Kathleen Hanna Is Awesomely Clear-Eyed About Pop-Star Feminism

As Bikini Kill get ready for their re-release of their debut cassette tape, Revolution Girl Style Now, band members Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox, both Riot Grrrl pioneers, spoke to Rolling Stone‘s Amy Plitt about their music and legacy.

One snippet from the conversation, in which the artists enthuse about feminism’s mainstream acceptance via pop music, particularly that of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, has been making the rounds. Hanna declared that net result of the pop feminism trend would be a broader movement, rather than a diluted one. So, of course, “Riot Grrrl queen knights Taylor Swift” has become the chief takeaway. But what Hanna said was subtler than that, and more interesting:

I remember back in the Nineties being like, “We’re being commodified,” so I understand people being like, “We don’t want feminism to become this fashion that has nothing behind it.” But I’m not really worried about that. When somebody that’s a huge megastar that has so many young fans, like Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé, comes out and says, “I’m a feminist,” I mean, that’s the sound of hundreds of thousands of girls typing the word into the Internet.

Taylor Swift’s feminism is rudimentary, to be generous. One surmises that it might be tempting for someone of Hanna’s depth and stature among feminists to hand-wring about what a given starlet’s fans are learning from her behavior. I can easily imagine Hanna saying something like, “Kids these days, they don’t know how good they have it!” (Plenty of second-wave feminists said it about her generation.)

But instead, Hanna demonstrates — possibly based on the critiques of Riot Grrrl she’s received and echoed over the years — a welcoming, mature viewpoint, particularly towards young pop fans. She also sticks to the narrative she’s adopted for herself: that the goal of art is to inspire, not to provide a detailed roadmap to a social movement.  

“I’m not a political organizer,” Hanna said in a SPIN interview in 2013. “I’m really proud that we were a catalyst for it, but I can’t be the leader. I need to pull back so that other people can step into this leadership role.” In that interview (and others), she apologized for insensitive lyrics and talked about the whiteness of Riot Grrrl, as well as some awful behavior she’s seen at feminist gatherings. “We put ourselves out to be criticized, and I hope that people criticized things that I said, because it’s all about the exchange,” she continued. “Again, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about opening the conversation.”

It’s easy for writers and social media users to get very excited about celebrity feminists, anointing them as movement leaders just because they occasionally say something smart or aren’t completely blind to industry misogyny. In some ways, this is a large-scale version of what happened to Riot Grrrl musicians in the ’90s, and what Hanna has cautioned against. She’s a survivor of multiple rounds of feminist-icon making — and subsequent feminist-icon destroying.

So her focus isn’t on Beyoncé or Taylor Swift themselves, but on those young fans sitting at their computers and googling “feminism.” Rather than being led explicitly through feminism, they’re being led up to its doors. This is a generous and trusting posture to take towards young women, as well as an attitude about “pop feminism” that feels refreshing in our saturated media world of Your Fave Is Problematic, Pop Star Edition.