Directed by Sini Anderson, The Punk Singer avoids the pitfalls of trying to tell the whole riot grrrl story and wisely focuses on the life of, Kathleen Hanna, who was a generative force in the movement. For a more general overview of the scene, seek out Don't Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl as a follow up doc, or holler at any one of the dozens of books on the topic. In telling Hanna’s whole arc so far, Anderson presents someone who transcends all the buzzwords that have been attached to her, and even many of the perceptions her fans might have of her.
Everyone has their blindspots, ways that they are inconsiderate of others, and this film, more than any other I’ve covered in this column, challenged me in unexpected and beneficial ways. Bikini Kill, Hanna’s first band, got a reputation for demanding "girls to the front" and pushing the boys to the back. It was a forceful and much needed reclamation of the meat-headed physicality that had dominated the punk scene by the early ‘90s. The "girls to the front" mentality forced men to check their privilege and confront the fact that their shenanigans were ruining the show for the women in the room.
By incorporating first person narratives about sexual violence and objectification into much of her creative output, from music and zines to her fashion, Hanna dedicated a massive chunk of her career to ripping away the male privilege of ignorance. In doing so, she becoming an amplifier for many voices that hadn't been heard before.
Hanna challenges preconceptions in more subtle ways too, opening herself up emotionally for the camera and discussing moments of doubt and insecurity in the wake of Bikini Kill. It shouldn’t be as much of a revelation as it is to see such a complex portrayal of a woman, but it was truly breathtaking at times. It’s impossible to not be affected when a woman who literally tossed men off the stage night after night is forced to accept being diagnosed with something as debilitating as late stage Lyme disease. The only time she tears up even a little across the numerous interviews that were recorded for the film is when she talks about how she told everyone that she wanted to stop making music and touring with her group Le Tigre when it was the Lyme disease sidelining her, and not any lack of ambition.
There are some sad parallels that can be made between the experiences that Hanna endured during the rise of Bikini Kill and the current way that women are treated online. In the film, Hanna points out that personal details from her past, both real and fabricated, were exposed by the press. For being outspoken, she received death threats as well as other forms of psychological abuse from anonymous critics. Right around the time that The Punk Singer was released, the Gamergate controversy was in its infancy, which flows from the same place of sexist regression resulting from women even slightly encroaching on male-dominated spaces. The worlds of video games and punk rock share the dubious honor of having a vocal minority of misogynist dick heads in their ranks.
What I liked about The Punk Singer most was that it managed to fold in history lessons and heady concepts, but never got bogged down with the potential academic heft. By putting Hanna in the center of everything, making her story the engine that drives everything else, you get this sincere and heartfelt individual with a body of uncompromising artistic output on whom you can hang asides about third-wave feminism, the male gaze, and rape-culture, infusing them with a deeply relatable life force. The film is about all those things and more, but its story is one that easily transcends a target audience of strictly feminists.