In 1990, Kathleen Hanna, inspired by third-wave feminism and outraged by the violence against women she was witnessing, started the punk band Bikini Kill. Insisting their shows be a safe space for female fans to rock out, Hanna famously asked the boys to move to the back and invited the girls up front near the stage. Bikini Kill were true trailblazers who inspired a great deal of the music that sprang out of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, including fellow Olympia, Washington, rockers like Sleater-Kinney and Hanna’s close friend Kurt Cobain. (Hanna once sprayed painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall, hence the title of Nirvana’s breakout single.)
Hanna quickly became a feminist icon and played an integral role in starting the underground feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl, which was known for its activism and DIY zine subculture. More than anything, Hanna’s feminism was rooted in her refusal to be put in a box. Her powerful and immediate performance style was matched by a public persona that was simultaneously fierce, girlish, angry, playful, smart, and sexy. When the mainstream media tried to paint her as a two dimensional character, either by defining her as a victim of domestic sexual abuse (FALSE) or as an ex-stripper (TRUE), Hanna and her bandmates instituted a media blackout. While Hannah put so much of herself out there with her music, there have always been things she kept private, namely her relationship with her Beastie Boy husband (Adam Horowitz, aka Ad-Rock) and why she mysteriously walked away from music in 2005.
Sini Anderson‘s new documentary The Punk Singer puts an end to that. Faced with a serious, undiagnosed illness (now known to be late-stage Lyme disease), Hanna opened up to Anderson about her life and career. The result is a documentary that not only tells the history of Bikini Kill, Riot Grrrl, and Le Tigre (Hanna’s successful electropunk follow up to Bikini Kill), it is an intimate portrait of an artist who is faced with the possible end of her career and her own mortality. Recently she sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss her career, life, and the movie.
What were you experiencing and seeing in 1989-90 that made want you start a punk band?
I was working in a domestic violence rape shelter and I got really burnt out. I was seeing the shelter fill up time and time again, and then I was being told by punk boys in the scene, “What are you talking about? There is no sexism in the punk scene. There is no sexism in our town, or the world.” Then why were all these women calling the rape crisis line every night? Why are there not enough beds in the shelter? That really lit a fire in me, but I got very burnt out doing direct services, so once I started playing music, my feminism got into the music, and my anger about violence against women become so prevalent it naturally came out in my music. I love music, but if it wasn’t fueled by something I cared about and it was just a formalist excise, it wouldn’t have lasted a year.
How did The Punk Singer come about?
I asked Sini Anderson, who I’ve known for 15 years, if she wanted to work on a concert film for my band Le Tigre. She had been a spoken-word artist, but was working as a DP and in a post house, and I knew she wanted to direct, so I asked, “Do you want to throw your hat in the ring to direct this film?” And she said no — and I was like, “Wow, that’s gutsy.” She then came back and said she wanted to do a film about me. So I thought about it and was like, “Absolutely not, no way. That’s creepy. It’s going to make me look like, ‘Oh she’s the Punk Singer, instead of just a punk singer.” I was worried about being set aside from the punk feminist community that I’m very much a part of. But I thought about it and wondered how much of that is internalized sexism, where I’m, like, not ready to step up and say I’m really proud of my accomplishments. So that kinda went out and I said this is my time to say I actually did do a lot of stuff and I am really proud of it. Why am I the lead singer for so many bands if I don’t want this massive attention?
The film addresses the problems you had with the media. How much of the motivation to do this documentary was for you to get a chance to tell your own story?
Hanna: Yeah, I definitely wanted to own my own life. I had been really hesitant before to talk about my relationship with my husband [Adam Horowitz], which is a really important part of my life, and I was not talking about it because I didn’t want to be defined by him, by a man who is more famous than I am. So I was always like, “Oh, I can’t talk about that.” But then I was like, “But this is my life and I’m not going to let sexists, who are going to frame things in terms of “Oh, ‘Beastie Boy wife,’ rather than feminist artist, define what I am or am not allowed to talk about.” It definitely wasn’t meant to be a doc about Riot Grrrl. There are a lot of things I said on camera that were critical of stuff that happened in Riot Grrrl and I was excited to put it out there, but that didn’t end up in the film. When I brought it up they said, “This film isn’t about Riot Grrrl. It’s about you.”
You didn’t take on any form of producing role, you let Sini make the film her way?
Yeah. At one point Sini got a little in the weeds with all that material. She’d gone over it so many times and there was a lot of it. So my friend, Tamra Davis, who did this amazing documentary about Basquiat [Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child] came in to help shape the narrative, so I was really excited about that. I didn’t have that much say in [development] because I always told myself this wasn’t my film. I’m the star of this movie, but I’m not the producer, director or editor.
You were obviously sick when filming started, but was it during the filming process that you were finally diagnosed as having Lyme disease?
Did you go into this project knowing that you wanted to address why you left music in 2005 and what was going on with your health? Or did things evolve with your illness that it just became part of the film?
The illness really played into my decision to do the film because I was like, “I might not have another chance at this.” But it wasn’t a conscious thing of, “Oh, we are going to draw attention to this illness.” I didn’t know what it was and it is really difficult when you have an undiagnosed condition to talk about it because there’s no word for it. I think once I got the diagnosis and started treatment it became apparent it needed to be part of the film. I wasn’t really ready to talk about it with people until I knew what it was.
There’s something so emotionally honest and open about the way both you and your husband deal with health situation in the film. Am I wrong thinking there was something freeing about that?
Yeah. I think another thing that has happened in my life is, not to brag and boast, but saying, “Oh you are a ‘punk legend,’ ” or an ‘Icon in the underground scene,’ or ‘You are a goddess.'” (Laughs.) Of course you don’t feel that way about yourself, ever. It would be ridiculous if you did. I think that really played into my decision to be open and honest and say, “Look, I’m a real person, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m just as confused as everyone else.” [There’s a tendency towards] one-dimensional portrayals of artists — and I think especially women — where it becomes the madonna-whore thing, where either you are this vile, horrible, awful thing, who doesn’t even deserve to be in a band, or you are only in a band because you are pretty. Or [being a frontwoman is a] gimmick, which is really interesting to be told that your gender if gimmick. Or else you are held up on the pedestal, and you are the best thing since slice bread. There has to be a place where there is room for interesting critique. There’s got to be a place where there’s an intellectual space to discuss music.
You’re healthier now and back on tour with The Julie Ruin. I have to imagine after all you went through this last year has seemed like a dream?
It’s been exactly like that. Going through all the archival material for the film was incredible difficult. I didn’t want to see it because it just reminded me I’d never be on stage again.
Such an essential part of your feminism is refusing to be put in a box. I’m wondering as you look out at the current music landscape who do you see carrying on that legacy?
M.I.A. is amazing. She really traverses the line between mainstream and underground. She’s managed to speak out against racism, and have a really complicated personality, and not shut down who she is as a person and not be afraid to be political at the same time. She’s someone I look to that is super interesting and fascinating, very three-dimensional.
The Punk Singer opens Friday in Brooklyn (Nitehawk Cinema), Manhattan (IFC Center), and Los Angeles (Cinefamily) and is available across all video-on-demand platforms.