“In her kiss, I taste the revolution!”
So goes the ecstatic shriek at the pinnacle of Bikini Kill’s punk girl-power anthem “Rebel Girl.” Released at least three times between 1991 and 1994 — including one version produced by Joan Jett — the track was a fight song for Riot Grrrl, a punk feminist movement of young women that flourished across the United States, and in Canada and the U.K., in the early and mid ’90s.
Riot Grrrl had its roots in the punk scenes of Olympia, Wash., and Washington, D.C. It spread first through the music of all- or mostly female bands based in these two towns, including Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy. (Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, later went on to front the feminist electro-pop band Le Tigre; Heavens to Betsy’s singer-guitarist, Corin Tucker, co-founded the power trio Sleater-Kinney.)
The movement was about far more than music, though. In the early ’90s — a time of Anita Hill and Tailhook, Rush Limbaugh and parental-consent abortion laws — affronts against young women’s dignity seemed endless. Riot Grrrl swiftly crystallized the anger and frustration of a whole generation of young women. Daughters of second-wave feminism, these girls had grown up on promises of equality that seemed to dissolve sometime around adolescence, when the endless opportunities allegedly available to girls in “postfeminist” America began running aground on the realities of constricting gender roles and beauty standards, sexual harassment and assault. These contradictions were enough to make a girl want to scream.
And once Riot Grrrl began, thousands upon thousands of girls did scream, in myriad ways. They picked up electric guitars and drumsticks for the first time. They organized meetings and festivals and conventions. They wrote handmade zines and built underground self-publishing networks to distribute one another’s writing, art, music, and videos.