The Punk Singer starts with singer Kathleen Hanna performing at a spoken word event in 1991 — she says, then shouts, “I am your worst nightmare come to life / I’m a girl you can’t shut up.” It ends with Hanna saying she’s fine with people who aren’t feminists or who don’t believe that her illness — late-stage Lyme disease — exists, but as she states, in the final sentence of the film, “They should have to stay out of my way.” Out Nov. 29 in select theaters and on VOD, the film is a portrait of the grrrl who wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.
“It’s important to me to tell the stories of especially feminist artists while they’re still making work,” said the film’s director, Sini Anderson, in a phone interview. “Female portraits of female artists mid-career.”
Hanna herself saw it a different way: She explained that she agreed to do the documentary because “I thought I was going to die.” After years of sickness, she was diagnosed during filming. “I was preparing to be a statue and be gone,” she said.
Watching the movie, there are some highly questionable links drawn between first- and third-wave feminism and the struggle for racial equality; there are also, notably, few brown faces, which Hanna linked to a problem with Riot Grrrl itself.
“There were a lot of non-productive discussions of race and class as Riot Grrrl was winding down,” she said, describing rooms full of “white girls pointing fingers.”
“That was sort of its demise.”
Still, it’s arresting to see Hanna and the grrrls do all the talking.
“I hope it inspires people, like, even if they totally dislike it, to make something,” Hanna said.
So, even if you totally dislike it, here are 13 reasons you should watch The Punk Singer:
1. The documentary was made by an almost all-women crew, and there’s only one cisgender man interviewed in its 80-minute run.
“It was totally intentional,” said the director, Sini Anderson. “I try to work with as many other women as I can.”
In the photo, Anderson speaks to Tavi Gevinson (left), one of the women interviewed in the film.
2. “Girls to the front” was an actual Bikini Kill policy. The band actively sought to create a physical safe space for women at shows.
As part of this policy, you can see Hanna telling boys “back. Back.” Also, “All boys be cool for once in your lives.”
I teared up.
3. Hanna lets her guard down.
“By the nature of how personal it is, and how vulnerable she allows herself to be,” Anderson said, the film “helps people, especially women, feel less alone.”
4. As part of that, you see her struggling with late-stage Lyme disease.
She talks at length about how she didn’t want to ask for help or acknowledge that she was really sick. As someone puts it in the documentary, Hanna didn’t ask for help because Hanna is “supposed to be the helper,” which is something women know about.
Anderson, who coincidentally was also diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease while making the film, asked Hanna to film herself during a treatment, when neurological issues flare up (speech delays being the most noticeable on film). Or, as Anderson put it, “I asked if she would be willing [to film herself].” The answer could have been “no,” everyone, and that would have been OK, too. #feminism
5. Hanna lets her awkward little girl show.
We’ve all been there.
6. Anderson is a queer filmmaker, and queers get a voice in the movie.
Such as Lynn Breedlove (above), a transgender musician and writer.
Anderson, whose work has mostly focused on the queer community, said, “I think that what Kathleen Hanna does with her art and with her feminism is queer.”
“That’s a very kind thing to say,” Hanna said when she was informed of Anderson’s statement. “I hope that the work that I make is queer-friendly — I know that’s way overused.” She said she sees herself as “challenging binaries of all kinds.”
7. Hanna’s “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” is somewhat vague at times, but it’s a vagueness to live by.
“Because we need to acknowledge that our blood is being spilt; that right now a girl is being raped or battered and it might be me or you or your mom or the girl you sat next to on the bus last Tuesday, and she might be dead by the time you finish reading this. I am not making this up.”
No, you are not making this up.
8. Hanna articulates the fear of being honest as a woman.
At the end of the film, Hanna is talking somewhat indirectly about the various ways she’s been abused. “I wouldn’t want to tell anybody the whole entire story because it sounded crazy,” she says to the camera. “It sounded just, like, too big of a can of worms. Like, who would believe me? And then I was like, other women would believe me.”
9. Then, after all that talk, Hanna doesn’t ever really specify what happened to her. And that’s her choice.
10. Joan Jett is in it, and Joan Jett is a goddess.
11. Hanna and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz have a really sweet relationship, and selfies are only the beginning.
The two of them worked together to write a speech for the VMAs about the sexual assaults that occurred at Woodstock ‘99. Using the VMAs to raise awareness of sexual assault? What?!
The whole speech is not in the movie, but you can watch it here (the speech starts at 2:50). In the movie, you do hear the VMAs crowd shocked into silence. “It definitely sucked the party out of the room,” Howovitz says in the documentary.
12. As Anderson said, “All the things that we were fighting for back then are not fixed.”
Hanna said people don’t find her threatening anymore because Bikini Kill is a thing of the past. “There’s nothing threatening about a statue,” she said. Nonetheless, she’s survived and she’s still making music; her new band, The Julie Ruin, released an album in September.
13. There’s dancing. A lot of it.
I guess this is not strictly a feminist reason to see something.