The Punk Singer | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Punk Singer

A new documentary looks at Kathleen Hanna, her band Bikini Kill and the 1990s riot-grrl scene

"I'm a girl who you can't shut up!" Thus chants a young Kathleen Hanna, captured on video at a 1991 spoken-word event. Prophetic words from the woman who went on to form the punk group Bikini Kill and help found the riot-grrl movement, becoming the reluctant but confrontational spokesperson for a new generation of feminists.

Hanna's journey is recounted in Sini Anderson's bio-doc, The Punk Singer. The film draws most of its power from archival footage of Bikini Kill's mid-'90s heyday in Olympia, Wash., and later, Washington, D.C., as well as extensive contemporary interviews with Hanna. Anderson also interviews Hanna's colleagues, big-sister mentors like Kim Gordon and Joan Jett, plus a couple of journalists.

"We're gonna take over the punk-rock scene for feminists."

Bikini Kill had a raw energy, fronted by the charismatic Hanna, who shouted lyrics about rape and gender identity. At shows, girls were encouraged to come to the front, to be more involved and to quell the male-driven mosh-pit scene. Zines and flyers were distributed. A new fashion sensibility found power in girlhood. A manifesto for the riot-grrl movement was produced.

Given that riot grrl was a movement designed to empower women everywhere on a variety of lo-fi platforms (scribbling a zine, dressing ugly-girlie-cool, meeting up with others), it would have been interesting to ferret out Hanna's impact on those beyond her immediate circle.

Bikini Kill broke up in 1997, and Hanna re-grouped with the dancier three-piece Le Tigre. There were videos and world tours, and she married a Beastie Boy. Then in 2005, Hanna stopped performing, and the noisiest of the riot grrls disappeared from the scene.

The energy peters out in the final third — both for Hanna, who suffers a health crisis, and for the film, which focuses almost exclusively on this personal struggle. This might have been a good place to update the broader context explored in the earlier segments: Wither riot grrrls and third-wave feminism?

Yet despite its omissions, there's an important story here. Hanna, Bikini Kill and other early riot-grrl bands were quickly subsumed by male-dominated grunge, and many of the issues raised by the movement remain unresolved. Just as riot grrls had to dig out dusty texts to see what their forebears achieved, so too is this history worth revisiting. Critical viewing for those who seek positive change — both boys and grrls.

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