The Punk Singer: film review

punk singer

The Punk Singer contains so many inspiring and kick-ass moments. In this documentary film about feminist/musician/Riot grrrl/ activist Kathleen Hanna, I realized how much I want to be her friend. I’m an avid feminist and honestly don’t have many feminist friends. It’s disheartening. Hanna’s the epitome of an unapologetic GenXer feminist. The next time someone questions my feminism I’m going to remind myself “What would Kathleen Hanna Do?” She explains at the end of the film is that if someone doesn’t understand or like feminism then they just need to get out of the way. She also laments that men tell the truth and it’s accepted and rarely questioned. Women tell the truth and it’s dissected, examined and rarely accepted for the truth. Women must prove themselves again and again. Women constantly fight the system in whatever industry.

So when a young Kathleen Hanna asserted a media black-out for Bikini Kill in the 90s due to negative press and backlash it was the only way she could control her truth at that time. As women why can’t we be beautiful feminists who dress in skirts and wear make-up? There are no rules that say we can’t. We have brains and boobs and vaginas and voices and we won’t be silenced. But people who don’t want to hear us will twist everything.

Hanna originally started doing spoken word performances but someone suggested she form a band because people actually go see bands. And music what a perfect medium. It resonates in so many ways for so many people. We feel the rhythm. We analyze the lyrics. We watch the band members when we see them perform. Music can change our mood or reinforce our current state of mind. Music can make us feel less alone. Music is power. Hanna crafts her songs to push and pull us in various directions. Kathleen Hanna the musician brilliantly encapsulates so many layers to her music and performances– visual, sonic, cerebral, visceral.

The film chronicles Hanna’s journey from Olympia, Wash. college student—she was friends with Kurt Cobain and inspired him to write “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – to her new music project The Julie Ruin. When as a college student and photography major she started a feminist art collective and later the punk band Bikini Kill. It was a seminal band for the 90s and the third wave feminist movement. Hanna sang about serious topics—sexual abuse, rape, sexism, body image. Mosh pits and crowd surfing were the rage at the time and girls were getting hurt in the rough punk most-male crowds at other shows. At a Bikini Kill show, Hanna had a new decree: girls at the front; boys in the back.

Bikini Kill moved to Washington, D.C. and toured throughout the world although never making much money. Hanna and some friends created zines and developed the Riot grrrl concept—the ability for women to speak out about what was important for them, to be themselves. After eight years, Bikini Kill breaks up and soon after Hanna forms a trio called Le Tigre—more electro-pop with thoughtful lyrics. Very cool music. She had to end things with Le Tigre when she became sick with Lyme disease. She’s currently married to Adam Horowitz of Beastie Boys–of whom she says “can’t believe this feminist was with the guy who wrote that ‘Girls who do the dishes, who do the laundry song’ in the ‘80s but you fall in love with who you fall in love with.”

Using concert footage, archival footage, testimonial from former band-mates as well as friends such as Kim Gordon and Tamara Davis as well as husband Adam Horowitz, The Punk Singer is one of the best biographical documentaries I’ve ever seen and a must-see for all feminists, all women, anyone with empathy. It’s empowering, riveting and bold. More people need to learn about Kathleen Hanna.

The Punk Singer
Directed by: Sini Anderson
Running time: 80 minutes

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