she’s like, ‘Am I jealous or am I crazy—which one’s worse?’ If that’s not a fucking feminist moment on a record, I don’t know what is.
I think a lot of the criticism comes from the fact that some people feel her feminism is inauthentic.
There’s kind of this equation with capitalism and feminism, where it’s like, if they ever meet in anyway—through selling a record or a CD or a download—it doesn’t count. It’s like, if capitalism touches your feminism at all, it’s just all tainted. I think that level of purity is what keeps rich kids playing hardcore—it’s total bull shit. […] You’ve got to earn a living, and it’s not right that women always get asked about how we’re going to change sexism in the world, or African American people constantly get asked about race and how it feeds into their music making process, or what they think about this or that. I really want to see straight white men being asked these questions—I want to know how they feel about Orlando. I want to know how they see themselves fitting into making a more diverse less all-male clubhouse scene. I’m sick of being asked that question—that’s not my job, man. If you build a clubhouse that makes me feel unwelcome, I’m not going to sit there and hold your hand and tell you how to fix it.
In the same vein, there’s been so much criticism about feminism and the way that it exists online.
But why? We worked so hard to have feminism be something accessible—I mean, I learned about punk rock on late night TV. I didn’t live in some cool ass town. I lived in the town that had one gas station, two churches, and one grocery store—I didn’t have access to this kind of stuff. I feel like it getting out can only be good. Even when somebody writes a book about music that I don’t particularly love, it’s just that they did it and that somebody will read it that matters. I’ve had tons of girls come up to me and say they got into Bikini Kill, which ended up changing their whole lives and led them to feminism, and now they’re women’s studies teachers or whatever, just because in some Julia Stiles movie, she mentions she likes Bikini Kill. So they went out and bought the record because Julia Stiles mentioned it.
It’s been 30 years since you were labeled the voice of Riot Grrrl. Do you ever feel restricted by that aesthetic?
I’m kind of over all of that because I just really appreciate it now. Going through a time period where I was in a band where we just felt hated, and where people were trying to punch us and stuff, I feel so thankful that people stuck with me—that I was able to move into a new space musically. […] It was a huge bummer at the time, because if everything you’re doing is about grassroots community and then your face gets pulled out and a light gets shown on you—especially in the 90s with what the political atmosphere was like—you really can get that you’re trying to be the face of Riot Grrrl. And I really wasn’t. I actually really resented it, and it made it hard for me to even go to shows, because people resented me so much. And it wasn’t just men from the outside, which were worse, it was also women who resented me because I was the face of Riot Grrrl and nobody elected me.
The Julie Ruin
How have you seen the underground music scene change?
Towards me, it’s like, once scorned and now adored. Sure, people write me scary stuff and are mad at me or whatever, but overwhelmingly, things have been so much more positive. I’m able to earn a living as a musician, which is great. There’s not many feminist artists who have this kind of longevity, and I’ve only had this kind of longevity because people who like my music have stuck with me or have cared enough to be like, ‘Oh I like that “Deceptacon” song by this band Le Tigre,’ then looked up who Le Tigre was, then looked up Bikini Kill, then found themselves listening to my little squirrel voice over and over again.
Why do you think Riot Grrrl happened when it did?
I think it happened when it did because a lot of us were just agitated, and when other girls hear about it, they’re like ‘Oh my god, this happened to me too! I’m not the only person.’ You sing a song about incest and a lot of people come out of the woodwork and feel like somebody actually wrote something about their actual lives, instead of just like, flowers and gumdrops or ‘I hate my girlfriend.’
Do you think it could happen again?
Hopefully something with a cooler name would start and would learn from our mistakes, and would also realize, ‘Wow that’s not that hard.’ We did it pre-internet, and instead of thinking it couldn’t happen in the age in the internet, why not think it could happen a thousand times bigger?
So what do you see as the future of feminism?
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m really hopeful because I think there’s so many great bands out right now. I’m thankful for Beyoncé and I’m thankful for Kendrick Lamar, for putting politics into music again—and into music that millions and millions of people are hearing. That’s huge. In the ‘70s, we had Helen Reddy, ‘I am Woman, Hear me Roar,’—that was the big pop feminist song. Where are all the big pop feminist songs that use that word or talk about those issues now? Maybe I’ll produce someone—I’ve got to find a Carly Rae Jepsen-type who’s into feminist ideas. Like, ‘Here read this book! Read this book! Then let’s write some lyrics.’