Music

This Is My Thing: An Interview With Kathleen Hanna

On music, politics, working under an alias, and why cabaret is the most punk-rock thing out there right now.

You’ve said that you don’t want people to try to relive or repeat Riot Grrrl, you want them to use it to make something better. What do you think better could look like?

I think better could look like Rookie—something that doesn’t exclude things that are typically feminine, like fashion. There’s so much more inclusiveness now in terms of showing different kinds of girls from different kinds of places. That could be the future of where young feminism starts and grows. I also think of Occupy Wall Street as one of the most important things that has happened so far in this generation, and I’m hoping they come back. And there’s Permanent Wave, a young-feminist movement that Amy Klein started in New York.

I also know of these young women who are doing this really amazing zine called International Girl Gang Underground. It talks about Riot Grrrl—the great things about it and the shitty things about it. I was so honored and flattered when I read it, that all these young girls were writing essays about and challenging Riot Grrrl. That, to me, is how something awesome is going to happen—by people challenging it. That was the whole point. It was something that could never be branded—something that anybody could take over and say, “This is my thing. I’m starting my own Riot Grrrl group, even if there are only four people in it.”

Are people still talking about the movement in ways that don’t quite get at what it was?

I mean, different people are going to think different things about it. There are always going to be detractors of any kind of feminism—and that’s all it ever was: feminism for young, punk-rock women. But there are always going to be Rush Limbaughs who hate feminists. They’re never going to get it. They’ll be the ones who say, “Oh, they’re just girls in baby barrettes who were sexually abused by their fathers, and that’s why they’re yelling.” You know what I mean? And there will always be journalists who want to make things seem really sensational, so they’ll write something—like the one thing you say in an interview that’s not positive about Katy Perry, let’s say—that will make the biggest headline. That you can’t really help. But I feel like a lot of the crappy baggage is gone. And I’ve found that a lot of gay men were influenced by Riot Grrrl in a huge way that I didn’t know about then, because they were the cool guys who stood in the back of the room. They were the ones who were like, “I want my girl friends to be able to stand in front for the first time.” That’s really moved me quite a bit, to realize there were these male feminists—not all of them were gay—who really saw what we were doing as saying, “This is mine.” I’m really proud of that. Many times as a woman, I’ve had to turn [male-centric] things into something that related to myself—to be like, This is still important to me. This is so important to me enough that I’ll just change the pronouns to female in my head. To know there were guys who were like, “I’ll just change the pronoun to me. This is important enough to me that I’m willing to do that”—I think that’s just really beautiful.

Before this new Julie Ruin album, you hadn’t put out any new music since the last Le Tigre album in 2004, and you hadn’t recorded under the name Julie Ruin since your solo record back in 1997. Why now?

I got very sick. I got Lyme disease—late-stage Lyme disease. I’m in remission now, but it was very difficult. I had a PICC line in my arm for nine months, and my wonderful husband gave me IVs almost every day. It was a really intense, awful two years of treatment. I can’t describe it to you in words. But getting really sick was one of the reasons I started a band again, because it made me realize how important it is for me to perform and make music. I think I kind of took it for granted. And because I was kind of told by my body and told by my doctors that I couldn’t do it, I was like, I have to do it. I have to get better. It really gave me something to look forward to: being with my band and writing when I felt well enough. It took two or three years to make this record, because I could only sing on days when I could stand up. And I could only perform on days when I was well enough.

But the thing that also happened was that I realized that I’d gotten into this role of writing these songs that should be there. They were the songs that I wanted when I was 15—I was writing to my 15-year-old self in Bikini Kill. And then I was writing to myself in my 20s. And then I was writing to myself when I was 25. And I was writing to the kids who wrote me letters, who said, “I’m trying to come out and my family’s rejecting me and I feel suicidal,” and I was like, What’s the song to write? It was always coming from my heart, and it wasn’t bullshit, but at a certain point doing that starts to feel like you’re a waitress and you’re asking people if they want cream with their coffee, and you’re not an artist anymore. But once I got sick, I was just like, Fuck it, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do the thing I’m supposed to do—I just want to write for me.

Have you been doing other writing lately? Like zine-making or blogging?

I so rarely write on my own blog, but I’m gonna start doing it every single day! I actually blogged under an assumed name for about a year, mainly because I wanted to be hired to write for this one blog—and not because I’d been in bands. I wanted them to read these essays and like them and want to pay me for them. I wanted to feel like I could do that. Most of the writing I do now is for lectures I give about different topics. The thing I didn’t say in my public speaking video is that it’s really a great idea to sit down with a piece of paper and write down titles for things you want to make. This goes for whether you’re a musician or a lecturer or whatever you do—just make lists. I’ll make a list of titles like “Riot Grrrl: Then and Now” or “The History of Women in Music from this period to this period,” or anything I’m interested in. And then I’ll write a lecture about that eventually.

When you were writing essays, what were some of the topics you wanted people to notice you for, outside of your musical career?

I don’t want to say, because I don’t want anybody to find them!

That’s OK! Have you been curating or making art?

Right now, everything is the record. Everything is the Julie Ruin’s Run Fast. We started our own record label, so we’re doing press and our own website. It’s like starting a small business. That’s my life. But I love Photoshop, so I Photoshop all of these installations that I want to make. I actually have all of these pieces of visual art that I just need to complete after the cycle of the record is done. And I really want to do it all myself, because I’m not the kind of person who hires an assistant.

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16 Comments

  • kimberleighrc September 16th, 2013 3:23 PM

    Amazing! She’s as great as ever.

  • emlyb September 16th, 2013 3:33 PM

    OMG OMG OMFG OM FG G

  • Chloe22 September 16th, 2013 3:45 PM

    Kathleen is one of my favorite singers, but I can’t say I agreed with her whole thing about sexual harrassment not counting in a show? I mean, she’s always spoken about the terribly sexist and scary environment of punk shows, and how it shouldn’t be that way, and then she basically back tracks and says it should be scary, or ”make you ask questions”. If a guy going into the show KNOWS they do that stuff, and it’s well known, and he goes up on stage, fine. But when it isn’t disclosed, or consented to, it’s harassment. That goes for any girl at a punk show, too. No one deserves harrassment, ever, in any way.
    http://rhinestonemoon.blogspot.com/

  • blueolivia September 16th, 2013 4:39 PM

    http://transactivist.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/trans-grrrl-riot-part-1-was-riot-grrrl-transphobic/

    i’m not really sure where ms. hanna stands on this now, but she has played for the michigan womyn’s festival, which has their “womyn born womyn” policy which essentially rejects trans women as being women at all. i’ve also heard a lot about her transphobic essays, which i haven’t ever seen and haven’t been able to find at all. anyway, its just something to think about! i still really love what she did with bikini kill & outside of the band, and i think she stands for the right things. i just don’t think its right to exclude people the way this movement tended to do in the 90′s, particularly. just adding this for consideration! she hasn’t issued any statements lately about what she believes now.

    xoxo olivia

    • Anaheed September 17th, 2013 7:37 AM

      She never wrote “transphobic essays,” because she’s not a transphobe. When people refer to her as transphobic they are always (as far as I’ve ever seen, at least, and I’ve seen a lot) referring to Le Tigre’s decision to play the Womyn’s Festival in 2001 and 2005. That was disappointing to me, but I am certain that the band (which includes a genderqueer member) thought long & hard about the festival’s trans-exclusionist policy before making their decision to play it, and that they had their own reasons for doing so, none of which were based on bigotry. The only actual words I’ve ever read from Kathleen about trans* issues were: ““I’ll cut to the chase: I do believe transwomen are real women, I don’t prescribe to outdated essentialist notions of gender–that just isn’t what I am about.”

  • intergalactic fork September 16th, 2013 4:49 PM

    Kathleen’s like a fixture here lol. she should become an official rookie writer

  • ohmyannie September 16th, 2013 6:11 PM

    this is beautiful<3

  • billie September 16th, 2013 6:41 PM

    OMG Kathleen! <3

  • Sophie ❤ September 16th, 2013 7:06 PM

    I love the art and the interview! Super cool.

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • dreamygirl September 16th, 2013 7:46 PM

    I really admire and respect Kathleen. I’ve always felt kind of hesitant about identifying as riot grrrrl, an I am so glad to have her say that I can create a feminism that’s even better; that I don’t have to settle. Because that’s what I really want! I agree, Rookie is definitely a step in the right direction and it raises a great conversation about feminism, but I kind of think that Rookie could do a bit better, be more diverse in its photos and (this is something I’ve thought a lot about lately) how feminism isn’t vagina-based; we have to give room for our transgender* ladies with genitals and not disclose them by saying that feminism is the vagina.

    • dreamygirl September 16th, 2013 7:47 PM

      Oops, autocorrect is really not my friend, apparently.

    • Anaheed September 16th, 2013 8:16 PM

      Couldn’t agree more.

      • Anaheed September 17th, 2013 9:26 PM

        (I meant about your first comment. Not the autocorrect one!)

  • dreamygirl September 16th, 2013 8:01 PM

    Yet another thing, which is that Lena did a really great job on this.

  • veoh112 September 16th, 2013 9:29 PM

    I completely agree with Kathleen when they were talking about how people say that sexism doesn’t exist even though it does, especially in a culture full of rape. And I do think that we should have more riot girl bands and music, and me being a feminist, I encourage my (girl) friends to speak up more. And im also glad I joined the whole rookie community because its making me kinda safe in a community, and doesn’t put me down, it lifts me up, and that’s how I think girls should be with other girls. Anyways I am a huge Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill enthusiasts ( I have her picture on my English journal cover). And I think shes doing an awesome job as a woman.
    unicornskill.blogspot.com

  • dessertstealer September 24th, 2013 6:29 PM

    This interview is amazing!
    rafwillyolivier.blogspot.com