I didn’t know I was a feminist until I was 18-years-old.
Not one person during my 14-year stretch in Catholic school was ever like, “you know, that Joan of Arc saint was not only a martyr but a pretty badass feminist, too,” or “Let’s deconstruct how the patriarchy ruins Lady Macbeth.” Nuh uh. My scant knowledge of feminism was filtered through a mainstream pop culture lens of bra burning, man hating, and angry women. Feminist was almost a dirty word.
Suffice to say, when I started college, I didn’t really know what feminism was about, or how my being there was a direct result of it.
On my first day, I strolled into an English lit class with a poker face and a stomach full of vibrating first day of school jitters. My classmates and I eyed each other, sitting still, save for the fussers, when our teacher walked in. Like in David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” I wasn’t sure if the prof was a boy or a girl. The short, curly grey hair, makeup-free face, and long, boxy gray blazer were totally gender neutral. I was fascinated. I grew up in Calgary, where the wash was white and an Italian was considered an ethnic minority at my elementary school in the late 80s.
The professor, Jane, started discussing feminism with us, and asked the class who stood out as our first feminist hero. I watched a couple of the boys roll their eyes, and could almost read their “must switch classes” minds as they squirmed in their chairs. None of us offered up any answers, probably because none of us knew what to say.
“Come on, guys,” Jane said. “Think of someone who has stood up for female issues.”
I put my hand up.
“Kurt Cobain was my first feminist hero,” I said. The eye-rolly boys started laughing, and I blushed and wanted to punch the stupid trucker hats off of their stupid heads.
Jane looked at me quizzically and asked, “Can you explain why?”
I turned a brighter shade of red. I couldn’t explain because my answer was totally knee jerk reactionary. I didn’t really know what made Kurt Cobain a feminist except that he was one of the only male rock stars who seemed like he was on my side, fighting my fight with me, and going to bat for me.
Instead of explaining, I recited some song lyrics:
“She should have stayed away from France/ she should have had more time to spend/ she should have died when she was born/ she should have worn a crown of thorns/ she should have been a son.”
“That’s why,” I said.
Satisfied, Jane nodded at me, made a little note in her book, which I imagined was “research Kurt Cobain, feminist,” and moved onto the next student.
Not long ago, I saw this animated video of James Sherry’s 1993 interview with Cobain. It’s part of PBS’s “Blank On Blank” series, and watching it reminded me of how much my friends and I were influenced by Cobain and his message.
Up until I started listening to Nirvana at age 11, I was raised on doing what you were told, Saturday morning cartoons, Disney Princesses, Roald Dahl books, hospitals, and Jesus. Sure, Jem was a pretty cool cartoon rocker with great hair and a double life, but she was a cartoon and her music wasn’t the best.
The rock stars I had loved before Kurt were the ones my parents loved. I’ll be a steadfast Bruce Springsteen fan until my dying day, and he’s inspired me in many ways, but where Bruce wanted to take care of his lady in this cold, hard world, Kurt hoped that world could change so that she could take care of herself without judgment.
Cobain’s songs were alive with anger. He was delicate, physically, and sensitive, but his voice contained such raw power that you felt it in the pit of your stomach when you heard it. He tapped into the adolescent tumult that made me want to turn pain into art. He also tapped into distinctly female frustrations.
When I heard Kurt sing, “She should have been a son,” I got it on a very real, base level because I often thought my parents might accept me more if I had been a son. I appreciated that a man -- a very cool, rock star man -- was putting himself in MY shoes. Men usually sang about conquering women, not being angry on our behalf.
Cobain was talented, funny and no BS. I responded to him the way kids respond to that really cool older cousin who tells you about sex and other things parents don’t want to talk to you about. On the song, “Territorial Pissings,” Kurt sings, “Never met a wise man, if so he’s a woman.” Hearing that, I knew that this guy, and this band, valued women on a level I hadn’t encountered in my life, or in music, up until that point.
In the liner notes of Incesticide, one of my favorite Nirvana albums, Cobain wrote, “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do us one favor for us -- leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records.”
I didn’t know any out of the closet LGBTQ people at the time, but I was quick to adopt his perspective as my own. His opinion was one that came from a loving, decent, inclusive place.
Between wearing dresses on stage, condemning those famous musicians whose lyrics objectified women and disrespected minorities, and writing songs about female subjugation and rape, Cobain was a champion for female issues. He once said in an intervew, "The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”
That is over 20 years old, and that’s still what needs to be done.
For a teenager who was still dealing with the shame and hurt of being molested as a child, hearing my hero talk about these uncomfortable issues that many shied away from helped me talk about them, too. Understanding that it wasn’t my fault allowed me to put some of the guilt I was harboring on the system. It was, and is, society that was tolerating this shit, letting it happen, blaming victims, and ignoring the problem rather than educating people.
Cobain wasn't perfect. Health issues, depression, and drug addiction plagued Cobain. Like a lot of us, I mourned his death like a dear friend had passed. I was sad that the world had lost one of its most talented musicians and prolific voices, that his wife and daughter had lost a husband and father, and that his mom had lost her son.
Kurt Cobain was a feminist, angry as hell, and ready to fight for the cause. He changed music forever, and he changed me, too.