In May I went to a DocHouse screening of The Punk Singer and it's now been released on iTunes and in select theatres across the UK. Growing up as a punk rock kid who had Bikini Kill on regular rotation on my iPod, I was really looking forward to the film. But I had no idea just how gripping it would be. I left the cinema feeling completely inspired - to make more art; to find new ways to contribute to feminism; to never, ever shut up. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.
The documentary by Sini Anderson focuses on the life of Kathleen Hanna - lead singer of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and now, the Julie Ruin. As the co-founder of the Riot Grrrl movement, she helped bring together punk and feminism and sparked an international movement of women raising their voices. From opening an art gallery when her art was rejected by the college she attended to recording an album in her bedroom, she's a woman who exudes the "do-it-yourself" ethos that Riot Grrrl was all about.
Kathleen describes having a difficult upbringing being raised by a sadistic mother and a sexually abusive father. By the time she attended Evergreen Green State College in Olympia, Washington, feminism was already integral to the work that she was creating. She started performing spoken word because "she had things to say and no one had ever listened to me before," but was advised that no one listens to spoken word and that she should start a band instead.
Throughout her life Kathleen has created for herself what society has denied her. When Evergreen decried her art too explicit for the college, her and her friends started an art gallery. When the mainstream media declared feminism "dead" Kathleen and her friends refused to accept this, because they were "feeling it", "living it." And they continued to live it - publishing zines, creating music, and designing clothing that demanded their voices be heard.
Formed with three of her college classmates, Bikini Kill became the voice for a generation of young, punk women who felt disenfranchised by society and by a subculture that seemed determined to shut them out because of their gender. Their lyrics were bold and brazen and as their front woman, Kathleen represented those feelings through her own aesthetic. She often danced on stage in her underwear or emblazoned her skin with Sharpie inscriptions of "incest" or "slut."
In response to the violence of the punk scene and the unwelcoming environment gigs often created for women, the band instituted a "girls to the front" policy. If women were being harassed or fights broke out, Kathleen would call the perpetrators out from the stage and encourage the audience to step in. Although violence still happened at their shows, they were taking control of the space and insisting that this kind of behaviour was not okay.
Kathleen stopped performing suddenly in 2005 after a gruelling tour with Le Tigre, stating that her heart was no longer in it and that she had said everything she needed to say. It wasn't until the release of The Punk Singer that the real reason for her "retirement" became public: Kathleen was ill with a debilitating but undiagnosed illness. It would take five years before she had an answer: Kathleen has late-stage lime disease.
Even in the throes of her illness, her passion for creating music could not be quelled. It was during this time that she began writing a new album and the Julie Ruin was formed. And while she recently had to stop touring due to her illness, I have no doubt that the world hasn't seen the last of this amazing woman.
Although many have found fault with Kathleen's particular brand of feminism, I think there's still so much to be learned from the way she lives her life and from the riot grrrl movement as a whole.
Riot grrrls refuse to accept the status quo. They work to dismantle patriarchal bullshit and create new norms.
Riot grrrls raise their voices and speak out against injustice.
Riot grrrls support each other and lift one another up.
Riot grrrls embrace the fact that life is full of contradictions and they live theirs proudly.
Riot grrrls control their own narratives - even when someone's talking smack about them.
Riot grrrls create their own culture and wear their politics on their clothing.
So whenever you're feeling uncertain about how to be your most badass self, ask "What would Kathleen Hanna do?"
You better believe she'd follow her heart and make shit happen. Every. Damn. Time.
And check out The Punk Singer - it's seriously inspiring!
Images via Kat Asharya, Aaron Richter, Ally Bailey, and Pat Graham.