Recently at a New York deli, a woman called the employees idiots and said both they and the way they cooked her food were disgusting. Kathleen Hanna, long a powerful voice for human decency as frontwoman for influential ‘90s punk band Bikini Kill, was there. And she couldn’t stand by in silence.
“I actually got up in this woman’s face and called her some really bad names,” says Hanna, now the singer of the Julie Ruin and the subject of the documentary “The Punk Singer,” opening Dec. 6, by phone from New York. “Her behavior was horrifying, and we ended up not getting our food because she was acting like such a jerk that we just left. As we were walking away, I just walked right up to her and told her what I thought of her. It was partially because the people working behind the counter maybe couldn’t say, ‘Hey, I think you’re a real jerk’ because they could lose their jobs. But I wasn’t working and I had the ability to say that, and if I worked there I would want to see somebody walk up and tell that person what an asshole they were. And I did; I told her she was an asshole.
“And some other choice words which I won’t repeat.”
That social action won’t be surprising to anyone who sees “The Punk Singer,” which charts the life and career of the now 45-year-old Hanna, focusing on not just Hanna’s bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre but her role in the Riot Grrrl movement, her marriage to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and her friendship with Kurt Cobain that led to her inspiring “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by spray-painting “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on a wall.
Something depressing that came to mind watching “The Punk Singer” is the fact that the movie deals with some things that happened 20 years ago, yet a lot of the women’s issues are still very prevalent and the music industry is not better. How should I feel about that?
[Laughs] I think you should be pissed, and you should start a petition on Change.org. No, you should go out in the street and scream! I don’t know. I mean, I feel totally crazy. I feel the same way I did in the ‘90s. I’m like, “Really, you’re challenging abortion again? What other amendments are we going to just go after?” It’s absolutely insane. I hear these young girls who are in bands talking about the sexism and the racism that they’re experiencing and I’m just like really annoyed, but at the same time I go to shows and there actually is female participation. There’s way more women in bands; there’s way more women in audiences. When we first started playing there’d be like three women, maybe five women at a show. And that’s something positive that’s really changed. And the other thing is just that women in bands are talking about what they’re experiencing. They might not be writing songs about it, but when they do press they’re like, “I am experiencing this sexism on the Internet” or “I feel as a woman of color I’m put in this one box, and I don’t want to be in that box.” So it’s great that that’s happening ‘cause I didn’t see that happening in the ‘90s. I wanted to end on a positive note with that question. [Laughs]
On the overall spectrum of how far there is to go, between some of the stuff in the movie and how far we’ve come since then, have we covered a lot of the ground or are we maybe only 25 percent of the way toward what needs to change?
I think that it’s always one step forward and [two steps] back. History really is not linear. It goes through waves, especially with feminism, where people are really interested in it again and I think now is one of those times. I mean, Miley Cyrus just came out saying, “I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world.” When does it happen when a young pop star does that? Whether you love her or you hate her, it’s pretty interesting that she’s using that word and that’s such a mainstream context.
Were you happy or unhappy when you heard that?