The grrrl power movement burst onto the underground music scene of the early 1990s with a thunderous roar, inspiring girls to express themselves whether through performance, creating fanzines, picking up an instrument, or becoming politically active.
Led by Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna, these fierce girls were a breath of fresh air when it came to deconstructing the concept of femininity. They spoke openly about sexuality and harassment, and celebrated women’s empowerment, independence, confidence, and strength.
They made it very clear that rock, punk, hard-core, heavy metal and all other musical genres were also for women, paving the way for many more to come and firmly establishing that no type of work should exclude anyone based gender.
Here is a bit of the movement’s history and evolution, including key players, criticism, and iconic moments that made the media go wild.
Let’s start by talking about Kathleen Hanna, a fundamental player in this new kind of female empowerment and the creator of a fanzine called Girl Power. She was born in Portland and became interested in feminism when her mother took her to a rally to listen to feminist icon Gloria Steinem speak. She studied photography and created three bands: Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin in Olympia, Washington. After writing and doing spoken word performance, she found that the microphone was the best way to express the ideas that would unleash what is considered the third wave of feminism. Of utmost importance to her was tackling sexism in the punk music scene, and she worked her way up with her first band. As a friend of Kurt Cobain and the person who named the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991), she came up quickly and was known for her incendiary concerts in which she was usually scantily clad with the word “slut” written on her body. She talked about sex explicitly and made all the girls come to the front at her concerts to prevent them from being harassed. One of her mottos was “We didn’t come to have sex with the band, we are the band.” At the same time, Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of the band Bratmobile had started a little fanzine called Riot Grrrl where they wrote about strategies for being safe in mosh pits (a style of dancing in which people jump, bump into one another, and run in circles) and explored political ideas, making room for all kinds of expression by women.
An undated, typewritten Bikini Kill tour flier answering the question “What is Riot grrrl?”
“[Riot Grrrl is …] Because we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy… Because we need to talk to each other. Communication and inclusion are key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… Because in every form of media we see ourselves slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. Because a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.”
Misunderstood by the media, this movement was the most radical form of expression by girls so far; it was a revolution and everything around it was very violent. The media made up things that Hanna never said and criticized her for being a stripper, questioning her feminism. The group stopped interviews, and this only served to increase interest in them, but along with it, the death threats and criticism intensified.
A few years later, the Spice Girls would appear on the pop scene with a mantra of “girl power” and a focus on the importance of loyal friendship between women. They dragged this concept out of the underground and made it mainstream, so much so that now they are recognized as the ones who popularized this movement.
The hard work that all of these women did has paid off and continues to be replicated today. They were saying things that no one wanted to hear in the most shocking way possible, making it clear that all girls have the power to be and do everything and can be heard and change the world.
If you want to delve a little deeper into the subject, we recommend checking out this link: “The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna”.
By Sussy Oh.