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Who is Kathleen Hanna?

8th August 2014

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The media hurricane that is Miley Cyrus recently dragged another star into the eye of her storm. This interaction on Twitter caused both derision and curiosity at the suggestion they might work together. If you don’t know who Kathleen Hanna is, prepare to meet your new idol...

Kathleen Hanna

When Miley Cyrus Instagramed a photo of Kathleen Hanna with the tag “coolest ever” most fans had no idea who she is. When Hanna replied, “I have an idea for an album that only you are daring enough to make,” this unlikely collision of stars promised something interesting is about to happen.

The fact is Cyrus is seen by many as a joke, while Hanna to her followers and fans is a rare icon that means so much more than music and image – she changed the world and will always be one of the “coolest ever”.

In the early nineties I first became aware of Hanna through another idol Kurt Cobain. By scrawling the phrase ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ on her friend’s wall, she inadvertently penned the title to a generation-defining anthem that took underground punk rock into the mainstream.

I like many other guys were confronted by her and her band Bikini Kill’s politics in a way that changed our approach to women and view of the world. With our teenage hormones flying here was an attractive, brilliant woman screaming feminist politics in our faces to the music we loved.

The first song I heard from Bikini Kill ‘Double Dare Ya’ starts with the line ‘We’re Bikini Kill and we want Revolution Girl Style Now!’ before a hardcore punk manifesto for female empowerment, freedom of expression and fighting misogyny blasts out.

Considering this tiny impact on my life, I can only imagine the way this changed the world for women.

As one of the originators of the Riot Grrl scene, she gave a new breed of third-wave feminists a channel for their anger and misgivings, spawning not just the music (with other bands like Bratmobile and the UK’s Huggy Bear) but fanzines, political activism and groups where women could discuss their problems and organise in a safe space.

This was carried through to gigs, traditionally a dangerous place for women caught in the heaving male mosh-pits, but Riot Grrl bands encouraged the ‘girls to the front’ ideal that women should feel safe at gigs. Hanna can be seen in footage squaring up to aggressive male audience members in several pieces of footage – these gigs were her space, her fans space and no-one had the right to make people unsafe.

Having come out of punk gig crowds bruised and bleeding myself, how could a five foot female physically survive?

In a scene where the bands tackled issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, racism, patriarchy and female empowerment, Hanna was the one at the front shouting these ideals, literally direct into the faces of men and giving women a powerful icon to get behind.

In a world where so many female artists are called ‘feminist icons’ Hanna is the real McCoy – a woman who has always put her money where her (screaming) mouth is.

Throughout her career she has been the target of prejudice, anger and abuse from many quarters – male punk rock bands, the media, sexists and even other feminists, as a divisive figure who never strayed from her own path.

Hanna has never hidden the fact she worked a stripper to get through college – something that has been used against her time and time again despite the fact that at the same time she volunteered in a women’s shelter. At this time she produced a photography project that dealt with sexism and AIDS.

Her dating of, and eventual marriage to, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz also drew abuse from a movement unimpressed with the Brooklyn rap trio’s early, and considerably sexist track ‘Girls’ and their live show’s objectification of women.

These are just two obvious ways that Hanna has been at odds with the world she is part of.

 In my case it is the contradictions that have made her so powerful. When I was a teenager she was one of the most attractive famous people around, stunning in fact – I probably did ‘objectify’ her a little, but her lyrics, her anger and her aesthetic was one that made me question how I viewed her and other women. The famous shot of her in a bikini top with the word ‘slut’ scrawled across her bare mid-rift is one the most thought-provoking shots of a rock star ever, and sums up the direct conflict she caused between the way things are and how they should be.

Kathleen Hanna is an artist for who the ideal of equality has been central to her art and music as part of Bikini Kill, electro feminist punk trio Le Tigre and now with The Julie Ruin, and someone who is as relevant now as she has ever been.

I find this short personal note on who Hanna is to be completely lacking in scope and in gravitas as to what she means to so many, but hopefully for anyone reading who has no idea of who she is this is enough to make you want to find out.

I could write a book, but there’s plenty of those already – the fact is the brilliance of Kathleen Hanna is well documented you just need seek it all out.

A good starting point would be to watch last year’s excellent documentary The Punk Singer (trailer below):

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