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What I Watched Last Night: The Punk Singer

Delve into riot grrrl history with this documentary on Kathleen Hanna.

As a punk fan born in late 1983, I’ve always lamented being a smidge too young to have experienced the riot grrrl movement firsthand. The idea of these raw, angry feminist young women tearing up stages, screaming about patriarchy and rape culture, and making bros move to the sides so that women could stand near the stage all seem so amazing. Maybe I’m romanticizing it a little, but it seems like the most wonderful thing in the world.

Since I don’t have a time machine (yet?), I have to settle for books and movies about the era. So last night I booted up Old Reliable (my Macbook) to watch The Punk Singer, a 2013 documentary about Kathleen Hanna.

Poster for "The Punk Singer"

This is a very well-done film. It covers Hanna from her days at Evergreen State College, and discusses what led her to found Bikini Kill, that band’s eventual break-up, her time with Le Tigre, and her relationship with (and eventual marriage to) Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz. This information isn’t necessarily new, but it’s great to hear about it straight from the source, as well as through interviews with bandmates, friends, and other artists like Joan Jett and Kim Gordon.

What the documentary really investigates, however, is Hanna’s abrupt disappearance from the public eye in 2005. The movie reveals that toward the middle of the aughts, she was experiencing unexplained illnesses and symptoms which contributed to the end of Le Tigre. It turned out she was (is) suffering from late-stage Lyme disease, which was not diagnosed until 2010.

Clocking in at 81 minutes, the film manages to cover many years of life and history without dragging or feeling too condensed. There is also a nice array of interview subjects, including  familiar faces like Gloria Steinem, riot grrrl contemporaries like Carrie Brownstein, and nouveau feministas like Tavi Gevinson. You really get a sense of how Hanna, as well as her peers, had a lasting effect on women everywhere.

This is a must-watch for anyone interested in punk and/or feminism. The Punk Singer is currently streaming on Netflix.

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

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