I don’t think there is anything wrong with making a role model out of Miley Cyrus, as long as she is not your only role model. But the trouble is there aren’t many relatable role models for young girls who have as much substance as they do sex appeal. Cyrus, Rihanna and Taylor Swift are all hugely talented women beloved by teenagers, but they don’t talk about much beyond love, sex and the pleasure and pain brought about by both.
It’s hard to find a woman as inspiring as my teen icon, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. A documentary about Hanna, The Punk Singer, is being shown at the London Film Festival this week, and I would urge young women in the city to go and see it. Hanna showed me that life gets exciting when you start thinking beyond sex, your body and how others see you.
When puberty hit, I didn’t know what to do with myself. At the time, I loved Mariah Carey, but Mariah was so remote and glossy that I thought the Queen was probably a more realistic role model for me. As well as changing physically, I was filled with restlessness. I was ready to abandon the cornerstones of my childhood – Disney films, Little Women and the chunky knitted waistcoats beloved of the parents of small girls in the mid to late 90s. But I had no idea what to replace them with. What came next? I longed for something thrilling to happen, someone to recruit me to their cult and turn my world on its head, and I haunted my tiny town like a grumpy ghost, searching for it among the magazines at the newsagents, and the heavy plum nail polish at the chemist.
It turned out that it was in the library all along.
When I saw the Ellen von Unwerth photograph on the cover of Hole’s Live Through This album, my relief was visceral. The photograph of a gorgeous, ruined, weeping beauty queen contained the message that being hot doesn’t necessarily make you happy. Holding my breath at the checkout desk, I waited for the librarian to deny me access to such subversive material. Luckily, she just wanted 50p.
Back at home, listening covertly through headphones, I discovered the album’s contents were even more potent than the cover. I heard the words of a woman who was blatant about her need to be desired, but furious with those who desired her. Someone who could articulate the urge to objectify yourself before anyone else got there first.
When it was time for Courtney Love and co to go back to the library, I was ready for their CD rack neighbours, Bikini Kill and their scarily titled Pussy Whipped album. (Looking back, it was quite a progressive library.) Among the insistent stomping beats and sludgy guitar riffs, I found my pubescent Desiderata. Kathleen Hanna represented sex and politics without borders. She made feminism, which I had previously associated with misery and dreariness, sound fabulous and alluring. Hanna made me feel as if I was entitled to join her world and that nothing could stop me from speaking my mind.
Without Bikini Kill, I might have bought the Spice Girls’ confusing messages about girl power and Thatcherism wholesale. And without further context, the messages today’s young girls are getting about self-worth, sex and desirability are pretty baffling. The young women I know are smart enough to realise they need something a bit more solid, but they can’t find it on TV or on the radio, so they are looking back to bands like Bikini Kill and Hole to provide it.
We need to search for and celebrate contemporary musicians who invoke the spirit of the riot grrrl movement, otherwise the girls who need them most will never find them. And it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that they’ll bump into them at the library. – By Daisy Buchanan © Guardian News and Media 2013
Image – AFP