Kathleen Hanna: 'I Didn't Want Men to Validate Me'

Julie Ruin, ex-Bikini Kill frontwoman on new documentary 'The Punk Singer'

Kathleen Hanna of The Julie Ruin performs in Austin, Texas.
Gary Miller/FilmMagic
Kathleen Hanna of the Julie Ruin performs in Austin, Texas.
By |

The Punk Singer starring Kathleen Hanna offers an intimate biographical portrait of the feminist art-punk icon, from her scrappy beginnings in Olympia, Washington, to the formation of Bikini Kill, the launch of the Riot Grrrl movement, Le Tigre and her latest band, the Julie Ruin. The film, which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, also steps inside her life with husband (and Beastie Boy) Adam Horovitz, as an ongoing struggle with late-stage Lyme disease forced her to step away from Le Tigre and go into treatment.

With interviews from Carrie Brownstein, Joan Jett, Corin Tucker, Kim Gordon and Rookie magazine's Tavi Gevinson, director Sini Anderson plants Hanna firmly in the context of third-wave feminism and the bands she influenced. Rolling Stone caught up with Hanna at a recent screening of the film and she told us why she didn't want male talking heads interviewed, her thoughts on Taylor Swift and her plans to release another album with the Julie Ruin next year.

How are you feeling? You're playing shows.
I'm doing good. I still have bad weeks and good weeks. Actually, right now I'm in treatment, so I'm a little off, but I'm well enough to be here, which is great.

You've been so open in the past, but this was a new level. What was it like to open yourself up like this?
Well, I've known Sini, who shot everything, for, like, 15 years, so I knew that I could give her everything and if there was something that I was like, "Um, no," I could take it back. But if it was somebody I didn't know, I don't think I would have felt that way.

Was it true that you didn't want any male talking heads in the film initially?
Yeah. I specifically mentioned Ian MacKaye, Calvin Johnson and Thurston Moore – all people who I totally respect. But I really wanted Tobi [Vail], the drummer for Bikini Kill, because she knows everything about music. She taught me everything I know about music. She put me on the road of what records to get. Without her I never would have been in a band and kept being in bands. And she can contextualize the Nineties the music scene and contextualize what I've done. But she's really shy.

Why didn't you want those guys to talk?
I just didn't want any male authorities telling people what good music was. I didn't want men to validate me. And it was really a fine line of having my husband be in it, and having the story about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" be in it. I don't want to ever be viewed in context of "She's the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' girl" or "She married Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys." But at the same time, it's a movie about me and my life – am I going to leave the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' thing out? Really? That's crazy. And my love story with my husband is like . . . I'm really proud to be associated with him, he's fucking wonderful, and I think he's really funny in the movie. At first I didn't think he should be in it. And then I saw it, and I felt like, how we actually are was portrayed perfectly –what our relationship is. I thought it was really beautiful, and maybe because it's me, but I really like the love story. I'm a sucker for that shit.

I love your rings. [She wears a gold ring that says Adam, he wears one that says Kathleen.]
His idea, not mine.

What era of feminism are we in right now?
I think we're starting in the fourth wave, and what I see on the underground is there's this great project called People of Color Zine Project. And there's a lot of women who have critiqued Riot Grrrl in terms of class and race, and there really wasn't a lot of productive conversations that happened that made Riot Grrrl that inclusive. And all of these critiques are leading to new projects.

Gloria Steinem told me earlier this year that she thought the biggest challenge facing women was the womb.
Wow, that's so weird.

It was kind of weird. What do you think the challenge for women is right now?
Poverty.

Why?
Because if you're just trying to put food on the table, you're not part of the conversation. Everybody else is making decisions for you. And in terms of the feminist movement, if we don't hear from a huge, huge, huge segment of the population, and they aren't involved in creating the feminist movement, then the feminist movement dies.

What do you think of Taylor Swift?
I've called her a feminist. I don't think she calls herself that, which is totally fine, but she writes her own songs, and she's a young girl that's singing to other young girls. That's awesome. What's wrong with that? I don't like every woman in pop music, but it's not the woman, it's the music. And I need to be able to say I don't like Lady Gaga's music, and that doesn't mean I'm slamming Lady Gaga. That doesn't mean I'm saying PJ Harvey's a bitch.

Do you like Taylor Swift's music?                             
I actually do like some of Taylor's music. And I like Mylie Cyrus. I like "Party in the U.S.A." and "The Climb" – those are two of my favorite songs. I like Kelly Clarkson.

I like the new Miley.
I'm not that into it. I'm kind of like old-Miley, kind of like Hannah Montana Miley. I like watching Disney at home.

Are you guys planning to get back into the studio?
We have a bunch of songs that are already written for the next album, so right now it's just about making videos until the spring.

When do you think you'll release another album?
Probably next year, next January. That's probably the worst month. I don't know what a good month is. I need to hire somebody to tell me.

And do you have a sense of the direction?
I think it's going to be really depressing. Because I was in a really bad place when we wrote this album and a lot of the songs are really happy, and I was like, now that I'm really happy I know I'm going to write, like, really sad songs. I already wrote one that's like a really sad country song.

x