Kathleen Hanna on Bikini Kill, growing up, and being a feminist icon

Kathleen Hanna on Bikini Kill, growing up, and being a feminist icon

Kathleen Hanna is uncomfortable with the term “icon,” but she clearly is one. With her early-’90s band Bikini Kill, Hanna became a scion of the feminist movement, a younger, punk version of Gloria Steinem. Her style and words, both with Bikini Kill and later with ’00s dance-punk act Le Tigre, reflected what her peers were thinking and singing—and how they were voting. This year, in recognition of the 20-odd years since they got together, Hanna and her Bikini Kill compatriots launched Bikini Kill Records. The label will reissue materials from the band’s catalog, starting with its 1992 self-titled EP on November 20. In preparation for that release, The A.V. Club talked to Hanna about the band’s history, feminism, and whether they’ll ever play live again.

The A.V. Club: Why did you guys choose to start your own record label instead of going back to your original label, Kill Rock Stars? 

Kathleen Hanna: Well, Kill Rock Stars already had everything. They had been our label since we started, and back then we were all in Olympia. And we had really good friendships with the guy who started the label. But as the years progressed, Kathi [Wilcox]—the bass player—and I moved away. And Tobi [Vail] and Bill [Karren]—Bill lived in New York for a while—but Tobi lived in Olympia the whole time and was doing mail orders for the label. Her sister Maggie worked as one of the day-to-day people at the label. They were both let go, and they was new ownership. So it was sort of like, we just didn’t know anybody at the label anymore. And it just sucked that she got fired from her job of 20 years, so we were just kind of like, “Why are we still on this label?” This is a band that’s almost 25 years old, and our material is 20 years old. They have all these hot new bands on the label, and they have a great roster, so we kind of fell by the wayside. They don’t put ads anywhere if they know you’re not going to be playing any time soon. So we just decided that it was time to make the move and start our own record label. And we brought Maggie on to run it, so everybody got employed again. And we’re really happy; our website is already up and we’re already selling downloads and T-shirts and stuff. We realized that we’re the people who care about this more than anyone else, so we’re the ones who should be doing it. Just doing interviews over the past couple of days is bringing new attention to the material, which wasn’t happening when we were on Kill Rock Stars.

AVC: You guys are also in a position where people know who you are, and if they want to buy the records, they will search them out. 

KH: Yeah, but the exciting thing about getting a label together and doing press for it is that hopefully some 15-year-old girl who is the only feminist in her junior-high class will hear about it and be like, “Oh, cool, I hadn’t heard of that, I’m going to check it out.” 

I think our music can be—I don’t want to say that our own music is inspirational, but you know what I mean. What I’ve heard from younger women and women my age is that the albums changed their lives or it was the first time they had heard feminism that they could relate to. So that’s great. 

Because there’s a kind of ’90s revival and we have the record now, I’m still getting emails from girls who found our music yesterday, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I was born 20 years too late. I wish I had been part of this!” And we’re like, “No you don’t. It kind of sucked.” [Laughs.] But seeing that people are psyched about learning about our brief section of feminist history—feminist punk history… Hopefully they will take what was interesting and bring it into their own ideas of feminism, and take the stuff that wasn’t so great and improve upon it. 

AVC: Do you have a sense of why people are coming back to it now beyond just the nostalgia factor?

KH: I think it’s a combination of stuff, like the big Nirvana revival that happened. Stuff becomes in fashion. When I was in high school, the ’60s were really cool. And then for a while, the ’80s were really cool. And now it makes sense that the ’90s are becoming really cool. Floral print jumpers are everywhere. 

I think that there are a lot of reasons, but I think that feminism is also in cycle. Feminism rotates between backlash and interest. And the cool thing about the Internet is that it’s allowing women more access to their own history. Part of the problem before the Internet was that we didn’t know which books to read. Someone had to tell you. Like bell hooks’ From Margin To Center—you read that and just have your mind blown by it. It’s like finding the awesome coat at the thrift store that fits perfectly. Or hearing from your older sister that something cool is at the record store.

I think that the Internet is really cool because a lot of young feminists don’t feel like they have to reinvent the wheel. The writers at Rookie are writing about things like sexual harassment and slut-shaming and all this stuff that we were talking about then. And they’re talking about it in such an articulate manner. That one girl who’s in the class and says that something is sexist doesn’t have to feel alone.

AVC: Kids don’t have to wait until college to learn about this stuff in a women’s studies class.

KH: Exactly.

AVC: They can know that there are other people out there. Maybe not during the school day, but at night they can at least feel a little better.

KH: [Laughs.] Is that going to be the tagline?

AVC: Has your definition of feminism changed over the years? 

KH: I guess my definition of feminism changed from the time I was 9 to the time I was 20 just because my idea of feminism when I was 9 was, “Girls can do anything!” I had a T-shirt that said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” [Laughs.] 

AVC: The reality of it hits when you get older. It becomes clear that slogans and good ideas aren’t just going to make it happen.

KH: Right. In my 20s—I was 19 when I first started to tour—was when feminism came on my radar again. I think I really saw feminism as something that was important to everyone. My feminism definitely changed from when I first started and I was just like, “I cannot fucking stand men!” When you first step into the Feminist 101 personality, you’re like, “Get the fuck out of my face, men!” I was just sick of it. Every movie I saw, everywhere I looked, I saw sexism. I had never been looking before. And once I had that lens on, I just got more and more rageful. But then I started getting more nuanced, pretty much because the writer Kathy Acker called me an idiot to my face. [Laughs.] She said that sexism damages men as much as it damages women because it doesn’t allow them to be their full selves. It also keeps them away from all the cool girls if they’re being jerks. [Laughs.] And I guess I realized that pretty early on. 

I’m more interested in a feminism that ends discrimination for all people. It’s not just about a woman becoming the CEO of a company or something. It’s connected to racism and classism and gender issues that go beyond the binary. It can’t be pulled apart from those issues. There is definite overlap in many people’s lives, so you can’t just be like, “This is my only issue, this one kind of feminism about having more women CEOs or more women in Congress.” Even though that’s important. It’s more about [the] intersection.

AVC: Getting older, it’s more about what works for you. When you’re young, you buy into hard-line ideas. Even Gloria Steinem got married. Everyone was criticizing her, but she found a situation that works for her. You’re married to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz. Have you had anyone question that decision?

KH: I don’t really give a shit what people think. I fell in love with someone, and we honestly didn’t want to get married but my health insurance wasn’t working out, and it was the only way I could keep my benefits. We got married and he’s my partner-for-life, regardless of a piece of paper saying that. 

I feel like it’s more about choices. People are a lot savvier about those choices. There are people who view their feminism in different ways. I used to beat myself up if I didn’t react to things like I was supposed to. Every time I get sexually harassed, I’m supposed to turn around and yell at the person, but there are safety issues. Sometimes the best thing you can do it just walk right past that person and have a great day. But sometimes you feel like you really need to say something. 

There’s a whole smorgasbord of tactics that we can use when we find ourselves in that kind of situation. Facing sexism and racism and classism and transphobia, there are ways to choose to act in those situations, and there shouldn’t be a prescriptive list of things that you have to say. I’m learning that silence is a language, too. That can be a form of fighting back, just being like, “I’m not even going to deal with this.”

AVC: A few years ago, you donated a bunch of old papers to NYU, and now you’re going back through old Bikini Kill stuff for the new label. Going back through your history, have you learned anything about yourself?

KH: Wow, that’s a really great question. I guess with the archives, the thing that I really learned was that it was difficult for me to look at some of it because it was very embarrassing. [Laughs.] It’s like seeing your younger self. You’re a writer. I’m sure if you see things you wrote when you were 19, you cringe. I saw stuff like angry poetry that I wrote when I was mad at my father, or photos I took where I smeared period blood on myself. It’s embarrassing. But I felt like it was important to leave those kinds of blemishes in there to show that we all go through stuff that people can relate to. 

Taking it back to the EP that we’re releasing on vinyl, we also have a lot of blemishes on that record that we left in, for good or for worse, because we really wanted women to see our process. We wanted women to be able to say, “That’s a real woman’s voice.” It’s not covered in reverb; I don’t sound like some far-away thing. I sound like a real woman who is pissed off one second and maybe a little girly the next. Those two things can be right next to each other. That’s one thing I learned: You have to keep the pimples in. 

AVC: Do you have a hard time having the spotlight on you? 

KH: Well, I think that’s part of the thing. If you’re looked at as a cultural icon—not to pat myself on the back—but like Ian MacKaye, who recorded our EP, I always feel like I’m the female Ian MacKaye, but with fewer morals. [Laughs.] 

Yeah, it’s hard. When people tell you that, it’s super-freaky, but in my day-to-day life, I have a cat and a dog, and they don’t give a shit if I’m a cultural icon. They still want me to clean their litter and feed them and walk them. My friends are my friends, and I have a normal life. 

Part of the reason for putting out this record was to be very honest about recording that record and how awkward it was. I’m not a goddess, for crying out loud. I’m a regular person who took feminism—which I have a deep connection to—and mixed it with music, which I really love to do. And because I mixed something I really care about with something I love doing, I’ve had this longevity that maybe made me attract more attention or something. Part of the message is that anybody can do that. I’m not a magic unicorn.

AVC: Do you think Bikini Kill’s original goal as a band was activism, or commercial success? 

KH: Oh, definitely commercial success. Militant feminism with no reverb on the lead singer’s voice was definitely a hot commodity. [Laughs.] 

Personally, I was really freaked out that I discovered feminism at the same time as Time and Newsweek were saying that feminism was dead, and there was no need for it. I was talking about feminist issues, and people were saying, “We’re in a post-feminist society.” That conversation was happening then, and it’s still happening now. 

I worked at a domestic-violence shelter that also had crisis phones, and I just watched the shelter fill up over and over again. I was just like, “If sexism doesn’t exist, then why is this happening? How are these people on the phone?” Was every single rape victim I was speaking with on the phone lying?  It was just crazy. People were telling me that what was right in front of my face didn’t exist. I felt really scared that the next generation of women was going to believe this lie that feminism didn’t exist anymore, so they wouldn’t go looking for it. My personal thing, even before Bikini Kill, was to say that feminism was not dead. I wanted to be the pied piper. 

I felt like going out on the road and mixing it with music—which is something young people are always really interested in—would be a good way to proselytize. It was like feminist evangelism. [Laughs.] I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a lapse between the second and the third wave. And our band as a whole, selfishly, we wanted more girls and women to play shows with. We wanted more female participation in the punk scene.

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AVC: Do you think forming a band like Bikini Kill would be easier or harder now because of the state of music as a whole? Bands have a bigger audience online, but it’s harder to actually make money now.

KH: I think financially, it’s more challenging. It’s not like we made a buttload of money. We booked all our own tours, and we toured in a van. If we had anyone with us, it was usually just one roadie. We never had a tour manager or anything. We were able to sustain ourselves very meagerly. 

Recently, though, it just became more obvious that in the end, people just want to download music for free. And I understand that. There are tons of articles by people who are way smarter than me about what’s happening. 

I do think it is harder to step forward as a female musician and say, “I’m a feminist.” When I look back on it, we were really inspired by Babes In Toyland and L7, and they were bands that were, in a way, incredibly feminist. And to quote my friend Tammy Rae Carland, feminism is something you do. It’s a verb. It’s what you are. It’s an activity; it’s something you’re actively engaged in. I felt those bands were actively engaged in feminism, and it didn’t matter if they called themselves feminist or not. It’s something they were engaged in.

There was this whole thing in the ’90s where we called ourselves feminists and they didn’t, and it was just a way to divide women. It was like, “These girls are Foxcore and these girls are Riot Grrrls, and they’re all against each other.” But in reality, a lot of us were friends and were booking shows for each other and helping each other tour. 

I realized that calling yourself a feminist or not calling yourself a feminist, just by being in a band of all girls, it’s all you talk about. When you do interviews, they don’t ask you about other things, like how you write your lyrics. I understand why some of them just didn’t want to talk about it anymore. And when you add the feminism thing on top of that, forget it, you’re never going to talk about your music. 

Also, a lot of extra things get lumped on you as a feminist. If you step forward and say that something political is important to you, there are going to be so many doubters who come out of every fucking corner and call you a hypocrite. They’ll say, “She’s not really a feminist, because she had sex with this one guy who is a total jerk,” or, “She’s not really a feminist, because this one time she did this or that.” So I can totally understand why women don’t want to say, “I’m a feminist,” or, “I’m an anti-racism activist, and that’s what my band is about.” It’s hard to put that out there. The criticisms are so much stronger from every side—the people who are supposedly on your side and the people who are totally against you.

AVC: Do you think that’s eased up a little over the years?

KH: I don’t really know, because I’m not a younger person in a newly formed band. I think if you’re a band like Hysterics from Olympia, Washington, part of a deep legacy of feminist bands and feminist performers and feminist artists, then you might have it a little easier.

AVC: Olympia is more of a positive community for that as well.

KH: Just like many small towns in America, drugs and alcohol can still be the motivating factor for what’s going on. I think that bands with males get prioritized more than bands with women. And I think I would be remiss to say that it’s easier now, because I really don’t know.

AVC: Or maybe it’s easier for bands in New York right now, but then you have to look at bands globally, like Pussy Riot. That’s one good thing about the Internet: We are able to know about bands like that and support them long-distance.

KH: Yeah, I read Tobi’s blog and found out about this band Hysterics, and they’re actually totally amazing. She’s somebody I look to when I want to find out about new bands, because she has really great taste, and she often likes bands with women in them, so I follow her lead and see what she’s listening to. 

There are just so many great women bands. And you can choose if you want to align yourself with feminist reality like Amy Klein from Titus Andronicus—I know she’s not in Titus Andronicus anymore, but she’s helped organize the current wave of feminist organization in New York—or you can align yourself with a band that’s just a band. Female bands are choosing their own course. Now, when someone tells a band, “Oh, you sound like The Raincoats,” they would be like, “Oh, thank you.” In our day, when bands would get compared, they would say, “We don’t sound anything like them.” 

AVC: The Raincoats are touring again. Have you guys gotten offers to tour again?

KH: Who knows what the future will bring? We talked about it a few years back, and it didn’t seem like something we could make a reality at that time. But who knows, after seeing different crazy shit that has happened in my life. I didn’t know that my life partner was going to be in the Beastie Boys. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t take anything off the table, because crazy shit happens.

AVC: If you were to tour, do you have an idea of how you’d want to do it? Would you do $5 shows like Fugazi, or would you want a million dollars to play Coachella?

KH: I have no clue. I just know I would want to play the least amount of shows that the most people would be able to come to. I don’t think I could do a really serious Bikini Kill tour at this time. Revisiting that material, I feel inspired and excited about it again, but I only feel inspired and excited enough to play a certain amount of shows. [Laughs.] I think it would feel stale really quick, or like I was doing an imitation of myself. I think the head games could start really quickly, so it would have to be something brief. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re going to tour the entire world for two years.”

AVC: You did some interviews about the Pussy Riot case and blogged about it, but what are your thoughts on what’s going on now? One of the women just got released, and the other two are still in prison.

KH: The other two are in jail for supposedly two years. I think there needs to be continued agitation and protest. I’m not sure how much that’s going to help, but I think it still needs to happen. 

There are definitely issues of looking at Russian politics through the lens of being American, and there will always be Americans acting as the moral police around the world. But at the same time, these are feminist artists, so it is our issue, and you don’t fuck with feminist artists. 

The way I’ve been thinking about it—which is probably super-crazy and totally wrong—but all it takes is one incident in the Northwest to make every woman in the Northwest totally scared. And in this situation—it’s really different, it’s not about murder, and I don’t want to say it’s the same thing—but when feminist artists anywhere are put in jail for making feminist art, every other feminist artist needs to be put on watch. And in the U.S. of A, which is supposed to be so open-minded and for individual freedom and all that—the way we deal with censorship here is, we just don’t give funding to feminist artists. We just don’t buy their records. We don’t listen to them. Their books go out of print.

AVC: You have to be making a certain kind of art to be making money.

KH: Exactly. And I think that there are different ways that censorship takes place. 

We have women who are in prison for fighting back against their abusers. There are women in prison because their boyfriend was a drug dealer and bought them food. We have our own issues in the U.S. about women being wrongfully imprisoned. Russia is not the only place that has that issue. It’s just a hot button, because everyone’s like, “Who knew they had punk-rock feminists in Russia?”

AVC: Are you nervous about the political climate of the country as the election approaches? 

[This interview took place in October, before the 2012 presidential election. —ed.]

KH: If Romney and that crazy Paul Ryan dude get into office, it’s like George Bush-ism all over again. After that election, I wanted to get under the covers and never come out. I’m still traumatized over that election. I’m scared about how Republicans have already gone through this whole thing of being able to take people out of office who have already been elected. They just seem to have some really sinister plans, and I sometimes wish that the Democrats would be bigger assholes, and more strategic. 

It just becomes one of those issues, like, what kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want the fact that some people treat you like jerks to turn you into an asshole? No, of course not. But if you’re playing Stratego, you’ve got to play Stratego. [Laughs.] This is like the biggest game of Risk or Stratego that you can possibly play. Obama needs to take the gloves off and be like, “You’re talking like a crazy person.” Because there is some serious crazy talk happening. He needs to call them out as liars. At [one of] the debates, there was a ticker at the bottom that was showing what parts women and men were liking, but somehow they can’t have an instantaneous fact-checker?

AVC: One of the most interesting things following the debates has been following the fact-checkers on Twitter.

KH: I want to see that Twitter stuff instead of the ticker feed, so that everyone who doesn’t have a computer or Twitter can see that. There is some serious bullshit-talking.

AVC: Completely unrelated: Is the new Julie Ruin record done?

KH: The new Julie Ruin record has been recorded. The problem is that we recorded too much, and there are still a few more songs that I want to record. That brings the grand total to 20 songs, which is almost two albums’ worth of material. So we’re in the mixing process right now, which is pretty extensive when you have 20 songs. But I’m hoping the record will be out this spring. 

We’re not really in a hurry. Every band I’ve been in has totally taken over my life. And I really want this to be something that stays enjoyable and doesn’t become very professional. We’re all having fun, and we enjoy each other a lot. When we get together, we can’t stop chitter-chattering. I would like that to continue for as long as possible. [Laughs.] 

But we’re in the mixing process. I think James Murphy is the studio right now, working on a song for us, so that might actually be done later today. And we were all really excited about that, because we’re huge LCD Soundsystem fans. 

The Punk Singer has been following me around too, but I don’t know when it’s going to come out. Hopefully next year, around the same time as the album. I will be everywhere. [Laughs.] So I’ll be talking to you again really soon.

AVC: Are you more comfortable with talking about yourself at length now than you were when Bikini Kill first started?

KH: I think right now I am. I haven’t been in a band that has had to sit in a room and do 20 interviews in a row for a long time, so now I find it really enjoyable. Sometimes I get interview hangover, where I’m like, “Oh no, why did I say that?” It’s like when you go to a party and come home and go, “Did I actually say that to that person after their cat died? Oh no!” Like, “Did I really talk about how great my cat was to them?” That’s what it feels like sometimes. But I love attention, and I’ve come to terms with that. And I love the process.

AVC: It would be great if you could just put art out into the world these days and remain a mystery, but that’s not how it is.

KH: Making it fun and not doing a shitload of interviews all at once and having enjoyable conversations with people is always great. You’ve asked me questions that nobody had asked me before. So I try to look at it more as a part of the art instead of a way of selling the art. You have to have these conversations. 

Something happened to me in the past couple of years where I’ve started to be much more honest. There are some things that I’m going to repeat because I have to talk about the record and stuff each time, but it’s also important to me that I’m able to show my personality and be a real person and not just toe the party line. Sometimes, being a feminist artist, there are times where I’m in a position where I just want to feel like I’m saying all the right things politically, or I feel like I have to mention my own project over other people’s projects. But I don’t do that anymore. I just want to be off the cuff and honest. I think at a certain age, you just don’t care anymore.