Nirvana and Third Wave Feminism

Two of the anarchist cheerleaders from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” between takes

Amanda Marcotte, on the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nevermind, considers Nirvana’s feminist legacy.

Nirvana’s opening salvo in its assault on mainstream rock, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” did more than just wash away any musical relevance of bands like Poison and Winger, but it also laid waste to the sexism that fueled so much hair metal and other dude-centric hard rock. The first human faces you see in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” belong not to the band members, but to a group of heavily tattooed women dressed like anarchist cheerleaders, a swift but brutal rebuttal to all the images of acceptable femininity that your average suburban teenager lived with at the time. Forget the hair metal groupies or the bubbly beauty queen cheerleaders. For girls watching this video, it was a revelation: You could instead choose to be a badass.

The cheerleaders were just a taste of what Kurt Cobain had up his sleeve when it came to subverting traditional gender roles. It wasn’t just the kick-ass women in this one video. Nirvana baked feminist ideas right into their lyrics and image. Nirvana had songs like “Polly,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “Breed,” which dealt directly with gender issues from a pro-feminist perspective, and songs like “About a Girl” and “All Apologies,” which employed a layered, nuanced understanding of love and gender. Alison, 31, who reached out through Twitter, marveled at the gap between Nirvana and the bands like Warrant that came before it, saying, “So much of the music made by men at the time that was popular was all about how women were basically just holes to fuck,” adding that Cobain, “felt like a guy who viewed women as people.”


Nirvana’s feminism stemmed directly from the Northwest rock scene that birthed the band. Even though they were associated with Seattle, NPR’s music critic Ann Powers noted, “They came out of Olympia, a much different scene, more female-dominated.” Riot grrrl—a subgenre of punk rock that focused on empowering girls to speak out on feminist topics such as reproductive rights and sexual violence—sprang from the same circles as Nirvana, and Cobain made friends with famous riot grrrls Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna, who inadvertently gave Cobain the title idea for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue,” Powers said, arguing that the riot grrrls “were important to him.” Fans of both Nirvana and riot grrrl agree. Kate described Nirvana as “a riot grrrl band, basically.” Tara, who was living in Alabama when she discovered Nirvana, particularly admired the riot grrrl connection, saying, “The thing I really loved about that was it didn’t seem like a stunt. They ran with the riot grrrl crowd out of genuine admiration for them and what they stood for.”


For fans, Nirvana often proved a gateway drug to discovering music that had female musicians to go right along with the feminist sentiments. Tara cited Nirvana as the reason she fell hard for alternative rock, bringing her to Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Hole, and Babes in Toyland. Mickey, a Seattle native, was already a fan of many female-led punk bands, but felt Nirvana broadened her horizons. “I probably became aware of bands like L7, Sleater-Kinney, and of course, Hole, through my love of Nirvana.” Alison, who described herself as growing up in a “basic, bland suburb,” also discovered L7, Hole, and Bikini Kill through Nirvana, but felt that loving Nirvana primed you to listen to feminist musicians outside of their direct sphere of influence. She suggested that the pride Nirvana gave to outcasts and weirdos “eventually led to a more specific validation that being a woman was fine, too,” adding that this shot of feminist pride “made me more inclined to seek out strong women in areas like music, literature, etc.”

Full article here.

(Photo: Shelli Hyrkas and Experience Music Project)

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2 thoughts on “Nirvana and Third Wave Feminism

  1. Michael Happy Post author

    I hate to be the first (and maybe the only) to comment on my own post, but I want emphasize how exciting it was at the time to watch the riot grrrl phenomenon emerge in the early 1990s. It was effectively the second wave of punk after the first in the late 1970s, and it was in some ways more interesting.

    There are many claims to the origins of Third Wave feminism, but riot grrrl has an especially good one. It, in any event (using the term advisedly), punched a hole through the ossified resentments and sexual puritanism of the Second Wave. Once the point about equalization had been made (if not entirely realized), it had to follow that sexual liberation and new conceptions of gender identity–the real thing and not just prescribed talk about it–needed their own kind of expression. It made the now-familiar and still-subversive tattooed geek girl possible. Counter-intuitively, it arguably even made possible the self-aware girly-girliness of people like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.

    Kurt Cobain’s wife is, of course, Courtney Love, and, yes, the past decade has turned her into a caricature of her former self. But her band Hole was the most widely influential of the riot grrrls. Their first album, Live Through This, still stands up as a powerful piece of work. At the very least, Hole and Love articulated some of the key concerns of the Third Wave, and, by reclaiming and ironizing traditional feminine norms through Love’s “kinderwhore” look, helped to create the open-ended expectations of what can be considered feminine. Look again at their scathing video, “Violet“. It’s been a while since we’ve seen video intended to be so expressive on its own terms, and the imagery here is as evocative and as daring as anything riot grrrl produced, or has turned up since.

    A previous post on Love here.


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