Kill Your Idols: The Punk Singer Reviewed

Val Phoenix reviews Sini Anderson's documentary about Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna

There was a time in the early 1990s when Riot Grrrl was the most exciting thing happening in alternative culture, a lo-fi protest against horrendous misogyny: the Anita Hill hearing, the 14 engineering students executed in Montreal, the Kennedy Smith rape trial. And at its glorious, chaotic centre was Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna.

Bikini Kill are long since broken up, and Hanna has moved on to her electronic solo project, as well as the feminist dance pop of Le Tigre, but her story has never been told on film. It’s been a long wait so Sini Anderson’s documentary on the singer, shot between 2010 and 2011, crams a lot in, and, with its plethora of interviewees (too many, I suspect), covers a lot of ground, from Hanna’s early spoken word (which opens the film), through the Riot Grrrl years, to her diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease (after being ill for five years) in 2010.

I hadn’t realised Hanna had been absent from the music scene since 2005, and so the film’s prolonged tease about what exactly kept her off-stage didn’t work for me as a mystery. Still, it’s instructive to know more about this illness and its effects (quite dramatic, as one scene shot by her husband Adam Horovitz shows) on her.

The couple’s budding relationship in the 1990s is narrated by none other than interested onlookers Kim Gordon and Tamra Davis, and it’s amusing to see an opposite-sex couple be so defensive about their attraction, with Hanna worrying how her feminist audience would respond to her getting together with someone responsible for the sexist lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ ‘Girls’. "You can’t help who you fall in love with," she pleads. Amen, sister.

Lynnee Breedlove and JD Samson offer the queer content, such as it is, but Sadie Benning is excised from Le Tigre’s history (check your record sleeves—she was on the first album!). If nothing else, it does make one want to go back and listen to the back catalogue with fresh ears, but it is odd to see a documentary recap all three waves of feminist history, as well as explain what a zine is. Who is the projected audience? Digital age tweenies?

Hanna’s own words and voice are key, as many of her texts, whether zines or lyrics, are quoted and chewed over. Even her anomalous Valley Girl accent is explained, amusingly, as a conscious choice. And when she recalls the illness threatening to sap her of her voice, her greatest weapon, she chokes up and has to break off the interview.

As for the other interviewees, well, there are so many of them that several don’t even merit captions (including Kaia Wilson — I would have liked to have heard what she had to say), while many others, such as Joan Jett, are reduced to bland soundbites.

The relentless tide of hagiographic praise and snapshots of the singer only serves to create a cult of personality around her, something she persistently resisted in her years with Bikini Kill. That’s a shame, because while she is in inspiring figure, the message of Riot Grrrl, and feminism in general, has always been to go out and do it yourself, rather than worshipping someone else for doing so.

Interestingly, when I viewed the film the atrium of the BFI was occupied by Allyson Mitchell’s Killjoy’s Kastle, specially installed for the duration of BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival, in which the artist considers the by-products of lesbian-feminism – the cast-offs, the debates and the stereotypes generated – in a witty and incisive way. It would be instructive to note how many by-products of third wave feminism currently hold sway. It seems that the strategy now is less original cultural production and much more reaction to pop culture. Social media offers quick and timely messages, but is it more powerful than the clubs, the gigs, the zines, in short, the live experiences of yore? Is there a digital equivalent for Girls to the Front? Surely not, Girls to the Front?

The documentary missed an opportunity to offer more current-day context for Hanna, her peers and followers’ activities. As her musical adventures continue to the present with The Julie Ruin, it would be a shame to consign this Riot Grrrl to a period of blunt-fringed herstory.

Click here for more information on The Punk Singer

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