The documentary The Punk Singer, from director Sini Anderson, gives audiences a never-before-seen look into the life of singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna, through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews. Lead singer of the seminal ‘90s punk band Bikini Kill, the dance-punk trio Le Tigre and now her latest, The Julie Ruin, she rose to national attention as a voice of the riot grrrl movement and became one of the most outspoken feminist icons, until she was forced to stop touring in 2005 due to a debilitating illness.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Kathleen Hanna talked about how this documentary came about, that it was time to stop denying her accomplishments, how difficult it was to relive her journey while fighting an undiagnosed illness, finally receiving a diagnosis of Lyme disease and starting down the long road to recovery, how amazing it is know that she’s affected other young women through both her art and by speaking out as a feminist, what she thinks of Miley Cyrus labeling herself as a feminist, and how she’s now writing a comedy series about the life of Bridget Everett, called Bridget Drives the Bus. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
KATHLEEN HANNA: Sini [Anderson] approached me. She was like, “I wanna make a movie about your life,” and I was like, “Ugh! No!” But then, I thought about it more. I was sick, at the time, and I didn’t know what I had and I was getting worse, so I was wrapping stuff up, just in case, to be prepared. I archived my work with NYU, and I did a bunch of other archival projects, like the Le Tigre concert film. It just seemed like a natural progression, that a movie about me would be made while it was still able to be made. I went home and thought about those things, and I also thought about Sini having been in the same scene as me, for a really long time, and about the special perspective that she would bring to the film. Another hesitancy was that I don’t want to be looked at as the head of riot grrrl or as the most punk rock feminist, ever. But, I knew Sini wouldn’t portray me like that, and that I could be really honest and forthcoming in interviews because we knew each other.
I was sick of denying my accomplishments, as well. I felt there was really a lot of internal sexism at work. In the ‘90s, and even in the ‘70s feminist movement, there were a lot of times where women, in an attempt to be egalitarian, actually diminished each other’s accomplishments by saying, “I don’t think it’s fair that you’re getting this attention and so-and-so is not getting that attention.” I was like, “Then, start your own band. Write your own book. Make your own movie.” The sad thing is that everybody can’t. Not everybody has the leisure time or the money, or lives in a small town where their rent is $100. So, that advice is given knowing that it’s not actually possible for everybody to do that, or to have the time to pick up the pen and actually write.
This documentary tells both your journey and the journey of the music. Was it exhausting to relive it all, while you were sick and fighting an undiagnosed illness?
HANNA: Yeah. Watching my younger self, jumping around and singing when I thought I would never perform again, was definitely a horror show. Imagine being sick in bed, and you can’t get out of bed, and then there are posters of yourself all over the walls, like wallpaper of your younger self performing, and it’s like wallpaper that moves. That’s what it felt like, and that’s not a good feeling. But at the same time, I really had to be a grown up – and I’m not saying that kids aren’t able to do this, but that’s the language I use – and be able to be an artist, and step back and say, “This isn’t my project. I’m just being interviewed for it, and I’m watching it like everybody else is watching a character in a film.” That was my way to protect myself, and it still is. I really see it as something about a character. You could make a hundred different narratives about anybody’s life. This is just one narrative. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, I finally told my whole story!” That will have to happen in a 10 volumes of books that I write later.
How relieved were you to finally get the official diagnosis of Lyme disease?
HANNA: I’m so language-based and I’m so about communicating, and my art has always been very audience-based, and very about being functional and communicating something, and about feeling like I have to be heard. And then, I was living in this state where I couldn’t control what’s going on and I’m a control freak, and I had no word for it. I just needed any old word, to tell me that that’s what I have, just so that I could feel better. So, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, and I knew I didn’t have it. I just knew I didn’t have the symptoms. They kept telling me that because my gut was inflamed, which is something that Lyme disease does to you as well, but they didn’t know that. I was like, “I don’t have Crohn’s. I’m not going to take this [medication] that’s totally gonna fuck me up.” If I would have taken the stuff they told me to, my Lyme would have gotten a thousand times worse, which I can’t even think about.
So, when I actually got the expensive test and, like I said in the movie, it lit up like a Christmas tree, I was in my therapists office when I got the call. She knew that I was waiting and that I was really freaked out, and the doctor called and said, “You tested positive for so many bands in your DNA with Lyme disease that it’s outrageous.” I also had some symptoms that were undeniable. So, I was like, “This is a disease that’s treated with antibiotics. It is possible for me to get better.” When I had the diagnosis, I got on the train to go home and I was just crying because I was so happy. And then, the treatments started and I was so miserable. A lot of the time, the treatment is worse than the disease. It’s a lot of the same drugs as chemotherapy. It was funny to be on such a high and be like, “I can cure this! This can be cured!,” and also be like, “This is the worst thing.” I just went through the worst two years of my life, but I also played shows, went on tour, finished an album, and this movie was finished. So, I feel like pretty happy with where things are at.
When you do something like this, does it make you realize how much of an affect you’ve had on people and how much your art has inspired other people’s art?
HANNA: Yeah. The thing that really stands out for me, when I do a Q&A or a lecture or play a show, which is when I really get to talk to people, aside from how many people have camera phones and want to get their picture taken with you, is when someone comes up crying and shaking and says, “I became a women’s studies major because of you.” How can you not cheer up? My original goal in the ‘90s, after I found feminism and I was the first generation in my family to go to college, was to spread this information that feminism was still very much alive, and that you can’t believe the media telling you that it doesn’t need to exist and that it doesn’t exist. So, to have other women tell me, “You helped me get interested in my history and in the history of activism,” that makes me feel so important and so amazing. It doesn’t even matter how much I’ve affected the culture, or how many people have had that personal experience. That one woman coming up to me makes me feel like my job is done. As an artist, I don’t think you can get a higher compliment or obtain a higher level of success than that. Although paying myself back for this record would be great.
When you’re giving girls a voice, who had never had a voice before, and who were very grateful for what you were doing, why do you think there was this totally unwarranted hatred that started?
HANNA: I think the simple answer is sexism. A lot of punk guys thought, “Oh, there’s no sexism in this scene,” or “I’m not sexist because I think women should have jobs.” We were on stage and we were singing about our own experiences, and if that resonated with other women, I think we were really happy. But, I was never trying to be the voice for anybody else. I was just trying to sing about what I was going through, and was singing about those things specifically because I knew there was an audience not being served. There was an audience out there for it, I just knew it. I knew other women had been raped. I knew other women had friends who had incest histories. I knew other women would relate to this material. It was so, so, so important to me, and I just think a lot of men were frightened and didn’t understand what was happening. They were pissed that our band was better than their band. They were pissed that I was a more charismatic lead singer than they were. They just were sexist, and that’s all there is to it. That’s why they yelled, “Shut up and play!,” and that’s why they threw things at us.
When Miley Cyrus declares herself one of the biggest feminists in the world, does it make you worry about the state of the feminist movement today?
HANNA: I applaud the bravado of calling herself the biggest feminist in the world, if she actually said that. That’s hilarious, thinking that you’re the biggest feminist in the world. It’s funny. I applaud her for the bravado. And also, there shouldn’t be a feminist police force, saying who gets to cell themselves a feminist or not. If she calls herself a feminist, more fucking power to her. I might not agree with every decision she makes, and I might not be the same kind of feminist that she is, but there’s room for everybody at the fucking party. If Miley Cyrus wants to be at the party, then Miley Cyrus can be at the party, whether I agree with everything that she does in her life or in what art she makes, or not. The thing that makes me happy about it is just how many 9- and 10-year olds Googled the word “feminist,” after she said that.
Maybe they went down the feminist rabbit hole on the internet and were like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been harassed. How come the boys in my class keep getting called on and I don’t? How come I’m being bullied and called a slut, even though I’m only 10 years old?” I think the conversation about feminism that’s raised by people like Miley Cyrus, or anybody who has a big media presence, is great.
So, you’re co-writing a comedy script with your husband (Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys), about the life of Bridget Everett?
HANNA: Yeah, it looks like we’re gonna make a pilot. And I’ve already written a bunch of episodes, so I’m ahead of the game and I’m really excited. Writing comedy, and writing specifically in Bridget’s voice, was the way to have her making me laugh in the room, all the time, when she wasn’t on stage making me laugh. I feel really fortunate for comedy. If you want to watch it, it’s called Bridget Drives the Bus, and it will be coming soon.
The Punk Singer is now playing in limited release, and is available nationwide through VOD.