Flipping Off the Patriarchy, Three Chords at a Time

REBEL GIRL: My Life as a Feminist Punk, by Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna’s ability to flip — and flip off — expectations has made her one of the most riveting frontpeople in recent musical history. As the singer for the band Bikini Kill in the 1990s (they reunited in 2019), she shifted from seductive dance moves she learned as a stripper to bullhorn roars of “Suck my left one!,” a riposte she borrowed from her older sister. In Le Tigre, her next major group (their reunion came in 2023), she delivered feminist history lessons with electro-pop glee.

But what has made Hanna a radical artist is not just the way she tears away preconceptions, but the fact that she re-centers the embodied experiences of women. Rape, incest, empowerment, harassment and what Bikini Kill famously called “Revolution Girl Style Now!” — it was the title of their first self-released demo — had rarely been the subjects of three-minute punk songs or Xeroxed manifestoes until the quartet made it so.

As with the riot grrrl zines Hanna and her sisters-in-arms once created, her first memoir, “Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk,” unfolds in raw, ragged segments. She has always explored difficult subjects, but without the music’s cathartic power and her commanding stage presence, the book can be dark. (I recommend the 2013 documentary “The Punk Singer” as a visual and sonic accompaniment.) Here, Hanna reveals details of the personal traumas she hinted at in such songs as the alienation anthem “Feels Blind”: a sexually inappropriate alcoholic father, a sister who overdosed and almost died, multiple rapes.

She writes that she can’t untangle her artistry “from the background that is male violence.” But the critiques from her peers seem to have been equally damaging to her psyche. The rock star who recorded for the formative indie label Kill Rock Stars was always a walking, shouting contradiction. She suffered vicious personal, political and physical attacks for standing out in a field of standouts; in Australia, they call this tall poppy syndrome.

Hanna could, and can, be polarizing. There’s a predictable pattern in the stories she recounts: a cycle where she stands up for herself, then caves in, then something bad happens. You want to shake her and warn her, “Don’t do it!” But she doesn’t hear you. A well-read graduate of Evergreen State College, she is still upset that news stories spread false information about her and the riot grrrl movement, but she does not seem to fully accept the role that her refusal to talk to the media played in allowing misconceptions to take root.

Mostly, Hanna is cleareyed. “I understand now why other women in bands may have resented us,” she writes. “Many of them worked hard for the little press they got, and then we showed up saying ‘NO THANKS’ to the media and were still written about everywhere.” She’s impressively forgiving of many who transgressed against her (though not so much Courtney Love, a longtime antagonist who, in Hanna’s telling, once “coldcocked” her backstage at a music festival). She’s also generous in her praise, etching lovely and loving miniature portraits of major figures, including Kathy Acker and Kurt Cobain, and some who should be better known: Tobi Vail, Tammy Rae Carland, Kat Bjelland.

Hanna gets schoolgirl-silly writing about her husband of nearly two decades, the Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. By letting go of Bikini Kill and embracing her marriage and other endeavors, she seems to have freed herself emotionally and creatively; there’s a welcome lightness to the memoir’s second half, even as she recounts her struggles with debilitating Lyme disease. She even manages to make a story about a miscarriage freaking hilarious, showcasing her continued ability to speak brat to power.

From the 1993 single “Rebel Girl” to this book of the same name, women’s sovereignty over their bodies has been Kathleen Hanna’s North Star and cri de coeur. Given recent court decisions sending America back to the Dark Ages, her story, along with Bikini Kill’s upcoming tour, couldn’t feel more necessary.

REBEL GIRL: My Life as a Feminist Punk | By Kathleen Hanna | Ecco | 336 pp. | $26.99

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