This week’s feature in Feminist February takes us into documentary territory. Christa’s pick, which may not surprise you when I tell you it’s the Kathleen Hanna documentary.
The Punk Singer
Where to Watch:
Documentary following Kathleen Hanna, the Riot Grrrl movement, and her decision to quit the scene in 2005.
The Uncondensed Version:
Editor’s note: I knew very few concrete facts about Kathleen Hanna prior to this film. What can I say—Christa is the cool punk riot grrrl of our relationship.
Our film opens with Kathleen performing angry, intense slam poetry. Her performance captures the focus of this documentary and her career—it’s all about message over form, and being empowered to have a voice.
One of the sticking points for Kathleen is how her childhood gets twisted in the media. Admittedly her father was a bit of a jerk and was sexually inappropriate to Kathleen (in her own words). Meanwhile, her mother did things like play the trust game and let her fall! This is literally what happened in Wetlands, and the mother in that was awful!
Kathleen gets involved with feminism and its expression via art while a college student. After her best friend is assaulted in their house, Kathleen’s feminist rage is awakened, and everything she creates puts voice to that rage.
When she’s asked to form a band, she recognizes the opportunity to spread her message. This is Bikini Kill. As in We Are the Best, lack of musical experience is not an obstacle.
So Kathleen does several (actually way more than several) incredible things while part of Bikini Kill. She starts the “girls to the front” thing, which encourages women to find safe spaces at her concerts. Oh, and basically comes up with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” while wasted with Kurt Cobain. And begins Riot Grrrl meetings, writing a manifesto, and encouraging other women to write their own Riot Grrrl manifestos.
However, her relationship with the press is dismally bad, she has little money despite rising fame, and Bikini Kill is not getting along well as a whole. She also gets death threats and a punch in the face from Courtney Love (for no apparent reason).
Kathleen is able to find some happiness by recording a solo album, Julie Ruin, which deliberately sounds like it was made in a girl’s bedroom. I love the way she describes girl’s rooms as creative spaces, and this album is a way to reach out and connect those space. She also pursues a relationship with a Beastie Boy.
All good things come to an end, which is most decidedly true for Bikini Kill. Kathleen then starts Le Tigre, which she describes as a band creating politically radical content that you can dance to. I can’t even count the number of times “Deceptacon” has gotten stuck on repeat in my head.
Le Tigre is doing really well and off on world tours when Kathleen abruptly quits. As it turns out, she had been getting sick on tour really frequently. She is eventually diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, which became much worse as it went untreated. Her doctor tells us that sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, and it’s quite heartbreaking to see the toll it takes on Kathleen. After having fought so hard for control of her life, she is in a lot of pain and has little control of it at times.
However, we do end strong with Kathleen’s words: “People don’t have to believe in feminism, but they shouldn’t get in my fucking way.”
5/5 Pink Panther Heads
Watching this documentary made me really wish I were the kind of person who gets interviewed as a premier expert on punk.
And also made me want to watch We Are the Best, but literally every film we watch right now makes me want to watch We Are the Best again.
I have so much respect for Kathleen Hanna battling both rampant sexism and Lyme disease; both are horrific. I got super emotional at the end because I can’t deal with people crying at this point and I had no clue how awful Lyme disease can be. This is an incredibly empowering documentary, whether you’re into punk or not. You may have to remind yourself that it’s not okay to break your keyboard on a man’s skull, though. At least if you get caught.
Did Christa embrace the feminist rage or will our difference of opinion break up the band (why is this even a question)? Find out here!