'Pussy Whipped' Turns 30, but Bikini Kill's Righteous Rage Stays Young

By the time the band released their debut album, the riot grrrl movement was already imploding — but, decades later, its message still resonates

Photo: Debi Del Grande

BY Asha SwannPublished Oct 26, 2023

By the time Bikini Kill — shit-stirrers, heart-shatterers, truth tellers and original riot grrrls — released their debut full-length album in 1993, the genre they'd pioneered three years earlier was already imploding.

Technically speaking, Pussy Whipped — released on October 28, 1993 — was Bikini Kill's first album. But the band had been making plenty of headlines in the years prior, not just with their previous DIY demo cassette and feminist manifestos distributed on flyers and zines, but also for their unapologetic approach to synthesizing girlhood and the anger that came with it.

To understand why Pussy Whipped — riot grrrl's magnum opus — meant so much, we have to appreciate the context in which this album came together. Even though Pussy Whipped remains the apex of the riot grrrl movement, much of the world was seemingly ready to wash its hands of the whole feminist punk business by the time it came out. 

Author Sara Marcus was a teenager during the height of the riot grrrl movement. Sitting from her office at the University of Notre Dame, Marcus describes her 16-year-old-self seeing Bikini Kill on the Pussy Whipped tour as "an incredible, incredible show." She would later go on to write Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution in 2010, chronicling the way riot grrrl represented so much more than young women screaming into a microphone, as the mainstream media of the '90s seemed hellbent on describing it.

Punk was unavoidable in the '70s and '80s, but it created an ever-widening gender gap that the likes of Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, Joan Jett and Kim Gordon couldn't fill on their own. Born out of exclusion from mainstream punk and the anger at sexist systems that the previous generation's feminists understandably couldn't fix, riot grrrl was created by those with enough endless rage to change the world: teenage girls.

"They were 16, 17, 18 years old, and they were feminist revolutionaries," Marcus describes in her book. 

Riot grrrl quickly turned into a zine all about the injustices of the patriarchal world. Initially created by band members from Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, the free zine discussed non-competitive girlhood while providing helpful life tips (namely, how to give a cop a flat tire).

Riot grrrl became a real-world support group outside of music: local chapters started in cities across North America and the UK, meeting every week to discuss what new patriarchal issues were destroying the country. Regularly, the issue was the prevalence of sexual assault in various communities. Riot grrrl became synonymous with group therapy as girls began to confide in each other about the trauma they'd endured.

Concerts were no exception. Sexual harassment and groping were (and still are) happening to women at shows regardless of age or music genre. But riot grrrl shows meant something different; girls in attendance knew that at a riot grrrl show, sexual harassment was swiftly punished with an ass-kicking.

"There was something about just being at shows that made me feel like, 'Here's a place where this is not acceptable,'" Marcus explains. "And I feel fearless about pushing against it, if it does sneak in."

Pussy Whipped came out at a time when being outwardly feminist wasn't trendy. Pussy Whipped dug deeper: it demanded girls not to be in competition with each other, to form powerful friendships instead of jealousies or rivalries. It told girls to reclaim words like "slut" and "whore." Kathleen Hanna's lyrics were abrasive in the best way: she refuses to be silenced. 

"The role of teenagers in riot grrrl was special because so much of some of the conditioning, so many of the pain points for being socialized as female actually do hit in adolescence," Marcus says. 

The accumulation of all of this — the teenagehood, the politics, the overall frustration with the state of the world — is felt cohesively within Pussy Whipped. This album was a middle finger to the world, declaring that feminine rage was here to stay. It didn't matter if you saw the movement as overdramatic teenagers, this album covered so many issues that feminists had been fighting for, with Hannah sharing her message by screaming, whispering, and — my personal favourite — delivering lyrics in a scathingly mocking tone. 

You can hear the frustration in Hanna's voice in the album's opening track, "Blood One." She describes words as pain — literally blood seeping through the skin and forming words, twisting our memories. In less than two minutes, Hanna is asking: is it possible to fit in when other people use their words as a method to control? As the song ends, the lyrics "I don't understand," are echoed, leaving our questions unanswered. 

"Star Bellied Boy" is thoroughly representative of the singular struggle that riot grrrl can't solve: how to deal with sexual assault. In the song, Hanna explicitly speaks about a nameless man "no different from the rest," who forces her to have sex with him under the guise of becoming closer. As the minute-and-a-half song comes to a close, she's no longer singing; she's shrieking into the microphone because she can't understand why he's done this to her. The song ends abruptly, but its impact lasts.

Marcus tells me that her favourite Pussy Whipped track is "Alien She," a song about wanting to destroy the parts of yourself you feel disconnected from while also being aware that you might kill yourself in the process. It's unknown whether the "alien" part of yourself is a different person or if it's the version of yourself that society wants you to be. "I remember 'Alien She' being really powerful for voicing and performing internal splits," Marcus recalls.

But the most iconic song from the album is "Rebel Girl," the track that would immediately become the riot grrrl anthem. Bikini Kill had been performing the song live since 1991, but Pussy Whipped's recording of "Rebel Girl" was the first time it had been on an album, following a prior split EP with fellow riot grrrls Huggy Bear. An additional 7-inch version featured Joan Jett on backing vocals and guitar.

"Rebel Girl" demands attention. The lyrics are outwardly feminist with queer undertones, saying, "In her kiss, I taste the revolution." No matter what version of the song you listen to, the lyrics consistently praise a mysterious feminist revolutionary, deliberately described vaguely enough that any girl could see herself in that role.

Despite all the anger in the album, it's an incredibly short record. Just shy of 25 minutes, Pussy Whipped ends on a bittersweet note: the final track, "For Tammy Rae," is more subtle and soft than the rest. It opens with a direct address to the riot grrrl community: "Past the billboards and the magazines, I dream about being with you / We can't hear a word they say, let's pretend we own the world today." It's a song of exhaustion: exhaustion from the anger heard in the other songs; exhaustion at mainstream media; exhaustion at everything. But, despite this, there's comfort in companionship.

Pussy Whipped doesn't feel 30. Girlhood certainly hasn't changed: it's still a time when many of us realize all the injustices that come with being a woman. Many of the same questions that Bikini Kill was asking back in 1993 are still relevant today: how do we fight sexism? How can we ensure that young women aren't left out of the music industry? And above all, how do we reckon with the injustices in our community? Pussy Whipped came at a time when it was desperately needed, and its righteous anger hasn't dulled in the decades since.

As the torch passes to another generation of young activists, Marcus gives one piece of advice: be present.

"Every moment is a possible moment of emergence for a really exciting expression of what you wish to see in the world," she says. "Right now is a moment of just as much possibility as then was."

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