On Friday, IFC will release to select theaters and via On-Demand, Sini Anderson's 80-minute documentary on the life and career of Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer. The film traces Hanna's early days at Olympia, Washington's Evergreen State College through her tenure leading iconic riot grrrl group Bikini Kill, her post as the lead singer of Le Tigre, and her current band the Julie Ruin. Feminist rock icons like Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, Joan Jett, and Kim Gordon are part of the film's venerating chorus, and Hanna's personal life (including father-based trauma, her marriage to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, and her debilitating bout of Lyme disease) is explored in greater detail than ever. Throughout The Punk Singer, its subject remains as outspoken as we've come to expect.
That outspokenness only extended when I met Hanna in her film publicist's office a few weeks ago to discuss all of the above. While she is still clearly coping with all of the blowback she received as a female when punk seemed closed off to women, she also said this about the loving portrait that The Punk Singer ultimately is: "I wish there would've been more criticism and [The Punk Singer] would've been less glowing, because I feel like, for my buck, I want that." I couldn't have expected a more Hanna-esque review. Despite the rabid puppy-eater man intimidated journalists or fellow musicians have made her out to be, her politics have been marked by more reason than we expect from someone who's so firm in her beliefs.
Below, Hanna and I discuss her evolving relationship with the press (her Bikini Kill years were marked by a media blackout, in part), her beauty, sexual trauma, and why she thinks it's "kind of great" that Miley Cyrus recently labeled herself a feminist. What appears below is an edited version of our conversation.
Gawker: It's kind of a rite of passage, as a singer, to be immortalized in a documentary. Does it feel that way? Is there a certain honor in this kind of a portrait?
Kathleen Hanna: Totally. I mean, there's a poster of a really cute picture of me. [Laughs] I just feel really lucky that people give a shit and that they care about my work. I always said in my head when people were throwing chains at my head that I would be on the right side of history. And I was. I just feel like going, "Nanny-nanny-boo-boo," in everybody's face. I'm like, "Guess what, fuckers who said I sucked? I have a movie made about me!"
Are you still affected by the shit that you got, especially early on in your career?
I think I am when people ask me that very question. Or, "How do you feel that your work is archived at NYU and now you're a part of the canon?" Or a part of academia, or whatever. I think because of taking all that shit, I'm like, "It's great!" People are like, "The '90s are back. And do you think people are just getting into you because of nostalgia?" And I'm like, "I don't care. All I know is they're coming up to me, they have smiles on their faces, they don't want to punch me in the face, they're totally excited to meet me, and I am happy." There's a lot of baggage with being in Bikini Kill. Even in Le Tigre, it wasn't always easy. I'm just soaking it in, like, "This is what I waited 25 years for."
Not being you, I had no sense of the shit that you've gotten over the years, before I saw The Punk Singer. To me, you were just, like, always the coolest. It still blows my mind to think that anybody would fuck with you, because you've always been so reasonable within your messaging. I don't know what kind of opinion you have about it, but I think the internet has a way of making people sort of cry wolf. There's a lot of outrage in the name of feminism that seems to me to undo the entire goal. You have to pick your battles, you know?
For you to have been up there 25 years ago, to already be so much more enlightened than most of the current discourse—and I don't mean to blow smoke up your ass at all…
But you are, and it's totally enjoyable.
Well, good. I'm glad it's enjoyable.
But people didn't think it was reasonable.
I actually did an interview with Sarah Marcus, who wrote Girls to the Front, about riot grrrl, and she's younger than me by, I don't know, 10 or 15 years. She was interviewing me and I was like, "You know, I got pulled off the stage by my ankles at a show, and I had beer spat in my face." In interviews it has come up occasionally that it was a lot of guys in the punk scene, and men in general, journalists who would write stuff like, "She's a fat-ass." In either Melody Maker or N.M.E., underneath a picture of me and one of my bandmates, the caption was: "Don't hate me 'cause I'm fat and retarded." It's kinda funny. I kept it.
There's so much archival footage in The Punk Singer. You putting the zine together, for example. Was it always part of your ethos to document as much as possible?
No? You didn't really care about that?
I always thought I'd be a visual artist. I kept every flyer I ever made. I made flyers for so many punk shows in Olympia. And I kept all the art I made, I kept a bunch of writing I made, just talking about how bad things got. And during that time, I wrote about the frustration of living within that, and I kind of refuted a bunch of the claims against riot grrl itself and did all this writing. But I was too scared to put it out. But I kept it. And so it's all in the archive. But I wasn't a big one for being filmed. And I wasn't—there weren't very many interviews of me talking on camera, those are really hard to find.
How much involved were you with actually assembling this movie?
Were you taken aback by anything that people said about you? It seems like you have a lot of good friends.
It must have been touching.
I wish there would've been more criticism and [The Punk Singer] would've been less glowing, because I feel like, for my buck, I want that. But it wasn't my movie, so it wasn't my call. I had a bit to do with the graphics because it was really important, just to me, that it looked like my fan—there was elements of fanzine, kind of aesthetic in it, and that the film retained my aesthetic throughout it. The only thing that shocked me was my bandmate now, Kathy [Wilcox], who was also in Bikini Kill, at the beginning when she said, "You couldn't ask for a better frontperson." I didn't know she felt that way. I was just like, "Oh my God, she thinks that?" And then I was like, "Of course she thinks that." She was in a band with me for seven or eight years and now she's in a band with me again! But at the same time it just means so much more when it comes from a friend and you hear it from their mouth. I was really… I was shocked. And I was shocked they picked that first spoken-word piece at the very beginning. 'Cause I hate that. I'm so embarrassed by it. It's like, Spoken word, oh my God, how '90s. You know what I mean? And it's really intense, and if you look in the background, if you're a music fan you can see that Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto from Fugazi are stuck in that coffee shop. And I know where the door is, and I know that they couldn't leave. And so I started doing this thing, and I'm rocking back and forth, and it's so, you know, tapestries weaving. But it's about incest.
The content of your work has made you vulnerable in many ways throughout the years. But this was the first, in my recollection, time that I've seen you actually be so overtly sensitive. Was it hard to let that through, given your history and what you've put up with? Or do you even think about it?
I don't really think about it. As you can tell, I'm a pretty sensitive person. That's just how I am. And being sick [with Lyme disease] really pushed the honesty button in me, where I was just like, "I'm not lying any more. I don't want to toe the party line and just say the same shit over and over." Obviously I'm doing press so I'm going to repeat myself sometimes, but I'm trying to be in the moment and really say what I feel even if it's not the best thing I could possibly say. The one time I watched it I watched as if I was watching a character in a movie, and not myself. It's just too creepy if I think about it as myself. I guess the other shocking thing for me in the movie was there was a lot of still beauty shots of me. I saw it on a big screen and I was just like, "There's a lot of pictures of my fuckin' face!" And that's weird. But they didn't have a lot of interviews and stuff, so they used a lot of still images 'cause that's what I had.
I don't mean to seem condescending or to compartmentalize your beauty, but do you think that being cute worked for or against you? It confounds the idea of the puppy-eating radical. It seemed like you were playing off of it. Not in an arrogant way, but cute is cute.
Cute is cute. I was, I think it's pretty obvious that because everyone in all my bands has been, in my mind, been incredibly good-looking and dynamic and charismatic, has led to the fact that I'm the one on the poster. You know what I mean? My band got more attention than certain people in other bands because we had a look, we had a style. White. Attractive, by traditional standards. I've never seen it as hurting my message. I've seen it as giving me a platform because people want to put my picture in their magazine, or pictures of my band in their magazine because we're good-looking and that's what's…I'm not bragging about myself…
No, I brought it up…
…but I'm hot. I am hot. That has given me power. I don't want to lie about that or be like I don't know that that's true. But on the same token, I was born like this. I don't want to try to change how I look with how I fit in with some stereotype or try to diminish my power over something that has made me lucky. It's given me privilege and I acknowledge and it's not fair. It's not fair. It's something that I've taken advantage of.
In the film, when you discuss the quote about your dad raping you being fabricated, you clarified by saying that he was, in fact, sexually inappropriate. You didn't go beyond that to explain it, though. Why?
'Cause my dad's still alive. It's really personal. The specific things that he did to me will be in my book after he dies. That's the one thing I still can't touch with a 10-foot pole with anybody but my husband and my closest friends. And even then, when does it come up?
When did you come back around on the press? What ended your media blackout?
When I moved to New York and I just put out the Julie Ruin solo record. I was dating someone with a publicist and a manager and I was like, "Oh, those are real jobs?" I wondered what it would feel like to do press. And so I did it, and I had a lovely time at it. I was able to say, "I don't like that question, let's go to another question." I got to have the review in the Village voice, which was absolutely hilarious. My husband's in the Beastie Boys, and they got a review of their latest. He's two years older than I am. It said about Julie Ruin, "Oh, Katheleen Hanna, why don't you just give it up? You're too old to make this kind of music." I was 30. And then Mr. 32-year-old had the review next to mine. I got like a C-, and he got like an A, and it said, "Oh! A breath of fresh air!"
What do you think about feminism in pop music? Miley Cyrus recently called herself a feminist.
I feel bad that I don't pay that good of attention. I was just talking about that Lady Gaga quote: "I'm not a feminist…I hail men, I love men..." That depresses me. I don't give a shit if you want to call yourself "Martha Washington." If you're out there in the world and doing a non-traditional job or if you're expanding the definition of what it means to be saying it's OK that I have traits that are traditionally masculine and it doesn't make me any less of a person. You can be doing feminism out in the world and not call yourself that. I don't care. What bothers me is when people refute it using a stereotype. Lady Gaga didn't say, "Feminists hate men," but that's what she means. To me, feminism is also about liberating men from the stereotypes that they have to be the breadwinners, that they have to be a certain way, and they can't explore their feminine sides. That's crippling men. That's crippling how fully men can experience their emotional lives and everything. They have to bond with each other by putting women down? That's sad. What about having real friendships? Wouldn't that be great?
I feel like feminism is something that can change the world. It's not just white women climbing the corporate ladder. It's about challenging all the binaries, ending racism, ending classism. It's not about hating men! That's not even part of the conversation in my mind. But that's kind of great to hear a little freak like Miley Cyrus say that she's a feminist. She's such a weirdo. I think that anything that opens a discussion is positive, but I want to find a way that we can go beyond talking about twerking to actually working on change.