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My Review – The Punk Singer

For those that know me, it should come to no surprise that I love Kathleen Hanna. Without being too forward, lets just say; if I were a lesbian, I would want to have Kathleen Hanna’s lesbian babies.

I became a fan of Hanna’s back in her Bikini Kill days. Her seemingly sophomoric lyrics, coupled with her outrageously sweet persona truly struck a cord with me in the midst my impressionable teen angst days.  Through Hanna and Bikini Kill I became aware of the whole “riot grrrl” scene and the messages they were promoting. This idea that women can be powerful and have a real voice in society is what inspired me to begin writing.

With my clear disclaimer of bias out of the way, I was excited to see that IFC’s documentary on Kathleen Hanna – The Punk Singer, was available on netflix. I was really impressed with the film. Not only did it focus on Hanna specifically, but it also gave a lot of background on the feminist movement, riot girl, and other areas that Kathleen feels particularly passionate about.

“Because nobody has ever listened to me in my whole life and I have all this stuff I wanted to say”. -Kathleen Hanna

Birth of a Rebel Girl

The beginning of the film begins with an excerpt of an interview with Kathleen describing how she decided to start a band. She claims that one night while attending a writing workshop hosted by Kathy Acker, she was asked why she wanted to become a writer. Hanna states “Because nobody has ever listened to me in my whole life and I have all this stuff I wanted to say”.

That quote really resonated with me. It’s almost as if Kathleen Hanna, one of my greatest heroes, had channeled me, and was speaking my very thoughts there on screen in regards to my own reasons for writing.

Acker tells Hanna that if she wants to be heard then, she needs to stop doing spoken word and start a band instead. Heeding Acker’s advice, Kathleen goes home and decides to start a band. She is soon recruited into the band Bikini Kill.

Girls to the Front

Kathleen’s aggressive onstage presence, demanding girls to take dominance at their live stage shows in response to men assaulting or molesting women at other shows within the punk rock scene, along with her strong messages of women’s empowerment made the band – particularly Hanna, a clear target for scrutiny by the mainstream media.

Hanna claims that; along with the media focusing on banal issues such as the band’s clothing, attempting to write about non-fictional cat fights between her and other female performers, and writing outright lies about her, she was also the target of many hate letters. She goes on to say that one of her saving graces was letters she received from fans and other supporters.

Revolution Girl Style Now!

The members of Bikini Kill, along with another punk girl band Bratmobile decide that they have to do more to spread their message. The bands pooled their efforts into starting the “riot grrrl” initiative, publishing a monthly fanzine and conducting meetings to discuss personal and gender-specific topics. Riot grrrl spread across the country and young girls were inspired to start their own riot grrrl sectors. In spite of the mainstream attention and relative success of the band, Bikini Kill broke up in 1997. This was largely due to Hanna not being able to deal with the hate and criticism being directed towards her and her message.

Girl in Her Bedroom

Respectably, this did not completely discourage Kathleen from giving up on music. From her bedroom she wrote, recorded, and produced her solo album – Julie Ruin and later went on to found Le Tigre.

Le Tigre, unlike Bikini Kill, was less punk rock and more euro-beat inspired. Described as “political radical content you could dance to”, Le Tigre toured aggressively around the world. It was during this time that Kathleen started to often feel ill and depressed. She told her husband and band mates that she was ready to quit performing and that she had no more material worth writing about. There was much speculation and rumor surrounding this decision, until the truth was finally revealed. Kathleen was very sick with late-stage Lyme disease.

My Thoughts

Watching this film gave me a greater respect for Kathleen Hanna. Even when surrounded by critics, she was still determined to push on and do what she wanted to do. She never anticipated fame or fortune, she was simply a girl with a message and wanted to be heard.

I think fans would love how raw Kathleen is on myriad subjects, and comes off as so approachable. The interviews with her, along with friends, fans, and biographers are very intimate and really make you feel like you’re there having a conversation with them. Overall I give the film two thumbs up.