Bikini Kill - interview with Kathleen Hanna
The New Puritan ReView;
This interview took place on the 8th of December, 1991, in the basement of The Seventh Street Entry, where Bikini Kill shared a bill that also featured Nation Of Ulysses and Jonestown. You don't get a bill like that every day! Between the sets themthelves, and interviews with the Washington contingents (Olympia & D.C.), it's amazing that my tape deck didn't melt from the heat; the fact that this was in December notwithstanding, of course. Both bands had completely blown me away only months earlier at the International Pop Underground conference in Olympia; now in the dead of winter, they would set the heart of downtown Minneapolis aflame for one night, for all who were lucky enough to be there.
This is the raw, pre-edited, conversation / interview.
Another part of the process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
The finished, edited layout for the completed article as it appeared in 1991, was either lost or destroyed over time. I wish that were not the case, as there were more photos, and some other cool design details in the published piece, but at least you can share what inspired it in the first place. A printed transcription of the original interview survived somehow, and was scanned as the source for what appears here. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - keeping tabs on the past is a lot of work.
Incidentally, there is a Swedish "fan site" which was put together by a person named Siri Morawski, who decided it was alright to steal my raw transcript from this site, and publish it on their own web page; without my permission, and also without the rest of the article that provided the original context for the interview. Subsequently, they have also ignored several requests to remove my transcript from their site, and simply link to the original site, instead. In case anyone has seen that other site, that's the story behind it. Some people have no shame whatsoever, when it comes to ripping off other struggling artists.
So it was Kathy Acker who encouraged you to start playing in a band?
Yeah, she was like, "What are you doing?" So, I went home and got in a band... that band didn't last very long. I was in two bands before I was in Bikini Kill. I couldn't get into bars yet, so I was... 20, something like that. Originally it was three girls, bass, drums and me singing. We got Bill in January - he actually was offered to join the Nation Of Ulysses, 'cause their guitar player quit, and he said no, and stayed with us instead.
Did you intend to be an all-female band, or did it seem strange to have a boy in the group?
I think other people thought it was really weird, and we thought it was really weird, because we were really gung-ho on being all female. We had all worked with boys before, and we were like, let's have all girls. I mean, it's not like we're so revolutionary / experimental, musically or anything, but Kathi had never played an instrument before and neither had I. I eventually learned how to play bass and she was playing guitar, so we could alternate guitar and bass. We were really into teaching each other, and just doing whatever we fucking felt like, so we kinda didn't want boys around then. Then we got stronger, and we felt really competent about what we were doing. We tried a lot of different girl guitarists, girls who didn't know how to play at all, and they just wouldn't show up for practice and stuff - not to dis on all girls or anything, but it just didn't work out.
Bill was there, and he came to a practice and just started playing, and he's amazing, and it works. If it works, why are we gonna fuck with it, you know? And, he's completely behind what we say. Guys always go up to him and they go, "What's it like being in a band with a bunch of militant feminists?" They don't understand that it's a total conscious decision that he plays with women, and that he's played with women from when he first started, because it was less intimidating. I'm not speaking for him exactly, but these are things that he's told me, and him not talking is a very active thing. He makes that decision sometimes that he doesn't want to talk, 'cause he wants us to speak for ourselves; 'cause women a lot of times are pushed in the background, and for a man to sit there and be quiet, is actually an amazing and supportive thing.
We get slagged a lot for being too militant - and by women, too - but a lot by men, calling us "man-haters". It's really depressing, and it really hurts my feelings, to tell the honest-to-god truth. It's really easy for me to sit here and go, "This is the reason why reverse sexism doesn't exist", and "Power plus prejudice equals oppression", right? Women in this country don't have the power, so how the fuck are we able to oppress? Sure, I am a healthy person reacting to a very unhealthy situation. The way that women are treated in this and many other countries is totally fucked up; the threat of rape, and rape being a form of terrorization and sexual harassment, and the violent imagery that we're fed as propaganda... you're gonna get killed if you speak out - it's really fucked up. It's really hard, because I'm just doing what anybody would do, and it's no big deal. I'm really lucky because my mother was really supportive of me, and always whispered in my ear - even when my father was telling me I was a piece of shit - that I was cool and I could do anything I wanted. Because I had that privilege, and also because I'm white and I'm middle class, I'm gonna use those privileges to my best advantage and I'm gonna do these things, and it's just normal for me.
I talked to this guy at this show in Birmingham, Alabama for fifteen minutes, and we were talking about tattoos - we were just having this normal conversation - and then he says, "Let me ask you something about your band - are you man-haters?" I walked away from him! He didn't perceive how that was insulting. I had just talked to this guy for fifteen minutes, there's a male in my band, I travel with six guys on the road for a month, and then he's asking me if I'm a man-hater. It's so idiotic to me, that it doesn't even deserve a response.
The first band I was in was called Diva Knievel, and when we went on tour, I got that a lot. I was a lot younger then, so I would sit there, and then I realized, "Here it is again, a woman taking responsibility for a man's ignorance." Men need to fucking educate themselves - read books by women, read feminist literature, listen to our music, and figure the shit out. When guys say that stuff to me, I have all these pat responses, but at the same time it hurts my soul; it hurts my feelings as a person, 'cause I'm totally nice.
What do you think these people are responding to? There aren't any overt references to separatism in your music.
I think a lot of times guys are really threatened - they get really confused because they go, "You dance around really sexy, but then you say this really weird stuff about men." I think it really confuses them, so they wanna know if I like boys, they wanna know if I'm a dyke or not - I mean, we have our groupies, too - so I think that's their way of finding out if we're heterosexual or not, is part of it. They're not really realizing that we're trying to do this thing, and say these things; it's really self-centered.
Just to feel you out, sort of...
Yeah, feel you up... is more like it.
See, I'm trying to educate myself about men and racism right now, and I'll be doing that for the rest of my life; it's not like, read one Angela Davis book and you're done. I think reading is a really good way - it's such a good thing, because women write these books, and there's massive amounts of them. There's a really good book by Jane Capute called The Age Of Sex Crime. There's a book - I wish I could remember this guy's name - it's a book about feminism for men. This guy's married to this woman, and he's a feminist and he wrote this book explaining how he works through his own sexism and stuff like that. Stuff about capitalism is really good too, because learning about capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia - all that hierarchy, duality. If you're an academic guy, you could read some of that deconstruction shit, if you're into that.
I think that really reading books by women and listening to music by women, talking to your female friends, and saying, "Look - I've opened to listen to you about thinking about things, like the fact that we have to alter our lifestyle because of the threat of rape". I'm not just talking about the threat of rape as in getting thrown down in an alley, but I'm also talking about emotional abuse, and all of these different things that we have to change - like where we work, where we live, walking home at night. This sounds really dumb, but guys don't even think if they're dropping you off to wait until you get into the house, something like that. Guys letting girls know that they don't think they're stupid or paranoid if they say, "could you walk me to the store, because I don't wanna walk alone", or, "I don't feel emotionally like I wanna be harassed tonight on the street, would you walk me down the street?" instead of acting like you're a pussy, or you're weak because of that. Guys just going, "God, if I was a girl what would that feel like?" You know, like, "that would be a real bummer to have to depend on other people - it's not a fun thing." A lot of times, I get my girlfriends to do things like that.
Well, it's not a safe world...
Yeah, and it's not safe for men either. Just thinking about that, like, "What would it be like if I was female, and listening to your female friends and not realizing that women do come from a different cultural background in this one way." We are speaking a different language. When you're a guy, when you're in a conversation where it's predominantly guys, looking at the girls who are there, and including them in the conversation - that's a huge thing. Even on tour now, supposedly I'm this tough girl, I'm in a band, I'm gonna get all this respect... bullshit! All the time, guys stood around, talking about music in this really technical anal way that I don't understand, that doesn't fit into my logic system at all - and I'm not into biological determinism at all, like they're linear and we're not or something like that, 'cause I can be just as fascist as anyone.
What I'm saying is, that's not what I'm interested in. I'm really interested in supporting different qualities as being ideal, as opposed to regimented fascist strong... sometimes being empathetic and vulnerable are also equal strengths; and sometimes maybe talking about music in a way that's maybe more about content or about what are people doing politically with their music, or how is that connected to my real life. I always have those kinds of questions about bands, and a lot of times I'll get into these conversations on tour where they're talking really in these technical terms that I don't understand. I could if I chose to but I don't - and they don't even try to include me or think that my opinion coming from this other way is even valid. That's really frustrating. A thing that guys could do is just listen and go "I never thought of it that way, and that's just as important as what kind of bass strings a guy uses, or when they do a time change", or whatever. What the fuck does it mean that it's four white males who come from middle class backgrounds, up on a stage in front of predominantly other white males? What does it mean that the scene is predominantly white? All those things are questions I'm asking right now, and in being on tour and meeting all these other bands and all these people, I don't hear a lot of people asking those questions. It's not necessarily a male/female thing, but that's another thing that guys could do.
That whole grey area is really confusing for me, too. I don't wanna be respected as a musician or an artist, because I'm not really into that whole professionalism shit; but at the same time, I've been totally trained that the only kind of attention that I get from males is usually sexual, and that's my validation. I had this similar conversation on the street in Olympia, with a guy who plays bass in another band; and it was really great, because we talked about band dynamics and politics and how you deal with the people in your band. It was really great, because here's this guy, and here's me, and... there's always this misbalance of power, because he's male, and we've both grown up in this fucked up society that teaches us all these things, but it felt really good, because he wasn't staring at my tits - he was listening to what I said - and we were just having this conversation, and I was just saying what I wanted, and it was really cool. But then I walked away, and I went, "God, I wonder why he doesn't think I'm cute." I totally missed the fact that he didn't! I hate it when guys stare at my tits and stuff, but when they don't, I'm like, "Why? Doesn't he think I'm cute?" ...and that doesn't discredit the fact that I'm an anti-rape activist; I'm still a girl, whichever way you slice it.
See, in a personal relationship I'm having now with a M - A - L - E, it's the same kind of issue of just like, touching in public. I set the limits, I say when, and that's how I am - and if you don't like it, basically fuck off. He's really cool, and he deals with stuff like that. The whole thing that we've set up is, A - S - K, you know what I mean? It's really simple, even in simple things - like if we're alone, "Can I kiss you?" It's totally sweet and endearing and really sexy, so why not? Why can't boys just do that?
It sucks for everyone that things are not natural. I believe that everything's conditioned. I believe even what we consider the base of physical attraction - I believe that's conditioned in certain ways by your family and all this different kind of stuff. I could go on and on about what I think of sexuality, but basically the whole thing is, it's really simple to ask. If you're gonna sleep with a girl, or fuck a girl, or whatever, or you're making out or whatever, and you say "Do you want to do this?", I can't speak for all women, because I'm not all women. It's totally sexy, and a turn-on, because it's totally a sign that the person is paying attention to you and knows you're there, and you're not an object, and they want to know if what they're doing is okay. You know what's really interesting, if you connect that with what we were just talking about - asking a question about sex like "Do you like this?", "Do you want this?", saying to a woman who maybe you're attracted to as a feminist or whatever... you want to go out with her, or you want to hang out with her, or a guy that you like or whatever, and going, "God, I'm kind of attracted to you, and I don't want to make you uncomfortable, and we're friends, and I want to stay friends, and if you're not attracted back, totally fine, and I'll deal with it myself, I don't want you to avoid me." Totally just being honest like that, is so respectful in treating somebody like human, like how you want to be treated.
There are so many small things that mean so much to me, like when this guy wrote a letter and I put it in the fanzine; and I basically put that in so that guys would look at it, and have this example of this is what I think is really cool. This guy wrote this letter saying, "This is how I'm working through my sexism", and he wrote explaining himself to me. That is really rare. I've gotten a lot of letters from guys who say "I'm totally alienated from your fanzine", "I think that what you're doing is reverse sexism", and that's all well and good, but why don't you write to the 99.9% male fanzine writers, and ask them why they don't include more women in their 'zines, instead of writing to me, and asking me why I don't include more men in mine, 'cause the whole world is dedicated to your ass, you know? Why are you criticizing what I'm doing? This guy was just honest and said, "look, I know I'm totally sexist, and this is what I'm trying to do to work through it." It's totally a sign of respect, guys coming up and explaining who they are and what their intentions are, instead of always coming up to me and wanting an answer, "Why are you doing this?", "Who do you think you are?" Why do they think that it's okay to do that? Would they go up to a black male, who is doing anti-racist work, and ask him who the fuck he thinks he is? No, they wouldn't. It's 'cause they're not scared of me, 'cause I'm five-foot-four and I'm female - it's that whole physical thing.
It's really weird, because all of these things we're talking about have to do with giving up certain privileges, and certain powers that we have. I get a lot of power from my heterosexual relations... a lot of fucked-up power in certain ways; and me giving up certain ideas of romantic love, true love, things like that, is really hard, because that's something that as a female, has been conditioned into me as my main attainment - my highest thing that I can do is find true love. For me to actually question that is really frightening, because it's like finding out that your own insides don't exist. That's the only way I can explain it. That's what I wrote in the story in the 'zine, called "True Love". When you start realizing that true love is like a conditioned state of being, that to me is like propaganda meant to reinforce the whole status quo of male over female and stuff like that, with heterosexual couplings, and capitalism, and hierarchy and everything.
By me, actually trying to tear that apart and disseminate it in my own relationships, and realize when I'm doing that thing, of trying to get this weird sexual power over someone, and using that dynamic that I've been taught is the only power that I have; the same way that girl bands are taught that the only power they can get is as a novelty, is like, do I use that power in order to get a show - bill us as an "all-girl band", or do I say "No, I'm not in an all-girl band - I'm a musician", and I don't like either of those options. It's the same with the true love thing; I do like boys - I like girls too - but I don't want to give that up, but at the same time I need to give up the stupid idea of true love forever and ever and ever, and I'll die if you leave me, and all this kind of shit, because it's really destructive to me, and it's really destructive to the males I'm involved with too, because it always ends up fucked up, and we're not friends and they leave.
But then again, I'm not really into the opposite - "I'm this person, and I have no feelings, and I'm completely autonomous and I'm independent and I don't need anyone" - that's bullshit, because I totally am flesh and blood. It's the whole moderation / weird Protestant concept. Here I am somewhere in the middle going, "what do I do?", and it's really confusing. In our society, we're taught we have to see it, it's gotta be tangible, it's gotta be real, and to be all mushy and in the gray area is really frightening, and so communication is what I find stabilizes me. Sitting there, thinking and writing out on paper, I am this - this is what's going on and this is how I can fuck with this dynamic, and having this relationship with other people, that's where the whole concept of being a dork and having that be okay, having communication be okay and acceptable again, because this whole being cool, not talking about anything because just letting everything go and everything's natural, is just stupid. So, just being able to talk, and say how "Can we have a revolutionary relationship? How can we fuck with this power dynamic?" Figuring that out with another person can be really a charge, and it can kind of take up where that whole true love concept left off, and add a whole dynamic.
© J. Free / New Puritan ReView; 1991
Photos of Bikini Kill from Seventh Street Entry, Mpls MN 8 December 1991
& North Shore Surf Club, Olympia WA 22 August 1991 © J. Free; 2007