Kathleen Hanna Rebel Girl Review: Revolutionary life and times of punk rock instigator

The personal and the political collide on Bikini Kill/Le Tigre singer’s memoir.

Kathleen Hanna

by Victoria Segal |
Updated on

Kathleen Hanna

Rebel Girl: My Life As A Feminist Punk



MANY WOMEN will recognise Kathleen Hanna’s description of sitting alone with a book in a café, only to have a man ask, “Whatcha reading?” They might empathise, too, with the image of dancing at a gig before unwanted attention spoils the fun. Sexism, argues the Bikini Kill singer (later of The Julie Ruin and Le Tigre), drives women from public life: why not avoid hassle by staying home? When Hanna yelled “girls to the front!” during her band’s early-’90s shows, it was about reclaiming that space, stopping women being pushed back inside.

Titled after Bikini Kill’s defining call-to-arms, Rebel Girl puts Hanna’s experiences firmly front and centre. With Kurt Cobain, Joan Jett, Kathy Acker and Andrea Dworkin all featuring, it’s a multiple-threat of a book: a stinging coming-of-age story, a memoir of male violence, a poignant history of how grunge and riot grrrl were propelled from punk houses and art-spaces into the treacherous mainstream. “It’s about the things that shaped me,” writes Hanna. “The things that keep me up at night re-checking the locks on the doors.” The chapters about her family – her off-the-rails sister, a father who terrorised his daughter with both a shotgun and his unsettling sexual behaviour – are blistering, each one a fierce short story. Outside is even less safe: Hanna writes courageously about her experiences of rape, as well as the toxic high school boyfriends, the kerb crawlers, an exhausting proliferation of creeps.

At college in Olympia, she turns anger into art and activism. Zine culture is in full inky flow; a barrette-wearing Joe Orton, she slips feminist messages into Judy Blume library books. She writes poetry, until Kathy Acker tells her audiences go for a smoke during spoken-word performances and she should join a band. She eventually forms Bikini Kill with fellow Fugazi and Babes In Toyland fans Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox, spearheading the Riot Grrrl movement. The notoriety is sudden and smothering: a media blackout can’t stop the press, the heckling, the bomb threats.

Her pungent memories of the DIY lifestyle – bad vans, worse mattresses – belong to a vanishing world, the fragility emphasised by her tender pre-fame friendship with Cobain. There’s an intense rendition of a grunge origin myth: after vandalising a “fake abortion clinic”, Hanna and Cobain drunkenly wreck his bedroom. On the walls, she scrawls, “Kurt is the keeper of the kennel… Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”. When he asks to use the line, it seems like “no big deal”.

No deal was bigger, though. Hanna recalls dancing to Smells Like Teen Spirit in the strip joint where she worked (Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye expressed concern about her job), feeling the disconnect between Nirvana’s trajectory and her life. Cobain’s tragedy hangs heavy over the whole scene, while Courtney Love later “cold cocks” Hanna at a festival. Yet for all the ’90s music press set pieces, this book is as much about being a woman in the world as a girl in a band, Hanna writing vividly about bad sex, good sex, falling in love, abortion, miscarriage, adoption, her struggle with Lyme disease. In a zine made after Cobain died, she hailed “the heroes that don’t die at the end of the movie.” Rebel Girl is the story of a survivor, but also an agitator, an instigator, a catalyst. “Whatcha reading?” Here’s a hell of a reply.


  • Girlfriends of male hardcore fans in Washington DC were referred to as “coatracks” because they were expected to stand at the back holding jackets and bags.

  • Having declined the chance to appear as “anarchist cheerleaders” in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, Bikini Kill opened for Nirvana at The Paramount in Seattle on Halloween, 1991. Kurt Cobain already seemed “really far away”.

  • Joan Jett and her manager Kenny Laguna became Hanna’s “new dysfunctional family” after the former Runaway produced Bikini Kill’s songs Demirep, New Radio and a re-recorded Rebel Girl in 1993. “Unlike my real family,” writes Hanna, “they were dysfunctional in a fun way.”

  • Hanna was so besotted with future husband Beastie Boy Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz she would kiss a poster of him before they got together. He later asked why his mouth was so smudged; she said she had spilled water on it.

Rebel Girl: My Life As A Feminist Punk is out now via William Collins: Amazon | Rough Trade | Waterstones

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