Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna
The Punk Singer — Sini Anderson, director of Kathleen Hanna biopic The Punk Singer, on her seminal new Riot Grrrl film and the Fourth Wave of feminism sweeping the States.

The 1990s. Will the world ever get over them? Just today Vice told us that Generation X – the plaid shirt-wearing antiheroes who pioneered slackerism – ruined the future with their narcissistic brand of cultural nihilism. Earlier this year, Nirvana got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Earlier this minute, Sky Ferreira took a grunge-coloured dump on pop music.

But the 90s was an interesting period of change in art and music. Take Riot Grrrl – America’s ‘third wave’ of feminism fronted by young women who focused on creating culture, as opposed to critiquing it. Picking up where their 60s sisters had left off, the architects of Riot Grrrl – bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear and Sleater-Kinney – gave a voice to a generation of ostracised women who had been alienated from DIY and punk culture during hardcore’s descent into ‘beergutboyrock’.

Although she consistently resisted being singled out, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna became the face of a new type of female identity. She wrote ‘slut’ on her belly and screamed like a bratty GG Allin. She created zines, wrote manifestos, called girls to the front of the stage and blacked out press when they began twisting her words. When Bikini Kill went belly up, she shared a more vulnerable side of herself through solo project Julie Ruin and continued to push things forward, putting punk in clubs in the 2000s with her riotous dance trio Le Tigre.

Now, a new film by director and spoken word performer Sini Anderson is bringing Kathleen’s story to the masses and revealing a traumatic new chapter in her tumultuous journey. The Punk Singer is a document of a place and a time and a celebration of an iconic character who has always refused to accept any of the injustices slung her way. We caught up with Sini to find out more.

Why did you feel motivated to make the film?
We’re friends and Kathleen came to me to see if I was interested in making a Le Tigre tour documentary. And you know when Kathleen Hanna comes to you, even if you’re her friend, and wants you to do something, you don’t say no. But I said to her, ‘I would be interested in doing a film if it was about you and your career. I think it’s time for you to do that.’ She called me up a couple of weeks later and said, ‘That’s a terrifying idea but I think you’re right. I think it’s probably time for me to tell part of my story, and if you make it, I’ll do it.’ So, that was four years ago – from the idea and the inception and trying to organise it to right now.

She’s always resisted being singled out as the leader/founder of the Riot Grrrl movement, insisting it was a community effort. Were you worried about aggrandising her?
No, not at all. She’s resistant to being THE leader of Riot Grrrl but she’s not at all resistant to being A leader. She’s very, very comfortable in that role. I think what she likes to do is pull other people in, people that are her peers, and be like, ‘And her too, and her too.’ But as far as her opinion, and being a leader, and her views and thoughts, she’s not resistant to that being communicated at all. I think she’s been seeking that her whole life.

What’s your personal history with her work?
We met at a feminist music festival in the early 2000s when Le Tigre was performing and I was performing. And we just became great friends. We had a lot in common. But I really learnt the most about her work when I started making the film. Of course I knew about Bikini Kill, but I was a little more in the San Francisco Queercore scene than the Riot Grrrl scene. I first heard Julie Ruin from a friend and I was like, ‘Who is this? This is amazing.’ But it was when we became friends and I did the film that I learnt so much more about her work.

Why do you find her work so fascinating?
I just thought it sounded incredible. Her voice and her music and her aesthetic, for me, is just instant inspiration. She has so much emotion and tension and sadness and melancholy in her voice, she’s an extremist and I was so drawn to it. When I heard Julie Ruin it just made me want to create work. I would hear her work and I would directly want to create work, and that’s my favourite kind of art. It’s not totally rare to come by, but when it happens it’s kind of magic.

What about her character makes her resonate with so many people?
You know I think it’s a combination of… she’s a super smart feminist leader. And I think one of the areas that she’s really emotionally smart, is her relatability and the personal connection she has when she’s doing interviews or she’s talking to fans or other artists. She finds a way to relate with them right away and then they feel heard by her and they will do anything for her. She asks questions. It’s not just about her. I think it’s really special when somebody really special wants to know about you. We all crave that. So I think she’s done a really good job at making people feel heard that have not felt heard in the past and I think that the deeper motive underneath that is her own desire to feel heard.

And that transcends her music into her art like radical zines and community projects like the user-generated archival Bikini Kill blog.
Yeah, absolutely. From the beginning, in the Bikini Kill days, those girls were always been trying to connect with women everywhere, even outside the United States, to have a really long reach and network of people to pull together.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you made the film?
Yeah, I wanted it to reach everybody who had never heard of her. The fans were not my goal. Because I knew that the fans would find it. But I didn’t want it to be so basic that people who already knew her work wouldn’t be interested. There was a lot of pressure to find the right balance.

Why is it important that people find out about Kathleen Hanna?
I’m kind of a firm believer in needing to find new inspirations and new energies all the time. I need to be exposed to new work all the time. Ideas that I didn’t know that other people shared. And I suspect that other people don’t want to feel alone either. Like, my fears aren’t crazy, your fears aren’t crazy. In putting something out there about Kathleen, I was hoping some people would be like, ‘I have no idea who this is and holy shit, I feel just like that.’

Do you think the world needs a revival of her particular strand of feminism?
Absolutely. I think we’re in the Fourth Wave of feminism right now and we weren’t in it when I started the film. So it’s a really exciting time. In Los Angeles right now there’s a ton of feminism exploding all over the place in ways I haven’t seen it before and it’s super exciting. Because I thought we were in a political dead zone.

How would you describe the Fourth Wave?
What I’m seeing in the Fourth Wave already is the reach. And that has everything to do with social media. And it has everything to do with being able to get your viewpoints out there in a quick way and a far-reaching way, which we didn’t have at the beginning of the Third Wave. We were handing out things, telephone calls, going city to city to do shows and hoping to connect that way. But I’m seeing a lot of women now stand up like, ‘Do you know what? This is fucked and I’m writing an article or blog about it and I’m putting it out there.’ There are young leaders like Tavi Gevinson who are out there like, ‘I’m a fourteen-year-old feminist doing a TED talk.’ And there’s Lena Dunham, who was making her first films and putting them out there in her twenties. That’s rad, and unheard of. There’s a lot of power and a lot of strength and it has a lot more confidence than what I saw in the beginning of Third Wave. Third Wave had to be more defensive and this feels more confident. I’m a lot more of a supporter than a critic and it’s not because I don’t think critique isn’t incredibly important but I don’t have time for it in my life right now. I need to find what’s inspiring and moving forward and go with that. I think one of the mistakes we make in feminism, again and again and again, is getting stuck on a person and trying to find their faults. And it’s a colossal waste of time. Take what you can use and leave the rest. So I can’t wait to see where it goes. And those young women still totally love Kathleen. They see her and meet her character, see her art, listen to her music and are like, ‘Oh my god she’s the best thing on the planet.’ So it’s awesome. Kathleen has said often that she’s a gateway drug for young feminists.

Does art have the power to create real social change?
I feel like it’s almost our only chance. I feel like we get so much information and our world is in such a crazy place that there’s nothing shocking anymore. So it is not enough for total catastrophe to happen because we view completely unspeakably horrific things on television and online and then two hours later we’re onto something else. So that’s not working. That’s not driving activism. Art and music puts you in a place where you feel you want to create change, not out of being horrified, but out of being inspired. So I feel like we have more of a chance for activism and real action to happen through art than we do through straight-up politics.

Do you things like Pussy Riot are a natural extension of Riot Grrrl and that attitude?
Yeah. I think the spirit of Riot Grrrl is really strong today. Kathleen talks a lot about how it’s the next generation’s turn right now – to take what we did and see where our mistakes were and improve on it. That’s the way that it goes. And again that’s not spending a lot of time on critiquing but being like, ‘They didn’t address this, this and this in the Third Wave, let’s address this now.’ So that’s awesome. And they’ll make something better.

What are you working on next?
I have a couple of narrative features that I’m working on. One is inspired by a documentary that came out in the 1980s about a Queer ballroom scene. The other documentary I’m working on is actually about women with late-stage Lyme disease. I was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme during filming too and Kathleen and I were both incredibly sick. By the time we finished filming we knew seventeen other people with the disease. I just heard that Kathleen is really sick again and has had to cancel a lot of dates in the next six months and is going back into treatment. So it’s a really serious disease. It’s scary, it can come back at any moment.

What’s the greatest impact this film could have for you?
If it could empower somebody to get out of a personal issue because they think that their feelings are not totally unique – if one person could watch it and feel like, ‘Oh it’s not just me,’ then that’s completely successful. And that’s already happened a bunch of times. So I feel like it’s a success.

Find out more on The Punk Singer website.

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