“I will always see myself in a continuum of feminist art makers and activists of all kinds,” Kathleen Hanna said recently, seated across from me in a gray jacket with oversized buttons and a prim short collar, “so I think that’s my hope really for the future is that people who are making specifically political art will feel a part of that continuum, and not feel like they’re all caught out there all by ourselves, because there is a time when we all feel caught out there by ourselves no matter if the continuum is there or not.”
It was the day after the South by Southwest film premiere of The Punk Singer in Austin, Texas. The documentary on the Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin singer and longtime activist, artist and de facto leader of the 90s feminist movement riot grrrl, had screened and afterwards Kathleen, producer Tamra Davis and Sini Anderson spoke to the audience.
“Thank you so much for sharing all that, it’s totally amazing,” Amanda Palmer said into the mic at the Q&A, “I’ve never actually recognized myself in someone so much watching that movie, especially sitting here with my husband, we were crying.” Her hands mimicked a flood of tears coming down her face. Afterwards, Kathleen remained to speak with Amanda and the crowd that formed around her for more than an hour after it was over.
Next it was press junket day, and we were all set up on the second floor of the Intercontinental Hotel, an official venue. Seated across a white clothed table were Kathleen, Tamra and Sini, a Brooklynite you’ve seen on these pages before. It was media blitzing, digital DIY style, with the help of a few friends, managers and publicists helping her bring together and publicize her oft-overlooked and underreported punk rock legacy. First with the film, next with an independent record label to release the next project by The Julie Ruin, a band formed around her 90s solo release Julie Ruin. Though Kathleen said she is still waiting to see if she’ll be able to perform with the new line up.
“When you can link back into that [continuum],” Kathleen continued, “it’s really the lifeblood that can keep you going, in that non-competitive way of looking at it, of actually the more I say I was influenced by this and this, is how come I was able – this other woman lifted me up, or this other person lifted me up or whatever, like that’s actually something, it’s all kind of – I’m such a hippie – it’s all sort of is this cycle.”
That cycle, for feminists in the media at least, is gaining serious steam, kicking off in Texas, of all places, with the premiere of The Punk Singer, and the notable Interactive keynote speech by self-proclaimed feminist publishing renegade, Jane Pratt, of Sassy, Jane, and xoJane.com fame. Somewhere across town, Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero, an Austin local, was checking out the new girl band Skating Polly at an the Girls Rock Camp showcase.
Throw in a dash of Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate lady non-feminism in the news lately, and we’re looking at a media convergence of on the one hand, women in the corporate world tipping the scales towards a work lifestyle that accommodates them (for the meta version, watch Kathleen’s 1998 video for the Julie Ruin song Aerobicide, below), and in the culture world, women using digital tools to take control of telling their own stories in a way never before seen. That includes up and coming young women like Claire’s Diary and friends recently profiled here.
(My full disclosure here: I’ve considered myself a riot grrrl since going to meetings in the 90s as a wee teen and have previously met Kathleen before, first when she came to see my band, The Lizzies, play in late 1998 at the now-defunct Brooklyn punk spot Dumba, where Le Tigre debuted. I mentioned this to Kathleen, who remembered our show, but I didn’t mention that it had likely come together because I had been cutting it up with Brad Minus that year, but I didn’t believe his claims to know her and then-boyfriend Adam Horowitz. I told him, the punk that I was, “If you know them so well, then bring them to my show this Saturday!” And then he did. Love that guy. Kathleen and I met again in 2000 when a college friend and I set up a DIY show for Le Tigre in Massachusetts.)
This is a seminal moment for all women, but particularly those of us like myself who grew up with riot grrrl in the 90s, making zines, scoffing at Sassy, dealing with our sexuality in a hyper-sexualized predatory culture and wondering how our mothers weren’t bursting into pieces from all of their responsibilities – emotional, domestic and financial – and wanting it all to be different.
Kicking off the film is Kathleen’s early career with Bikini Kill in the context of the political and social climate of the 90s with the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and challenges to abortion rights in the Supreme Court. Media like this film, and other older documentaries – like the recently uncovered Dirty Girls, shot in 1996 – have started flowing in the wake of Sarah Marcus’s reported tome on the movement, Girls to the Front, which The Punk Singer follows closely for the first chunk of the film.
“It takes a girl to see that somebody else did it,” Tamra chimed in. “It’s hard to think that you’re doing it all by yourself. There’s a moment in the film, when Kathleen and Tammy Rae are looking back to Barbara Kruger, Kathy Acker and these other artists and so they’re not all alone in this small town trying to find feminism, it’s like, ‘wait it happened before and it’s happening now in this art world how do we take that and use that and give us strength,’ and I think that the more girls see these other influences, they can get inspired and be like, ‘wow you know Sini Anderson directed a movie, Kathleen Hanna started this band, you know they really can make these changes.’”
“I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground” were well known Krugerisms, and Acker’s collection of poems, Politics, established her reputation in the New York punk scene in 1972.
It took Kathleen and an army of riot grrrls to bring about the next big radical discussion. What The Punk Singer brings to the fore is how much of a struggle it was – and thus the physical toll it took on Kathleen – to just be a woman, be in a band, expressing themselves in the face of so many hostile people and crowds in the 90s. Insert the line here about how it’s sad that this wasn’t that long ago. This point is at the heart of the film – to show that struggle to younger generations will inform them and allow them to reach back into this continuum, with Kathleen, Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail, Corin Tucker, Allison Wolfe, et al in the role of generational matriarchs. Joan Jett is the grandmama.
This visibility is crucial to the continuum. Listening to Kathi, Kathleen’s Bikini Kill and now The Julie Ruin bandmate and collaborator, reaching back in the continuum to John and Yoko records in The Punk Singer was no surprise. Though it’s not referenced in the film, I immediately thought of the infamous single, “Woman Is The Nigger of the World” from the duo’s last record together Sometime in New York, which kicked off quite a shit storm when the record was released in 1972.
Some of the lyrics, obviously not very well received by the mainstream, nonetheless contained a crucial, and mass-marketed, message for the continuum of feminist ideas.
We make her paint her face and dance/ If she won’t be a slave, we say that she don’t love us/ If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man/ While puttin’ her down, we pretend that she’s above us
We insult her every day on TV/ And wonder why she has no guts or confidence/ When she’s young we kill her will to be free
That cycle – Yoko, then Joan, Patti et al – would, 20 years later, bring us Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill, amongst a plethora of amazing radical feminist thinkers, artists and makers. Kathleen broke out of the previous cycle as a woman who could say and do radical things without having a famous husband and artistic collaborator to support her through the backlash, though the film portrays the deep and meaningful relationship and marriage that she subsequently came to have with Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz. We hear her struggle with the relationship at first, questioning her attraction to a man who in 1986 released the misogynist anthem Girls, though the group later apologized for their early sexism. In the end she says, you can’t help who you love, and she’s obviously taught the guy a thing or two.
In the film, Adam is shown caring for Kathleen, giving her injections and taking her to the doctor, and at one point, bearded and worried in the waiting room, wondering what could be wrong with his wife. Kathleen went five years and through many doctors without being properly diagnosed with Lyme disease and suffered mightily trying to recover. In the Q&A she attributed the lack of diagnosis to sexism, internalized in that she was embarrassed and minimized her symptoms, but also on the part of doctors who might have inquired about it better, and “part of it was that we were exhausted and didn’t look hard enough.” Now she is at the point where she can appear publically again and hopes to be able to resume performing with The Julie Ruin, but is unsure just yet if she can.
“The 90s were really different in that like you know we were just really into post-modernism and identity politics and talking about the male gaze and objectification and stuff like that,” Kathleen told me in our interview. Here was a generational leap beyond just the public acknowledgement of misogyny that John and Yoko made in 1972 on Sometime in New York.
“So when Bikini Kill was performing we were really like, put your fucking video cameras down this is happening once, you know what I mean?” she continued. “This is happening in this room, which in a way is kind of elitist because it’s like then the forty kids who are at that show are the only people who can participate in it and I really changed my viewpoint on that.”
The lesson, and huge challenge, for the feminists and progressive artists and activists now is to take advantage of the tools of our time without succumbing to its pitfalls, as some riot grrrls did in the 90s, unable to fend off the mainstream media that was portraying them as angry, bitter, man hating punks and came up with the solution of imposing a media blackout.
“The thought of actually documenting ourselves instead of just telling other people not to, it just – we didn’t have the time or the energy for it. I fear the negative side of having all this stuff like – oh yeah, you can make your own movie or you can start your own record label – is that I don’t want other political makers to paint yourself in the same corner that I painted myself into at times where I have to do it all, ‘cause you don’t, you can get help. There’s people who really, really enjoy doing business and you should be friends with those people and have them help you with your projects.”
This acknowledgement of art as independent business was at the heart of what Sini, the film’s director, undertook through the making of The Punk Singer. She chimed in here and said, “Because [Kathleen was] doing it in this punk rock style, you were the tour manager, the booker, the maker of the art, the photographer for the cover, the making of the album cover, doing all of that, doing all of that and the energy thing that you’re talking about. Also in the 90s there was this stigma when you did go outside of your community to ask for anything, you were a sell out and we’re not having that conversation as much anymore, thank god, because people need insurance, it’s not selling out, it’s having some self respect.”
“I have kind of a dorky question,” Amanda Palmer had said after the premiere, “The scene that also really resonated was all these people alone in their bedrooms, and I was that teenage girl and I knew a lot of us and back then we didn’t have the internet and you sort of started your band and you started in this place where there was no internet, it was before that. Now you have it, but it can also be this awful shitty mean place where people can attack you a lot more easily. So I don’t really know what the question is, but you’ve straddled both eras, not necessarily is it better or worse, but how do you feel the pros and cons are now, versus back then when it was just a bunch of people connecting and there wasn’t the internet there to create this weird other player?”
“I feel like the internet is a tool that can be used for good or evil,” Kathleen answered, adding, “There’s so many little pockets of things that it was almost easier for us [back then], because there wasn’t that stuff and it felt really new, and now that there’s the internet people tend to isolate and be on the internet and head snap from thing to thing, but I also don’t believe this idea that the 90s were more authentic than now. I think now is super exciting.” (Watch the entire exchange in the video around 17 minutes.)
Mimicking the corporate media process, but not it’s backers, independent films like The Punk Singer can now materialize from good ideas, garner independent funding on Kickstarter, hire a publicist and find a distributor. To wit, last year’s Kickstarter-funded films at SXSW made up 13% of films chosen for the film festival – this year it almost doubled to 25%, 35 films in all. Meanwhile 17% of film selections at Sundance earlier this year were independently funded using the crowd.
“The technology, to film, edit it and distribute it yourself – it’s incredibly similar to what early punk rock was,” Tamra, also married to a Beastie Boy, Mike D, had said earlier. Kathleen, and Sini and Tamra as well, were showing us once again, how to pick up the tools, even if we did not yet totally know how to use them, just as the riot grrrls had done in the 90s with their instruments and art galleries. This type of freedom of thought and expression is incredibly valuable in today’s digital world, and it’s something that comes naturally, even aggressively so, from Kathleen who has never been afraid to be herself.
“Having that thing,” Tamra said, “telling the truth, that’s the message of her film – it’s speaking out. I think that what the film resonates so well is she tells a very honest story and it comes from her heart. The film really tells a deep story: when you put the blog in a girl’s hang, or a camera in a girl’s hand, or a guitar in a girl’s hand, that they’re not reinventing the wheel, just pick it up and tell your story, tell the truth, that’s so inspiring, and she’s the originator of that.”
“I am starting my own record label to put out our next project, because it just financially makes sense to do it that way,” Kathleen chimed in, “But it’s like, I have a manager that’s going to help us lay that whole thing out and I’m not going to, like, be talking to distributors on the phone myself.”
Kathleen’s attention to detail in this manner is striking. Meeting her in person, it’s clear how much kindness and care she shows to each person who crosses her path. It’s clear that she listens and values the relationships she has with younger women, particularly because she is so mindful of herself and her impact, because she knows the continuum is reciprocal.
“I was saying how it was really hard to take all of the hatred and stuff that had come my way and that I was getting letters from kids that were like you know you’ve really helped me, I felt like I was the only feminist in my school, and whatever, and that’s what kept me going,” she said as we were wrapping up. “So they were saying I was keeping them going, but they were actually keeping me going.
“I got this letter from this young feminist who said she spoke up in one of her classes and said something was sexist and I don’t remember what it was, but it was clearly, clearly sexist – I mean, just glaringly so – and a bunch of the boys yelled at her to get back into the kitchen and I was like, really? In 2013?
“They pulled that out of grandma’s attic box. I was like, how musty and dusty was that one? I just couldn’t believe it. I feel like there’s always this two-steps forward, one-step back, or vice versa, there are good things about that and bad things; progress isn’t linear.”
“That’s a good lesson to learn,” I said.
“And popularity is overrated,” Kathleen added.