“She was the first woman to say, ‘hey this is what feminism is going to look like now…'”
The Punk Singer, a documentary about musician and activist Kathleen Hanna, looks at the punk fraction of third wave feminism and the Riot Grrrl movement in the 1990’s.
Riot Grrrl was an underground feminist punk movement originated in Washington during the transition into third wave feminism. The movement combined feminism with punk style and politics and focused on individuality, identity and expressionism rather than the law – which was the second waves primary focus.
Kathleen Hanna as a young teen began to channel her feminism and anger about gender and society in the form of art; such as exhibitions, catwalks and finally punk music. Her first band Bikini Kill was formed to actively spread feminist ideas and awareness regarding sexism, rape and violence against women. Their style attracted a lot of media attention as well as recognition from the public. People began to ask about this young valley girl that wore mini skirts with biker boots and screamed about injustice on stage. Sexist in itself, the media disregarded these punk-fem women as troubled rape victims who were acting out due to their build up of emotions. One publication falsely reported that Hanna stated she had been sexually assaulted by her father.
Riot Grrrl turned into a collective consciousness of young, intellectual and angry women in the 90’s that were struggling to express their identities or see any progressive political change since the second wave. Feminism was at a standstill, culture and arts were changing but nothing was evolving in terms of ideologies and the spaces for women in society. The law said it was illegal to sexually assault a woman, but it failed to not question how short the victims skirt was during the attack.
Riot Grrrls were scouted amongst the underbelly, subculture spaces such as music venues and art galleries, this is where bands like Bikini Kill fit into a movement that stood in solidarity against sexism with women of colour and trans women. The Punk Singer shows the importance of volume for Kathleen Hanna and all Riot Grrrls. Whether it be physical volume such as writing words like ‘SLUT’ on your body or actual volume that you can see in footage of Bikini Kill concerts. Hanna addresses the assault that women face during music events which often goes unreported and talks about creating a safe space for women to enjoy music at their gigs. Her outrageous and vocal character inspired women and men but unfortunately attracted scrutiny and death threats. Bikini Kill’s ambitions were never to become an iconic band but only to spread a message, however, they were still overshadowed by the cute and conservative girl power that Spice Girls we representing in the 90’s.
Bikini Kill broke up in 1999, however Kathleen Hanna continued to pursue her punk feminism in Le Tigre and as a solo artist. She is now known for her activism and feminist writing as well as music.