Exclusive Interview With Kathleen Hanna and The Julie Ruin

by Bee Gray


I walk into the House of Vans Brooklyn Venue on a Saturday afternoon. A spattering of bass and drums fills the drafty warehouse full of skate ramps, expansive space, and a performance stage. On that stage is Kathleen Hanna and The Julie Ruin. The band is here to kick off their summer tour and they’re in the middle of a soundcheck. Hanna greets me with a casual wave that melts away any nerves about speaking with this group of feminist legends.

 After they finish up a few songs, everyone filters into the lounge. Hanna is busy pulling out chairs for all of us, and I shake hands with the rest of TJR—Sara Landeau, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Kathi Wilcox—Everyone makes eye contact and they drape themselves comfortably around the room.

We start to talk a little bit about the audience that TJR brings out; a multigenerational mix of fans —some in their 40s and familiar with Hanna and Wilcox from Bikini Kill—and some young feminists who came along after the ‘90s.  TJR started playing shows in 2010, and released their first album Run Fast in 2013. It caught the attention of those awaiting a Kathleen Hanna come back, and peaked the interest of a whole new age group. I wonder how TJR feels about the young newcomers and their ever-broadening spectrum of fans. A part of me expects them to talk about how modern feminism is watered down compared to the explosive and radical riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s. But TJR has other ideas: that there is enough space for everyone, that all feminists are created equal.

We spend an hour talking about feminist trolling, some of the failures of riot grrrl, and how to stick your neck out.

BUST: I’m really interested in your connection to younger feminists, what feminists are you aware of right now- that are doing things that you think are really cool?

Sara: Tavi Gevinson was great when she was 12, and that’s when I started following her.

Carmine: Hari Kondabolu.

Kathi: It’s becoming more of a normal thing for women to call themselves feminists. Now you have actresses saying “Of course I’m a feminist” or “No, I’m not a feminist”. But I think it’s cool that Tavi’s made it very normal. It’s important that she’s mainstream.

BUST: Sometimes I feel like it’s a weird brand though, when you see “feminist” in flashing lights behind Beyonce—it’s like what are we even talking about?

Kathi: But then that’s a good question to be asking. Then people are like, “what is that? I can go look it up.”

Kenny: Beyonce has an all female band, and you can say, “Oh that’s a shtick”, but she’s giving women musicians jobs, which is rare.

Kathi: And then women and girls get to see women in music, and then they can say, “Maybe that’s a normal thing that I can do…”There’s something to be said for that.

Kenny: And Miley Cyrus, for all of her seemingly not making sense, she’s way on point with all of the issues. Like the time she brought the homeless guy on stage to accept her  MTV award,  maybe not the finest executed moment, but you don’t notice any other celebrities even trying to do that. So awesome for her. At least she’s trying to talk about issues that other people aren’t. She’s sticking her neck out in a really kind of awesome way,even though she might fall a lot.

KH: Beyonce giving like an incredibly bizarre sexual performance and then having “feminist” in lights behind her- I think that was a huge moment for feminism and pop culture. And I’m offended by the idea that, “oh it’s a brand.” But so the fuck what? It’s on a huge scale that young feminists are going to see and type into the Internet- and I’m psyched. To have someone with such a huge amount of fans say, “This is an important issue to me.” That’s fantastic—I don’t understand why people would be like, “no that sucks.” There’s room for all of us. There’s room for all different kinds of feminists and feminisms. It doesn’t have to be this one thing. No one can be the police that says, “No Beyonce, because you were wearing a sparkly leotard and doing this sexy performance, you’re not allowed to use that word, You’re just using it because it’s cool.”

BUST: Kathleen and Kathi, When you were in Bikini Kill third-wave feminism was popping up, and now when we talk about contemporary feminism, we’re in the 4th wave, or we’re post- feminist. Do you feel like we are post-feminism now, or are there always different feminism(s) co-existing.

Carmine: It’s weird to think about, it’s weird to think there would possibly be a post-feminist situation.

[All laugh]

Kathi: We’re not there.

Kathleen: We’re not there yet.

Kathi: Well they were saying that in the ‘90s, that we were post feminist and that was like, nobody called themselves a feminist, that was really really really out of fashion, it was like a really bizarre thing to call yourself.

BUST: Were people associating that with with second wave feminism?

Kathi and Kathleen: Yeah, with the ‘70s.

Kathleen: We read current theory, and second wave stuff, and tried to honor it while moving ahead.I feel like every 20 years there’s a new resurgence, and we’re in one right now. Part of the reason is political organizing is very complicated and can get very messy, and a lot of people get really burnt out. But, usually like 20 years later people start writing books about it, now blogging about it and saying- here some of the failures of Riot Grrrl. Like if you wanna build on this you gotta acknowledge the failures. We’ve gotta actually look at this from a 360 degree angle so that—don’t throw something in the trash, you can honor it, but make it your own thing that fits your own generation.

Kathi: There’s 10 years of backlash, and everybody backs off cause they’re like,“ Oh god this is fucking crazy”, and then the next generation’s like, “Wait everything sucks again. Like some things have gotten better but other things haven’t.”

Kathi: Ultimately it’s just personalities. Certain things attract certain personality types, so you’re always going to get people that are, ya know, trouble makers I guess.

Carmine: There’s always a few alphas

Kathi: It’s always easier to criticise something than to keep it together.

Kathi: It’s like trolling on the internet.

Carmine: Verbal Hackers.

KH:  There were so many people who were doing “riot grrrl” and I put that in quotations because it really didn’t exist as this overarching thing. There was this movement that was sort of sporadic, and I was just so anti being the leader of it, and also we were on tour all the time. I went to, like, five meetings in DC or something. I wasn’t the leader at all, there was a whole bunch of different groups that met all around the country and in different parts of the world. I didn’t have connections with them. We didn’t have cell phones or the Internet. How was I supposed to be the leader even though I [couldn’t engage with all these people]. But when I saw some really negative stuff happening from the outside ( especially in Olympia and Chicago) I didn’t take a stand. And I regret that. Because at that point I had become kind of the leader in people’s minds and I did have power. I belive power can be used for good, I don’t think every form of power is absolute evil. I wish I would have stepped in, and I really regret it. And that’s why I really encourage young people who are organizing to speak up.

KH: And It is important to talk about the hard stuff, and stick your neck out. And if we stick our necks out and get em chopped off like chickens, then that’s what happens.

Kathi: The fear of challenging other people ended up being a worse thing than that uncomfortable moment of challenging someone.

Carmine: Life’s tough. That’s really what we’re saying, Life is fucking tough.

BUST: I was looking at your lyrics, for the song “Goodbye, Goodnight”, and thinking about pain and rage and the role that that’s had in your music, and in your political and personal lives, can you talk a little about these lyrics?

“Maybe it’s human nature to feel so sure

That suffering’s a good excuse for bad behavior

Left fades right and up can turn to down

Pain can’t fade when you wear it as a crown “

KH: I guess it’s sort of about identity politics gone wild. Which is what happened in the ‘90s in a lot of riot grrrl situations, and I’m talking mainly about white middle class women arguing with each other over who is more or less racist, as opposed to lending themselves to projects by women or color or getting involved in things outside of their own communities. I found it very sad. bell hooks has talked about the “oppression olympics” and how people are just giving a laundry list of all the bad things that have happened to them, and being competitive about it…I’m talking about horizontal oppression where people of very similar privilege are like, wearing their oppression as a crown. In reverse it’s still a pageant. You know what I mean?

BUST: Right, it’s really interesting, like the hierarchy or value of being more oppressed.

KH: People are allowed to get angry.We need to have conversations and we need to be able to call each other out. Even if you’re coming from this place of really severe oppression, it’s not OK to pick one person to be the fucking dog that gets kicked—and I see this on social media now. People need to stand up, women need to stand up for each other and say, “No you can’t kick this person like they’re a dog. You can disagree with someone politically, you can have arguments, definitely privilege needs to be discussed in real productive and valid ways. But it’s not real criticism if it’s just like, “you’re a disgusting bad person.”

Kenny: Or you’re not the voice of this issue, because X, Y, Z. I’ve decided that I’m more legitimate, that I’m the head of this issue.

Kathi: That was our whole thing in the ‘90s—Why were people ganging up on us for these really nitpicky hair-splity things? When it’s like, George Bush is president… there’s actual assholes in the world. But they knew that we cared, they knew that we’d give a shit about these issues. And they knew that we’d engage. And It’s much safer to come after someone who’s close to you, you know?

KH: I think it’s so important for people in political groups to learn the difference between productive criticism and not. When it’s about something you can change, it’s productive. But if it’s just like “You are an evil person”, you can’t change that. There’s no way around that.

Kathi: And also people can just agree to disagree. You know the world will go on and it’ll be fine

KH: We need to be able to argue.

BUST: Do you guys have any advice for young feminists who are trying to create communities that are as transformative and revolutionary like riot grrrl?

KH: I say study the history of activism and how to run a meeting. Read about the history of activism and learn how the mediator can change and evolve—had I known that– it would have been greatly beneficial to my situation. And also to reach out beyond your clique of friends if you’re trying to start something. See who else is interested and join other people’s projects that have already started that you like. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel and start your own thing.

Kenny: And be aware that activist movements that actually brought change were filled with disagreements and people hating each other. But you always have to be able to see what you did in the world—regardless of fighting and horrible things. You have to look at the golden prize- which is, this changed something. You have to pick yourself out of it and be like, “The pain that I went through is worth it.” Because I don’t think that you can get a bunch of people in a room and have it be like, “ we’re all friendly and knitting”— and actually be getting something done.

Images Via House of Vans

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