Posted December 3, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Riot Grrrls on Film: Kathleen Hanna talks about ‘The Punk Singer’ documentary

Formed in Olympia, Washington in 1990, Bikini Kill didn’t sell many records. But the abrasive punk rock band did jumpstart the riot grrrl movement, paving the way for acts like Sleater-Kinney to become underground sensations. Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna, who currently fronts the indie rock act The Julie Ruin, is the subject of Punk Singer, a documentary tracing the band’s evolution and chronicling the much-publicized health issues that brought the band to a premature end. Hanna phoned us from her New York home to talk about the movie.

The film’s opening scene shows just how riled up you could get for live performances. What’s it like to go back and watch it now?
It’s been pretty weird. You look at yourself at a younger age, and you think, ‘Who is that?’ It’s amplified by the fact that I’ve never been in the audience watching myself. I’ve always been on stage. I’ve seen everything from the perspective of being on stage. I’ve had weird spotty sound on stage. There’s a lot going on when you’re putting on a show. Seeing so many different eras and then watch this gut-wrenching-at-times interview footage . . . I had to distance myself.  I had to watch it like it’s a character in a movie. I had to step back and watch it as a narrative about someone’s life and ask if it makes sense and if people can follow it. Can people who don’t know anything about me understand something about the feminist movement I came out and understand something about my life as an artist? Can people get something new and interesting out of it? I think the answer is yes, so I am happy about that.

You talk about how the late Kathy Acker was an inspiration. Talk about the time you met her.
I was in this class called Advanced Essay Writing at Evergreen in Olympia. We were supposed to write these essays about whatever topic they would give to us. Every time, I would drink a beer and write a bunch of crazy stuff from a thousand different perspectives. I wasn’t willing to be the sole narrator; I wanted to change identities around the person or look it from all different angles. It was difficult for me to do that in the structure of an essay.  I got drunk and wrote a bunch of shit that was kinda good and kinda crazy. I would turn in the most anesthetized version of that. Then, I found Kathy Goes to Haiti by Kathy Acker and then I turned my writings into a little book that I turned into a fanzine. I wanted to do a book report about Kathy Acker for one of my classes. I told my teacher that I needed to go to the workshop in Seattle. I met Kathy and she asked me to open for her at her gig. I pretended I was from a magazine, and I interviewed her. She basically told me I was full of shit. It was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. I am really grateful. I do lectures now and she taught me that I don’t need to tell kids how great they are. The best thing I can do is not insult their fucking intelligence. I know it might be difficult because they’re 20 and I’m 45 and I’m on the stage and they’re not.  I can be gentle with them. At the same time, it’s a gift to say no. Kathy told me that sexism doesn’t just hurt women. It hurts everybody. It cripples men’s ability to have a full emotional range and do things other than be a breadwinner. I was like, ‘No. Men are the devil.’ I had just learned about feminism yesterday. Literally yesterday.

I was surprised to hear that your artwork was censored at college. I thought that radical thinking was encouraged at that time.
Not at my school. There would be a ‘women in literature’ class, which wasn’t necessarily feminist. It was just women in literature. We had one teacher interested in doing specific feminist classes but she was an adjunct. She was only working half-time and didn’t have insurance. Her name was Anne and she taught a class on Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. That was a life-changing thing for me. It’s a mistake that people make when they think it was a pro-feminist atmosphere at Evergreen. That’s just misinformation.

When I look it as a genre, it’s all over the place. It’s like how punk itself is. It’s this idea that doesn’t have this one sound. 

Did you have any idea that you were essentially creating a genre of music?
No. I mean there were all sorts of women who had made feminist music. There was the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band. There was also the New York Women’s Liberation Rock Band. There were bands that flirted with feminism in their lyrics. We just set out to fill this space that existed by just being like, ‘We’re feminists.’ We weren’t ashamed of it. We didn’t want to be ‘We’re feminists, but we don’t hate men.’ When I look at it as a genre, it’s all over the place. It’s like how punk itself is. It’s this idea that doesn’t have this one sound. Bratmobile and Bikini Kill sound very different from each other. We’re both riot grrrl bands. I wished it was a genre and there was a sound but now I realize how awesome it is that there isn’t. It all sounded very different but it just had the ideas in common.

Talk about the connection to the grunge movement. The film handles it well.
Yeah. I was surprised by that. It brought me back to the Dwarves cover for Blood Guts and Pussy in the ‘90s.  I know that sounds like the title to a Kathy Acker book. It was just yet another slap in the face. It was like we don’t need to think about how women feel. I went to see Tad and I fuckin’ stage-dived at Tad shows. I went to see Mudhoney and all those bands. I was part of the scene. You only have to feel kicked out of something for so long before you want it to change. I felt that no one was going to change it but me.

What do you have in the works?
I am working on videos for The Julie Ruin. We’ve been touring and we’re going to Miami next week. We’re going to Australia in January and we’re doing an extensive European and U.S. tour. I’m excited that I’m well enough to play shows again and do these longer tours. My husband and I are in the process of selling a TV show called Bridget Drives a Bus to a certain network that shall remain nameless until the deal is signed. It’s a comedy. And I lecture and I’m trying to take care of my health.

Does the movie provide some closure on the Bikini Kill chapter of your life?
This movie came about because I was trying to make a Le Tigre concert film and [director] Sini [Anderson] didn’t want to do it. I wanted to wrap up Le Tigre so that I could just deal with my health. I felt like I couldn’t focus on my health until I had that taken care of. This movie became a part of wrapping stuff up. I felt like I could do anything I wanted because everything was archived. It doesn’t belong to me anymore; it belongs to everyone else. Everything that comes on top of all this is just gravy. Hopefully, it’s super-delicious gravy that everybody in the universe wants and it’s on the top of good mashed potatoes.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.