“When a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. When I tell the truth, I have to negotiate the way I’m perceived.” –Kathleen Hanna
Many music documentaries do little more than offer a visual discography of the band or artist in question. But sometimes, the subject transcends their music. Despite its generic title, Sini Anderson’s documentary, “The Punk Singer” is anything but. It’s part artist profile, part history lesson in third wave feminism and the female perspective of the masculine-dominated punk scene.
Kathleen Hanna’s contribution to the feminist movement cannot be overstated. In addition to founding and fronting Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna is responsible for coining the terms “Riot Grrrl” and “Girl Power” before they were co-opted by pop culture. It’s important to note that to Hanna, punk is a philosophy, not a brand. That’s also why she refused to copyright “Riot Grrrl.” It was her assertive gift to womankind before the Spice Girls and manufacturers of baby doll dresses branded it into oblivion.
Because of her outspokenness about rape and other harmful attitudes toward the female persuasion, Hanna was both revered and reviled to the point of death threats. Many people, including other women, didn’t want to hear that they were still being marginalized. Hanna refused to be defined and instead reclaimed femininity for feminists. Some called her a contradiction because she wore dresses and makeup, talked like a valley girl and had worked in a strip club. But that was her point. Women shouldn’t have to dress like a man in order to receive equal treatment. Women should be able to celebrate their sexuality without being sexually violated. These concepts sound like no-brainers as I type them, yet the struggle continues.
Anderson, a longtime friend of Hannah’s, has access to footage from some absolutely electrifying moments in Hanna’s career including several early Bikini Kill concerts. Her stage presence was commanding whether she played a large club or a tiny house party. It was clear from the beginning that this woman was destined for greatness. Interviews with Hanna’s friends (Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein), colleagues (Tobi Vail, Johanna Fateman, JD Samson) and husband (Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys) corroborate the story and extol her many virtues.
There’s also a lot of nostalgia in “The Punk Singer,” with numerous shots of fanzines: those DIY paper publications that thousands of kids made on their school library’s copy machine back in the nineteen hundred and nineties. The revolution was not televised. But it was grossly misrepresented in the media, which is why Hanna led a press blackout. She wasn’t able to stop people from printing falsehoods, but her silent protest spoke volumes.
Hanna retired from performing in 2005, claiming she had nothing more to say. But this woman, known for telling the brutal truth, was lying to her fans for the first time ever.
In actuality, Hanna was struggling with her health and was no longer able to sing. She experienced numerous debilitating symptoms but remained in medical limbo for 5 years before finally receiving a diagnosis. The segment about her illness may sound like a bit of a tangent, but it is absolutely necessary in order to explain why this seemingly indomitable force would suddenly drop out of picture.
“The Punk Singer” is so much more than just a music doc. It is absolutely essential viewing for anyone interested in learning about the feminist pioneers who dared to stand up for themselves. It is a celebration of how far women have come as well as a call to arms because the fight is nowhere near over. Thanks to Kathleen Hanna, we have a kick-ass soundtrack to back us up.
Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).