Interview: Kathleen Hanna on sexism at shows, being like George W. Bush, and her Riot Grrrl lecture at the Wilbur
UPDATE: April 9 has been declared “Riot Grrrl Day” by the City of Boston in honor of Kathleen Hanna’s discussion.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap] scene in The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary about Kathleen Hanna, finds Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz reminiscing about the time he saw his future wife in a video interview. She was wearing a ski mask and standing in a stairwell.
“I was like, what the fuck is going on?” he says, clearly enamored. “This is some serious shit.”
In the two decades since she founded Bikini Kill, Hanna’s raw aggression and unassailable cool have inspired many a ski mask moment. In the ’90s, she was the figurehead of the budding Riot Grrrl movement, the photogenic face of a new kind of feminism — one that happened to appear above a chestal region marked up by words like “incest” and “slut.” In a decade made perky by a sax-tooting, neoliberal president, Hanna was there to remind us that the feminism was just as urgent and necessary as ever.
My own ski mask moment happened when Le Tigre, Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill band, headlined Ladyfest Midwest. A gaggle of shirtless women rushed the stage to dance along to “Hot Topic,” a song that name-checks feminists like Angela Davis and the Slits. What the fuck was going on? Whatever it was, it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and remains so all these years later.
After Le Tigre broke up in 2005, Hanna took a hiatus, the reasons for which were revealed in the documentary: she suffered from a debilitating case of Lyme disease. Following her diagnosis, Hanna stopped performing for a while, re-emerging in 2010 with a reboot of one of her previous projects, The Julie Ruin. At their show at the Sinclair last year, a couple hundred women and a few dozen men danced with the same enthusiasm as those topless ladies did so long ago.
In advance of her upcoming speaking gig at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on April 9, I called Hanna at her home in New York City to discuss a variety of topics.
Eugenia Williamson: Would it be creepy if I told you I had several pictures of you on my wall while I was in college?
Kathleen Hanna: Not at all. I’m so awesome I’d have pictures of me on my wall, too.
So where’d you get the bunny sweater?
I’m pretty sure I bought it at that giant thrift store in Allston.
Yeah, I think.
What can people expect when they come to your talk?
I think they can expect me to talk about the music I’ve made and the things I’ve been politically involved in. The talk is called “Riot Grrrl Then and Now,” and it’s my personal story of being somebody who was around this loose-knit, feminist punk movement as it started, and watching it deteriorate and fall apart. I made the decision that my contribution needed to be more musical than political. My music was enough, politically. Art matters. Art was enough. My music was enough to say what I had to say. It was important that I was a part of the organizing, like, the early stuff in Riot Grrrl, but once it started going identity politics gone wild, I was just, like, I can’t deal with this anymore.
It’s really weird when you have no power in an organization, but everybody looks to you as if you’re the president. That’s kind of what happened. I was George W. Bush. I hate comparing myself to him, but I was, like, the really cool, awesome George W. Bush. There were chapters all over the world. There are even chapters springing up now. We didn’t even have computers. We didn’t have cellphones. I wasn’t in touch with many people; I was pen pals with some people from the Minneapolis group, and I was pen pals with some people from the L.A. group, and some people in Berkeley who didn’t have a Riot Grrrl chapter but were doing some amazing stuff. I wasn’t barking out orders to them — I only attended five riot girl meetings. But I saw it from the inside and from the outside.
It was a really strange thing to go through in my twenties. It was a learning experience that I want to share with people. I’m sure there will be other political organizers there and other feminists who’ve come up against some of the same obstacles that I have. It’s kind of fun to, as the cliché goes, take lemons and make lemonade. All of the sexist shit I had to deal with or otherwise shit means I get to stand there and get paid to inspire people to start their own movement or start their own band or blog or whatever they want to do.
Did the shit you’re talking about happen within or outside the movement?
Both. In Bikini Kill in the ’90s, we were very shocked that so many people were freaked out by us. We thought they would be, like, psyched. We weren’t meaning to be prescriptive; telling people what to do was the last point on our agenda. We really were just kind of these fucked up young punks doing this experiment — even just the idea of “girls to the front” was an experiment. We thought people would enjoy it because punk had turned into hardcore, which is very straight, white, male, mosh pit, blah blah blah. We thought, “If we challenge that it’ll be really punk rock, and we’ll bring the punk back to punk rock, and everybody will be really happy because punk will be punk again!” But people were not as happy as we thought they were going to be.
In Riot Grrrl, with women-only meetings, people were like, “How dare you have meetings without guys?” I’ve been a stripper before. I was like, are you gonna talk about all-female locker rooms at a strip bar? Are you going to talk about all-female soccer locker rooms? Do you want to be in there, too? There’s so much space that doesn’t say “this is straight white male space” on it, but you walk in and you feel it and you think “this is not safe.”
I sometimes get the same sort of vibe from Twitter.
It’s so sad. If you were cool, you’d just be like, “I’m going to listen to this and learn from it. I’m so lucky that these feminists are teaching me about their experiences, and even if I’m not someone who harasses women or rapes women or treats them differently on the job, I’m glad to hear what your experience is, so that maybe I can give assistance in some way. I could call out my male friends.”
I got into a Twitter thing a couple of weeks ago, and it was like a Not All Men kind of flavor thing. This woman jumped in and started getting on this guy, and I was like, “If feminism doesn’t need to exist, why does rape sill exist?” And he was like, “But men are raped, too!” They’re always so defensive. I was really happy to let the guy go on and on, because he kept proving all of our points. Everything he said was worse and worse and worse male chauvinist pig-style. I was like, thanks for proving all of our points.
I felt that way about guys at Bikini Kill shows who yelled, “Take it off!” At first I was super mad, and I just wanted to beat them all up. In some cases, I would physically escort them out because I just didn’t want to hear it. Later, as we got into Le Tigre territory and only occasionally did stuff like that happen, I started to realize that it was actually good. Sexism and racism and homophobia and classism are so naturalized. All these stereotypes make people think it’s just normal that straight white men are getting all the breaks. When someone stands up at your show and says take it off, it’s like, “Thank you for letting everybody know that sexism is alive and well in this room and in punk rock and even though we’re supposed to be living this alternative lifestyle that what I’m still doing is very important because, look, this guy exists, and there’s a lot of guys in this room who are thinking the exact same thing.” This guy deserves credit, because he’s participating.
But I almost feel like lack of participation pisses me off more than people having really conservative, idiotic viewpoints. At least if you don’t know any better and call it out and someone calls you back on it—I hate to sound like a total old fart, but it’s like, teaching moment. Without people being willing to say what they think, there’s no conversation.
Does that hold true for Men’s Rights Activists?
I hate reading that crap.
Surely this doesn’t still happen at Julie Ruin shows?
Nah. Occasionally, someone will yell something annoying about Kurt Cobain or whatever, but it’s not that bad.
Tavi Gevinson was interviewed in The Punk Singer. How does it feel knowing that something you started in the ’90s is still influencing teenage women? Does Riot Grrrl have the same meaning now as it did then? I think it’s sort of depressing that we haven’t moved forward as a culture enough that would warrant something else.
In certain Riot Grrrl chapters — not to say that I was at every meeting! — there was a real desire to be intersectional, to talk about race and class as we were talking about feminism, but that didn’t always happen. A lot of people felt very excluded. I wouldn’t like to see that happen again. Don’t do Riot Grrrl Part II. Look at it and poke at it and ask where the mistakes are and where we can do better. That makes me excited.
It’s only been 20 years. Our country does change pretty damn quick, and I feel like it’s exciting that people are talking about Riot Grrrl. I’m a feminist musician and I haven’t disappeared. That’s actually great. In other generations, feminist musicians maybe had one song people listened to for a minute and then were like, bye! Ten years later, nobody remembers them. The fact that people still need feminist punk is kind of sad, but I was under no illusions that sexism was gonna end.