It takes courage to say the things you want to say. But it takes even more courage to say it when you're a woman. For Kathleen Hanna, the mission to say exactly what she thinks and feels at any given moment has been a lifelong one. She has offered a voice for so many women over the span of decades--women who only dream of possessing her bravado and frankness. And so, it seems more than timely that Sini Anderson's documentary about the roller coaster journey (both public and personal) of feminist/punk singer/zine writer/riot grrrl pioneer should make its grand entrance into worthy cinemas across the nation.
Filmed over the course of three years from 2010 to 2013, The Punk Singer unfolds with methodical thoroughness. This is due in part to Kathleen Hanna's intense candor for the entirety of the documentary and her willing involvement in the project. Starting at the beginning, or rather, detailing certain origin stories since, as Hanna so succinctly puts it, "Things never really begin at the beginning," we see how Bikini Kill was ultimately formed. Begat in Olympia, Washington after creating a feminist zine of the same name, Bikini Kill also consisted of Kathi Wilcox, Toby Vail and Billy Karren. The quartet started a swift underground revolution with their provocative performances and incendiary lyrics. After gaining ground and generally growing bored with the scene in Olympia, the band moved to the other Washington, where they felt their political sentiments would be better suited.
Before the band moved, however, Kathleen had the chance to help create another iconic moment in music history through her friendship with Kurt Cobain. After the two spent a day and night together drinking, Hanna wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the wall, prompting the title of a song that would influence the imminent shift in music culture. After that, Hanna swore off drinking for six years. The notoriety of Bikini Kill only increased after their move. After the release of their second album, Pussy Whipped, the riot grrrl movement had taken full effect. Hanna and her fellow bandmates promoted a media blackout spurred by the frequent misrepresentation of their cause and their personal lives. One article, in fact, alleged that Hanna had been raped by her father, which was the true cause of her anti-man vitriol. The blind assumptions on the part of the media only further fueled Hanna's fire to be as expressive and blunt as possible.
The mid-90s proved a tumultuous time for Hanna--and not just because Courtney Love clocked her in the face at Lollapalooza in 1995. It was also a time when Bikini Kill was going through some unremediable growing pains. Sensing the impending demise of her band, Hanna retreated briefly (to her bedroom) to record the lo-fi record Julie Ruin. Released in 1998 (a year after Bikini Kill broke up), the album was evocative of the loneliness and moroseness that often transpires within the confines of a girl's bedroom--which was just the vibe she was aiming for. Paired with the electronica trend popular at the time, Julie Ruin was an unprecedented style and approach for Hanna that would ultimately lead to the formation of Le Tigre, arguably more successful than Bikini Kill, at least by commercial standards.
Hanna's achievement of that rare form of musical prosperity--having two bands that were both incredible--was marred in the mid-00s by a mysterious health problem that wasn't properly diagnosed until 2010. Once she discovered she had late stage Lyme disease, Hanna was struck with the revelation that she might never be able to sing or perform again. Her husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, helped her get through the grueling treatments, while the writing of new music for her third band, The Julie Ruin, gave her hope for the future. And, like any strong-willed feminist, Hanna has come out of the other side swinging.
Her determination and drive to improve how women are perceived, to let the world know that it's only the beginning of what we're fighting for proves that feminism is not a lost cause. One of her final utterances in the documentary relates to the epiphany: "I just think that there's this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it's the truth. And when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I'll be perceived. Like I feel like there's always the suspicion around a woman's truth--the idea that you're exaggerating." Together, women can work to change that, one riot grrrl at a time.