‘All four of us don’t agree on anything ever, it’s really hard for us to say anything about ourselves.’ So says Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill’s drummer, in archive footage featured in The Punk Singer, a documentary by Sini Anderson about the band’s front woman, Kathleen Hanna. In the spirit of their politics, band members Hanna, Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren did not toe the line. Angry about the condescending and sensationalist reporting of the band and the Riot Grrrl movement they spearheaded, they rarely gave interviews. It is therefore thrilling to hear them reflect on the period in Anderson’s affectionate, bordering on hagiographic, film.
As a young feminist performance poet, Hanna was advised by Kathy Acker to join a band instead. Bikini Kill were exciting, raw and radical, and in Hanna they had a front woman with a brilliant voice and flair for live performance. She kicked back against the aggressive male mosh pits of the punk scene by calling ‘girls to the front’, thus creating a safe space for women to enjoy themselves.
Sadly, the world outside their concerts was still not safe: abortion rights were being challenged and incidents of sexual harassment (as demonstrated by the Anita Hill case) were not being taken seriously. Riot Grrrl, a movement that embraced art, feminism and music, was born out of this unease. Hanna and Bikini Kill were among those who wrote a manifesto (‘We are not man-haters…’), started a fanzine of the same name, and declared it to be an open movement to women everywhere.
As Hanna recalls in the film, the outside world did not often grasp what the movement was about, and press reports about it often focused on Hanna’s past (she worked as a stripper to support herself through college, and comments she made about her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ were twisted into a lie that he had raped her). Interviewed by Anderson over several months, Hanna still appears weary of explaining herself on these matters, more than 20 years later.
But the real thrust of the film, and the question posed by Anderson at the beginning, is why did Hanna stop performing? After Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, Hanna released a solo record under the name Julie Ruin, then in 1998 founded ‘feminist party band’ Le Tigre. They were successful, but in 2005 Hanna called it a day, telling everyone including her husband, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz (she acknowledges the irony of her falling for someone who helped write the song ‘Girls’), that it was because she had nothing else to say.
This was not true. In the course of Anderson’s candid interviews with Hanna, the singer reveals it was because she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a debilitating condition that one doctor describes as being like ‘if Superman meets Kryptonite’. It was undoubtedly a horrific period for Hanna and those around her and, perhaps because it remained undiagnosed for so long, one senses she still remains cowed by it today (in May she was forced to cancel a Julie Ruin tour because of the disease’s return, after a period of remission). A scene of her approaching a comeback gig hand-in-hand with her husband reveals a wide-eyed vulnerability that contrasts wildly with the early footage.
The film doesn’t tell of a triumphant or a tragic journey. It acknowledges Hanna’s huge achievements (not least in the superb soundtrack of back-to-back Hanna songs) but in the process of interviewing only committed admirers and close friends (Kim Gordon and Jennifer Baumgardner among them), and in providing no narration, balanced or otherwise, the film becomes a little over-referential. Perhaps Anderson did not feel it was the correct forum to challenge anything said by Hanna in her interviews, especially after Hanna points out how she feels people will always question a woman’s version of events. With its unprecedented access to Bikini Kill’s musical and artwork archive and pro-female approach (it is fanzine-like in style and very few men are interviewed, not even Karren), perhaps it isn’t. This is Kathleen Hanna: Herstory.
Watch the trailer: