Kurt Cobain is on a lot of people’s minds lately. It probably has to do with the new documentary directed by Brett Morgen called Montage of Heck that aired on HBO a few weeks ago. It’s an amazing, multi-media documentary that tells the story of Kurt’s life through his voice, his music, and his journals. If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely check it out. It’s a must-see for any Kurt Cobain fan. But as fabulous as Montage of Heck is, it doesn’t focus on Kurt’s progressive and feminist beliefs. As a long time fan of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, I think we should take a moment to recognize how awesome Kurt was for being the third wave male feminist that no one saw coming.
Here are eight ways that Kurt Cobain demonstrated his feminism…
1. Kurt talked about how to address rape before anyone ever used the term “rape culture”.
There’s a story that Kurt sometimes told to explain his feelings about rape. He recalled a conversation with a woman friend of his who went to a rape defense class. She told him that she looked out the window of the classroom and she saw a group of football players outside the window. He told her that she wasn’t the one who needed the class, it was the football players. He explained: “Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on Earth and it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they 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”.
2. If you were a bigot, Kurt didn’t want your ass at a Nirvana show.
Kurt was pretty clear about how he felt about hate and intolerance. He spelled it out in the liner notes of Nirvana’s B Side Record, Incesticide: “At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
3. Those cheerleaders in the Smells Like Teen Spirit Video could have all been standard issue models.
It is rumored that Kurt wanted the women who played the cheerleaders in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video to be full figured and not to look like the standard blonde models of the hair band videos in the eighties. In fact, as I researched this article, I found some interesting information. One website claimed that Kurt didn’t want the cheerleaders to be conventionally attractive. The story goes that the studio wouldn’t go for full figured models. The compromise was strong women with anarchy symbols and tattoos. The truth behind this might never be known but one thing is certain: Kurt appreciated strong women as evidenced by his choice of romantic partners, professional collaborators, and friends.
4. Kurt was a staunch supporter of gay rights.
Kurt was intentionally provocative towards conservatives. He was particularly fired up about their opposition to LGBT rights. He would often do things that he felt would make conservatives uncomfortable like wearing women’s clothing, kissing Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist, on stage, or saying things like this: “I am not gay, but I wish I were, just to piss off the homophobes”. Kurt was, in fact, the first rock star on the cover of The Advocate. During the interview he indicated that he “could be bisexual”. There are a number of interviews during which Kurt talked about the fluidity of sexuality and his open mindedness. He talked about how he had difficulty bonding with straight men and how grateful he was for finding gay friends who he felt more connected to. Nowadays, some might take exception to some of these comments. I ask you to consider what the climate was like at that time regarding gay rights. Kurt died four years before Matthew Shepard. It was a scary time. There was no Macklemore at that time rapping about how everybody has the “Same Love”. A (mostly) straight male rock star speaking in support of gay people was bold and rare.
5. Kurt totally understood that women have been oppressed.
Kurt was very vocal about his love of women. In interviews, he often mentioned that he had many more women friends than men as a teenager and as an adult. “I just always felt that they [women] weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.” Lyrically, Kurt often elevated women. He was at times critical of men. The classic lyric that comes to mind: “I never met a wise man, if so, it’s a woman”.
6. Kurt used his music to comment on sexual assault.
Kurt had his fair share of criticism regarding the rape-centric lyrics of two of his songs: Polly and Rape Me. Polly was written about an actual rape that occurred in Washington according to Krist Novoselic. Krist has said in interviews that the intention of the song was to recognize the survivor’s strength for getting through such a horrific event. Yes, it was about rape. It was even written from the perspective of the rapist but it was meant to shock, to show how awful rape is, and to recognize the humanity and power of a woman who experienced rape.
The song Rape Me may or may not even be about rape. Kurt was sometimes a little cagey when it came to explaining his lyrics. Kurt said during an interview with Spin Magazine that it was a song about survival, much like Polly. “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.’” To be fair, though, it has been theorized since the song’s release that it is not about rape at all. Those close to Cobain have said that this song was a big fuck you to the entertainment industry for their treatment of him and his wife, Courtney Love. Critics have said that co-opting sexual assault as a metaphor for the entertainment industry is distasteful. Kurt refuted the idea that the song was about the music industry. He said Rape Me was written prior to his troubles with the entertainment industry but he admitted that the song could easily be interpreted that way.
7. Kurt supported choice.
He and Nirvana raised money for women’s issues by playing at benefits for reproductive rights and a benefit in support of Bosnian rape survivors. From wikipedia: “Cobain was a vocal supporter of the pro-choice movement and Nirvana was involved in L7’s Rock for Choice campaign. He received death threats from a small number of anti-abortion activists for participating in the pro-choice campaign, with one activist threatening to shoot Cobain as soon as he stepped on a stage.”
8. Kurt was all about women in Rock and Roll.
Just last year, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a bittersweet event due to Kurt’s absence. There was much discussion about who could fill such large shoes and play with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Who could sing for Kurt? The decision was made to have four women fill in--Joan Jett, Lorde, Kim Gordon, and St. Vincent. Initially some thought that having women singers take on Nirvana songs might not be the best choice. Those who knew Kurt well, knew it would be a good idea. Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone: “We thought, ‘Wait, it has to be all women…..Don’t even ask anyone else. If we can fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance with these incredible women singing Nirvana songs, then we’ll have achieved our own revolution.” When Courtney Love was asked what she thought, she said that “Kurt would have loved this”.
In an interview in 1993, Kurt said this about his hope that Nirvana’s Album In Utero might have an inspirational effect: “Maybe it will inspire women to pick up guitars and start bands. Because it’s the only future in rock’n’roll. I’ve had this negative attitude for years. Rock’n’roll has been exhausted. But that was always male rock’n’roll. There’s a lot of girl groups, just now, within the last few years. The Breeders and the Riot Grrrls all have a hand in it. People are finally accepting women in those kinds of roles.”
Just like anyone else, Kurt had his not-so-feminist moments and our readers might point them out. That’s okay. But, think about it this way, how many other male rock stars do you recall that spoke out against rape, supported reproductive rights, opposed the oppression of gay people, and held women in equal regard as men? It was not the norm in the nineties and probably isn’t even now.
Let’s remember Kurt, not just for the amazing music he left behind, but also as an advocate, a feminist, and an ally. Nevermind the drugs. Nevermind the tragedy of his death. Think about all the positivity he put out into the world.
Note: Please be kind in the comments. As a reminder, we have a policy of being respectful to all, particularly women, on this site. This includes Courtney Love.
Header image photo credit: Jesse Frohman.