Hey, Barbecutie

#52filmsbywomen 15 – The Punk Singer

Posted on: August 3, 2016

girls to the front

No. 15 – The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, 2013)

Women are rarely allowed to just be; they have to explain and justify why they are who they are, in a way that men rarely face. Amber Rose has to justify why she deserves called a whore even though she has built a career off the contours of her body. Hillary Clinton faces taunts about claiming to be a strong woman when she accepted her husband’s infidelity. Rape victims have to explain how drinking to a stupor or going home with a stranger does not permit assault. Kathleen Hanna, face of the Riot Grrrl movement, an opinionated and outspoken woman, in an era and industry who loathed those qualities from feminine lips, faced more than most. It becomes clear throughout Sini Anderson’s documentary, The Punk Singer, that she is no longer willing to play that game. Hanna is no longer interested in explaining.

Not that Hanna is hiding anything, per se. The documentary finds plenty of archival footage and willing talking heads to fill in the blanks in Hanna’s story, and Hanna herself expresses no reluctance to repeat, discuss or reveal when she feels like it. But there is a sense that for a woman of such depth and significance, the film barely scratches the surface. But perhaps after a lifetime of being cajoled by aggressive music journos to justify herself, Hanna no longer wishes to reveal any more of herself than she wants to.

Anderson makes little effort to dig into Hanna’s psyche, happy to let her subject dictate how much is discussed. Not to paint Hanna as a tyrant or Anderson as a patsy, but there is a notable difference between biographical material where the subject is a participant only, and where the subject is actively involved. This may been connected to Anderson’s efforts to complete the film, which included a Kickstarter, a benefit concert headlined by Hanna collaborator Kim Gordon, and eventually Tamra Davis, wife of Hanna’s husband’s bandmate (Beastie-in-law?), signing on as co-producer – clearly there was motivation to please Hanna’s fanbase. And while Hanna herself isn’t credited in the production, she did have unexpected input, requesting that the chosen interview subjects were largely female – which is obviously a relevant decision given Hanna’s background, but it is highly unusual for a documentary subject to dictate who is and who isn’t interviewed. There are moments where Hanna severs discussions and the film moves on, without any attempt at follow up with the other subjects to complete whatever conversation Hanna has left hanging. There is a sense that Anderson may have been overawed by her subject and the pretence at objectivity (so vital in documentary filmmaking) is lost in return for access to Hanna, which is a shame as Hanna is more than worthy of a more transparent exploration.

Of course, that criticism opens up further discussions about why we expect documentary subjects to give up their right to privacy for the pleasure of the viewer. While Hanna’s veiled references to her difficult childhood (she insists she was never raped, but refuses to discuss any further) raise and then frustrate the viewer’s curiosity, why should we be entitled to all the details? It’s Hanna’s story to tell or not tell, even if she did agree to the documentary, and it’s churlish to criticise Anderson for putting respect before traditions of the documentary form. But it is a fine line to tread between respectful film making and propaganda piece, but given Hanna’s years of dealing with the media, and their interpretations, misinterpretations and reinterpretations of her music, her politics and her words, you can’t really blame her for her decision to exert control over her image in a way the media rarely allows a woman or really any public figure to do.

And none of this is to suggest that Hanna is particularly evasive. Indeed, the film’s biggest publicity point was Hanna’s painful honesty regarding her disappearance from the music scene, as she spoke for the first time about the diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease that essentially ended Le Tigre and forced Hanna into retirement. The revelation comes late in the film, and it is shocking, not only to see footage to Hanna, up to this point so charismatic and compelling, looking so physically vulnerable during treatment, but also brought so emotionally low by not only the ordeal of her health problems, but the impact of leaving music behind and isolating herself from her bandmates to hide her illness. The film is deft in tying Hanna’s feminist beliefs to her health problems. Chronic Lyme disease is a contentious issue, with some people suggesting it is a psychosomatic illness, and Hanna likens people’s reluctance to believe her diagnosis with society’s reluctance to engage with feminist issues. As Hanna states so eloquently, “when a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. And when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.”

I’m concerned that the harsh tone is disguising my own biases, which is to say I’m a big fan of Kathleen Hanna and her various music projects, and spending time in her company throughout the film is a pleasure. Over the years she has been mocked for her supposed Valley girl accent, which is endemic of the media’s reluctance to actually listen to what she has to say. Even an objective, almost critical documentary would not be able to dim the light of Hanna’s intelligence and principles, which should be inspirational to anyone who believes in gender equality, or, simply anyone moved by the power of music. Anderson’s film features admirers from all eras of contemporary feminism, from Joan Jett to Tavi Gevinson, alongside Hanna’s contemporaries and collaborator, few of whom have had such a consistently combative relationship with the media. But Hanna is an old hand at other people’s attacks, maintaining a calm but bemused tone when recounting the various scorn, assaults and death threats she and the Riot Grrrl movement have faced over the years, buoyed by the strength of her convictions. The only time she seems to waver is when recounting the time Courtney Love punched her, shaken by this unexpected woman on woman violence, perpetrated on a woman who has more for female voices in the music industry than anyone else. But then, as Hanna works on her new band, The Julie Ruin, it’ll take a lot more than the singer from Hole and a touch of Lyme disease to keep Kathleen Hanna down.


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