Bikini Kill formed in Olympia, Washington, in October 1990, by Kathleen Hanna (vocals), Billy Karren (guitar), Kathi Wilcox (bass), and Tobi Vail (drums). Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox met while attending Evergreen College in Washington. Hanna also published a fanzine called Bikini Kill for their first tours in 1991. The band wrote songs together and encouraged a female-centric environment at their shows, urging women to come to the front of the stage and handing out lyric sheets to them. Hanna would also dive into the crowd to personally remove male hecklers. Such male concertgoers would often verbally and physically assault Hanna during shows when the tickets were still inexpensive and easily procured. However, the band's reach included large male audiences as well as young women.
Fellow riot grrrl musician, Lois Maffeo originally adopted Bikini Kill as a band name, inspired by the 1967 B-movie The Million Eyes of Sumuru. She and her friend Margaret Doherty used the name for a one-off performance in the late 1980s where they donned faux fur punk cave girl costumes. Vail liked the name and appropriated it after Maffeo settled on the band name Cradle Robbers.
Kathleen Hanna performing with Bikini Kill in Sydney, Australia (1996)
After an independent demo cassette, Revolution Girl Style Now!, Bikini Kill released the Bikini Kill EP on the indie label Kill Rock Stars. Produced by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, the album began to establish the band's audience. The band's debut album, Pussy Whipped, was released in September 1993. Bikini Kill toured in London, England to begin working with Huggy Bear, releasing a split album, Our Troubled Youth / Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, and touring the UK. The tour was the subject of a documentary film by Lucy Thane entitled It Changed My Life: Bikini Kill In The U.K. Upon their return to the United States, the band began working with Joan Jett of The Runaways, whose music Hanna described as an early example of the Riot Grrrl aesthetic. Jett produced the single "New Radio"/"Rebel Girl" for the band, and Hanna co-wrote several songs on Jett's Pure and Simple album.
By the following year, Riot Grrrl was receiving constant attention in the media, and Bikini Kill were increasingly referred to as pioneers of the movement. Hanna called for a "media blackout" amongst Riot Grrrls, as they felt the band and the movement were being misrepresented by the media. The pioneer reputation endures but, as Hanna recalls, "[Bikini Kill was] very vilified during the '90s by so many people, and hated by so many people, and I think that that's been kind of written out of the history. People were throwing chains at our heads – people hated us – and it was really, really hard to be in that band."
The band's final album, Reject All American, was released in 1996. After the band's breakup in 1997, a compilation of singles recorded between 1993 and 1995 was released in 1998 under the name The Singles.