The Punk Singer Shines Light on Riot Grrrl Queen

Aria Dean

To many, the band Bikini Kill embodies the essence of riot grrrl, the early ’90s punk feminist movement. Moreover, Kathleen Hanna, the band’s lead singer, has long been regarded as the face and voice of the scene. The Punk Singer, directed by Sini Anderson, looks back on Hanna’s long career as a musician, activist and icon, taking viewers on a deeply personal and fascinating tour of an important moment in music and feminist history.

The film’s narration of Hanna’s life and career is riveting in a way that many biographical documentaries fail to match. Those familiar with Hanna’s work likely know her as the kick-ass, unapologetic punk heroine and frontwoman of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. But in the film, for every moment of praise for Hanna’s fearlessness in the face of hatred and criticism, we are reminded of the intense toll it took on her. In 2005, Hanna mysteriously ended her music career. Her fans wondered why she, as someone with so much to say, would ever stop speaking out. Through intimate interviews with friends, colleagues, admirers and Hanna herself, Anderson sheds light on the abrupt end of Hanna’s career. Her reasons for withdrawing from the spotlight cast an interesting shadow over the rest of her career, and we are forced to consider the great burden of being a cultural and political icon.

The film’s many interviews also aid Anderson in fleshing out a vivid account of the riot grrrl scene and the resurgence of the feminist movement in the early ’90s. Riot grrrl has, in recent years, found its way back into pop culture by way of teenage girls rediscovering its aesthetic — you can look at Tumblr or zine culture for proof. But The Punk Singer reminds us that there was so much more to the movement than DIY publications and miniskirts. The women of the riot grrrl movement and their male-bodied allies are refreshing to watch in their earnest dedication to their cause. It feels particularly important right now as things like safe spaces and subverting traditional gender politics have become such frequently discussed topics.

Hanna, her friends, band members and colleagues were true activists in the way that they performed and lived their lives. For instance, Hanna made a point to invite all the women and girls at her shows to the front of the crowd, pushing the men to the back and creating a legitimately safe environment for the performers and their female fans. Simple but controversial actions such as this are exemplary of Hanna’s strength as a musician and an icon.

See the film at the Apollo Theatre Dec. 10.