The lover: Kathleen Hanna, who became the public face of the riot-grrrl movement when she fronted Bikini Kill in the 1990s. After the group disbanded, she formed Le Tigre, which traded Bikini Kill’s punk confrontation for an approach based in exuberant dance rhythms. She then dropped out of the public eye for several years, which as the new documentary The Punk Singer reveals, was due to a debilitating case of late-stage Lyme Disease that left her without the energy to perform. The documentary ends on an uncertain note, but she’s recently made a return to performing with her new band, The Julie Ruin.
The madness: Directed by Lizzie Borden (her real name), Born In Flames is a feminist landmark that many people nonetheless regard as an abrasive mess. Although it’s devoid of the trappings of science fiction, the film is set in an alternate U.S. after a socialist revolution that seems to have left the nation’s women little better off than they were before. Mixing real footage with mock news broadcasts, the film chronicles the movements of several different female-led revolutionary organizations, cannily mirroring the debates between mainstream feminists and radical activists who felt their concerns were masked by the movement’s largely white, middle-class face.
The Dissolve: When were you first exposed to Born In Flames?
Kathleen Hanna: I feel terrible—I can’t remember the first time I saw it. I have a feeling that my friend Tammy Rae Carland was behind it, because I still have the videotape, and it’s her handwriting on the tape. It was when riot grrrl was happening. I remember being really moved by the fact that [Lizzie Borden] had the guts to put out a potential blueprint for feminist change, to create a new society within this film: the roving radio stations, and the socialist women, representing these different points of view in one movie, showing that different points of view could exist at the same time. Using real activists was a really interesting choice.
For me, being someone who was trying to create community, I thought, “This isn’t the only way to do it. This is within punk feminism. I’m not trying to overarchingly gear the feminist movement into one direction. I’m just in a band, and I’m interested in feminism, and I moved somewhere and wanted to have a feminist community.” So we started meetings, and it spread from there. I started really thinking, “What could this look like?” I think I got a lot of confidence from that film. The thing was, it’s about asking questions, not creating answers. She was asking a lot of questions, and that’s how I felt. It’s not okay a lot of times to ask questions, because people, especially journalists, are like, “What’s the answer? What’s the answer? What’s the answer? What’s your message?” There is a message that we should learn about the history of activism, but there’s no, “You should be a feminist, and this is the kind of feminist you should be, and this is the outfit you should wear.” We were always really confused when people would ask, “What’s your message?” We’re like, “Just listen to our records and watch us play, and what you get out of it is [the message].” We thought we were asking questions about whether the punk scene could expand large enough to include radical feminism within it. That was the question.
The Dissolve: One thing that’s amazing about Born In Flames is how it encompasses what were then and are now very sharp debates within the feminist movement. There’s this concern within the movie from the Women’s Army and the feminist press about presenting a united front, and then there are black women and lesbian activists saying “Wait a minute.”
Hanna: Saying, “This has to be the conversation that’s happening now.”
The Dissolve: “We actually need to be united before we present a united front, rather than just putting up a wall.”
Hanna: That’s something that didn’t happen in riot grrrl that makes me really sad when I look back on it. I didn’t think there was going to be a movement, first of all. What I learned was, you have to be inviting women of color if you’re having a meeting, or going to meetings or events that women of color are having, and being supportive of people who are different from your own projects and plans in what they’re doing. If you don’t do that early on, you can’t add it in later, and start having these conversations three years down the road when already you’re in the predominantly white situation. What happens is all these white women arguing about who is more or less racist, or who is more or less classist. It just becomes this shame-and-blame thing, and that was a big part of what was called the riot-grrrl movement deteriorating. I think that lesson from Born In Flames is why at the very first [riot grrrl] convention, I insisted on having an Unlearning Racism workshop, which was hosted by me and a woman of color—of course I can’t remember her name, because she was a member of the Peace Center, and she was somebody I had never met before. It did not go well. Now, even looking at the title Unlearning Racism, the women of color who were there didn’t need to unlearn racism. Maybe internalized racism, but why did I choose that name? The assumption was, we were speaking to a white audience. Right then and there during that particular workshop, women of color walked out. A lot of them ended up making zines that were critical of the riot grrrl movement, but that very much became a part of it, that very much shaped the conversations that began to happen.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting that Born In Flames takes place after a socialist revolution, even though nothing could’ve been further from the circumstances of 1983. It’s like, “Let’s start the conversation way down the road here.” It’s not about how we get to that point, but looking past it.
Hanna: It’s such an incredible decision, and such a specific decision. You have The Slits in the movie, like, destroying a car, and that music was such a part of the movie. I really wanted to do this thing at one point—I actually got [Borden’s] email—of taking out the music and doing it live, having bands redo some of the music of the film for a contemporary audience. In a way, it’s a totally offensive idea, but I thought it would be an interesting project of updating.
The Dissolve: It is out on DVD, but there are some music cues that can’t possibly have been cleared. If it ever got to the point where the movie looked like it was going to make any money…
Hanna: That’s what I’m saying. We’d have to redo the music. If that ever happens, dear Lizzie Borden, please ask me to be the music supervisor.
The Dissolve: One of the main roles in Born In Flames is played by Adele Bertei, who was a fixture on the downtown music scene, playing with The Contortions and her own band, The Bloods. She even sounds a bit like you when she sings. Was the presence of that scene in the movie part of the attraction for you?
Hanna: Definitely. That came after. I started watching it, and I was like, “What? Wait, they’re in it?” It was just the perfect movie to me. It’s that thing about feminist history where I’m like, “Why didn’t somebody give me The Second Sex when I was in high school? Why didn’t somebody give me The Dialectic Of Sex when I was in high school? Why didn’t somebody give me…” I guess From Margin To Center wasn’t written yet. [Laughs.] It’s one of those movies where you’re like, “Everybody needs to see this.” When we signed autographs in Bikini Kill, we used to write a list of movies. It was Born In Flames, Times Square, and Out Of The Blue, I used to just write that down. After a while, it was too many people, and I couldn’t write three, so I would just write, “Kathleen Hanna Born In Flames.” I would tell people, “Get that movie.”
The Dissolve: When you narrowed it to one, why was this the one?
Hanna: Primarily because it’s the one that tackled racism in a really smart way. The CeBe Barnes one [Out Of The Blue] is a really amazing movie in terms of that character existing. Times Square is much more fun, with the idea of taking over the radio station. It’s more like what riot grrrl was: white girls taking over the punk-rock scene. Although there were a lot of women of color whom I don’t want to be erased, but the public narrative was kind of like Times Square. I wish it would’ve been more like Born In Flames, and I felt like that was the movie I learned more from about organizing, and about possibilities, and about it being okay to make a map of an invisible place that doesn’t exist yet.
The Dissolve: Lizzie Borden shot Born In Flames over five years, and the movie very much feels like it was put together piecemeal; she later said she wished she’d known there was such a thing as story structure before she made it. But it’s interesting to think of that collage aesthetic turning up in your music—not Bikini Kill, but certainly Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin.
Hanna: Yeah, and that thing of, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just singing a bunch of stuff, and seeing what happens.” Although I think I was more successful in terms of narrative, and I don’t mean narrative on the record, I mean in the correlation between a narrative in a film and a song having a pop structure. I had hooks. I had choruses in almost every song. Then there were a bunch that didn’t, and a lot of that was influenced by the French feminism that was happening at the time [of Julie Ruin]. It was about creating your own language, and also comparing female sexuality to the style of writing, and the whole idea of a narrative being based on male sexuality, where it’s this drive up and then—excuse me, but—[whispers] ejaculation. That’s the big deal of the thing. And then there’s this whole idea of, “Actually, it could be this more consistent, massively long orgasm.” [Laughs.] To me, that’s what is interesting about films that don’t have this narrative arc.
The Dissolve: Who is the main character in Born In Flames? The closest thing to a central character is dead for most of the movie. She’s less a protagonist than a structuring absence.
Hanna: Exactly. There’s this refusal to say there is this one person who is the leader. I think that’s very much a feminist trait of the movie, although it may not have been intentional. Now she might think back on the movie and think, “Aw, I wish I shoulda…”
The Dissolve: Borden said she paid people $25 to be in the movie, and whoever showed up, showed up. Over five years, people cut their hair, they got fat or skinny, so a lot of who the main characters ended up being was just who she could continue to use.
Hanna: But she finished it, and that’s the whole thing. So much of this shit gets started and doesn’t get finished because there’s no money, and because people don’t have the longevity to keep shooting and editing and all this stuff. The thing about the film is just that it exists. I’ve seen people work on feminist project that are just so laborious, and you don’t have any money behind it, and in terms of community, people start getting pissed off. They’re like, “Wait, you’re going to sell this? And I’m only getting $25?” People in my small town thought I was totally rich when I was in Bikini Kill. [Laughs.] I had absolutely no money; the level of how many people knew who I was vs. how much money I made was, and still is, very disparate. I know there’s so much female volunteerism in the world, and that that’s actually a problem. For Judy Chicago to finish The Dinner Party is something similar, in my mind, to Lizzie Borden finishing Born In Flames, because it’s really hard to keep people coming and volunteering—they have survival needs that they need to meet. People start getting bitter and pissed off. They start being like, “Why am I doing this movie for $25 a day, when I could be working at a job and be making so much more money?” For me, a really big part of the film is that she did it, and she kept all those people together.
The Dissolve: There’s some parallel perhaps between Born In Flames not wanting to make a single character the face of the revolution and your own discomfort with being held up as the Norma Rae of riot grrrl.
Hanna: [Laughs.] I love that idea of not wanting to be the Norma Rae. It’s hard, because when you’re in a community and you become a superstar within that community, even if it’s a very niche community, a very small community, for me, it pulled me out of the very thing I helped create. I felt uncomfortable going to see feminist bands or female bands, because people were so mad at me. They were mad that I was getting attention, they were mad that I wasn’t portraying the right kind of feminism, they were mad because I hated men. I became an outcast in a community I helped create, and that was a really depressing scenario. So something like Born In Flames, that shows a community where people are fighting and arguing and disagreeing, yet still existing, was a really important thing.
I’ve always equated it to how men are so much more likely to be pushed into sports. In basketball, you can foul somebody and then pick them up and keep playing; you can have arguments on the court and you can go out afterward and eat something, or walk each other to the subway, and it’s fine. I feel like in riot grrrl, and with young women organizing, it’s really difficult to not want everyone to get along. In the movie, they want everyone to be united when the real thing is, as corny as it sounds, you’re only as strong as how diverse you are. It’s like if you plant the same crop over and over and over again, the soil is going to get totally depleted. You need to have a diverse group of people in order to make something vibrant. You need to have critique, and you need to have discussion, and you need to have argument. I think a thing happened where it was just like, “No. We just agree we think sexual abuse is bad.” It was like, “Okay, we have that.”
The Dissolve: There’s a balance between essential debate and infighting. Born In Flames deals with the latter by polemically leaving it out: The various factions argue over strategy, but it never turns personal. There are no Twitter beefs or catfights.
Hanna: Right. What we used to call “flaming” on the Internet back in the day. [Borden’s 1986 film] Working Girls—can I talk about that too?—is also really important to me, because I used to be a sex worker. I wasn’t a high-priced call girl, but I loved that movie so much. I got asked a lot about being a stripper in articles, and I was not the person to leak that information, and didn’t want it to be known. Then I ended up talking about it, and was really depressed, because people started to think it was cool and sex-positive. For me, it was a horrible job that I did so I could go on tour. The thought of other girls thinking, “Oh, this is cool,” and that becoming a part of the riot grrrl narrative, has always been very upsetting to me. For me, it was never about slumming it; it was about making it through college, and about being able to be in a band. It was a sad situation. Then, when I watched Working Girls, I was like, “I’m so relieved.” Because it was boring. That movie is boring. To me, that was the statement: It’s boring. It’s just plain, the same thing over and over, like any other cubicle job. Yes, it’s degrading, and it’s boring as hell. Journalists a lot of times would try to sexualize it, and I was like, “It’s not about sex. It’s about power. It’s about having a job and having multiple bosses who all treat you like crap.” You could sexualize that I worked at McDonald’s if you want to, because they gave me a shirt that was two sizes too small and put me on the front line, and they put the guys on the fryer. Having a girl in a tight shirt selling burgers is a better idea financially for the corporation, and that’s what the corporation trained the managers to do. I really loved that movie, and I think it’s really funny that the name is so close to the Melanie Griffith movie, which is my total guilty pleasure. Every time it comes on, I can’t get enough of it. I’ll watch it over and over and over.
The Dissolve: People focused on Bikini Kill’s anger, but there was a playfulness to it that was definitely more pronounced in Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin.
“I remember being really moved by the fact that [Lizzie Borden] had the guts to put out a potential blueprint for feminist change, to create a new society within this film.”
Hanna: Yeah. It was always there, though. That’s what’s funny: If you actually saw a show that wasn’t totally violent, we were kinda funny. I was acting stuff out. I was pretending I was Henry Rollins, and I was pretending I was this macho guy, and then I was singing in this little-girl voice, and then I was doing stripper moves, then I was taking over stripper moves, then I was mixing punk with my job as a way to therapize my body. I literally played a show two blocks away after my shift and was like, “How do I take my body back from that style of dancing?” So I started mixing it in with how I danced onstage, as a way to take it over. My customers started coming to shows, and that became really intense and really bad. Getting back to Working Girls with the “s,” I thought it was such a smart movie because it was boring. Nobody had ever said that. I said it to my friends, but I had never seen anybody else say that visually.
The Dissolve: It’s either glamorized or it’s reversed, where you dwell on it so it’s gritty and horrible in a slightly operatic way.
Hanna: Like Leaving Las Vegas or Pretty Woman. I always say Pretty Woman is a documentary about prostitution. [Laughs.] I’m always like, “Oh, that documentary about prostitution that really tells the real story?” Compare Pretty Woman to Working Girls, and it’s the total opposite.
The Dissolve: When you talked about the argument being part of it, I immediately thought of Le Tigre’s “What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes?”
Hanna: We were having this argument amongst ourselves. Actually, Sadie [Benning] and I were in France, and we went to go see a Cassavetes film. I don’t even remember which one it was, and we were like, “God, there’s so much misogyny in here.” But then we loved Gena Rowlands, and we loved that all of a sudden there was a fucking dog sitting in a chair, and then the dog disappears. It was this thing of, if there is racism or sexism or homophobia in a work of art or in the artist’s life, are you allowed to like it? I came away with “Yes.” You’re allowed to watch it, and like it, and learn from it. You should soak up as much as you can, and have opinions about it. But I don’t want to write somebody off because they make mistakes.
The Dissolve: You can’t expect everyone to be a political paragon, because that would be boring. But you can demand that artists be honest: If you have misogynist feelings, then you make a movie about that. That’s what Cassavetes did.
Hanna: You can put your finger on it, and you can write a song that questions it, and that’s the whole thing about Bikini Kill shows, in a way. The misogyny we encountered would just be guys yelling “Shut up,” or throwing things at us, or “Show us your tits”—whatever. My reaction was, “Thank God.” Thank God that all of a sudden, sexism in the punk scene was visible, because we felt it in every room we walked in, we had to deal with it backstage constantly, we showed up at a show in Lawrence, Kansas and they’re playing The Mentors’ “Find Her, Feel Her, Fuck Her, Forget Her” [“Four F Club”] specifically for us, and all these guys are standing around watching our reactions to it. At that same show, I had a guy shake me and tell me I had ruined his relationship with his girlfriend. Having that stuff happening behind the scenes and then going onstage even though it was hard, it was great when guys would yell stuff. It’d be like, “See, everybody? This exists.” And I feel the same way about someone like Cassavetes: “Thanks for just making the work, so we can criticize it.” People need to start a conversation, and art is always the beginning of a conversation. When we wrote that song, it was totally about creating a conversation: “Are we allowed to like this?” We actually are really big Cassavetes fans, and people thought we hated him and hated his work. We were like, “No, listen to the song. We’re asking these questions. What’s your take on this? Is he an alcoholic? Is he a misogynist? Is that okay?”