Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Punk Singer

I watched The Punk Singer last night, the documentary about Bikini Kill/Le Tigre singer and riot grrrl co-founder Kathleen Hannah. I wasn't in love with it - it reminded me of the Minuteman doc We Jam Econo in its overly-laudatory tone and slightly amateurish style. It would have been a better film if it hadn't been so hyperbolic in its praise of its subject. Not that Kathleen Hannah and Bikini Kill don't deserve praise, but when you have lines like 'They weren't just the best girl band, they were the best band PERIOD," it's a little much. It painted her as a hero/martyr, especially when discussing her struggles with Lyme disease.

There was a particularly tone-deaf moment when someone was saying how feminism was equality for all races and classes and for the disabled, and then it went into how Hannah had gotten so sick she's been unable to work for the past nine years. Not that her illness hasn't been debilitating, but to somehow compare her struggle with the disease with the struggle for the poor and women of color was a bad look. There's a point in the film where Hannah discusses her father, and says she calls him sexually inappropriate rather than sexually abusive because she knows people who have been sexually abused and her story isn't anywhere near as horrific. That's what framing her illness with the struggles of other marginalized people made me think of - terrible and traumatic and worthy of sympathy and exploration, but maybe not as horrific as the stories of people experiencing institutionalized racism or generational poverty. Given the frequent accusations by feminists of color that white feminists ignore issues of race and their own privilege, it struck me as a particularly unskillful way to introduce her illness.

There was also very little mention of the criticism Hannah received in the 90s from the feminist and punk communities. They mention the awful media attention they got, and the hateful letters they got from guys threatening to kill or rape them, but there wasn't much in way of feminist criticisms of Hannah or riot grrrl. I knew a Latina woman who was involved in riot grrrl and ended up being very disillusioned by how much of it came from a position of white privilege, and how it's format (punk rock and zines) almost by design excluded people of color, who were less likely to be into that culture.

Also, Hannah's voice. She speaks in a valley girl accent, full of "likes," and "you knows." It makes her sound so trivial and dumb, and she's not. The film addresses this, the contradiction between the way she talks and the ideas she's expressing, but Hannah's expiation is that she adopted the accent in jr. high to sound rich. That was 30 years ago - why has she kept it? As someone who is plagued with a surfer accent of my own, I especially sensitive to it. I think it is one of the biggest issues of my generation and the ones younger than me: we, like, you know, sound like fucking dumbasses or whatever.

Still, it was an inspiring film in many ways. It was great to relive the early days of riot grrrl and be reminded of what a powerful movement it was. They had input by people from Tribe 8, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and Sonic Youth, although why none of those bands were really profiled is a mystery. They also could have spent more time discussing other female punk bands that came before Bikini Kill - the women that inspired them. I would also love to hear what Hannah thinks about feminism in the 21st century, but maybe I should just find some interviews she's done.

So see it if you want to, but I would take the many positive reviews it has gotten with a grain of salt.

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