To many baffled outsiders over 40, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna was a weirdo riot grrrl bopping up and down onstage in her bra and panties, bellowing atonal revenge lyrics at anyone who'd keep her and her fellow women down.
To her ardent young following of 1990s Third Wave feminists, though, Hanna was an alt Messiah, hacking out a space for women in the punk-rock mosh pit and sounding an enraged alarm on behalf of victims of sexual assault.
Contrary to many media reports, she explains in the lively new biography The Punk Singer, Hanna was not raped by her father, though she says he was guilty of "inappropriate touching." Mainly, though, the irascible Hanna père was a major put-down artist.
"Nobody ever listened to me my whole life," says Hanna.
That could be any aggrieved teen talking, of course. But Hanna, who received early encouragement from the late experimental writer Kathy Acker (to whom the film is dedicated) looks born to lead.
She's striking, with her jet-black hair, oval Modigliani face, pale Liz Taylor eyes and an offsetting fragility that adds poignancy. But it was her unfiltered, incandescent fury onstage that helped propel the riot grrrl movement from its Pacific Northwest base onto the national and international scene.
The Punk Singer, directed by Sini Anderson with substantial input from music-video and film director Tamra Davis, is a professional job with a home-made, patched-together look and a restless rhythm to match its subject. The film carries Hanna from her halting first efforts at self-expression — along with some of her collaborators, she was a student at Evergreen State College, an incubator for alt-artists like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry — through the heyday of Bikini Kill and the flourishing of riot grrrl fanzines and assorted on-the-fly happenings.
Where male punk distilled disaffection into an alienated nihilist aesthetic that was its own justification, the riot grrls carried punk rage into feminist activism — mostly, though not exclusively, against sexual abuse.
Almost overnight, we Second Wave feminists were transformed into the movement's fuddy-duddy elders, and rightly so. Spontaneity and extremity were riot grrrl watchwords. They operated in collectives, and they were unafraid to wrestle back power or ignore the media as needed.
When Hanna — a friend and collaborator of Kurt Cobain — received an unsolicited punch in the face from Courtney Love (not one of nature's joiners, and never a riot grrrl), she must have known she'd arrived. But arrival can be the kiss of death for such seat-of-the-pants movements; groups come apart, if not from lack of structure or internecine quarreling, then surely from sheer exhaustion.
Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, and Hanna, who had begun a relationship with Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz, regrouped with Johanna Fateman in New York to form Le Tigre, a more put-together band with a focused feel for melody and onstage glamor. The attitude stayed, but in a more mature key: The coal-black power suit in which Hanna walked onstage may have been ironic, but it was also stunning.
Still, Hanna was unwell and floundering, and in 2005 she dropped out of sight. The movie explains why, and the answer is affecting, but not especially relevant to the riot grrrl story. Or is it? Time and the frailties of the body are great equalizers, and rockers are more prone than most to burn out.
At its best, The Punk Singer tells the story of one pivotal life in a whole movement. Both Anderson and Hanna are at pains to avoid giving the impression that one singer carried the movement single-handedly. The riot grrrls and their standard-bearing bands have always been collective enterprises.
Now 45, Hanna is married to Horovitz, and to judge by the backdrop to her interviews, lives a comfortable life. That's allowed, and she's continued to reinvent herself as part of a new band, The Julie Ruin. She's a fascinating figure.
I do wish the film had taken more time to discuss the legacy of this undoubtedly seminal moment in feminist history. But then perhaps that legacy is there, in plain view onscreen: The Punk Singer was mostly made by women, and its fans and collaborators include generations as far apart as The Runaways' Joan Jett and Tavi Gevinson, the precociously savvy high schooler who runs Rookiemag.com, a wonderfully smart-mouthed website for teenaged girls. If the rowdy trail left by Hanna and her sisters can help wean today's teens off their selfies and spur them to a little grrrl activism on their own behalf, it will have more than paid its way.