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Kathleen Hanna and 'The Punk Singer' Director On New Doc, Riot Grrl and Why People Hate on Feminism

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire November 26, 2013 at 3:45PM

Debuting this week in limited release and VOD Friday November 29 is "The Punk Singer," Sini Anderson's film about riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna, the front woman of Bikini Kill who went on to make music with Le Tigre and her current band The Julie Ruin.
Still from 'The Punk Singer'
Still from 'The Punk Singer'

Making its debut in limited theatrical release and VOD on Friday, November 29 is "The Punk Singer," Sini Anderson's film about riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna, the front woman of Bikini Kill who went on to make music with Le Tigre and her current band The Julie Ruin.

In the nineties, Bikini Kill was one of the brightest stars in the riot grrrl movement, known for their fuck you attitude, vibrant self-made media culture, and criticism of the macho culture that surrounded them.

As a film, "The Punk Singer" goes to great lengths to contextualize the movement Hanna was a part of, the influence it had on music and women's culture then and today, and brings us up to date to Kathleen's contemporary every day concerns, including her battle with Lyme Disease.

We spoke to Hanna and Anderson in separate interviews about the film.

First up, Kathleen Hanna:

The thing that was in the back of my mind as I was watching the film, a large part of the film is about how people were representing you and the things you were doing and the things going on in your scene, and how that was offensively or unfairly represented.  What is it like to now have a film that tries to do something comprehensive about you?  Does it feel right to be doing it now?

Yeah, I had two great feminist artists to work with, Sini Anderson and Tamra Davis, and I trusted their judgement and their artistic abilities.  For the first time, to have people document me and craft sort of a narrative out of part of my story who got it.  Sini has very much been in the same scene as I have for the past 25 years and Tamra and I have also been friends for about 20 years.  We absolutely adore each other.  Tamra has been a mentor for me at various times in my life and really helped me out and got me confidence and stuff, and helped me figure out how I fit in the world, and I could go on and on and on...I love her...

It's really different when it's people you really care about who are making a movie about you than it is when it's some random person from USA Today or whatever -- but actually there was a lovely woman from USA Today who interviewed me yesterday.  But you know, you're in your twenties, and you also don't understand how the media works.  We thought that you were supposed to get paid for doing interviews.  We didn't realize it was an advertisement in a way.  Let's get real -- it's free promotion for your project or your friend's project.  We were in a lot of magazines and lot of different places, but none of us had any money.  We were like "How come Demi Moore has money, but we don't have money?"  We didn't have managers, we didn't have agents, we didn't have publicists.  We didn't know how to parlay our cultural cachet into money.  I think that was a bitter pill for a lot of people.  We had all assumed, as many people do, that if you have your picture in the newspaper, you must have enough money to own your own apartment. 

Kathleen Hanna in "The Punk Singer."
Kathleen Hanna in "The Punk Singer."

It's really different when somebody who doesn't know you -- a lot of the music writers back in the 90's were jerky men who were just like "Oh, she just needs to get laid!  That's why she hates men!" or "Clearly all these girls have been sexually abused and that's why they hate men." "They have hairy legs!" "They wear short skirts and barrettes and that's so sexy and tantalizing!" "They're confused about what they want." 

Of course we were confused!  We were in our twenties!  But we were making art about our confusion.  That's what was really powerful, and that's what was missing from the narrative then.  Now, I just turned 45 three days ago.  I feel like now's kind of the time when the narrative has shifted.  The 90's are back, so people are interested about Riot Grrrl.  There aren't people who want to beat me up anymore.  I'm older, so I have publicists working with IFC who are working with the publicist for my band.  I'm working with people so I'm not doing everything myself.  So they're weeding out anybody who's going to Howard Stern me.  I'm not planning on going on Howard Stern anytime soon, but it really felt like back then that everyone was Howard Stern.  You had one Howard Stern situation happen, and you'd think, "They're all like that!," because you're a kid.

To your point before, there were a lot of people that were assholes.

We were learning how to say no.  We were like "No!" "No!" "No!"  It took til my thirties to be able to say yes again.  And then I was like, "I can say no to this, and yes to this and no to this, and I can say no for three weeks because I just like hearing the sound of my voice saying "No."  (laughs)

Certainly a lot has changed since then.  On my bookshelf, I have a Feminist Theory textbook that has the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in it. 

Yeah! Where's my check for that?

And your papers are archived at NYU.  What does it mean that it's now history, something to look back on?

It's real!  It mattered! 

How does that feel?

When people wanted to beat us up all the time, and when people from our own community were like "How dare you speak for everyone?"  I wasn't in control of the media.  I was the lead singer of the band that was most closely or heavily associated with the Riot Grrrl movement.  The media loves to deal with just one person.  They don't know how to deal with a complex problematic community, where there's a lot of divergent voices.  That doesn't fit in the amount of words they need.  I get that; I understand that.  A lot of times the best way to tell a story is to pick a person and to use their story as a way to explain this whole other thing, and I get that.  But it kept being me who was being used to tell this story.  Members of my own community were mad at me, boys in the punk scene were like "You're ruining everything," and "You're a bitch," and "You're difficult."  I'd ask for water at a show and it would be like "Oh, she's so difficult."

So then I tried to be nice, and that didn't work, so then I realized I just have to be myself.  People have been like "Is it messed up because this stuff is nostalgia?" Or "Is it messed up that you're a punk rocker and you're joining the academic canon?"  I'm like "I wouldn't have lyrics if it weren't for people like bell hooks.  I wouldn't have lyrics if it weren't for people like Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone, and other feminist writers."  That's where I got my lyrics from, people that college people read.  Even when I wasn't in college and was like, I've always had one foot in the academic world.  I've lectured.  What I wanted to do is take that and bring it to people who maybe weren't in the academic world, you know?

My sister and I were the first generation to go to college in the family.  I felt really strongly about giving people access to the feminist education I got, which was actually very nil, and I got a lot of it outside of my college.  Unlike what people think, there wasn't a ton of women's studies classes at Evergreen State College, that's a myth.  There was just one class -- the Simone de Beauvoir "Second Sex" class -- that I took, and then there was an adjunct that taught women's studies classes. 

I love being in the canon.  I deserve to be there.  My work is good enough to be there.  I didn't want my archive to be in the basement of a club that got flooded.  It was me saying to the world that my work and the work of my friends and contemporaries actually mattered.  And also, one of my best friends worked at the archive, and that's how that happened.  It might not have happened.

Even in the past few days or weeks, there have been things published on the women about how women -- famous women -- are denying that they're feminists.   It seems like the word "feminism" has more meanings than it's ever had before.  Many people are afraid to identify themselves using that word.  What interests you about the contemporary landscape of feminism and cultural production?

I mean, my friend Tammy Rae said it best when she said that feminism is a verb and not a noun, something you do not something you are.  I've always defended men and women's rights to use whatever words they want to describe themselves, especially from the 70's when there were a lot of women of color who thought that feminism was an all-white movement and there were certainly very racist pockets of all white feminist groups, and some women of color wanted to use the term "womanists" or "We want to call ourselves some other thing."  I've always thought that that makes sense, but what always upsets me is people who don't call themselves feminists because [they] don't have hairy legs or [they] don't hate men.  Because then it just plays into stereotypes. 

I remember reading years and years and years again -- I probably shouldn't say this, but it was in Vogue magazine.  It was when Le Tigre was recording our last record in 2006 or something.  It still sticks in my craw.  It was an interview with Gwen Stefani.  And I remember getting Vogue specifically because we had been just doing this big press junket for our last record even though we were recording our new one.  So I was like I know we won't be in this magazine, so I can get this magazine.  Gwen Stefani was on the cover, so I was like, "Oh, she's so cute.  I'll read the article about her, and find out her journey as a female artist."  And I start reading it, and she said this stuff about Bikini Kill, and I was like "Seriously?" (laughs)  This is the one magazine I thought I wouldn't be in.

And she was talking about how in the Bay Area, there was all this pressure to be a feminist, and she said "But I'm a girly girl."  And I was like "Wowww, there was so much pressure to be a feminist, and you made billions and trillions of dollars.  And those of us who called ourselves feminists are still trying to make rent.  What kind of pressure actually was there?  Pressure from your brain?  From your neighbor? Your dog?  Was it because my band was getting attention and your band wasn't in that ten minute time period?

Punk Singer Banner

I could be called a very girly girl some days too.  And that doesn't mean that I don't consider myself a feminist.  I find that word powerful.  I feel like being ashamed to be associated with people who want to end oppression of everybody is sad. 

I don't like it when high profile women -- or high profile people -- reinforce those stereotypes.  You know it's always especially sad when it's a woman because you want to believe that sisterhood is powerful.  But it's not always that way.

Certainly there are going to be people familiar with you or with Bikini Kill or Le Tigre...people who were aware of things you were involved with when they were happening.  But what excites you about bringing this to people for whom this will be a discovery?  What about people who are most likely too young to be around when Bikini Kill was together? 

It feels great.  When I do lectures, a lot of young girls from 18 down to -- God!  some guy brought a six year old to a lecture and I had to shift down to make the lecture rated G ....

When girls listen to Bikini Kill for the first time they're like "This is for me.  This was made for me.  I own this."  And for a lot of the girls, specifically those who listen to Bikini Kill, I'm 25 years forever.  That's what's great about music.  I don't have to re-record the music.  And with Bikini Kill, I can be 25 forever, and with Le Tigre, I can be in my thirties forever.  It makes me really excited, especially with the archival material that's in there, especially with Bikini Kill, because with that material we really had to dig to get it.  It wasn't like how it is now.  Not everyone had camera phones.  You had to go to the Media Room at your college and rent this huge Pak that you had to change every few minutes.  To actually find the VHS tapes and to transfer them and do all that work.  I'm really excited that those performances can live on and I don't have to reunite with the band.  You know what I mean?  You know, if people want to see Bikini Kill, now I can say, "Go watch the movie!"

And here's what director Sini Anderson had to say about the film:

Kathleen Hanna and Sini Anderson in production on "The Punk Singer."
Kathleen Hanna and Sini Anderson in production on "The Punk Singer."

Why was it important for you to make this film now?

I feel pretty strongly telling people's stories while they're still in their careers and while they're doing their work.  That's especially true of feminist work.  Even within our careers, we just disappear.  I knew Kathleen wouldn't disappear in the minds of people.  People haven't seen her work in a while.  We're about 30 years from the start of 3rd wave feminism and the start of riot grrrl.  That made telling her story important.  I thought people could use the motivation.

And with this film, I'm assuming there's going to be a lot of people discovering Kathleen for the first time.  How does that feel for you?

That's happening at festivals -- there's a lot of people who come to me at festivals saying "I didn't know anything about this movement."  It's totally inspiring to people.  For other people, for younger people, it's so cool to see how relevant it is to them.  The music still sounds really amazing to them.  When I was 20, and I was thinking about my parents' music.  I was like "Gross! I hate that music!"  In this case, the music sounds really good to them.  It still sounds good to me.  It's amazing to watch a younger generation of people be completely motivated by the politics, the art, and also the fashion.  They kind of light up.  Saturday night at DOC NYC, Kathleen did a Q&A afterwards, and they gave her a standing ovation.  Afterwards, I couldn't get to her.  She was mobbed by these young women, and they were crying.  This is great to see.  If you don't make a documentary about somebody and they kind of fade away, you don't know their history.  On Saturday, I was happy we had done all the work to make it happen.  For as hard as its been to do this project, it was really great on Saturday.

How are you hoping this film contributes to feminist activism today?

Activism is a whole different thing right now.  It's a whole different thing from what it was when this story starts, in the early 90s in Olympia.  We do a lot of online activism, a story comes up and we have something to be enraged about, but it's gone in an hour or a few hours or definitely the next day.  When we started the project, there wasn't much feminist noise being made.  While we were in production, the Pussy Riot thing happened, the Slut Walks started, and the Sandra Fluke thing happened . We started to hear young women and young male feminist activists speaking up.  That was another motivating factor, we figured people can use Kathleen's story right now.  Activism has 20 year cycles.  Kathleen's story has a tendency to light a fire under people's asses. 

You said making the film was difficult...can you elaborate on that?
Sini Anderson (left) on the set of "The Punk Singer."
Sini Anderson (left) on the set of "The Punk Singer."

I think making films is difficult.  We like to say we're at a place that we don't need money to make a film.  It's untrue.  It was really hard to finish it and stay afloat. Going through production, it was like "Where are we going to get the next hard drive?"  We didn't have a final edit as we were moving to completion, and that's when Tamra Davis came in and took on the final part of the edit.  It was totally difficult, and I would totally do it again.  There are a lot of people who worked really hard on it, and…I learned a lot of really hard lessons. and I had to ask myself would you do this again?  The answer is yes.

How was it being responsible for telling Kathleen's story?

Nobody had really heard it for the first time.  Kathleen's this person who they know about -- there's a lot about her personal life.  I don't think Kathleen knew why she quit until we were making this documentary.  She was telling herself that she stopped performing because she had nothing left to say.  But I said, "That's such bullshit. Sure!  You have nothing left to say, you've said it all.  I'm gonna hold you to that, you're gonna sit with me for a year and tell me that you have nothing left to say."

How did you decide who would be telling Kathleen's story?  There are a lot of people interviewed in this film, some who worked with her, some who knew her, some who were just affected by her from afar...

Every time I would tell somebody, I would get a long list of people, you have to talk to these people.  What was important to me, I was very clear from the beginning:  I wasn't looking for opposing stories.  When it comes up at festivals, that this isn't a balanced portrait of people who like Kathleen and don't.  I wanted to find people who worked with Kathleen or who were moved by her work.  That's what I had in mind.  The only guy in the documentary is her husband, and before we started, a lot of people expected us to interview the people who were -- Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, those guys are awesome, and huge supporters of Kathleen and the movement, and really radical feminists in their own right, but their -- Tammy Rae Carland, and Becca Albee -- were important for me to talk to.  I wish I could have made a 10 part series.

And how was it spending all this time with the past in the interviews and the edit room?

I was much more into the present day.  As far as going back, that was really Tamra Davis and Bo Mehrad, they did a lot of reworking and pulling those sequences out of that performance footage. 

Hearing Kathleen go back and asking questions, having her talk about that time period was super interesting.  Going back through the archival, we watched a lot of amazing stuff that got caught on tape, including that footage from Bikini Kill in the UK, which we got from someone -- Lucy Dane -- who had caught it and was very generous to let us have it.

This article is related to: The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna, Feminism, Women Directors, Music