This interview is part of a double feature on the film The Punk Singer. Please check out Denah Johnston’s review of the film.
Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk rock feminist band “Bikini Kill,” was certainly outspoken and a welcoming voice. It seems like in 2005 when she stopped performing was a watershed year for a lot of activist feminism ending. Would you agree?
Yes, I think it was kind of right around the time when I think things started to quiet down a lot.
Any ideas why?
Yeah, I have my own theory. I think political depression plays into that a lot. We had a couple of years fighting the [Iraq] war with Bush. Just like anything else if you feel you are not making progress and your voice isn’t heard, political depression sets in. And I think that definitely you’re experiencing some of that around 2004-2005.
In your documentary The Punk Singer, a film about Kathleen Hanna, you show a cover for Time Magazine with Ally McBeal representing the “new feminism”. That was a time when Kathleen was active, correct?
Yes, that was that was in the late 90’s.
You could actually put that cover out in 2005 and it would probably have the same message, feminism seems to be so watered down anyway.
Yeah, and like I said, that was in the 90’s. I think that was the closet thing to feminist representation in the media we had. And I don’t know if the actress that plays Ally McBeal is a feminist or not, but it was feeling kind of weak to point to that. I can’t really remember that whole article, but I feel like that was a mock on modern day feminism. So that was happening in the 90s and that was really motivating Kathleen and a lot of her peers to rise above it and create a new wave of feminism, which was the beginning of Third Wave feminism.
Well I’m glad she did and there is some wonderful archival footage and interviews with musicians, including Joan Jett. That was amazing, to see her.
I just think that Joan Jett is so fantastic.
Yes, and she hasn’t stopped either. What’s great about the archival footage is hearing the perspective of the women and also hearing that when Bikini Kill performed, the men where asked to move to the back and women were allowed to come up front. It was just totally great that the punk band movement was pretty close to women, since the men were taking over the scene and fighting, and saying it was all their fault.
Yes, Kathleen was really the strongest voice in the beginning of Third Wave feminism in that movement. And really daring to be outspoken enough to say, “All women to the front.” That hadn’t been done before.
I know she was really big in Stockholm and had a huge following; the whole Riot Grrrl movement was very big when I lived there. The fanzines were very big too. Women wrote dissertations about that.
They still are.
Yes, and your film is certainly inspiring for women to dig more into that. You have some great interviews and great ways of setting up a documentary. Docs have kind of a formula, but you do some of your interviews in a camper.
Yes, that was a van that was parked outside of the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. There was a tribute show for Kathleen, where 21 bands were performing covers of her songs. After they got off stage, they would go out to the van, and I would interview them for about six minutes until the next band was done. It was a big production night for us with five cameras and interviews for about eight hours straight.
You also have some great narrative devices, like telling us the story of Riot Grrrl from a radio on the ground by an outdoor swimming pool.
Yes, the opening shots of the film.
Well, you’re local (San Francisco) but not local (Brooklyn) with a lot of credits such as the Harvey Milk Institute and the National Queer Arts Festival.
Yeah, I kind of grew up as an artist in SF and I used to do something called Sister Spit there. Then I got involved with queer politics and art there a lot. When I left there eight years ago, I was the co-director of the National Queer Arts Festival and president of the board of directors of the Harvey Milk Institute.
You’re working on another doc, I Spit on Your Country, Sister Spit
That’s true but it’s not in production yet. I am working on a doc on late stage Lyme disease. The working title is Sick and it’s a feminist perspective of many artists with late-stage Lyme disease right now. In the documentary, Kathleen says that she was diagnosed with this, which is one of the reasons she quit performing in 2005. Today she has a new band called The Julie Ruin.