On Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer (2013)

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by Jacqueline Valencia

“Some people have certain things they wanna do and this is what I wanna do. And if anyone doesn’t wanna listen, they can go away.” – Kathleen Hanna (in The Punk Singer)

When a subject talks, empowerment begins. In Sini Anderson’s debut documentary feature The Punk Singer, is a charged work that inexorable, not just in its making, but in its engagement with its audience through its exploration of its subject. The film is a look at Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman, and one of the rebel pioneers of the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Through an extensive collection of archival footage and interviews, the film traverses the life of Hanna from her art school beginnings, her feminist influences, her time with Bikini Kill and her various musical incarnations.

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While the film borders adulatory in tone, its thesis is solid: Kathleen Hanna remains an outspoken feminist icon birthed in the cultural firepit of the 1990s where women were often dismissed or forgotten. Showcased through audio mashups of concertgoer interviews, a mosher rationalizes his mistreatment of women in the mosh pit:

“I don’t think it’s a problem, ‘cause most of the girls ask for it…They way they act. The way they…I can’t say the way they dress, ‘cause that’s their own personal choice. Some dumb ‘hoes, these butt rocker bitches walking down the street…They’re asking for it. They deny it, but it’s true.” “No we are not paranoid. No we are not manhaters. No we are not worrying too much. No we are not taking too seriously.”

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Hanna’s counterpoint to that was to demand that the women at her shows would come upfront while the guys were made to stay at the back. This angered a few, but for those that understood, it was a long time coming.While staying true to Hanna’s feminist roots, the film also takes into account that not a lot of people are aware of the movements that sparked a moment like that. The audience is treated to a quick feminism 101 timeline of first to third wave feminism, the latter being defined as a women who’s identifiable. Her agency lies in the way she chooses to exert her power or the way she chooses to battle the powers that be. Hanna certainly encompasses that ideology, not just in her music and celebrity, but in the way she espouses control over her identity.

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Hanna grew up with a strong mother who worked for violence against women. Her exposure to the inequalities women face was tangible, her expression against that were powerful. Concert shown in the film, portray Hanna as sexual, combative, intelligent, and provocateur with a message. However, the media not used to a woman in her position would often distort views on her behaviour often looking into her past without her disclosure. In a few scenes in the The Punk Singer, Hanna relates the press revealing her father’s sexual inappropriateness with her as incest. While her story seems genuine, Anderson’s portrayal of her alludes to strongly to Hanna’s implication that her story is hers to tell and defining is up to her and not up to the world. It’s both a revealing insight into the artist’s mind, but also a lesson on how everyone’s story is theirs to tell. Revealing interviews of Hanna’s real reason for leaving the music scene and the medical reasons behind it show a woman who’s still true to herself while open enough to change for the sake of personal evolution.

The power in The Punk Singer is that it gives Kathleen Hanna her much deserved place in rock history. However, this is also part the film’s minor setback. Sina Anderson films a deeply felt fan letter and in such, it fails to explore its subject in unbiased way. Her friendships with Kurt Cobain, Joan Jett, and Sonic Youth are a treat to see. The punk-ish courtship and marriage to Beastie BoysAdam Horovitz (please don’t ever split up), is sweet to peak into. Yet not much is said beyond the mention of anything in the film though. I get that it’s a huge thing to make a feature about a female feminist icon in one of the most underrated periods in modern music. There’s just so much to be said about the reasonings why we still need the riot grrrl screaming about the injustices she faces everyday, the forces that work against her simply trying to exist, and the power in self-ownership of her sexuality. Is feminism dead? Hell no, women will  always be here and that songs will continue to be written, continue to be heard, and somewhere Kathleen Hanna, with all her natural charisma and progressive exuberance, will be stomping her way owning that shit like she invented it.

I am huge fan of Bikini Kill, I enjoyed this immensely. The Punk Singer, while lacking in exploratory depth in its essay form, is an informative entertaining view of a time we should never forget because we’re still living it.

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Punk Publishers Take DIY Ethics To Bookstores: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-03-15/features/0103150012_1_punk-rock-zine-al-burian

The Julie Ruin Channel Super 8 Nostalgia in ‘Goodnight, Goodbye’ Clip:  http://www.rollingstone.com/music/videos/the-julie-ruin-channel-super-8-nostalgia-in-goodnight-goodbye-clip-20140207#ixzz2vPr8vj9j 

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