So once upon a time there was a punk singer. She started a band and preached the message of girl love and feminism to audiences filled with teenage girls and disinterested men alike. From punk rocker to voice of a generation, she faded out of the limelight leaving everyone questioning what happened to the punk singer? Does she know we care? Does she know at all?
All those questions and more were answered at the BFI film festival which held the first UK screening of the Kathleen Hanna documentary The Punk Singer, a chronicle of the iconic front woman’s life and history. Directed by Sini Anderson, the film was way overdue given all the Hanna fans in the room.
I mean, do I need to tell you that she may have inspired me a teeny bit. Anyone who’s even glanced at this blog in the countless years it’s been up, too long sometimes, will know that Hanna’s always had a place in my heart. Obviously everything about the riot grrrl movement was inspirational but for a majority of good and bad reasons Hanna became the poster girl for riot grrrl and therefore the focus point for every girl who wanted to feel like they could shout louder, sing harder and be stronger than they ever could before.
Along with this admiration Hanna has received a barrage of criticism from the music press, the usual crowd of anti-feminists and fellow feminists. The juxtaposition of being adored and despised was a hard cross to bear for Hanna who in the film stated that the only thing that kept her going at some times were the fans that would write to her claiming that her music saved their lives.
Even if you’re not a fan of Hanna or her work her unconventional life story will keep you hooked from start to finish. The Punk Singer takes us through Hanna’s tumultuous life from her rocky upbringing (one story about her mother pretty much sums up Hanna’s personality) to her rise to fame in Bikini Kill, the riot grrrl movement, her relationship with her now husband, Adam Horovitz, and her poor health in later life. Hanna suffered with undiagnosed Lyme disease for years and still suffers from the disease today.
Fans are treated to a more personal view of Hanna then they ever expected to see. The Punk Singer shows backstage footage of Bikini Kill in their heyday (you even hear Billy talk!!! Man that was a guy who definitely knew his place in a band full of girls), Hanna talking openly and honestly about the moment she realised she was dating the guy who wrote ‘girls, girls, girls do my laundry’ and even shows her in the hospital getting treatment for Lyme disease.
The film was almost perfect, but then nothing ever is perfect and I went from adoring Hanna to worrying about what feminists were actually taking from the movie. An interviewee, Jennifer Baumgardner author and activist, rounded up the feminist movement in such a way that it fell into the trap that white second wave feminists fell into years ago by separating race and gender; in effect denying the black feminist experience.
Baumgardner stated that the first wave feminists began their political enlightenment in the abolitionist movement and turned their ‘race consciousness’ on themselves. Similarly she described the second wave feminists in the 60s and 70s as participants in the anti-racism movements who turned ‘race consciousness’ on themselves.
This argument concludes that race and gender are separate and continues the mainstream feminist movement’s consistent theme of ignoring black women, our work and issues. Let’s not even get started on the fact that the abolitionists were not fighting for race equality as we see it now and did not view black women as equals. It was a white feminist who was so disgusted that Sojourner Truth, a black feminist, was speaking at a feminist conference that she demanded and screamed for her to stop speaking. It was, and still is, white feminists who strategically ignored black feminists work, theories and issues.
Now you could say I’m over reacting; it was only 30 seconds of the whole film but I think it set a precedent. I didn’t walk into this movie expecting race analysis. It’s literally the Kathleen Hanna show I get that. The woman deserves it frankly and since so much of the riot grrrl cultural aesthetic has seeped into the modern age it’s only right one of its main leaders gets the praise she deserves. What isn’t right though is that we continue the white feminist stance of ignoring black feminist work/ thought / analysis. The riot grrrl movement has been routinely criticised for doing just this but it seems the feminist movement wants to continue this. What I saw was a brilliant movie about a music legend but it also featured no people of colour and had a section that completely disregarded women of colour in the movement.
I want Hanna to be remembered, I think she is important to every woman and man and girl and boy but she should be remembered and analysed correctly. For one reason or another Hanna has now become more than one woman. She represents a point in time in the feminist movement and everyone’s views on the movement are scribbled all over her in marker pen; covering up what was left of the woman. She’s a cultural sponge for whatever you want her to be but I don’t want her to represent the white feminist movement. I refuse to let her be their spokeswoman because she’s my idol too and a hell of a lot of other black women admire her too. She’s always been more than just a white feminist spokeswoman and has spoken out on a lot of topics. From Hanna we look for inspiration and hope but let’s create some of our own so we can admire her without repeating the mistakes of the past.
For more information: www.thepunksinger.com