This essay was written by Elizabeth Teets in Chloe Caldwell’s 12-Month Essay Collection Generator
“Fighting for Kathleen.”
The rules of the assignment were simple. Pick any figure important to US history, write a research paper, do a five-minute presentation to the class in costume, and make a cutout to put on the wall. It would count as our final for AP US History.
I lined up in front of Mr. Stephen’s desk after class along with the other students to give him the name of my chosen historical figure. The Sgt. Pepper’s report was Mr Stephens’s own invention. By this time we had already studied for and taken the AP US History exam. In most of our AP classes, we were allowed to mostly dick around until the end of the school year. Mr. Stephen, like most of my middle-aged white male high school teachers, was an avid lover of The Beatles. He did the project every year so he could recreate Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover on his classroom wall, which is what our cutouts were needed for. Mr. Stephen supplied his own very expensive custom-made cutouts of George, Paul, John, and Ringo.
For the last year, we had listened as Mr. Stephen taught us about the various villains in US History: confederate soldiers, Nazis, slave traders. But there was no one he hated more than Yoko Ono. She was his usual punch line. No one could ever be as villainous as Yoko.
We all knew the project was coming. Our senior friends had all done it and thought it was a super fun project. They recommended Mr. Stephen to upcoming juniors when it came time to choose classes.
Mr. Stephen was one of the teachers that we considered cool. He played music in the classroom. Mostly classic rock mixed with the occasional jazz track, or Johnny Cash so he could lecture us on the importance of having “eclectic” taste. He talked in a loud expressive voice and was fond of using an air horn during his lectures. He suggested Animaniacs songs on presidents and the fifty states as an easy way to remember crucial information for the AP test. He talked endlessly about his fraternity brothers and told countless stories that, at the time, we didn’t realize weren’t actually funny. He referred to Obama’s inauguration speech, which aired live at the same time as our class, as a “rude interruption by our forty-fourth President.”
Before I enrolled in AP US History, I had known I was going to do my Sgt. Pepper’s report on Kathleen Hanna. I already had planned an exciting presentation on the grandmother of third wave feminism. Kathleen Hanna was my personal hero: both a punk legend and feminist icon, and one part of a celebrity power couple with a Beastie Boy. Mostly, I was excited to show my classmates that feminism was cool.
I first discovered Bikini Kill through my teenage Green Day obsession. I got the research gene from my father, so anything I loved had to be explored thoroughly. These studies lead me to the East Bay punk scene. I spent my babysitting money buying albums from bands Like Operation Ivy and Crimpshrine, and through Crimpshrine the writings of Aaron Cometbus. But most importantly I found Kathleen and her unpretentious gateway to feminism that had started my early awakening.
In line for Mr. Stephen’s sign up sheet, I heard my classmates give their historical figures. He hooted and hollered upon hearing his favorites. Students chose everyone from Sacagawea to the GoJo Hands infomercial guy, who had “changed commercials in the US,” so therefore counted.
“Who’s it gonna be Elizabeth?” Mr. Stephen asked me when I arrived.
“Kathleen Hanna,” I said.
“Come again?” asked Mr. Stephen.
“Kathleen Hanna, the founder of the Riot Grrl movement. The singer from Bikini Kill.”
“You know, Bikini Kill, the punk band,” I said, expecting him to know.
“The person has to be important to US history, have changed it in some way.”
I was confused. I considered Kathleen Hanna as important to American history and culture as someone like Hemingway or Andrew Jackson. Since I was on track to graduate from high school early, I had been taking women studies courses online through the community college to gain extra credits. Kathleen had appeared in nearly all of my textbooks. I knew she was important to US history. But my confusion stemmed from his initial rejection of my choice: He was letting former SNL cast members, who were not even Gilda Radner, count as significant to American history.
“But Kathleen Hanna is a feminist icon,” I said exasperatedly into my fifty-something, white, probably republican school teachers’ face.
“I listen to loads of punk music and I’ve never heard of her,” he said back to me, as if that settled it.
It was the most I had ever been enraged after hearing a no. As a sixteen-year-old girl I had heard many many no’s at this point and I was used to them. No to dyeing my hair blue. No to dropping out to go to cooking school by day and becoming an art historian by night. No to following My Chemical romance on tour.
But this no was different. This no was wrong. It was an injustice.
I was lucky enough to go to a high school with many creative teachers. I was, however, taught US History by a straight white man. That’s the one subject that they shouldn’t be allowed to touch anymore. They already have done enough damage.
In 1989, Kathleen Hanna formed the punk band Bikini Kill along with guitarist Billy Karren, bassist Kathi Wilcox, and drummer Tobi Vail. Kathleen had come to music after her work as a spoken word artist. Bikini Kill, displeased with the hyper-masculine environment of punk shows, encouraged girls to come to the front in order to change the power dynamics of the room and keep women audience members safe—from both the violence of the mosh pit and any general creeps. The band, along with their fanzine, came to spearhead the Riot grrl movement, which combined punk rock with feminist politics. The Riot grrl movement is often cited as the start of the third wave of feminism.
The first time I heard a Bikini Kill record, as a thirteen-year-old alone in my room, hiding from my stepdad, I felt like my world had been burst open. I was intoxicated by Kathleen’s voice as she screamed at the top of her lungs. I wanted to be screaming too.
I fell in love with Kathleen and her cool clothes, hanging on to her every genius word. I loved listening to her Valley Girl accent, thrilled to hear someone sound so smart using words like I did. I kept pictures of her in my notebook, excited to see someone punk and feminist wearing color block skirts and pencil cut dresses just like I did.
In many ways, Kathleen was my feminist older sister, taking what she had read in more difficult feminist theory books and filtering it through a punk-rock lens so teenagers like me could understand.
It was through Kathleen that I understood that I could feel upset about the emotional violence I was currently experiencing at home and not carry it with me, as if it was just “it is what it is.” Someone else had also grown up afraid of the men in their own house. Someone felt as much rage as I did. Someone else was sick of being told they didn’t have control of their own body.
I listened to Rebel Girl on repeat. Kathleen was probably singing about someone she knew, but I listened to it as if I was singing it to her.
Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world.
I went back to Mr. Stephen that afternoon and demanded he allow me to do the assignment on her, showing him my Women Studies 101 textbook.
It enraged me that just because something was made for women and women alone it became something with no value. I still wasn’t ready to fight for myself in any real way, but I wasn’t going to let any man tell me my hero wasn’t important.
No one could tell me I couldn’t write about her. I couldn’t scream for myself. I couldn’t make demands for myself yet, but I could make demands for her.
The day I gave my Sgt. Pepper’s Project presentation I wore my Kathleen costume to school all day. I introduced Riot grrl and Bikini Kill and everything I loved to my classmates.
In order to appease Mr. Stephen, I made sure to mention that it was Kathleen who had spray painted “smells like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s bedroom wall.
Mr. Stephen gave me an A.
At the end of my presentation, he played all of Nevermind like it was Kathleen’s greatest achievement. As if.
Elizabeth Teets is a Los Angeles and Portland based writer, comedian, and fashionista. She is the host and producer of the Hollywood Theater program Isn’t She Great. Her writings can be found at Los Angles Times, Reductress, and more.