The subject of a recent documentary and focus of New York University’s riot grrrl archive, Kathleen Hanna isn’t going to be changing her tune any time soon
The original Olympian riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna, first formed the Julie Ruin in 1997 while taking a break from Bikini Kill. They released one album (Julie Ruin) and morphed into Le Tigre. Now they’re back, this time with Hanna’s Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox on bass. They’ll tour the new album, Run Fast, in Australia this December.
Kathleen, there were a lot of journalists who tried to stake ownership on riot grrrl. Is it a relief to be able to team up with Kathi without any of the bullshit?
Yeah, it is – that’s an interesting comment. A lot of the baggage from the ’90s is gone and we can just be ourselves and have a good time. I mean, I never saw Kathi smile in Bikini Kill, and when we are on stage now I always glance over and she’s got a big grin on her face. It’s just so wonderful to see.
Was there the pressure of people expecting things from you, rather than being able to play for the enjoyment of it?
Oh yeah – there was so much controversy surrounding Bikini Kill: “You’re man-haters”, you’re this and you’re that… We were very young and we didn’t have management – I mean, we were lucky if we had a roadie. It was a lot for people in their twenties to handle; we just had to get through the shows. There was a riot at one of our UK shows and men threatening us at shows everywhere, so it definitely was not fun – it was downright scary.
And then there were also girls who were crying because they had been waiting for us and they knew all the lyrics to our songs… and so it was really just a schizophrenic band to be in because you just didn’t know from night to night what was gonna happen. Now I feel like our shows are just like a good time. No one’s trying to kill us!
I remember being very annoyed by riot grrrl. I was mid-teens and, having grown up in a sexist environment, had deduced from an early age that I was on the losing team. So when “Revolution girl style now!” came along, I thought, for god’s sake stop drawing attention to the fact that I’m female.
I think there was a lot of that. I actually was very similar – I grew up with a really sexist father and then I became the tough girl and I pushed other girls around, if you can believe it… but you know, I changed my tune. Thank goodness! And I remember there being a lot of hostility from other women towards riot grrrl for some of the same reasons that you’re mentioning, like, “I don’t want to be singled out for my gender and you’re just making it even harder.”
I can completely understand those criticisms now and why someone then didn’t want to be called riot grrrls – which the media put on us; it wasn’t as if we called ourselves that. I understand why some bands were hostile towards it because they were like, “Every question I get asked now is about riot grrrl – am I riot grrrl? Am I a feminist?” They were like, “We want to talk about what kind of guitars we play! We want to talk about our music.”
It was already so hard for women, and now they were expected to be political, or comment on riot grrrl, or be turned against other women. Women in bands were pushed to say, “Oh, I think riot grrrl is a bunch of shit.” I never felt like everybody had to be involved; I think that it’s fine that some people hated it, or didn’t like the ideas or the music. I always thought that was great because I hoped it would inspire people to do something that was better.
The subject might have become an albatross around your neck, but at the same time, it must be great to see people you’re still inspiring. I went to see the Wonder Woman doco a few months back, and every time you were on the screen there were little sighs from women all around me.
It’s been really great to see that our audiences are so mixed, like younger people, older people... It’s funny about that Wonder Woman movie, because I wanted to be the villain in that movie because I really don’t like Wonder Woman that much, but they wouldn’t let me. I got really sick of getting stickers of Wonder Woman and Hello Kitty on all my mail and stuff. I didn’t relate to her; I just saw her as a sex symbol for men who like to be dominated to masturbate to. I don’t find her empowering at all, and that’s what I said in the movie but they cut a lot of that out.
Are you a letter writer?
Yeah, when people write to me, definitely. I've gotten a bit behind in my mail. I write to people and 99% of them get the letters but I always have the 1% where the person moved and then I have to try to find them on Facebook and write to them, saying, “What’s your new address?”
But yeah, I love letter writing. I still love using my old stamper, you know – I have stamps where I can write stuff at the top of the page and big markers, and I just consider it such a wonderful art form. We started a riot grrrl archive at New York University and there’s a bunch of my letters in it between me and my Le Tigre bandmate Johanna [Fateman]. We both kept all of our letters, and we took great pains to make these beautiful things for each other using glitter and colour pens. They’re almost like romantic, Victorian friendship letters between women. Nowadays everybody is anonymous on the internet just saying a bunch of shitty garbage. I feel that if they had to take out a pen and paper, get the stamp and actually walk to the mailbox and mail it, by the time they got to the mailbox they’d think maybe this isn’t a good idea.
Will you write a memoir?
I’ve been asked to meet with agents and stuff like that, but a movie just came out about my life [documentary The Punk Singer] and I’m just kind of over myself right now. I really want to focus on my friends and on my husband and my dog and my cat… but in other ways I’m thinking about it because anybody who has a movie made about them will know there’s going to be so much missing – there are so many more funny stories; I’m so much funnier than the movie makes me out to be!
Australia’s ripe for a bit of Kathleen Hanna-style stirring right now.
I love Australia and I definitely don’t want to have five people come to the shows… although we would fucking play our hearts out for those five people. I mean, I played for a janitor in my first band, like literally while he was cleaning, he looked up, he was sweeping the floor and he said, “You suck.” We kept playing, and I thought, if I can make it through that shit, I can make it through anything. But, I’m actually expecting to have a really good time because Australian audiences are always great and I always have really, really great shows there. The band is psyched.