Every week, Wondering Sound contributor Ami Armstrong recommends a music film available to stream.
“That girl holds her head up so high, I think I want to be her best friend, yeah!” —Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl”
Years ago, I watched a short 1993 documentary online called Bikini Kill in the U.K. 1993. It begins with the voice of Kathleen Hanna speaking to a guy in the audience who called out from the crowd, “It doesn’t matter what gender you are.” Hanna doesn’t withhold her anger as she responds, “Wow, I’m so enlightened now! Oh my god, did you hear what he said? I guess the fact that most women in this room get paid a lot less than men do for the same jobs…that one in four women are raped…or that domestic violence exists…IT MATTERS TO ME and I’m the one with the mic and you’re not.”
Already a fan of her story, I was thrilled when the full-length documentary, The Punk Singer, came out last year. Hanna’s an activist whose creative life impacted a generation of women through her loud, raucous and inspired bravery, and she mysteriously disappeared from the public eye around 2005. Even her contemporaries weren’t sure of the reason, and many were left wondering what happened to the outspoken leader of the ’90s’ riot grrrl girl movement.
The film starts with her entry into performance. After having art projects censored by her college (one being a photo of herself in a child pageant with the word “slut” repeated in the background), Hanna and friends started a gallery that also doubled as a performance space. On very good advice, she turned her poetic spoken-word rants into lyrical punk anthems, which lead to her fronting quite a few bands, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre being the most popular.
In the ’90s I hungrily sought out zines wherever I could find them. The photocopied pages of coarsely pasted images and text offered a short cut answer to questions like “Am I OK? Because I feel on the outside of what everyone is doing.” They let me know, YES! You are not only OK, you are awesome. In the documentary, we see Hanna and her comrades proudly putting together pages of the zine that became Riot Grrrl, a self-published press aggressively committed to the Third Wave feminist agenda of confronting patriarchal double standards and violence against women, and increasing female empowerment through the written word and hard-pounding music.
Reluctant to be the face of the movement and frustrated with the mainstream media’s coverage of her, the band and their political efforts, Hanna called for a press blackout. In 2005, she withdrew from public life to focus on fixing her deteriorating health from an illness that took far too long to diagnose.
Thankfully, Hanna does seem to be on the mend and is about to play some dates with her band the Julie Ruin, after having canceled dates earlier this year. She can be found on Twitter chiming in here and there on feminist issues, as well as her interest in collaborating with Miley Cyrus.
Watch The Punk Singer on Netflix, and watch the trailer below.