New Indie Thursday: The Punk Singer


Feminism is a concept I have been studying for some time. I read manifestos, critical analyzes of pop culture, and opinion pieces about how feminism is dead. Feminism started peaking my interest at the same time I was getting into punk music in high school. I was born too late to know what the riot grrl movement was when it was actually in its heyday, but that didn’t stop me from rediscovering and obsessing over it. I wanted so much to travel back in time, age myself into being eighteen, nineteen or twenty living in Portland, Olympia, Washington D.C. or New York City and form a band that would have been a part of a revolution as palpable as the riot grrrl movement was. I wanted to be Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Joan Jett (she was my favorite punk singer when I didn’t know what punk was. Who didn’t totally get jazzed up by watching her sing “I love Rock and Roll” on that constantly played video on MTV and VH1? I would stomp around and mug just like she did every time it came on.), Corin Tucker, or Allison Wolfe. But the person I wanted to be the most was Kathleen Hanna. To me she represented THE take charge no fucks given punk rock riot grrrl. She said what she wanted, she wore what she wanted and she did not give a shit. She was (and still is) my idol. I listened to Pussy Whipped on repeat. I even did a report on Third Wave Feminism where I played on repeat “Suck My Left One.” (You should have seen the wide open mouths in my mostly male class. It was hilarious.) I am saying all this to warn you. I am biased when it comes to this documentary about Kathleen Hanna. I am predisposed to like this movie and I do. But me liking it doesn’t mean that I don’t have anything meaningful to say about it.

If you don’t know who Kathleen Hanna is then you just are not a cool person. Haha. I am joking of course. She rose to fame as the lead singer of Bikini Kill in the mid nineties. She became the leader of a new movement that rose in tandem with the grunge scene of the same time called riot grrrl movement.This movement consisted of a lot of female dominated punk bands, zines, books, and movies. This movement is the reason why when you go to a nineties nostalgia party you see a lot of girls dressed up in baby doll dresses and combat boots. Once she moved on from Bikini Kill, she formed Julie Ruin and then Le Tigre. She would perform until 2005 when she mysteriously left the alternative music scene with little to no warning. This documentary explores her origins as well as why she left so suddenly.

Content aside, this documentary is just like every other documentary profiling a famous living figure. You have an origin story, a series of talking heads telling how much the subject mattered in a given area of expertise, a series of points in the figure’s life that shaped who she is, and a low point where she must gather herself up again and rally in order to conclude in a warm and uplifting manner. In some ways the documentary felt like they were trying to package Kathleen Hanna up in a neat little package to show people that she isn’t this angry difficult figure, but a sensitive artist. They even take a moment to explain the different waves of feminism just in case no one understood what that was. Although the documentary sticks to this mostly reductive history of the riot grrrl movement, there are shining moments that give insight into not just who Kathleen Hanna is but what the riot grrrl movement stood for. These moments were when a couple of her friends that are less famous was describing what it was like to be in the movement and have such a charismatic figure in their lives. These women were describing the anger they felt towards not being able to go to punk rock shows and stay safe or getting pushed aside for more male centric artistic expressions. These moments are why I watched this movie.

The fact of the matter is that most people who seek out this movie already have a passing interest in punk music and the nineties scene. They may even be familiar with some points in Kathleen Hanna’s life that were more public than others. My parents are not going to sit down and watch this movie. We are living in an age where we are able to consistently seek out entertainment that appeals to our sensibilities. If I didn’t care about punk music, riot grrrl or Bikini Kill, I would not have watched this movie. While this leads to more content being made that appeals directly towards me, the form of the content isn’t always as evolving. I think documentaries that appeal to a certain subsection of culture should embrace the fact that we already have a passing familiarity with the subject matter. If you took out the Kathleen Hanna-Kurt Cobain story (where she writes Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit on his bedroom wall) that everyone has heard of a million times or some life points that are minor in comparison to her artistic output, you have plenty of room to explore how she rose to prominence and why. I feel like these two points in this movie were weighted just as strongly as the Courtney Love punches Kathleen Hanna gossip that is totally irrelevant to her life. Kathleen Hanna is a fascinating and righteous person that has many facets to her rhetoric. If this documentary could just embrace a non-standard documentary structure, I think this documentary would have been a unique experience. As it stands I just know a little bit more about Kathleen Hanna then I did before.


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