Kathleen Hanna’s ‘Rebel Girl’ Memoir Illustrates The Gravity Of Second-Guessing Leadership

The matriarch of punk stopped by the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles to talk about her new book...

“Everyone in my town hated me, but Kim Gordon was letting me sleep on her fucking floor,” Kathleen Hanna consoled herself in front of a packed crowd in Southern California as she reflected on unintentionally alienating her supporters during her formative years as a full-time agitator.

Recognition of any kind by the music industry and its adjoining media branches put a stink on Bikini Kill, who spearheaded the riot grrrl feminist punk movement that emerged from Olympia, Washington in the 90s. Similar to how Nirvana and Sonic Youth were deemed traitors for signing with major labels rather than embracing deprivation to continue entertaining their day-one fans for peanuts, Hanna and her bandmates ultimately had to choose between sustaining their craft or combusting into obscurity like the bulk of their peers committed to sticking it to the man.

This is a key theme of her newly released autobiography: finding new ways to keep fulfilling her purpose without succumbing to the forces that pushed her, for better or for worse, into an eternal state of rebellion.

At 55 years of age, the multidisciplinary artist has settled into her role as a veteran and finally added SparkNotes to a robust catalog comprising music, poetry, photography, zines and their digital amalgamation, Le Tigre.

Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk is Kathleen Hanna’s life-spanning journal served in small bites that are easy to digest at times but necessitate long-drawn chews at others.

Ever wondered where the term “Girl Power” came from? Or how Kurt Cobain concocted the words “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Why shrill anti-music is now the dominant brand of sedition among those who have been historically battered into compliance? And what led one of the strongest forces of third-wave feminism to collapse under its own weight?

Though she has been the answer to countless issues that plague modern society, Hanna’s wins are a product of the failures that preceded them.

“Grappling with the fact that [women of color] were experiencing sexism alongside and intermingled with racism would’ve shattered my simplistic binary, so I clung to the slogan ‘think global, act local,’” she writes about realizing that riot grrrl’s modus operandi was in fact nearsighted despite its relentless pursuit of equality. “The problem was that local, in my life, was white.”

Race, gender, sexuality and the privilege of going to college even for those who don’t come from money are just some of the many factors that can set apart people driven by the same values. Privy to this, Hanna has developed a penchant for broadening her outlook and second-guessing her leadership every step of the way while remaining firm in her drive to uplift those around her. Even as a victim of sexual assault and abuse from early on in her life and well into adulthood, she habitually takes a step back to consider what’s missing in her call to action.

“People calling me out for my part in [riot grrrl’s] racism via letters, essays, and zines was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she admits.

Today, her world is a whole lot bigger than it was during her time in the Pacific Northwest and Washington DC’s underground circuits. In 2018, she founded Tees 4 Togo — a t-shirt brand that features designs by Joan Jett, Chuck D and many more to help fund the Peace Sisters non-profit for girls’ education in Dapaong, Togo. Earlier this year, Bikini Kill played a benefit show for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise.

Like this, her presence in the realm of political activism has evolved past a limited scope while retaining its essence.

“Kathleen Hanna’s rebel yell posted the bail from my teen grunge prison; I had found music that meant everything to me. The band’s Bikini Kill fanzine and the cassette demo meant I no longer had a reason to be obsessing over music that meant nothing. I was liberated from my days spent walking past some boy’s locker, loudly humming Nirvana songs,” music journalist and author Jessica Hopper wrote in her 2005 article, Louder Than Love.

Whereas this isn’t an experience most women can relate to, it certainly reached an audience sizable enough to spawn an army that has matured alongside Hanna over the years. The same people who rallied together to push back against the testosterone-fueled punk scene of the 20th century are just as ready to continue enhancing their vision with a more holistic approach today.

Rebel Girl documents Hanna’s growth from timid to explosive to self-aware through a series of anecdotes, some funny yet purposeful and others uncomfortable yet necessary.

She spells out circumstances a lot of people tend to subconsciously block out, like growing up in an “incest household;” doesn’t hold back from denouncing individuals despite the safety of their sweetheart status in the public eye, such as the recently deceased Steve Albini’s trivialization of rape (though his mention most likely went into print before he passed); and makes it a point to prop up unsung feminist heroes like Kathy Acker, who inspired her to keep raising the floor.

“In the punk tradition, we weren’t meant to have a mecca, a center, or a hierarchy. Except we did. And whether I liked it or not, I’d become the de facto leader,” she recalls. “I came to realise that while I’d been an instigator, I wasn’t really an activist, I was a musician who worked on the cultural front.”

From a distance, Kathleen Hanna truly does seem like she can do no wrong. From up close, and by her own repeated admission, she is just another human being who is constantly updating her software based on new research and feedback.

A reconciliation of a busy and sometimes scattered mind, Rebel Girl seeks to domesticate the plight of women and queer folk of all shades through humour, ferocity and DIY enterprise.

Bikini Kill will hit the road for a series of shows in North America and Europe this summer.

Words: Karan Singh
Photo Credit: Jason Frank Rothenberg

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