Kathleen Hanna Is My Absolute Favorite Fantasy Best Friend

But this is my second time interviewing her -- that automatically makes us BFFs, right? A little? No? Anyway, here's what the feminist punk icon has to say about riot grrrl, Lyme disease, "Scandal," and the new movie about her.

Nov 23, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

Kathleen Hanna has been one of my biggest idols since I was first introduced to riot grrrl in college in the early-mid ’90s. (Bikini Kill, Hanna’s legendary punk band, actually came to play at my school then, but I MISSED IT -- I will nevereverEVER stop kicking myself over that egregious fail.)

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Kathleen Hanna is the subject of a new documentary, "The Punk Singer," by director Sini Anderson.


ICYMI, riot grrrl was a '90s-era feminist movement that encouraged young women worldwide to pick up instruments; start bands; spill their darkest dreams and fears in confessional fanzines; and organize for what they believed in. Bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, and Heavens to Betsy urged women to start a “revolution, girl-style now.”

In her zines and songs, Hanna wrote candidly about subjects that were usually considered too "shameful" to address publicly, like abortion, rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. After riot grrrl splintered following a painful  blitz of media mischaracterizations, Hanna went on to release a solo album under the moniker "Julie Ruin"; she later led the electro-punk group Le Tigre.

Like you, me, and most women we know, Hanna is many things all at once. She’s best known, though, for her piercing, Valley Girl-ish wail that sounds like it could cut you into thousands of tiny, jagged pieces. I’ve interviewed her twice now; once in person in 2005 and once over the phone last week, and I was stricken, both times, by her genuine willingness to be honest and vulnerable.

Hanna is the subject of a new documentary, “The Punk Singer,” directed by her friend Sini Anderson (in theaters this Friday). In it, Hanna describes dropping out of music after being diagnosed with Lyme disease; her relationship with husband Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys;' and the gratitude she feels about finally being well enough to get back onstage.

xoJane: How did this movie come to be? I’m assuming it can’t be the first documentary that’s been proposed about you!
Kathleen Hanna: It’s the second. The first was some French filmmaker who wrote to me on the Internet. I was like, ‘I don’t even know you, I don’t want anything to do with this.’ That was when I was 35 or something, and I was like, ‘I’m too young to have a documentary made about me! I haven’t done enough.’

As you saw in the movie, I was very ill and didn’t know what I had. That really played into the reason why I said yes to Sini, because I was like, ‘I don’t know how long I’m going to last, and I kind-of want to make sure my work is remembered and not erased.’ That’s always been really important to me -- that I didn’t do all this shit just for nothing, you know? And ... Sini and I have been friends for over 15 years, so I really trusted her; I could be as open as humanly possible, and if there was anything that made me uncomfortable in the edit, she would be fine with taking it out. Not everybody I feel that comfortable with. With someone else I’d be, like, editing it in my head as I talk.

Do you think it’s exposing you to people who are unfamiliar with you and your work, or are most of the people drawn to it already fans?
I have no clue! I didn’t make the film; I just was interviewed for it and I helped get archival footage ... I do know that when I saw it in LA (for the first time on the big screen), it seemed like fans were there. We actually got to the theater four hours before the film started, and there were kids sitting on the ground waiting ... like at a show. I’m really hoping that when it has a different life on Netflix and iTunes, that more people are like, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ Like, my mom’s friends.

Have many people been reaching out to you -- others who are sick with Lyme disease?
People have definitely thanked me when I’ve spoken out at Q&As and shows; I’ve given a shout-out to people who have physical illnesses. People have also written to me, people who have Lyme disease, and asked how I got better. I’m not all the way better, but I’m very close. It’s hard because I don’t want to talk about Lyme disease every second of every day, and I’m not a doctor, so I don’t want to give anybody advice. All I can do is say, ‘This is what I did, this is my path,’ but it frightens me sometimes too because it affects everybody differently. So if I tell someone I did 9 months of I.V. antibiotics and then they do the same thing and it doesn’t work for them, I’d feel absolutely terrible. But I still share my medical story with other ‘Lymies.’

How are you feeling nowadays? Better?
Yeah. I still have some treatment ahead of me that isn’t going to be easy; I have three more difficult treatments, and we’re hoping that at the end of those three I’ll be on a maintenance plan of antibiotics. I take shots of B12 a lot, and I do a lot of vitamins and diet stuff. I’m feeling well enough to play shows, and for me, that’s the most incredible thing in the world. We did a couple of mini-tours and I was fine. I sang my ass off and I had a great time. I never thought that would happen. That means I’m well!

How did it feel to walk away from singing in 2005? Did you expect to just take a short break and be back onstage soon?
Yeah, I was in a lot of denial. I was sick for almost a whole year; I just kept getting sick and sick and sick and feeling awful. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m getting older, I probably shouldn’t be touring anymore, my immune system is down.’ People come backstage all the time and hug you while they’re coughing; then they’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I made it out to the show, I’m so sick.’ So I thought I was just catching stuff from people. When I went off tour, I thought it would stop but it didn’t, it actually got worse. So yeah, I thought it was going to be just a break. I wasn’t sure if i was going to go back and do Le Tigre again ... Because besides the illness, which was the largest reason for the break, I also really needed to spend some time with my -- I think he was only my boyfriend at the time -- but my husband, and be in love and have a personal life.

Is there anything specific that you think fans might find surprising in the film?
I don’t know, did you find anything shocking?

Not really. But I didn’t know much about Lyme disease; I knew a good amount about your history and your music. So for me, that was the most surprising element -- hearing about a disease that we don’t hear about that much.
Yeah, I’d think that would be the most surprising thing: that I was sick for so long and that nobody knew about it. Also, the surprising thing for me personally was that anybody gave a shit that I wasn’t making music and wasn’t really doing stuff. People have asked me a lot, like, ‘Yeah, it was really weird; you just disappeared, what happened?’ And I honestly didn’t think anyone noticed I was gone ...

Nobody was reaching out. It was mainly people who wanted me to DJ, do this and do that. It was hard because when I was sick I’d have to call people to cancel and not tell them why; I’d just be like, ‘I’m not feeling well.’ That was really difficult. I was like this island that came up out of the water for a couple weeks and then I’d recede again and disappear. But nobody knew why I disappeared and didn’t show up for their art openings or record release parties. I feel like I hurt a lot of people’s feelings because they thought I was faking it; how many times can you hear your friend say, ‘I’m really sorry I can’t come to your party, but I just don’t feel good’ without thinking they just don’t want to hang out with you? Once the movie came out, people were like, ‘Oh, that’s why she disappeared!’

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?
I think people think I’m difficult, I’m a bitch, I hate men, that kind of stuff. That I’m really intense ... But I just wrote a comedy show! I’m not that intense. Hopefully I’m a charismatic performer, but when I’m offstage I think I’m a pretty laid-back person. I’m way more laid-back than I was before I got sick! (Laughs)

Do you ever get tired of reminiscing about riot grrrl? How do you feel about it now?
I get totally sick of talking about riot grrrl, absolutely. This movie is coming out, I wrote a comedy series with my husband that is just about to get bought, I have a new record out, some of my writing is in the Riot Grrrl Collection, the NYU riot grrrl archive is thriving and we’re hoping to do more panel discussions around that. So I have a lot going on; I’m like, ‘Do I really have to talk about riot grrrl?’

There’s movies coming out about riot grrrl and I’m really excited, because that means that chapter will be wrapped up. People who are interested can go watch the movie about it, and read the Riot Grrrl Collection, and read Sara Marcus’ book. I felt so happy when her book came out because I could be like, ‘Oh, you’re interested in riot grrrl? Read that book!’ (Laughs)

I’m 45! And I’m doing all this new stuff. But I do understand -- people were really into Bikini Kill. Not to brag, but I do understand that if you’re a fan of Bikini Kill, that’s what you want to talk about. So I get it and I’m not offended by it. It’s just that asking, ‘What is or was riot grrrl?’ is kinda like, ‘ahhhhhggggghhhhhh.’ Wikipedia it!

This might be a hard question, but do you think the riot grrrl movement has any cultural equivalent nowadays?
Actually, that’s kind of an easy question! I was thinking it would be hard, but Rock Camp for Girls. I think that's the biggest equivalent, because the first time I walked into Willie Mae Rock Camp in Brooklyn, I was like, 'Oh my god. This was what we fantasized ... in 1992.' And these women made these camps happen that are totally diverse; all different kinds of girls from 7 to 17, playing music together. And even if they don’t end up being musicians, they're learning so much from the experience of working together, having arguments and disagreements and still ending up with a song. Seeing that firsthand -- and I’ve worked with the camp for many years now (I met my guitar player, Sarah Landau, because we were both band coaches for the same band) -- I’ve been so inspired by what they did. They made the promise of riot grrrl happen in real life. I go in there and give Powerpoints on women in music and riot grrrl, and they don’t know anything about it. They’re like, ‘What?’ and then I play ‘Deceptacon’ by Le Tigre for them and they’re like, ‘OHHH, you’re that person?!’

Looking back at all the stuff you’ve done, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Absolutely, absolutely. I wish all my zines didn’t have, like, massive amounts of pictures of only white women in them. I wish that, when racism became a topic at a riot grrrl workshop I was at, things would have gone better and it wouldn’t have devolved into a bunch of young white women talking about reverse racism, and then the women of color walking out. That was a really depressing moment. I wish I had spoken up when some crazy nutty people -- well, I should say people with mental illness -- took the helm of what had become riot grrrl in the later part of the ‘90s, and they were white women misusing political rhetoric and doing really racist things under the guise of being antiracist. They were writing these zines that made it sound like women of color were supposed to absolve them, as opposed to having productive conversations. Let riot grrrl go; let’s join groups that are more diverse. Instead of talking about diversity, let’s seek out productive dialogue about race and about class.

What would you say to young women today who feel alienated by our gross, sexist mainstream culture?
It’s what I’d say to anybody, to sit down and ask yourself, ‘What is the most important thing to me?’ What grosses me out the most? What makes me the most upset -- is it healthcare? Is it so many people being hungry in our culture? Is it sexual abuse? Is it the idea that just because we have a black president that racism doesn’t exist? What grosses you out the most? Mix that with doing something you love, something you could keep doing forever and ever. Maybe it’s illustration, gardening, music ... For me it was ending violence against women, and I mixed it with music. And I’ve had a 25-year career. So that’s my advice: Find something you really care about and mix that with something you love doing.

My last question: Do you watch TV? If so, what? And what are you reading and listening to right now? 
Well, “Scandal,” come on! I love “Scandal.” I really like the band Savages. I really like Grimes a lot. I read magazines; I read Harper’s and The Atlantic and the New Yorker, stuff like that. My Lyme disease made it really hard for me to read books and retain information because I have neurological Lyme disease. So I’m just now at the point where I’m able to read longer things than articles. It was a big deal when I got Harper’s and I read an article, understood the whole thing and was able to talk about it afterward. I’m just getting back to the point where I can read books. It’s a little embarrassing ...

That’s awful.
Yeah, for someone who’s very communication and language-based, that was one of the hardest things. So I read articles in magazines and I watch “Scandal.” You should put that under the things people don’t know about me! Also, I’m really short.

Are you short?
I’m 5’4.”

I’m about the same.
Yeah, so we’re not really short; we’re normal, but when people see me they’re like, ‘I thought you were way taller!’

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