Siri Anderson’s The Punk Singer: A Film about Kathleen Hanna (2013) is a portrait of Kathleen Hanna, who is difficult to sum up in a short clause at the end of an introductory sentence.
Anderson’s documentary charts Hanna’s beginnings as a spoken-word poet, her rise as a feminist punk rock singer, her changes among bands and genres, and then her struggles with a Lyme disease diagnosis and treatment. She weaves multiple talking heads with generous archival materials, particularly of Hanna’s performances, toward understanding the performer’s complex personality, which is angry, sexy, bold, and funny — all at once.
The documentary’s arc begins with Hanna’s college days, wherein if she found obstacles to getting her messages out, she worked around them by creating her own zines, designing her own fashion shows, and co-operating an art gallery. Her in-your-face messages about rape, rape culture, violence, and sexism and female objectification drew hate from critics, but she still wove the messages into her song lyrics. Hanna’s performances with Bikini Kill are particularly amazing for her energy and fearlessness in her lyrics and her stage presence.
The story continues with the band moving to D.C. Because of newspaper coverage that focused on the group’s looks and not the group’s message, not to mention the other exploitive stories about Hanna’s past, the band engaged in a media blackout. The Riot Grrl empowerment movement emerged from this period as well.
Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, and Hanna continued recording and performing both solo and later with Le Tigre, described as offering “politically radical content that you could dance to.” After years of not feeling well, Hanna finally gets a diagnosis and treatment for late-stage Lyme disease. The documentary ends with the tribute concert to Hanna and the debut of The Julie Ruin.
Overall, Anderson’s documentary offers a rich portrait of an individual whose actions brought people together yet kept her separate from them at the same time.