Feminist icon and Bikini Kill heroine Kathleen Hanna pussy whips up a storm
Pussy Whipped, the debut LP from Bikini Kill, was an edifying statement-of-intent and incendiary call-to-arms which declared teenage girls be seen and most definitely heard. Over 12 lung-blasting, bile-fuelled hits of feminist punk noise, vocalist and songwriter Kathleen Hanna spat out such hard-boiled lyrics as “when she talks, I hear the revolution / In her hips, there’s revolutions” (“Rebel Girl”) with red-faced screams over frantic, heavyset guitars in thrall to hardcore punk, backed by bassist Kathi Wilcox, drummer Tobi Vail and guitarist Billy Karren.
“I don’t want to brag about myself, but I have heard the same phrase so many times, and it’s always, ‘When I was 15 years old, Pussy Whipped saved my life.’ To feel like you were part of a 15-year-old’s survival through high school, which is rough for everyone, makes me feel more successful than any record sales or magazine cover ever could. Because it was pretty harsh being a girl in America in 1993. We were told that feminism didn’t exist any more; that there was no reason for it to exist because women had equality. I lived in a small town and had worked in the domestic-violence shelter, where I saw first-hand that equality for sure did not exist. There were 14 women killed by a guy gunning for feminists in Canada in 1989 and that was a big impetus for me to play music. Those women were my inspiration.
Initial reactions to Pussy Whipped from the underground magazines were that it sucked! By the time we got to the UK in 1993 we were talking a lot about the way the media was portraying us, which was amplified by music weeklies like Melody Maker and the NME, which both had riot grrrl editions. When we met Huggy Bear things really changed, because people really cared about it in the UK. Huggy Bear managed to have fun and still have these really smart gender politics, whereas it had felt like such a fight every day for us to be a band. I think seeing that what we were doing and what we were a part of had gone international gave us a big boost of confidence.
I don’t want to brag about myself, but I have heard the same phrase so many times, and it’s always, ‘When I was 15 years old, Pussy Whipped saved my life’
We were playing in Scotland and something had happened – maybe a bomb threat – which made us not want to go down to the show. We were just putting on our make-up in the room above and trying to figure out what to do when the girls downstairs spontaneously started singing ‘Rebel Girl’. It was like a scene from a teen movie! We could hear it through the floor so we took the stage and Tobi started playing the beat. It was just one of those moments, and so beautiful that the girls wanted us to play that badly. During the show I realised why – it’s because there were so many guys there screaming ‘cunts’ or ‘bitches’ every time we stopped a song that it felt like the place could explode at any minute. So there was this beauty within this amazing, awful intensity. These days, it’s so much more normal being a girl in a band. I just saw Savages on the TV the other night and they were great. But there’s still violence at shows and I still hear about girls being told to shut up when they start talking about issues like gay rights between songs.
I feel most proud that I wrote everyone back who wrote me a letter. I still see some of those people – they come to lectures, events, panels that I do – and they tell me how much it meant to them that I wrote back and that they’re doing great. That always feels like my biggest sense of achievement. But I regret coming off as a leader too much and feel like I should have made better decisions in terms of making sure the movement was more accessible to women of colour who wanted to be involved. That always really bothers me – it’s a massive regret. I wrote the riot grrrl manifesto when I was in my early 20s. There’s this book coming out so I decided to re-read the manifesto the other day – which is weird when you’re 44 – and I started editing it in my head. I was a terrible editor back then! I’d definitely write it better, but the message is still exactly the same.”
Photography by Ebet Roberts