Watching Sini Anderson's short, sharp, punk-rock documentary on the herstory of Kathleen Hanna, the ultra-charismatic co-founder of the third-wave feminist riot grrrl movement and full-on DIY icon, is a frustrating experience. That’s not because of the director's aesthetic, which hews close to Hanna's own stylistically abrasive-yet-inclusive take on gender inequalities (both deep in and far outside of the punk scene), but because when seen in contrast to the ongoing American “war on women” the regrettable fact is that not a lot has changed since Hanna formed her first ’zine and then band, Bikini Kill, in 1990. Some things, in Texas, particularly, have actually gotten worse.
And yet seeing the sprite-sized Hanna bounce across Nineties-era stages, pigtails flopping, vitriol spewing, and having the kind of righteously angry punk-rock fun you rarely encounter these days, is still perfectly electrifying. It’s a call to arms for girls (and boys) that resonates and inspires, despite its archival nature. Time magazine famously asked “Is Feminism Dead?” The Punk Singer's resounding answer is a defiant “Fuck, no!” (Hanna’s current band, the Julie Ruin, recently played Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest and were, unsurprisingly, explosively excellent.)
Anderson cogently manages the not inconsiderable feat of placing Hanna and the riot grrrl movement in a historical feminist perspective – 1848's Seneca Falls Convention, Gloria Steinem and 1972's failed bid for the Equal Rights Amendment, Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas, and so on – while explaining and examining riot grrrls’ birth pains and ongoing legacy. Interview footage with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Sleater Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, Joan Jett, Bratmobile's Alison Wolfe, and Hanna's husband Beastie Boy, Adam Horovitz, provide key details on how the mosh pit boy's club of Eighties hardcore gave way to Hanna's growlingly revolutionary pretty-in-punk theatrics and manifestos. Plenty of the former didn't care for the movement's barbed-wire love and passionately pro-femme idealism, but by 1991 – the year punk broke – Hanna's shouty unambiguousness transformed into a cultural roar. (Later, Hanna wryly notes, it morphed again, this time into Le Tigre, the feminist party band.)
Stricken with what was eventually diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease and emotionally exhausted after years in a touring and media whirlwind, Hanna dropped out of public view in 2005. The Punk Singer (and the formation of the Julie Ruin) offers a welcome return to, if not the fray, then certainly the front – where, as every rebel girl worth her combat boots knows, girls belong.