Onstage and off, activist-musician Kathleen Hanna has always had an undeniable presence. As the lead singer of the bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin—and as the best-known spokeswoman for the female-fueled punk/art movement known as riot grrrl—Hanna used her hyper energy, high-school cheerleader voice, and keen fashion sense to help make gender politics a vital, provocative issue during the alt-rock boom of the 1990s. In Sini Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna, Hanna is interviewed in and around her home, in picturesque settings, wearing stylish clothes. Anderson does her best to make Hanna look good, and “attractive” in the broader sense of the word. Hanna pulls viewers in, talking about her past with such vigor that she brings it back to life—including the debate over whether someone who talked and dressed like a sassy teenager was the best public representative of third-wave feminism.
Anderson’s film itself isn’t critical of Hanna, but gives voice to skeptics as part of the larger context of what Hanna went through when she first became widely known. The Punk Singer begins with the early days of Bikini Kill in Olympia, Washington, when the band fought against the macho stratification of the Pacific Northwest punk and grunge scenes, calling girls to the front and ordering the boys in the crowd to back off and let women enjoy a rock show without fear of getting slammed into or groped. Anderson’s interviewees recall the tools young people had back in the early 1990s to spread their messages: Xeroxed zines, independently released 45s, and gigs. As both the music and the ethos surrounding it grew more popular, the mainstream media swooped in to try and explain what was happening, but in its own narrow terms. In response, Hanna and her Bikini Kill bandmates stopped doing interviews.
Here, The Punk Singer finds its thesis, equating feminism with image control. Anderson has magazine clippings and MTV News reports to reinforce how Hanna and Bikini Kill were put through the media mill, given condescending head-pats by reporters who didn’t take them seriously, while being pushed into fake conflict with other female musicians. (Courtney Love, either playing to character or acting out of jealousy over Hanna’s friendship with Kurt Cobain, once punched Hanna out of the blue at Lollapalooza, which only stoked the press’ bloodlust.) Anderson balances the sensationalism with comments from Hanna’s peers and admirers, who heard what Bikini Kill was actually saying through all the clatter. The Punk Singer is assembled well, moving efficiently through the most important pieces of Hanna’s biography—including her marriage to Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, and her embrace of electronics with her Le Tigre and Julie Ruin projects—while Hanna and her friends explain the significance.
Again, what’s missing from The Punk Singer is real friction or ambiguity. The Hanna-doubters—and they do exist—are relegated to a faceless horde, unleashing generalized negativity. But that appears to be Anderson’s conscious, defensible choice. This documentary actively makes the point that women in leadership positions are too often defined by those who question their motives and/or capabilities. The Punk Singer prefers credulity, up to and including its take on the difficult-to-diagnose health problems that have sidelined Hanna for nearly a decade now. Hanna knows some people think she’s a phony (whatever that means); but Anderson prefers to focus on the woman who in footage of a 1991 poetry slam screams, “I’m not gonna shut up,” and the one who’s a dynamo in concert, and the one who looks into Anderson’s camera and talks passionately about the amazingly creative things one girl can do just in her room. The Punk Singer is like an extension of those early Bikini Kill zines, aiming to inspire.