Punk rock has encompassed leftist political elements dating back to its inception. Unfortunately, the subculture can be just as sexist as the broader society that it emanated from. In the late 1980s, a new group of young firebrands infused their radical feminist ideology into the music scene with the intention of illuminating problems that many overlooked or ignored. One of those firebrands is Kathleen Hanna. Not only did she serve as the strident vocalist for the band Bikini Kill, but she also co-founded the Riot Grrrl movement as part of the third wave of feminism in this country. Her life is the focus of the rousing documentary, The Punk Singer (click here to watch the trailer).
Early in the film, Hanna’s feminist consciousness and the emergence of Riot Grrrl are explored at length. Sincerity, frustration, passion, and emotion radiate as you watch the footage from punk shows along with recent interviews. Among other activities, these women published zines to spread their ideas and organized meetings to discuss a variety of issues such as the sexual abuse that some experienced. A handful formed bands. They successfully applied the do-it-yourself ethic to empower themselves. Create. Exhibit. Write. Play. Don’t rely on existing institutions and structures to legitimize your concerns or address your needs. Challenge norms. Be assertive and unrelenting.
Eventually the movement piqued the interest of the mainstream media (e.g. USA Today). Regrettably, the stories written about Riot Grrrl failed to convey its significance, and, consequently, some of the women refused to speak to any journalists out of fear that the cause would be further misrepresented. It’s fairly common for reporters to mischaracterize what they’re writing about because they’re group outsiders. Nevertheless, were there any positive effects from the increased exposure? Did these women miss any opportunities to disseminate information to the public? None of the media could be trusted? As one might expect, the message is rather clear: punk is an insular subculture that doesn’t tolerate self-interested interlopers.
Oddly, all of the people interviewed have a positive opinion of Hanna. This is puzzling because we know she’s a controversial figure. Surely not everyone thinks that a woman can be a feminist while she’s working in a strip club. Also, listen to Bikini Kill’s lyrics. Watch her stage antics. Did other feminist punks ever challenge her views in their own zines or at these meetings? Were there any other musicians in the scene who didn’t support her confrontational approach? The film doesn’t ask these questions. Interviewing someone with a thoughtful critique would strengthen this narrative. After all, social movements aren’t monolithic. High profile individuals like Hanna argued that Riot Grrrl could be whatever women thought it should be, but I suspect that fissures emerged over time. No one who is truly committed to her or his beliefs welcomes every idea that other people suggest, and therefore, interpersonal conflict is inevitable. Have any academics studied the rise and decline of the movement? If so, their analyses should have been included. Lastly, when did the Riot Grrrl wave crash into the shore? The year Bikini Kill disbanded?
Later, the documentary captures Hanna’s disillusionment toward the end of the 90s well. Her exhaustion is apparent. You can feel the emotional gravity of her celebrity status in the subculture that provided her with a platform. Once a person ascends to that distinct position, she (or he) can’t return to a normal life of relative anonymity because her (or his) status is cemented; it’s inescapable. This has the potential to drain a person.
Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, The Punk Singer effectively tells the story of an uncompromising artist who profoundly affected the lives of countless women. Unequivocally, Kathleen Hanna is a force that won’t be controlled. Furthermore, she’s a complex human being who demonstrates a high level of self-awareness. Regardless of how you might feel about her views, her level of courage should inspire people to act on issues that matter to them.