Last summer, a week and a half before announcing her memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life As a Feminist Punk, musician Kathleen Hanna made her first TikTok. It was a video of the artist in a metallic magenta dress and bright yellow tights exercising on a stationary bike and attempting to rein in her massive and iconically bratty voice as she sang along to her band Le Tigre’s most popular song “Deceptacon.” The caption read: “Preparing for tour after being sick. Not feeling as strong as I’d like but getting there.” The most liked comment read: “MOTHER IS ON TIKTOK.” 

For many, Kathleen Hanna is a punk goddess—or, in modern terms, Mother—but for others, she tells me over the phone, she’s a “feminist killjoy” or “the person who brought the bummer into the party.” As a founding member of three female-fronted bands (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and Julie Ruin) and an early pioneer of the ‘90s riot grrrl movement, Hanna has never let others’ negative take on her activist-meets-artist ethos get her down. Instead, she makes it look unbelievably cool and fun. In the aforementioned TikTok, she’s bouncing and smiling, full of life, colors, and energy. Total opposite of a killjoy.

Kathleen wears all clothing MIU MIU (Spring ’24) / All jewelry CARTIER

Hanna was born with a sixth sense for sisterhood, one that was deeply unshakeable. Hailing from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, she wasn’t exactly set up to be an activist. Quite the contrary, given her upbringing—filled with alcoholism, violence, negligence, and generally inappropriate behavior from the adults in her life—she was set up to be a little teenage dirtbag. And for a while, she admits in Rebel Girl, she was. 

As a high schooler with freshly divorced parents, Hanna had a lot of unsupervised time on her hands which allowed her to develop her knack for low-stakes scams—this skill was mostly borne out of necessity. Purchasing silk blouses with her dad’s credit card and returning them for cash, for example, was how she’d buy dinner for herself when no one was home. But sometimes Hanna would pursue a con purely because it seemed almost too easy for her to get away with it, like the time she defrauded her high school’s junior entrepreneurship program to fund her weed business. Hanna didn’t really get into much trouble for any of her schemes, but her trickster reputation made it so that the half-baked adults in her life had low expectations for her future. During her senior year of high school, Hanna’s guidance counselor told her she wasn’t college material and that she should find a rich husband to buy her a sports car. “You’d look great in a convertible,” he told her. “Beep beep,” she wrote.

Where most teens would’ve seen a dead end, internalized the feedback, and possibly given up, Hanna recognized an adult failing to do their job and decided to apply for Evergreen State College anyway. ​​When she wasn’t accepted, she drove up to the school’s campus in Olympia, Washington, and pleaded her case. They let her in on probationary status. 

Evergreen completely rocked Hanna’s worldview. “Everything my teachers gave me, I felt so lucky to get,” she says. It was in Olympia that Hanna “connected feminism with [her] own life” after her roommate Alice was attacked in their shared home. The day after the incident, Hanna skipped class and went to SafePlace Olympia, a rape relief and domestic violence center, and enrolled in educational sessions. “I had no idea. Every time I was raped or stalked, I thought [it was because] I was pulling them towards me,” Hanna admits, echoing her own surprise. “I was very checked out for most of my life, so when I have those moments of clarity, they’re very memorable.” Later that school year, Hanna dedicated her end-of-year project to Alice. It was a fashion show in which the final look was a screen-printed dress that read, “As he drug her upstairs by the neck she said I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” 

Olympia is where Hanna began to marry her political beliefs with her artistry. In her time there, she co-founded two massively influential projects: Bikini Kill the feminist zine and Bikini Kill the band. Both projects are a testament to Hanna’s inspiring audacity. No one ever told her (or showed her) she could self-publish or start a band—in fact, most of the Bikini Kill band members didn’t really know how to play their instruments when they first got together—and, yet, she did it anyway. 

Bikini Kill soon picked up a following outside of the Northwest and went on tour in the early 90s. The band was strapped for cash, and every hiccup on the road had the potential to be catastrophic. Like when the tour van broke down and Hanna stripped for a few weeks in order to raise the $1000 it would take to replace the engine—a choice that didn’t sit well with either the punk community or the feminists of the time. Other tour challenges involved the band’s “girls to the front” policy, which urged women to move to the front of the crowd because it was safer for both them and the band members. “Girls to the front” prompted a tsunami of boy rage at most of Bikini Kills’ shows. “Part of the thing about being a feminist in the public eye—even to the minor amount that I’ve been in it—is that a lot of stuff happens and you don’t say anything about it because the way the world is set up, people try to poke you all the time,” Hanna says.

Even Hanna’s husband Adam Horowitz (more popularly known as Ad-Rock from the hip-hop group Beastie Boys) experienced what a “bummer” it is to be the person bringing up violence against women in a room full of people otherwise having fun. During the Beastie Boys’ acceptance speech for the MTV Video Music Award for Best Hip Hop Video, Ad-Rock spoke up about the sexual assaults that took place at the notorious, anarchic Woodstock ‘99. “It made me feel really sad and angry,” he said to a silent crowd at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He laughed nervously, “Are y’all with me?” Over the phone, 25 years later, Hanna cackles, her tomboyish, so-what energy translating loudly and clearly over the phone: “It was like, ‘Who farted?’” Using your platform to work through trauma, she argues, should be a joyous experience. “The real bummer is having to push it down.”

Around Christmas, Hanna posted another TikTok of her twirling a baton. She’s wearing an emerald green sequined tank top that’s been layered over a pink T-shirt. Her out-of-breath smile and colorful appearance offer a hilarious contrast to her message: “Writing this memoir often felt like I was sticking forks in my eyeballs.” Some would argue that advocating for women’s rights in 2024 often feels the same. But if Rebel Girl has any major takeaway for its readers, it is that being a girl’s girl is a full-time, lifelong commitment, one that has the potential to be filled with constant life-altering lessons and an overwhelming amount of joy. 

Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk is out now.

This story appears in the pages of V148: now available for purchase!

Photography Michelle Gonzales

Fashion Emily Cavari

Makeup Dee Daly (Opus Beauty) using Charlotte Tilbury

Hair Anthony Martinez (Paradis) using BALMAIN Hair

Photo assistant Malik Iain

Stylist assistant Antonina Getmanova

Location Cherry Soda Studios

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