The Cordelia Factor in Third Wave Feminist Punk Rock

by Wanda Waterman

Film: The Punk Singer, a Film About Kathleen Hanna

Director: Sini Anderson

“BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.
“BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girltype behaviors.
“BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”
-Kathleen Hanna in “The Riot Grrrl Manifesto”

Kathleen Hanna, veteran of third wave feminist punk rock and founding member of Riot Grrrls, has been asked to speak at a pro-choice rally. We see her mount the stage stiffly and hesitantly. We watch as she grimaces in pain and tries to get the words out. We have no idea what’s wrong. And neither does she.

When you see her journey from the beginning, you can well sympathize with her sense of injury. Kathleen Hanna started out by demanding to be heard in a world that didn’t want to listen. Her personal suffering quickly became political as she discovered that the world was full of women with the same stories as hers and worse. She was speaking for them, too.

Hanna had a successful recording career that began in the early nineties and quickly developed an enthusiastic cult following. She was an amazing songwriter, magically wedding cogent lyrics with exciting rhythms and melodies almost too listenable to be punk, and her performances were mesmerizing. But, in 2005, she suddenly dropped off the radar, and, until recently, no one knew why.

Some assumed the worst. Kathleen had never been exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; performances with her band Bikini Kill and, later, The Julie Ruin, were marked by an intense in-your-face feminist rage and a call for solidarity among women and girls.

Punk rock is probably is one of the most affirming musical genres experienced by marginalized disenfranchised youth, those who enter adolescence to find themselves living in a highly dishonest and hypocritical society. In this kind of social context the authentic heartfelt rants of punk troubadours sound like angel voices among the demon sneers.

But not everyone sees it that way, especially not the sneering demons and those in their service; the last thing they want is to get called on their covert manipulation and hidden agendas. For their twisted ideology to retain control of society they have to make it look like punk is the demonic force, not them.

To see her prancing and to hear her screaming on the stage, you’d think she was emotionally indomitable and that the whole point of her performances was to offend. So It’s puzzling to see how shocked and hurt she was at all the negative feedback. Why did it hurt her so much when people got offended?

It kept hitting the fan, and this, added to tensions between the members of Bikini Kill, took all the fun of life. Kathleen eventually produced an album, Julie Ruin, alone in her bedroom and distributed it with the beautiful stated purpose of affirming the sacredness of the girl’s bedroom as creative space.

And so for her to be accused of being against women, to be told to die by males whose egos were rattled by her forthright anger, for her to be slapped for no reason on stage by Courtney Love, and for her to be lied about in the press, was beyond her patience. Eventually she refused to speak to the media.

She soon formed a new group called The Julie Ruin. The members agreed that The Julie Ruin would be a celebration of female lives as opposed to rants against patriarchy and capitalism. It was as much a bid for emotional healing as another milestone in Hanna’s creative development. It was around this time that she changed her onstage look from teenaged brat to mock-conservative businesswoman, a look that spoke worlds about her changing inner self and the evolution of feminism.

Unfortunately her message was still more often misunderstood than not.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear the King asks his three daughters how much they love him. While his two other daughters wax rhapsodic about mountains, skies, and seas, his daughter Cordelia tells him that she loves him as meat loves salt. Furious at the perceived insult, he banishes her from his sight. In the end we see that hers had been the only true love but that her expression of this love had been profoundly misconstrued.

Kathleen Hanna is a postmodern, feminist Cordelia. Her deep sympathy for women looks like hatred against both women and men, her tenderness looks like malice, and her intelligent feminist ethos looks like the rage of a damaged psyche. In the end we see that she loved us so much more than we ever realized; this makes her suffering all the more poignant.

The Punk Singer manifests nine of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.
– It is about attainment of the true self.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering;
– It gives me artistic tools.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

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