The Healing Power of Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill performs at The Hollywood Palladium. (Debi Del Grande)

Nothing charges a feminist battery like live, noisy, electric instruments, accompanied by strong, screaming, feminine vocals. NOTHING. (Readers of Ms. need not be reminded why we need our batteries recharged.)

I had the great fortune of seeing Bikini Kill recently and have been buzzing since. I have been going to concerts my whole life (I am 55) and good ones always linger, but this one hit different. It is less the music following me, and more the energy and feminist badass-ery that Bikini Kill imparted upon the thousands of us who were there.

Bikini Kill is a feminist punk rock band founded in 1990 and credited with founding the Riot Grrrl movement. They broke up in 1997 and reunited in 2019. The concert was at outdoor venue Marymoor Park in the Seattle area, about 80 miles from where Bikini Kill started playing their first shows in Olympia, Wash. This added a level of awesomeness to the evening. They told us a story about opening for Nirvana in Seattle where the venue did not even turn the stage lights on. Now, here they were, 30 years later, and young kids sat on their parents’ shoulders watching feminist badass-ery explode.

I have always loved loud music and found it incredibly therapeutic. You can actually feel the energy pulse through your body as if it is pushing the stress out. But this show was at a whole different level. Bikini Kill did not just pound stress out of our bodies. Rather, they expunged the toxic masculinity that is our body politic. Every chord they played, drum they beat, and song they sang-screamed, “We are here to smash the patriarchy—please join us, or get the fuck out of our way.”

Bikini Kill did not just pound stress out of our bodies. Rather, they expunged the toxic masculinity that is our body politic.

Lead singer Kathleen Hanna spoke regularly to the audience about sexual assault. The first time it came up was in response to supporting someone close to the stage who appeared to yell up to tell her that someone was grabbing her. Hanna clarified, “He is holding your hand and you don’t want him to?” then called security up, told the guy to get out of there, told the woman who was being assaulted to give Hanna a thumbs up when she felt safe, and then proceeded to talk about why it’s not okay to “touch people when they don’t want to be touched.”

She, of course, was met by screams and cheers from the audience—an audience, I can confidently say, of sexual assault survivors and their allies.

The whole exchange was at once heart-breaking and empowering. I shook my arms as she spoke, as if to shake the named collective trauma out of my limbs. Screams reverberated through the open-air venue like a gasp of validation. Survivors were being heard and seen with the simple words: “Don’t touch people who do not want to be touched.” When she stopped speaking, my heart literally ached with solidarity.

And then the music started again, to consensually pound that toxic masculinity out of our bodies.

Bikini Kill reminds us to mobilize our rage and shows us what that looks like. They invite us to absorb their energy and wear it as a form of protection.

They played “Suck My Left One.” Hanna said the song was based on what her older sister used to say to guys who harassed her on the streets as a teenager. The crowd and I screamed and sang along with the chorus. I kept envisioning myself in my twenties, the time I was harassed the most. Mostly I just responded with a forceful “fuck off,” except when it got physical and the guy put his hand around my left breast. I got scared.

That was over 30 years ago—but the song brought it back, then purged it again. Their lyrics tell all of us who were harassed simply for walking in public that these wonderful badasses have our backs, even if we can’t write our own songs in response.

Kathleen Hanna denounced Amy Coney Barrett. She gave a shout out to service workers, especially ones who have been harassed on the job. She encouraged feminists to listen to each other so we can have bigger and stronger coalitions. She kept returning to the widespread nature of trauma and the fact that it remains hidden. Bikini Kill exploded toxic masculinity, if only for a few hours. And we were all right there with them.

The audience appeared to be mostly women, femmes and trans or nonbinary folks. About a quarter appeared to be cisgender men. Ages ranged, with lots of folks in their 50s and older. There were some teens without their parents, and many others in between. There were even families with young kids. Racial diversity, however, was underwhelming, at best; sadly we were mostly white.

Each day, a new church-backed politician has a new plan to limit our full autonomy. We learn daily of another obstacle thrown at our communities deeming us legally less than; stripping us of our human dignity; treating us with less respect than guns; granting rapists more rights over our bodies than we have. The misogynist wreckage that the Trump administration left behind via his stacked courts is truly painful.

And Bikini Kill was medicine. Not surprisingly, they closed with their iconic “Rebel Girl.” The song graces most of my playlists, including one made by my daughter. It made me feel like a good mother the first time I heard it on hers; a “my work here is done” kind of moment.

When that healing drumbeat began and the show was coming to a close, Bikini Kill transformed our early pain brought on by discussion of trauma into waves of empowerment. They screamed the song, all of us feeling ourselves as the rebel girl. I suspect I wasn’t the only one who left feeling that Kathleen Hanna was the real “queen of my world.”

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

Up next:


Dr. Julie Shayne is a teaching professor and co-founder of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. She is the author and editor of four books—most recently, Persistence is Resistance: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies.. She has published previously for Ms.