Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna talks slut shaming, equal pay and 'Moxie' message: 'If it's not intersectional, it's not feminism'

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·26 min read
 Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs in 2019. (Photo: Ollie Millington/Redferns)
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs in 2019. (Photo: Ollie Millington/Redferns)

In Netflix’s new coming-of-age film Moxie, directed by and co-starring Amy Poehler, Poehler plays Lisa, the Generation X mother of Vivian, a shy 16-year-old who anonymously launches an underground feminist fanzine and in the process launches a grassroots feminist revolution on her high school’s sexist campus. Vivian, played Hadley Robinson, is spurred to action not just by her friendship with a rebellious new student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), but by her activist mom’s ’90s Riot Grrrl past. And in one key scene, she discovers the soundtrack to her mother’s life and her own life, and the theme song for the Moxie movement: 1993’s “Rebel Girl,” by Riot Grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill.

As it turns out, this was hardly a random song sync. Poehler was greatly inspired by her longtime friend, third-wave feminist punk trailblazer and Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, when creating Moxie (which is based on Jennifer Mathieu’s young adult book of the same name). “They actually contacted me about using music in the film, and I'd heard of the YA novel before and that it was very influenced by Riot Grrrl stuff from the ’90s and fanzine culture, so I thought it was cool,” Hanna, who founded the Riot Grrrl zine in 1991 with Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman and Jen Smith of Olympia punk band Bratmobile, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I didnt realize how much music was going to end up being in it, or how big a part our band was going to play in it! But when I saw it, I was just like, ‘Wow, I wish this movie existed when I was 13.’ I really think it would have made me feel just more confident in the world.”

Hanna’s legacy includes her radical and aggressive work with Bikini Kill, electropunk outfit Le Tigre, and the Julie Ruin, and she has infiltrated alt-rock culture in multiple other ways: inadvertently coming up with the title for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; appearing in Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather” music video; being referenced in songs by Mike Watt, NOFX and Idles; and most recently singing the title music for Wandavision and having “Rebel Girl” covered by teen group the Linda Lindas in Moxie and by Miley Cyrus at a Super Bowl LV concert. But the Riot Grrrl movement has long been criticized for not being inclusive, and Hanna’s concept of feminism has evolved since the ’90s. (This point is acknowledged in Moxie when Poehler’s character admits to Vivian, “Me and my friends, we protested everything. We made a ton of mistakes. We argued with each other. We weren’t intersectional enough. We called our meetings ‘powwows.’”)

“I always knew feminism to me was about ending oppression against all women. It was never like, ‘I want to be a woman who climbs to the top of the music business on other people’s backs.’ That was never my goal. But while I could talk a good game, over the years in reading really amazing critiques of my work and of what the Riot Grrrl scene was like for women of color and girls of color, it has really expanded my ability to do better in the future,” Hanna explains. “And I think that that was one thing that Moxie tried to point out: that if it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism. A lot of times feminism can be used as a white supremacist movement, if it’s not created by and for a lot of different people.”

Read on for Hanna and Yahoo Entertainment’s wide-ranging conversation about the history of “Rebel Girl” (and who that song was really about), working with Joan Jett, the mid-’90s backlash against female artists that led to the rise of misogynist rap-rock, slut shaming, white female privilege, that infamous night when her husband Adam Horovitz’s feminist Video Music Awards speech was censored by MTV, why there’s no such thing as a “post-feminist society” and how Bikini Kill aborted plans for a reunion tour when concert bookers refused to offer them equal pay.

Yahoo Entertainment: In Moxie, Vivian is inspired by her mother’s Riot Grrrl past. I wonder if you connected to this story because of any parallels to your own life — the idea of feminism being passed down from one generation to the next. It has been famously reported that you and your mother attended a Gloria Steinem rally when you were 9 years old, and that your mom turned you on to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Kathleen Hanna: Well, while my mom was totally inspirational to me, things like her taking me to the Solidarity Day march, where I saw Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug speak, was a rare thing. She actually was not a very vocal feminist. She did work at a makeshift domestic violence shelter, before they were even a thing, and she did phone calls in a church basement to help women who were going through domestic violence, but she never talked about it. I didn’t even learn that she had done that until I was older. And so, we weren’t a “feminist” household. It was just every so often something would happen where she kind of whispered in my ear, “You can do whatever you want.” But I definitely didn’t grow up with this enlightened, feminist-book-bag mom. It was all kind of clandestine, mainly because my dad would mansplain feminism to her if she ever brought it up.

But the thing to me that was really important was that in the ’90s, when I first started doing public stuff, there was this idea — and this still happens — that we live in a “post-feminist society.” And I worked at a domestic violence shelter, and I was like, “OK, why is the phone ringing off the hook, then? Why is there no room in the shelter?” I wanted to be the person who went out and said, “No, feminism is still incredibly important. It can still save people’s lives.” I didn’t have kids of my own, so I wanted to hand it down, or hand it sideways, to my friends and to younger girls. … I really wanted to be almost like the Amy Poehler character in the movie, not with my biological children but with younger people who maybe had never heard of feminism. Id never heard of feminism [as a teen], and didn’t even know that we have rights that are being trampled on all the time, because I was that kid. I had no name for what I experienced, the violence against me that boys did in high school — date rape or harassment or being called “slut.” I had no language for that at all. “Mansplaining” wasn’t a word. “Date rape” wasn’t even really considered a real thing. I just felt massively like, “Oh, it’s all my fault,” because I didn’t understand. Even going to that [Solidarity Day] march at age 9, that didn't even connect to my lived experience. So I guess the short answer is like, I wanted to be the Amy character. I wanted to be the feminist mom who tried to keep it alive and put it in the context of punk rock.

Kathleen Hanna performs with Bikini Kill in 1994. (Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)
Kathleen Hanna performs with Bikini Kill in 1994. (Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

I look back to the ’90s, and I recall it being a great time for women in rock Riot Grrrl, Lilith Fair, Liz Phair, Alanis, female-fronted and coed bands like Garbage and the Breeders and Veruca Salt. Sometimes it seems like the ’90s didn’t even happen, because something seemed to regress. Why do you think that is? Does it have anything to do with getting complacent, like thinking everything was post-feminist and “fixed”? There’s a line in Moxie about how when Amy’s character was Vivian’s age, all she cared about was “smashing the patriarchy.”

I’ve never felt anything was fixed. Since I was 21, I’ve gotten mail, and now emails or messages on social media, from women who tell me, “I listen to your lyrics in my head while I’m at my rape trial.” I still get messages from kids who were kicked out of their families for coming out as gay or for telling their families they’re trans. And so I never felt like I never felt like it was over, no. And also, throughout this whole time I’ve experienced pretty extreme sexism. Even when Bikini Kill reformed two years ago, we were about to go on tour before the pandemic hit, and when we were booking shows, the amount of money that was offered to us was literally one-eighth of what a male band with a similar audience and similar record sales got. And when we would ask why, it was like, “Oh, it’s apples and oranges. You’re like this niche feminist thing.” And we didn’t accept it. We decided it wasn’t right to not earn the same that bands of our similar size were earning. While we never started this project to make money, it was important to us to set a precedent for other feminist bands.

Do you agree at all that in the 90s, things seemed to be going in the right direction for female musicians, at least for a little while, but then something shifted?

Well, as for stuff like Alanis Morissette on the cover of Rolling Stone with “The Year of the Woman”… it was actually like “three months of the woman,” because the next thing that happened was Limp Bizkit and rap-rock — and rampant, misogynous lyrics. And nobody was questioning it. I saw it in my own band, with the backlash against Bikini Kill. Really, our backlash ran concurrent with our existence as a band. People were offended not just that we were getting attention, but that we existed. … So yeah, Riot Grrrl and Alanis Morissette got some media attention or whatever, but then it’s like 10 years of rock-rap, and Lilith Fair becomes like an embarrassing footnote.

Tell me about more of the backlash Bikini Kill got from the beginning.

We lived in Olympia, Wash., and I remember this one [vegan] guy wrote a fanzine directed at us as not being “real feminists,” and it basically described a woman being raped. And then at the end it said, “Oh, that’s not really a woman being raped. This is about an animal being slaughtered.” … He just wrote this fanzine and distributed it in our tiny town. We read it, and I actually called him over and had a conversation with him and tried to work it out, but it never really got worked out. But tons of my guy friends were in bands, and I never saw that happening to them. I didn’t see every single thing that they did be so scrutinized. I live with a male rock star [husband Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of Beastie Boys], and he’s never gone through some of the stuff I have.

Since you mentioned Limp Bizkit, as well as the Bikini Kill reunion — I was at Bikini Kill’s first concert in 22 years, at the Hollywood Palladium in April 2019, and it was really heartening to see all the women in the audience yelling, “Girls to the front!” There’s a movement that has taken way too long to gain momentum concerning making concerts a safe space for women, which reminds me of the sexual assaults that allegedly took place during Limp Bizkit’s set at Woodstock ’99. Those incidents were barely the main story coming out of Woodstock at the time, and people sort of dismissed it.

Yeah, the news story became more about the fact that they were charging $4 for water — like, thats what made all these white men so mad! And so these women deserve to be raped because the promoters didn’t provide clean, free water or good toilets! And while all of that stuff is very Fyre Festival and does suck, thats not the issue. From the reports, I’ve heard that women were gang-raped in the pit while Limp Bizkit was playing, allegedly. I was horrified. There’s so many things now, after #MeToo and also Black Lives Matter, that people are reexamining and being like, “How did we react to it that way?” And it’s funny because so many people I know have been saying this stuff forever, and seeing it forever. I was actually just talking to my husband about when he got up at the VMAs and gave a speech about Woodstock ’99. You know how MTV used to play the VMAs over and over for days after, like how it would just be on a nonstop loop for a whole weekend or something? Well, they cut his speech out [of the reruns].

Um, what?

Yeah. What’s funny is I told somebody this the other day, and they had that same reaction you just did — they gasped! But at the time we were like, “Of course MTV did that. Of course they did.” But that was one of those things where I think, if that [speech] happened today, people would be into it. But when he gave that speech, he got no support, no love. We ran out of that place as fast as we could. It felt like it was basically just swept under the rug. Most people didn’t see [Horovitz’s VMAs speech] until it appeared on the internet years later. And that gets back to the concept of if things have changed for the better. While a lot of things have stayed the same, even just acknowledging, “Wow, if he gave that speech today, people would think it was great” — whereas originally it was cut out of the rebroadcast and no one really said anything — it’s a different world. And for that, I'm extremely, extremely thankful.

You mentioned how boys used to call you a “slut.” In Bikini Kill, you protested against what we now commonly call slut shaming. As you noted, “slut shaming” wasnt even a thing then.

No, it wasn’t a phrase. But when I was, I think, 19, I actually made a hot-pink flier that said it. And it was directed to other girls and women, high school-age girls, like, “Why do we call each other sluts? How come boys don’t get called sluts, and how come a boy can call us that and all of a sudden our reputation is ruined? We walk around fearful of this word touching us, and then we use it against each other.” Again, I wish somebody had handed me that piece of paper when I was in high school and made me think about that, because I didn’t think about it. I just was afraid of being called a slut. The ’90s was a lot about reclaiming words that were used against people. I wrote “slut” on my stomach a couple of times onstage, and that became sort of a calling card. But later I was — I think rightly — criticized, or at least made to acknowledge, from Black women and other women of color, that I had the privilege as a white woman to stand onstage with the word “slut” written on my body. That was way less of a risk for me than for Black women whose bodies are so oversexualized from such a young age. While it was maybe an interesting artistic decision, it still was something that reeked of privilege to a lot of women, and possibly alienated them from my band’s music or from the Riot Grrrl scene. I think all those new things that I’ve learned since that time period — not just about how I’ve experienced all this sexist abuse and stuff like that, but where I fit in terms of privilege — is how my feminism has evolved.

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Do you think a historical lack of inclusivity in the women’s movement in general is why some people bristle at the very word “feminism”?

There have always been Black women at the forefront of the movement. There have always been women of color shaping the narratives. It’s just, do they get credit? And are they heard? And so, I definitely understand people who don’t like the word “feminist” and don’t want to use the word. And I don’t have any problem with that. I feel like people should be able to do whatever the f*** they want. If you don’t want to call yourself a feminist, that’s fine. I personally get a lot of solace from that word, but some people don’t, and some people do associate it with white supremacy and transphobia. And I can totally understand and respect why people would think that. I’m really hoping we can reshape the word so that it is more inclusive.

And then there are some people, including women, who disavow the word “feminist” for the simpler and frankly much less valid reason that they think it’s a synonym for “man-hater.”

I feel like that’s just misinformation, you know? Like, people today have Google; you can look up articles about that. The thing that frustrates me is when women who have a really big platform go out there and say, “I’m not a feminist, because I don’t hate men!” And they also end up enacting this creepy homophobic thing, because the whole “but I love men” thing is basically like saying, “I’m not a lesbian,” as if being a lesbian is bad. To portray that stereotype and enact that kind of homophobia in your answer as to why you’re not a feminist, or why you don’t call yourself a feminist, to me is just irresponsible. And so I would love it if women who are massively in the public eye who get asked if they’re feminist could just say, “I don't know enough about it” instead of enacting the stereotypes. But on the other hand, it’s complicated, because then there’s people who for extremely legit reasons associate feminism with, as I mentioned, transphobia, white supremacy, homophobia. The whole thing of the Lavender Menace group of lesbian women [protesting] being kicked out of the feminist movement, for instance. There’s this huge history of white feminists taking over every conversation and being the “stars” in the movement, at the expense of other people’s voices. And that to me is something we need to keep exploring and keep looking at and keep dialoguing about. But rich, white, rock-star women who are like, “Oh, I shave my legs and I love men” — that’s not a critique. That’s just ignorance.

Everything you’ve said about feminism evolving, and how it must evolve, is 100 percent true and so important. But I would still argue that Bikini Kill’s music still strikes a chord and is relevant today. The audience reaction I saw at your reunion show and I saw a lot of girls there around the Vivian character’s age, by the way made that clear.

You know, if our message didn’t matter anymore, I wouldn’t do it. But what’s really sad is it still does. Like, I almost wish that a Bikini Kill reunion would be stupid, and that I wouldn’t feel the same way. I wish it was like, “No one needs this! Who needs this? These songs don’t have any meaning anymore!” But sadly, they do.

A pivotal Moxie scene is when Vivian discovers Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and it helps light this fire in her. What are your thoughts on the legacy of that song? Miley Cyrus recently covered it at her “TikTok Tailgate” concert, which probably introduced it to a new audience too.

That’s exactly what I thought: “This is introducing the song to a lot of people.” And she’s got a great voice. I mean, she’s got an amazing voice. I love her Backyard Sessions. To hear someone with those pipes singing a song that you wrote is moving. But it’s equally as moving when young women and nonbinary people cover that song just on YouTube and then send us a clip. It’s very humbling. That song has given me a real gift. I feel like I didn’t really write it. We were living in D.C. at the time and there was a lot of activism happening, and it just kind of learned itself. I feel like it’s something that very much belongs to all of my punk friends who were hanging out at that time. When I see the Linda Lindas covering it in Moxie, that moves me to tears. When it’s kids who are just starting out and instead of, you know, playing along to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they’re playing along to [Bikini Kill member] Kathi Wilcox’s bass line, that makes me happy.

Was “Rebel Girl” written about someone in particular? Someone you looked up to, or idolized, or crushed on? Or was it just a more generalized idea of that?

It was about several different people, and over the years it’s taken on that thing where I sing it to different people in my head, because obviously you don’t stay in the same place as when you’re 23 or whatever. My friend Laura was somebody who was very in my head at the time, and Juliana Luecking, who is a feminist performance artist who mentored me, was very much a part of that. But it’s also about my best friend in high school, who I had a massive crush on and never told. But now she probably knows, if you put it in this article! “Hey, that’s why I didn’t come to your wedding!” [laughs]

Joan Jett performed with Miley Cyrus at the Super Bowl event where Miley covered “Rebel Girl,” so there’s a clear through-line there, because Joan produced the “Rebel Girl” single in 93. How did that collaboration come about?

She was a big Fugazi fan in the ’90s, and my bandmates Tobi [Vail] and Kathi saw her backstage at a Fugazi show. And they happened to have our demo tape with them, so they gave it to her. And unbeknownst to me, they wrote, “For a good time, call Kathleen” and gave her my phone number! And she called — and I didn’t believe it was her! When she called me, I was in the living room at the punk house that I lived at, and there was a big Joan poster — the yellow one, the Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth poster — and I was looking at it while I was talking to this person on the phone telling me that they were Joan Jett. And I was like, “No, you’re not. You’re not Joan Jett. Somebody is f***ing with me.” But if you’re a real Joan fan, then you always know what her hair looks like, so I said, “If you’re really Joan Jett, what does your haircut look like right now?” And she goes, [raspy Joan voice] “It’s kind of a bastardized, disheveled bob.” And I was like, “Oh, my God! You are Joan Jett!” And I always go back to that moment. It was like I was on a primitive FaceTime call or a Jetsons video call with her, because I was staring at a poster of her face, looking at her while we were talking.

What was it like working with Joan?

She’s very, very talented in the studio. You know, she produced the Germs’ first record. Her sense of what to do in the studio is absolutely inspiring. … [“Rebel Girl”] is really one of the best things I’ve ever put out. Before, I would just do the vocals as quickly as possible; we didn’t have nonlinear editing when we first started, so it was a lot of cutting tape and doing a lot of things in one take. Joan really talked me through it and showed me what you could do in the studio. Up to that point I had not really thought that much about recording; I just wanted it to sound like a snapshot of our band in that moment. And unfortunately some of our best songs were recorded not very well, because we had no money and no budget and we would just get a friend to do it on a four-track. That’s just sad to me. I wish we would have rerecorded the songs with Joan. With her, it was really the first time I learned what I could do in the studio, and one of the first times I had fun in the studio and wasn’t just completely stressed out the whole time. It was a great experience, something I look back on as a threshold moment for my career.

Bikini Kill and Joan Jett in 1994. (Photo: Steve Eichner/WireImage)
Bikini Kill and Joan Jett in 1994. (Steve Eichner/WireImage)

Besides growing up loving Joan Jett, I know the Go-Go’s were also huge for you…

Definitely. When I was really little, it was Aretha Franklin and Carole King, because those were the records my parents had with women singing on them — great, great, great records, and the women who made me want to sing. I didn’t think I would ever make a career out of it. It just made me realize I love to sing, and I love to listen to women’s voices, and I love to hear what they could do with their voices. It was fascinating to me. But then as I got older, I was lucky that in the ’80s I got to see the Go-Go’s on the Vacation tour — and you know, it just felt normal. It just felt like, “This is a great band.” It wasn't lost on me that they were women, but that wasn’t the reason I loved them. They were a great band, and they had a sound I just liked. They were massive for me. And then in terms of Bikini Kill, when we started, Sub Pop had the Singles Club and there were bands like Dickless and Kreviss and Calamity Jane, a local band in Olympia, that were massively influential to us. Babes in Toyland, all of those groups. And then later finding out about ESG was massive. And after I started Bikini Kill, I was given a tape of X-Ray Spex because someone said my voice sounds a little like Poly Styrene’s, and I was like, “Oh my God! My life was absolutely changed, and I became obsessed. Neneh Cherry, Pauline Black, the Slits, so many different women in England… I got very into a lot of English punk, reggae, post-punk stuff.

Moxie aside, do you feel like there’s been any erasure of Riot Grrrl as a phenomenon?

Sara Marcus’s book Girls to the Front has a lot of documentation. There’s a Riot Grrrl archive in New York with all this fanzine writing in it that people can access. … But I was so afraid of erasure that I’ve archived my work. I got interviewed for this movie about my life [the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer]. I’ve done so much stuff to try to make sure that the bands I’ve been in will be remembered, because I’ve watched Babes in Toyland basically get erased from history. And it’s horrifying that a band that was so influential to so many people, just five years later it’s like they didn’t even exist. I do the work to make sure that that doesn’t happen. But I’m not that concerned about myself. There are so many more feminist artists and activists who get no acknowledgment, zero acknowledgment, that I just don’t feel the need to complain. I’m extremely lucky. I mean, [Go-Go’s bassist] Kathy Valentine knows who I am! I’ve talked to her in real life! Like, I never thought that would happen in my life. [laughs]

I’m just very fortunate that I’m in a band where older kids pass it on to younger kids. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten saying, “My older sister, my older brother, my older friend gave me the ‘Rebel Girl’ single, and then it got me into all this other music.” The most flattering compliment I ever got was when a woman told me, “I saw you play in the ’90s, and I just want you to know that it led me to discover feminism. And I started reading all these books and I got obsessed. And now I’m a feminist studies professor.” How awesome to just be a tiny dot in someone’s finding their way and finding something that they care about — even if my work is just a dot in there, and they live in that dot for five minutes and then move on to something else.

Are you working on any new music these days?

I have been playing music casually with a couple of friends; we formed a pod during the pandemic. But it’s not for public consumption; it’s just something to keep me going. But I’m working on a song with Vice Cooler and Erica Dawn Lyle, who is the new guitar player for Bikini Kill. It’s a benefit record that they’re putting out, so I’m working on the vocals and stuff for that right now. But I run a T-shirt business called Tees 4 Togo; we sell authorized, sweatshop-free T-shirts and all the money goes to a group called Peace Sisters, whose goal is to make sure that girls in West Africa get equal access to education. And so we provide tuition for girls in junior high school, high school and college now. Partially because of the shirts, we just sent 15 girls to college and we’re sending 20 more next year. But we also provide, like, sanitary napkins so they don’t have to skip school for a week every month, and we provide ID cards so they can get into college. And so during the pandemic that’s really what I’ve been focusing on, my T-shirt business, because I really believe that in order for women to have economic freedom and not get stuck in relationships that they hate or bad situations living-wise, they need to have access to education and jobs. … It’s been really thrilling to know we’re actually making a difference in these women’s lives, that they’re going to have options. And that’s what feminism is about: options.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.