Firstly, quick preface: Kathleen Hanna was honoured in Boston, Massachusetts in 2015 by getting a recognised Riot Grrrl Day in the city on April 9th every year. As this is my first year living in Boston and I am slightly obsessed with this movement and its fearless leaders, I thought it only appropriate for me to review one of my all time favourite documentaries, The Punk Singer, to celebrate. Happy Riot Grrrl Day!
For many of us growing up in the current time period, trying to establish and promote feminist ideals, it’s hard to imagine the experiences of those who came before us- those women and non-binary feminists who held similar viewpoints but publicised them in a completely different social atmosphere. That is what makes the documentary The Punk Singer so special; it gives viewers an intimate glimpse into the riot grrrl scene of the 90’s, focusing on one of the movement’s most outspoken figures, Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the band Bikini Kill. At a time when many were professing that “feminism is dead”, they re-sparked a feminist rebellion through punk music. These revolutionary girls of the 90’s were loud, unapologetic, and screaming at the top of their lungs.
The film curates a story through found footage of the concerts and home videos that chronicle Hanna’s journey, along with her affect on what is now referred to as the beginning of third wave feminism. These clips display the individuality and innovation Hanna and her band mates cultivated through their punk performance. She left all inhibitions behind when she took the stage with Bikini Kill, stomping and screaming through each song with contagious passion and fervent fury. During her concerts, the girls at the show were invited to the front of crowd in order to insure a safe space for females and suppression of the masculine violence that often caught on at punk shows in the past. Riot grrrl was a new iteration of punk.
For the years before the movement, the punk scene was basically a boys club. Even the Beastie Boys, whose lead guitar playing Ad-Rock (Adam Keefe Horovitz) is Kathleen Hanna’s longtime husband, had lyrics like “Girls – to do the dishes/ Girls – to clean up my room/ Girls – to do the laundry/ Girls – and in the bathroom” in their most famous songs. The concert-goers were often violent, moshing their way to female exclusion, and succeeding in restricting the young women who wanted a part in punk culture effectively out of the equation. But it was exactly that restriction that pushed Bikini Kill to form. The band turned the punk scene on its head. Kathleen Hanna unrepentantly rejected the demeaning constructs she felt the world placed on women by recreating exactly the same powerful and angry presence lead singers in male-led bands used, yet decidedly preaching female empowerment and pointing out the oppression that would no longer be tolerated.
That said, the documentary emphasises the physical toll taken on those who give their everything in order to lead a revolution. Kathleen Hanna, after years of creating, performing, and pushing herself for the sake of both her bands and the riot grrrl movement, ran into some very serious health problems. The reality of her current situation contrasts the willed ignorance that made her time on the road so detrimental physically. She describes, in her current interviews with the documentarians, a feeling of powerlessness over her body and how that challenged the powerhouse demeanour that she gave off in her work. After years of denial, her body simply caught up to her and forced her to pay attention to it.
I think, especially in the current political climate in America and around the world, to see Kathleen Hanna’s story as not only an inspiration in creating art but an inspiration in being human. While she was touring and championing the Riot Grrrl movement, Hanna pushed herself to achieve for the sake of the population, describing her interactions with all different types of people who used her musical statements as fuel for their interaction with feminist and even their own personal journeys in life. So, she felt she needed to push through physical barriers for the sake of her fans and for the sake of the movement. Nevertheless, no one is invincible, a lesson Kathleen Hanna unfortunately learned the hard way, diagnosed with late-stage Lyme Disease which she continues to struggle with.
When the world is in some sort of social turmoil that someone feels intimately connected to, a lot of the time, that person will dedicate themselves heart-and-soul to combating the problem. This inclination, of course, is admirable, but we can learn from Kathleen Hanna’s story that personal care, a person’s humanness, cannot be ignored for the sake of a larger cause. Especially now, women, LGBTQ+, people of colour, and other historically undeserved groups carry the burden of revolution. And while most work incredibly and commendably hard to fight injustice, they also must fight the urge to forget about personal wellness, be it mental, emotional, or physical.
So, if you want a glimpse into the world of punk through a feminist perspective, see The Punk Singer. Also, if you are looking to feel empowered, inspired, and driven to make your voice heard, let Kathleen Hanna’s story give you a couple of pointers. And as she invites feminists to do, make the Riot Grrrl movement your own.
by Olivia Kelliher
Olivia is an 18 year old from the US, originally from Chicago but currently attending film school in Boston with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. One day, she hopes she will write a film so insightful that her parents will think maybe letting her live a thousand miles away from them as a teenager was worth it. She likes movies with lots of words or at least a few words that mean something. Whip it, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beginners, and A League of Their Own are some of her favorites.