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Kathleen Hanna on Riot Grrrl History, Her Battle with Lyme Disease, and 'The Punk Singer'

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Photo: Dusty Lombard
Photo: Dusty Lombard

In the early ’90s, Kathleen Hanna erupted onto the alternative music scene as the powerful voice of the band Bikini Kill, and quickly became regarded as the rock ‘n’ roll godmother of third wave feminism. Hanna and her cohorts were the brains behind the Riot Grrrl movement, an underground, feminist punk movement that worked to create a safe space for women in the music scene through photocopied fanzines, female-fueled discussion groups, activism, and good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. Her sharp tongue and ferocious performances with Bikini Kill (and, later, dance-punk trio, Le Tigre) made Hanna the most recognizable (and loudest) voice of the Riot Grrl movement, bewitching a new generation of free-thinking females.

Five years ago, much to the bewilderment of her loyal fans, Hanna dropped the mic, claiming she’d said all she needed to say, and stopped performing. It wasn’t until the autobiographical, career-spanning documentary The Punk Singer that Hanna bravely revealed to the world that she’d been struggling with late-stage Lyme disease. The debilitating illness, misdiagnosed for years, sidelined Hanna for some time, but the songstress fought tooth and nail to restore her health and still managed to find time and energy to start a new band, The Julie Ruin, along the way.

Through archival footage and dozens of interviews with friends and fellow artists, The Punk Singer, weaves the story of Kathleen Hanna. Interesting, inspiring, and always honest, director Sini Anderson creates a beautiful tribute to a living legend. So when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to chat with one of my personal heroes regarding her mysterious disappearance, the modern face of feminism, and the silent US epidemic, Lyme disease. Below is our (too short for this fan-girl!) conversation.

Kathleen Hanna Bikini Kill
Photo: Dusty Lombard

KQED Pop: So, I saw The Punk Singer twice last week.

Kathleen Hanna: Woah!


I know, I know. I rented it on iTunes and I saw it at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. So I guess my first question is, how does it feel to have a film made about your career and your life?

KH: Um…it feels weird. It wasn’t like Sini pointed a gun to my head and made me do it, but I made it under the duress of being a sick person and thinking this is my only chance to have my work remembered and this is a way that my work can, in a way, be archived. So to actually be so much better, physically now, and having to live with what I’ve done. It’s like, woah! I shared all this stuff. I totally laid myself bare in all these ways that I probably wouldn’t have if I wasn’t sick. Cause when you get sick you have this thing of just radical honesty.

It’s hard for me to watch, it’s embarrassing, it’s all of those things. I don’t watch it. I saw it once in the theater, but it’s one of those things I’d like to watch when I’m 65 and be like, “Oh look, look what I did!”

You have a knack for taking the hardships you’ve faced in your life and using that as fuel for your art. I’m curious how you encourage and support someone who’s going through a rough time in their life to do the same?

KH: It’s a really hard line because I kind of hate that American idea of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and those kind of clichés. I feel like I’ve very much fallen prey in my own life to that kind of misguided optimism. At the same time, I’ve learned [a lot] over the last couple years, not just from being sick but from going to a bunch of cabaret performances (I know that sounds crazy). My friend Bridget Everett is an amazing cabaret artist and she takes a lot of her life tragedies and dysfunctional childhood things and she turns them into jokes. Because they’re so upsetting, they make you laugh. I really believe in tragedy plus time equals humor. And I feel like telling your story over and over again, whether it’s to a therapist or a camera, or an interview sometimes, takes the sting out of it. And turns it into just a story in your life that you can goof around with. It doesn’t have to be this thing that defines you or controls you. It could be something that gives you fuel.

Photo: Dustin Lombard
Photo: Dustin Lombard

So if you were to write your Riot Grrrl manifesto now, would you make any changes to it? Or would you remain true to what you said at the time when you originally wrote it?

KH: I think I would have a lot of stupid, sagely advice in my new Riot Grrrl manifesto that nobody would want to hear. I’m glad that I wrote it how I wrote it, however flawed it was because, I wrote it, you know? I didn’t write it and throw it in the trash, I actually printed it. When I read it now, yeah, it’s embarrassing. I feel like there’s a lot of me really trying to cover all my bases and just making sure I mention like speciesism. And I’m not saying that that’s not an important topic, but I feel like I was trying to kind of do this very ’90s, white, middle-class, college educated girl thing of ‘I’m critiquing myself while I’m asserting myself.’

And I think that actually makes it harder for people to critique you. Because you’re like ‘I already critiqued myself. Look I included everyone in this!’ Yeah, I’m including everyone but it’s surrounded by a bunch of pictures of white women. So it’s like, am I really including everyone in this? How homogeneous is the punk scene and that’s where this is being distributed? And all those kinds of questions. So I think I would probably be more honest about what position I was writing from and that I wasn’t able to write this universal, overarching thing. I was writing from my own point of view. I’d make that more obvious.

Do you feel that, as it has evolved, the Riot Grrrl movement remained true to its roots or has it shifted in some significant way in your eyes?

KH: I don’t even know if Riot Grrl still exists as such. I think that right now there’s this interesting transitional phase where people who have been influenced by Riot Grrrl or who have pushed against it in a lot of really interesting ways are now creating brand new things. There’s the People of Color Zine Project. There’s also the Birdsong Collective here in New York — they distribute zines, they put on shows — and I also see Girls Rock Camp as being something that kind of fulfills the promise that Riot Grrrl never really achieved. They are physically getting young women, all different kinds of young women, together to make music and giving them skills to work together. Those are the places I see Riot Grrrl manifesting itself and that is really exciting. I don’t think Riot Grrrl needs to be repeated. It already happened. And it doesn’t need to be fetishized or anything. I think it needs to be critiqued and challenged because that’s the way that things grow and get better.

Let’s go back to the topic of Lyme disease. Will it get out of your system? Will you be better?

KH: I don’t know. My doctor used to treat AIDS patients and now he treats Lyme disease patients. And he has spoken to me about how there is a similar denial within the medical community and within the larger culture, which is ridiculous because I’ve spoke to two different journalists today, one whose mom had it for 14 years and is still struggling and another who was like ‘yeah, my two brothers have it,’ and I’ve only talked to five reporters today. So it’s a pretty huge deal and they’re still kind of working out the treatments for it. Nobody really knows. There’s not going to be a point where I get tested and I’m clear and then I go back every six months and check to see if I’m clear. It’s more like living day to day. I’m still in treatment now and I’ll be done in about two more months, and then I go on the maintenance program. Then, hopefully I can start weaning off my meds.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein
Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

Yeah, that looked painful.

KH: Oh, that stuff in the movie is like nothing. It’s so funny to me. I was like, you should use something way harsher than that because that was a good day.

I appreciate you sharing the rough things you’re going through because I know that you’re going to heighten awareness of it. So I’m curious if there’s anything that you want people to know about Lyme disease? Something they don’t know that needs to be said.

KH: I think the main thing is, if you’ve gotten a negative test, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I was tested two times. If you’re tested when you’re on antibiotics, it often doesn’t show up. If you’re a late stage Lyme disease person, it often doesn’t show up. It’s a disease that typically needs to be diagnosed by your symptoms. I had uveitis which is inflammation of the eye and my eye got bright red. It was like having pink eye except someone was punching me in the eye over and over. My optometrist said “You either have MS, lupus, celiac, Crohn’s or Lyme,” and I said I can’t have Lyme because I was tested for it twice. And that’s really sad to me. That’s the main thing: even if you’ve been tested, look into what the symptoms are. Watch the movie Under Our Skin. If you recognize yourself, you may have it. Find a good doctor and don’t give up. Don’t ever give up on finding the proper treatment because it is out there. It just has to be individualized to where you’re at. It’s expensive, but it’s your life.

Well, I’m glad you’re on the right track for your health and I hope you’re feeling better.

KH: Thank you.

Will you ever quit being out there, being a voice?

KH: I think that the way that I will be out there will probably change. I really want to write comedy, I really want to do visual art. I really still want to play music desperately. I’ve been playing shows — actually our San Francisco show was a total blast — and I know I want to keep writing music. So I just think that when I get bored of one thing, I’ll just move on to the next. And I love lecturing. That’s something I could see myself doing until, you know, I drop dead at the podium.

Please don’t.  


Catch The Punk Singer in San Francisco at the Roxie Theatre tonight (December 19, 2013) or rent it on iTunes!

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