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Wilson Hall Hosts “The Punk Singer”

An eager audience gathered in the Wilson Auditorium on Feb. 27 to view a screening of The Punk Singer, a documentary about Bikini Kill frontrunner and third-wave feminist icon Kathleen Hanna. Sini Anderson, the film’s director, was there to answer questions about the film after. Anderson is herself a feminist and queer art activist as well as a producer and performance artist.

Anderson was the Chief Curator and the Co-Artistic Director for The National Queer Arts Festival and has served as the president of the board of directors for The Harvey Milk Institute, and the co-chair of the board of directors for The Queer Cultural Center. In 1994, she and Michelle Tea founded Sister Spit and Sister Spit’s Ramblin Road Show, touring the US with over 40 queer and feminist writers, performance artists and musicians. Anderson’s work can also be found in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Thundermouth Press) and Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution (Seal Press).

The Punk Singer opened at SXSW in 2013, and was released theatrically in 2013/2014. Anderson has won awards for the film, including the Seattle International Film Festival’s Lena Sharpe Award For Persistence Of Vision, Women in Cinema and ARCA Best Director Award, First Feature. In 2014, Anderson was awarded POV’s Humanitarian Award in Media at their 40th annual awards ceremony in Los Angeles, CA. The film features clips of Hanna from recent years looking back on her experiences, interspersed with other testimonials and recordings from the mid-nineties into mid-2000s.

The screening began with Melissa Febos, assistant professor of English, talking about Anderson and her work. “I met Sini when she performed at my long running literary series (MIXER), and delivered the most memorable and moving performance we’ve ever had,” she said. “The Punk Singer is earnest, intelligent, and funny, and I think you’re gonna enjoy it.”

This segued into the documentary itself, which opened to a powerful image of Hanna performing a slam poem about her father sexually assaulting her as a child. Some of her songs depicted sexual imagery and narratives of abuse to give voice to those who had suffered such treatment, but remained silent.

Hanna then recounted when, as a young child, she’d performed in a talent show and felt proud of herself. Her father offered to take the family out for ice cream because “anyone who can make such a fool of themselves in front of so many people deserves an ice cream.” Another anecdote described her mother doing trust falls with her, and though Hanna caught her mother, she allowed Hanna to fall on the ground. “Let this be a lesson,” she’d said, “to trust no one, not even your mother.”

These laid the foundation for her drive to give women authority and legitimize their experiences, leading Hanna to open Reko Muse, a feminist art space, during her early college career. When her friend was sexually assaulted in their own home, Hanna made the experience into a performance art piece, showcasing the violence so that no one could deny such things happened, offering women a chance at a safe public space.

This was the beginning of Bikini Kill, which recruited Hanna as lead singer, though she quickly became the leader and iconic image for the band. Not only did their songs scream the issues that no one wanted to talk about—such as domestic abuse, incest, and rape—but Hanna would demand “Girls to the front” before each concert. Women were often shoved around, hurt, and molested by men during performances, so Hanna and Bikini Kill wanted to give them the best and safest seats in the house.

“Music is supposed to be escapist,” said a commentator, “but this wasn’t.” He went on to say how Bikini Kill’s “in your face” style was part of what made them so successful. Their popularity later earned them a spot performing at an abortion rally at the National Mall in Washington DC, but a female reporter for USA Today criticized them for their wardrobe. The reporter also asserted that they were all unoriginal abuse survivors, because there was no way they could imagine the narratives they sang about. This lead to Bikini Kill and many other bands in the feminist and punk scenes going into a media blackout.

Hanna noted how painful it was to see fellow women tearing into other women, and felt it was a huge blow against feminism. This idea reared up again at Lalapalooza, when Courtney Love punched Hanna in the face.

Bikini Kill broke up in 1997, so Hanna put out a solo record at Julie Ruin, saying this was what made her a real musician. She then went on to form Le Tigre with Johanna Fateman, who handed her “the best feminist fan zine ever.”

Soon after, Woodstock ‘99 took place, during which numerous women were raped, abused, and assaulted, so Hanna and her boyfriend, Adam Horovitz, set out to make a statement. In accepting an award for his work soon after, Horovitz, instead of delivering a typical acceptance speech, expressed his dismay at what had taken place, and how he was sickened by people’s behavior at the event.

Hanna’s career stayed strong for a while, but in the early years of the new millennia, would slowly wind to a close as she began getting sick on tour. Her illnesses became more frequent and more severe, and she was suffering from depression and other compounding symptoms. She lost her voice before a performance in North Carolina, forcing them to cancel that night’s show, and though she pushed through the rest of the tour, she had to stop performing.

Years of expensive and painful testing would prove inconclusive, though she kept getting sicker and many were worried she would die. However, one internist figured out the problem: late stage Lyme’s Disease. The rest of the documentary showcased her ongoing struggle with this illness and how she is now trying to get back into performing.

Anderson, after the screening, noted how Hanna “was right back where she started,” as she was facing a problem people were not taking seriously. Lyme’s Disease and sexual abuse were both something that others had a tendency to say were not big issues. “Even I said it. Oh, it’s just Lyme’s disease, that’s easy,” Anderson said. Six weeks later, the director got diagnosed with the same illness.

“Talk about instant karma,” she joked. Then she added a more serious comment: “We were both in the hospital, taking seven hours of IV antibiotics a day, suffering from dementia, unable to walk.”

Anderson is currently in production on her second feature film, a documentary titled So Sick, which explores feminist artists, activists and academics with Late Stage Lyme Disease. 

Frank Cipriani, instructor in the department of foreign language studies, said he found this perspective of the time very interesting. “I was a stay at home dad,” he explained. “It’s strange to think this was the 90s.”

He went on to explain how feminism helps men as well. “The reaction… opened up more narrow definitions of gender roles. It was beneficial for men who wanted to fill a traditional women’s role,” he added.

Taylor Barry, a junior English and education student, thought seeing the film was a great experience. “It was awesome, and I learned so much about feminism and the time period,” she said.

Alena Prieto, a junior English student, felt it was a very important film for discussing Lyme’s Disease as well. “I have late stage Lyme’s Disease, which is why my professor wanted me to go, but I had to leave early due to a migraine,” she explained. Migraines are just one of the debilitating symptoms of this illness.

Whether viewing it for a class or because of an interest in third-wave feminist punk rock, the audience members greatly enjoyed The Punk Singer. It was an enlightening and empowering experience for many. 

PHOTO TAKEN by Kevin Holton