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Interview: Kathleen Hanna Never Expected to See The Punk Singer

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Rick Kern via Getty Images
Rick Kern via Getty Images

The '90s is hitting a crescendo of revival and nostalgia.

Riot Grrrl is a term coined by Kathleen Hanna. It became associated with feminist bands that popped up alongside their alternative-rock male counterparts. It provided a voice for girls and women to counter male aggression through rock 'n roll, homemade literature and female-only discussion groups. Riot Grrrl feminism's been swept up in today's 90s revival, but this isn't simple nostalgia. It's a bullhorn reminder to try for change.

First there was the book Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus and a lengthy BBC mixed tape, amongst many other retrospectives. Now, there's The Punk Singer, a documentary about the woman who is most closely associated with the movement: Hanna, singer of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and now, The Julie Ruin.

Hanna, at the time, agreed to make The Punk Singer because she thought she was dying.

It could be her posthumous statue.

Hanna didn't die. She got treatment for late-stage Lyme disease which had been improperly diagnosed for years.

Through talking with her about the documentary it doesn't seem like she wants there to be a statue for Riot Grrrl. The movement itself wasn't branded as a distinct idea, but handed off for women to brand themselves. Therefore, Hanna thinks it should be something that is built upon.

Tear it down if you want, but build up something productive in its stead.

The Punk Singer starts with Hanna doing spoken word as a teenager in Olympia, Washington about a friend who was assaulted by a man in their apartment. Part of that performance became her creed as a performer, "I am your worst nightmare/ I'm the girl you can't shut up."

A mentor told her, "if you want to be heard, don't do spoken word. Be in a band."

At the start of the phone interview (which had numerous technical difficulties and she was a sport throughout), I mostly wanted to gush about my time in Olympia, Washington, where she started Bikini Kill and where I worked for a record label for three years. I felt that Hanna and Riot Grrrl had left a feminist legacy that was still present.

But I quickly decided to drop it.

"Guys, be cool for once in your lives," Hanna tells a crowd in The Punk Singer, asking the men in the crowd to move to the back so that women can be in the front.

The Punk Singer mostly exists at the surface. It only gets so deep. But what director Sini Anderson has done is taken the Riot Grrrl manifesto of "take this idea of Riot Grrrl and do what you want with it" and turned it into a film. The entire crew is female. And despite being appreciated by numerous male led bands and critics (including the testosterone-fueled Rolling Stone, which listed Bikini Kill's song "Rebel Girl" as one of the top 40 songs of the rock 'n roll era), the only interviewees are women: fellow artists, feminist writers, etc. The lone exception is her husband, Adam Horowitz of The Beastie Boys.

This filming method is indeed a Grrrl statue to Hanna.

Below are Hanna's reflections on the experience of viewing a documentary about herself.

One that she never expected to see.

Q: You used to have a no-interview "media blackout" policy. Was it difficult to put your trust in a filmmaker who wanted to tell your story?

KH: I had to convince myself that my work was worth examining and documenting. I had to separate my own personhood from it. Then it did feel important and worth documenting. It made me feel a little more a part of my own accomplishments.

Once I got sick (Hanna has been diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease), I started archiving everything I've done. It was getting really scary. I sent a lot of my essays and writing to the archives at NYU but I hadn't done very many video interviews, so I figured why not? I don't want to get thrown in the feminist garbage can. So here we are.

Q: In viewing older footage from The Punk Singer , how do you feel that the movement holds up currently? Would you have done anything differently? And consequently, how could a new wave of feminism improve on Riot Grrrl?

KH: There was a lot of talk of inter(sex)tionality and how sexism amplified racism, classism and homophobia. But a lot was talk. There wasn't enough productive dialogue on race and class and it hurt the movement in many ways. I'm not saying that people of color not joining was the problem or their problem... I'm saying it was largely rooms of white women wanting to only have discussions about race and class. So it was very sad that we didn't do more than discuss and present -- but -- there is opportunity through criticism.

There are some exciting critiques of Riot Grrrl right now. There's the People of Color Zine Project. There's White Riot, a book that's going to come out soon about race and punk (by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay). Critiques are the best thing for the next generation, the next wave of feminism, the next wave of anything. Criticism is good because it builds. Get pissed and make it better.

Q: Not to be Teen Beat, but whatever, what current performer or artist would you make a fanzine of?

KH: M.I.A. She's super outspoken and really weird. She performed on national TV eight months pregnant and was really good. She did her own thing at the Super Bowl. She has an "I can do what I want" attitude. She talks about race and poverty and she keeps talking. So I'm excited to see what's next with her.

Q: In The Punk Singer, there's a lot of footage of you (in Bikini Kill) asking men at shows to go to the back so that women and girls could come to the front and not be afraid of being assaulted. It was very confrontational but opened up a discussion of female exclusion through male aggression. In preparing to do this interview I was typing "Kathleen Hanna" in Google and you know how the...

KH: [Laughs] Drum roll, please...

Q: Well, the top searches were more negative than I was expecting.

KH: You can say it.

Q: Well, there is a question that I am getting to, separate from the search result, but you can speak to that if you like.

KH: Ok. Shoot.

Q: The top search was "Kathleen Hanna racist."

KH: Oh. [Groans]. OK.

Q: It seemed primarily to be about a lack of women of color in your Riot Grrrl movement...

KH: I know. Then it devolves. Supposedly I was the leader of this group so when people have problems with it that means they have problems with me. I get it. But a lot of the problems that people have with Riot Grrrl are critiques that I share. It's good to critique as long as it pushes movements forward. So call me whatever you want if you can use it to make something better.

Q: But the question I was leading you to is -- in this Internet age, where anyone can post anything anonymously, has sexism and male aggression gotten worse? It might be less evident in a room, but it's perpetuating elsewhere...

KH: I think there is a lot of cowardice now, but it is dangerous for the exact reason you mention. If you go to YouTube and look at comments on women's bands... people write some really bad, hurtful shit. It's weird how it makes people feel good. They don't have to write a letter and fold it and put on a stamp and think about it as they go to the mailbox. It's instantaneous hurt -- a blip in the mind that just taps into pleasure for some people and perhaps when they get positive feedback...

[Sighs] It's a different landscape. I used to get a lot of hate mail, but it was actually mail. So the people who wrote nasty things really went out of their way because I guess they really hated me. If Bikini Kill existed in this age we'd have gone haywire from all this quick negativity. [Pause] Or we never would have gotten noticed because you can't get attached for very long. First it's Bikini Kill, then you're clicking on a cute cat. Then, oh, here's an article on feminism. Now over here's a sloth.

Q: The Punk Singer starts with the question: Why did Kathleen Hanna quit music? Was this the first time you'd publicly answered that question? It ends with you performing again as The Julie Ruin. Are you still playing shows?

KH: Yeah. Julie Ruin is playing shows; we released an album (Run Fast) in September. We did a three-week tour to see if my health could stand up to it ... and it was really fun. We're playing Miami next week, which will be fun because, in New York, it's freezing cold. Australia in January, and then I'll be done with my treatments. That's the happy ending of the movie: I'm performing again.

I wasn't making music so no one asked.

They thought I'd already answered (by saying she left Le Tigre because she had "nothing left to say."). Now with Punk Singer, here's my answer. It was time to be honest and show that yes, I do have Lyme disease but now I am performing again. And I'm not just performing as Kathleen Hanna: Lyme Disease Edition.

Starting Friday, Nov. 29, "The Punk Singer" will be available on video on demand and will be playing in limited theaters in New York and Los Angeles.