Kathleen Hanna is a punk legend and a feminist icon, the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin and one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement. She's also an artist, a lecturer, a photographer and a happily married woman dealing with the effects of late stage Lyme disease.
First time feature director Sini Anderson made an ardent, powerful documentary about the force that is Kathleen Hanna, and the film was my favorite of SXSW. (Read my review of The Punk Singer here.) I had a chance to sit down with the two incredible women, after which I felt like I could light the world on fire. Here's hoping that vigor translates to the page.
The Punk Singer feels very timely in a year that institutionalized, political sexism has been extreme. Was the timing of the film’s completion important to you, Sini, and was it important that this was the first feature you directed?
SA: Yes to both of those questions. I felt really strongly that now was the time that Kathleen needed to tell her story, and the timing of it is something that’s made kind of a fluttery, anxiety feeling in my heart. From before we started production, I thought, 'Oh no, it’s got to happen right now, it’s got to happen right now.' And that was before the Slut Walk and before Pussy Riot and before Occupy Wall Street. You could feel that there was a wave coming, that we’d been in a political dip. It was really important to us when we started the project - and once we started the project, finishing it became this whole other challenge. And I thought about it every single day for a long time, that I couldn’t wait another year to finish the project. The timing of it was incredibly important.
And as far as Kathleen being the subject of the first feature film, I couldn’t have more gratitude about that, because it’s somebody that I respect, that I care about more than any other artist of my generation. So I feel really lucky about that.
Diablo Cody once said something that really stuck with me. She said that, as women, we want to represent our gender as perfect, and because of that, we judge each other more harshly in our creative endeavors. We hold ourselves to these impossible standards that we don’t hold men to when they make movies or music. Is that something you guys have experienced in your careers?
KH: Yeah. Definitely yes. And it’s also internalized sexism that makes us feel like we can’t show ourselves not being perfect, and that leads to another form of sexism, you know what I mean? It’s not just from the outside, it’s from the inside, and then it’s from the outside, and then it’s from the inside. It's this bouncing ball of infinity, back and forth and back and forth. I believe in the power of failure, of public failure, I believe in changing your mind and being allowed to change your mind. It’s fine to be a fucking hypocrite. It’s fine to put out a record that everybody hates. You’re going to live to see another day. I think that’s such an important message, especially for younger women, to know, 'I don’t have to come out of the womb painting like Frida Kahlo. My very first thing that I make isn’t going to be an around-the-world sensation.' You have to paint a hundred really ugly, barfy, diarrhea paintings before you come up with that one where you start to really get into your groove. It takes a while. It takes falling down a bunch of times before you start running.
SA: Yeah, I love people like Diablo Cody and Lena Dunham. We’re in this place right now where a lot of female artists are stepping forward and making this really incredible work. And the jig might be up, you know what I mean? The jig is up because I think that what society would like us to believe, and people that make mainstream media and what they call art would like us to believe, is that we have to strive for some perfection. And if we sit around and strive for perfection before we put anything out, guess what? We’re not putting anything out. And it’s really, really important that you don’t put out your diary, but you put out work that you believe in and your friends believe in, and they can tell you, 'Yeah, that’s good. This isn’t so good.' And just start putting it forward. Because this idea of perfection is a dirty trick that’s been hanging around by probably some male studio executives for a long time. It’s late. It’s not the truth, and I think that people are starting to see that.
And then, on the other side of that, what was really important to me, is that I know that there are a lot of people, not just women but men and women, that know the strength in the truth and in vulnerability. And Kathleen being able to speak her truth and show a little bit of vulnerability, or a lot of vulnerability, and trust, and see that she’s not a victim and that it’s just empowering to be in that place, was really important in making the documentary about Kathleen.
The movie shows Kathleen’s activism as a feminist, but it's also its own activist message in highlighting the dangers of undetected Lyme disease. Was that an intentional goal or an unexpected result?
KH: It’s weird. Doing press and interviews, I’m starting to realize all the throughlines and stuff, and how things cycle back on each other, it’s like whoa. Or maybe I’m just jet-lagged and haven’t had enough sleep [laughs], but I saw a video on YouTube of a girl who had very similar reactions to late-stage Lyme disease as I did. And I thought it was crazy. And when I saw her basically have a seizure on camera that looked very much like my seizure I felt, “Oh my god. That’s me.” And so it was really important to me, and I said to Sini, ‘We have to find some way to not just talk about Lyme disease, but to show it. I think that just showing it and not talking about it that much is going to give us more bang for our buck.’ The only way that could really happen is if my husband filmed it. We were so isolated with it, it was just the two of us all the time. I think it was a little bit liberating to bring an audience into that. Because it was also really hard for us to feel that isolated and I think now, I at least, and hopefully he will feel a lot less isolated. But it does have a sort of throughline with telling the truth about sexual abuse, telling the truth about domestic violence, telling the truth about sexism. And then, it was this thing where this other woman helped me, and now I want to make sure that I do the same thing for someone else. I am not Lyme disease, that’s not who I am, I’m still a feminist artist, but this is a part of my story too, and I’m not going to keep it out to look cooler. [laughs] I mean, how can I look any cooler?
KH: Yeah, absolutely. [laughs]
When you first realized you had to take a hiatus from music for your health, did you go back to any of your earlier projects like fashion or photography?
KH: Yeah, I actually went to school for interior design and I’m four credits away from my associate’s degree, but I had to take a break from that because of how incredibly ill that I got. I also tried teaching, didn’t really like that, but I did realize that I love lecturing, traveling around and giving lectures, so that’s something that I’ve gotten into. Even when I’m not at my very sickest, but when I’m kind of sick, I can still do it. Sini and I went to Wesleyan and I was pretty sick, but I knew I could still do it. I got up and did the Planned Parenthood thing even though I thought I was having a stroke. And I’ve made some visual art, too.
Do you guys feel that your definition of feminism has changed since you were in your 20s, or is it an idea that has stayed constant for you throughout?
SA: I didn’t even know the definition of what feminism meant until I was in my mid-20s. I didn’t go to high school, I didn’t go to college, I didn’t have women’s studies. All of my feminist ideals and education have been built around art and my friends and community. And so it’s still growing. I fell in love with it in my mid-20s, and it’s something that I’m so stoked to continue to learn about and I learn more about it every single day. It’s not something I tire of.
KH: I learned a lot about feminism from books. I went to college, but there wasn’t a women’s studies major or even minor at the school that I went to, so my friends and I educated each other. But academia and feminism have changed so much since I was in school. And while I feel like I have continued to learn as a person, sometimes I don’t know the language that people are using academically. And I really realize how my mom felt when I would be talking to her about this stuff and I'd get really frustrated. She may have been doing feminist work in her way, but she didn’t know the language I did. And I was so frustrated, like, 'You’re so fucked up! You don’t get it!'
And now I realize that when I give lectures and people are using language that I don’t know. Even though I talked a lot early on in my career about intersectionality and how racism and classism and sexism and homophobia and capitalism are all connected with each other, and they're these crazy systems that are feeding on each other and are also damaging. I can’t even go into the whole spectrum of it. But I feel like kids today are so much more savvy about that conversation. And I’m so thrilled when I get to meet younger people who are doing that so much better than I did. I thought about it, but I didn’t know how to put a lot of the theory into practice. And I feel really hopeful when I meet younger people who are putting it into practice and who are also really savvy about the way that they’re communicating to me, and hopefully to their parents.
SA: I’d love to add one last thing to that. In the film, Jennifer Baumgardner, who’s a feminist filmmaker/writer/activist/teacher, made such a great point. She said that in the ‘90s, when Kathleen’s career was taking off and Bikini Kill was taking off, and so were other female musicians and artists like Tammy Rae Carland and these awesome feminists were coming together, the thing that was happening and what Kathleen was really pushing in her art and I think comes forward in the film, and Jennifer says it, is that there was this moment of figuring out that second wave feminism was a way of protesting popular culture. And third wave feminism, and what riot grrrl and Bikini Kill were doing, was taking these feminist ideas that were very academic and very inaccessible in a lot of ways, and bringing them into pop culture. And that, for somebody like me who hasn’t gone to college, is the reason I know about feminism. So taking these really important cultural ideas and societal constrictions and kind of smashing them down and putting them through art, that’s really, really effective. And I think that we touch on that in the film.
Kathleen, last night in the Q&A you said something I was hoping you could elaborate on, when you said that you don’t hold to the idea that the ‘90s were more authentic. You think now is really exciting. What’s so exciting about now?
KH: Well, you.
SA: Your socks.
(note: I died here.)
KH: I guess it’s really the students that I meet. I worked with an intern, Kate Wadkins, and she and her friends are doing all this great stuff in Bushwick, putting on all these punk rock shows. They made a fan zine that was different essays criticizing riot grrrl, and what was fucked about it. But implicit in that critique was a great deal of love. And I felt so respected by it, because I love that idea of ‘I’m not going to create the thing that’s already been created, or fetishize it to this creepy point. I’m going to actually take your idea and run with it and make it a lot better.' And when I see zines like that, I feel totally hopeful. It’s not like the previous generations of work are going to get thrown into the garbage can. These younger feminists actually care about stuff that came before them, the same way that I totally cared about and loved and felt so lucky to have access to the feminism that came before me. To have younger people take what me and my friends have done, and to say ‘We have access to that, but we’re going to put that through our own Internet generation filter and we’re going to make it into something that speaks to us and is a lot smarter.’
Thank you both so much for making such an important, empowering film. I'm going to do everything I can to promote it from my end.
And I am. So look for many, many reminders to catch The Punk Singer wherever possible.