Image1Opening Cermony lavender top, black pants, and heels; 
Lettering: nicole daddon
Rebel Girl

Feminist rock icon Kathleen Hanna opens up about 
her illness, her abusive childhood, and learning not to “take shit every fucking day, in every fucking way”


This doesn’t seem very Kathleen Hanna, I think when I walk into the business-casual Belgian brasserie that the 47-year-old frontwoman picked for our N.Y.C. lunch date. That’s when I stop myself. What the hell do I know about a person I’ve never even met? I’m sure I’m not the only feminist who feels like she knows Hanna. As the founder of Bikini Kill, the legendary punk band that helped shape the ’90s riot grrrl movement; Le Tigre, the electro-dance trio that made political party music in the early 2000s; and now the Julie Ruin, her latest and most intimate venture, Hanna is a feminist icon. And when it comes to the political, she makes it feel very personal. Revolution Girl Style Now!, Bikini Kill’s first record, was a sonic feminist manifesto, as visceral and relevant now as the day it came out in 1991. It felt more like a call to arms than an album, and Hanna, with her disruptive ideology and a shriek that could shake your very soul, was the mouthpiece women hadn’t realized we’d so desperately needed. She made it OK to get pissed about gender inequality, to stop taking the blame for sexual assault, to be loud and demand change and do it all without apology. Later, in Le Tigre, when she donned eye-popping outfits and did coordinated dance moves to anthems about misogyny and overcoming it, she even made feminism fun. And she’s always advocating for women off stage as well, volunteering with Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls and rallying tirelessly for Planned Parenthood.

When she walks through the restaurant door, her signature half-pulled-through high ponytail gives her away before I even see her face. “I’ve never been here before,” she says, when I wave her over to the table. I’m briefly reassured that the Hanna in my heart is not too far off from the one sitting across from me. As she orders a steak and fries (only after making sure it won’t gross me out), I think about the reasons I feel like I do know her: In her music, and her public life, Hanna goes where most people won’t, speaking her mind no matter who it offends and sharing herself, darkness, flaws, and all. Her new record, Hit Reset, by the Julie Ruin—her band with Kenny Mellman, Sara Landeau, Carmine Covelli, and former Bikini Kill-member Kathi Wilcox—is no exception.

I've felt for a long time like I'm living for all the girls who didn't make it out, because that's how dangerous my childhood felt.

“I feel like there are parts of [the album] that are so fucking vulnerable it makes me want to puke,” she says, her speech peppered with enough likes to rival my own Valley girl accent. “Like, I can’t believe I did that. And I’m embarrassed about it. But I’m also happy.” Happy, in part, because it includes a song called “Calverton” that she wrote to thank her mom for helping her survive a childhood she wasn’t sure she would make it through. “She made me think that I could be something in this world when everyone else was telling me I couldn’t. I always just think, How is someone like me living this life? How am I even still alive?” she says, before our food even arrives. “I’ve felt for a long time like I’m living for all the girls who didn’t make it out, because that’s how dangerous my childhood felt. I didn’t know if I would wake up the next day, or if my drunk dad would get into his gun collection and decide, ‘Well, I’m just going to do it.’ He could literally be voted most likely to shoot his family and then shoot himself. Actually, most likely to shoot his entire family and then run away because he didn’t have the guts to shoot himself. And I don’t care if you’re reading this, Dad.”

Letting go of caring is something Hanna’s done a lot of in the last few years, first by donating all of her old fanzines and journals to NYU’s Fales Library Riot Grrrl Collection in 2010, then by giving director Sini Anderson the OK to make a documentary about her: 2013’s moving The Punk Singer. But these weren’t arbitrary decisions. At the time, a dire health issue was propelling Hanna to open up and document her legacy—she was deathly ill with late-stage Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness. (“We camped across the country every summer,” Hanna says. “I got bit by so many fucking ticks and my parents would burn them out of me with a lighter because that’s what the ’70s and early ’80s were like.”) It gave rise to debilitating symptoms that were misdiagnosed as everything from Crohn’s Disease to MS. “There were times when I thought I wasn’t going to make it through the night,” she says. But finally getting properly diagnosed was only the beginning. “I had a suitcase for my medicine, like, an old-fashioned suitcase,” she says, miming a shape with her hands that seems impossibly large. She also had a PICC line—a constant IV that fed medication straight to her heart—for the better part of a year, which made everyday activities like opening heavy doors tasks of Herculean proportions. Hanna, who’s now Lyme free, is down to a cosmetic bag for her pill bottles, but even coming off the meds has had a downside. The constant nausea she experienced as a result has led to a lot of weight loss, one of the reasons she’s eating a steak in the first place. “I’ve got to get some girth before I go on tour,” she says. “I’ve got to be strong.” And the recovery process isn’t only physical, it’s emotional as well. “It re-traumatizes you,” she says. “[First] feeling like you grew up in your house and you have no control. Then your body becomes your house that you’re trapped in and you can’t get out.” 

imsge2Lisa Perry yellow dress; iiJin sneakers; I Still Love You NYC pink plastic sunglasses; Alexis Bittar purple lucite bracelet
Perhaps the most insidious things about Lyme disease are how little is known about it and that it often has no outwardly visible symptoms—factors that, for female sufferers, are like lightning rods for sexism. “Some asshole wrote me on Facebook or Twitter years ago when The Punk Singer first came out,” she says. “He sent me an article: ‘Why do more women have Lyme disease than men?’ Like, it’s a hysterical illness. I was like, ‘Oh, this is why.’ Because they treat you like you’re hysterical so you don’t seek medical attention until it gets really, really bad. You wait because we’re supposed to just take it. We take shit every fucking day, in every fucking way.”

Being sick of taking shit is one of the things that made feminism resonate so much with Hanna to begin with. Though she was born in Portland, OR, her family moved around quite a bit, and she first felt the fire of feminism at a rally her mom took her to in Washington, D.C., where Gloria Steinem spoke. She was only nine. After her parents divorced and she went back to Portland with her mom as a teen, Hanna moved to Olympia, WA, to attend Evergreen State College, where she felt it even more acutely—especially after volunteering at a domestic violence shelter for women. She formed Bikini Kill in 1990 and helped ignite the feminist movement percolating in the punk scene. As quickly as it coalesced, however, it began to splinter. Mainstream media misconstrued the activist message of riot grrrl and resentment brewed, especially toward Hanna, who had unwittingly become the de facto face of the new feminist zeitgeist. When I say that I’m curious to know how it actually felt to be in riot grrrl—suggesting it was possibly more traumatic than empowering—Hanna pauses, something worth noting since she often talks quickly and off the cuff. “I’m sorry, just you asking that question makes me feel empowered. I seriously want to cry right now. Nobody’s ever asked me that,” she says. “To a lot of people, Bikini Kill was a young band who got a lot of attention. The riot grrrl thing, blah blah blah, all these awesome women banding together. But that’s not the way I experienced it. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a good thing, but it was really difficult.” 

There was a point where I was like, 'I'm not performing anymore because I'm going to get shot.'

 Hanna came to feminism and the underground music scene in search of a family. When it started to feel like the community she helped shape (along with many other people, she makes clear) was turning against her, “it was so painful,” she says. But maybe also to be expected. “Riot grrrl attracted a lot of people who had never been heard before, people who had been abused by family members or friends or just had a lot of violence visit their doorstep,” she explains. “It’s bound to be kind of a Molotov cocktail when you have a lot of people who felt voiceless coming to voice at the same time and feeling the rage that they pushed down for so long. Sometimes we would turn it against each other. Me included.” But it wasn’t only the internal turmoil that was affecting Hanna. The outside reactions were intensifying as well. “There was a point where I was like, ‘I’m not performing anymore because I’m going to get shot,’” she says. “The hate mail and the violence at our shows had gotten to a point where I was scared. So I took off performing for a while because I was like, ‘I can’t change anything if I’m dead.’”

As Hanna gesticulates, her short neon-pink-painted nails catch my eye, as does the wedding ring she wears: a scripted nameplate that reads Adam. Hanna is married to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys (he wears a ring that says Kathleen), someone she often refers to in interviews as the love of her life. It was right around the time that Hanna took a break from performing that the two started dating in 1996. “My mom, of course, said the grossest thing when we first started going out. She [told Adam], ‘You remind me so much of the son I never had. You and Kathleen really could be brother and sister. There is something about you.’ I was like, ‘Mom, that’s disgusting,’” Hanna says with a laugh, her eyes crinkling. But her mom was right, there was something about Adam: the two have been together ever since. And Hanna definitely inherited her mom’s “weird” sense of humor. “She always made fucked up jokes with me, like, I would be in the bathroom taking a bath, and she’d say, ‘Kathleen your kindergarten class is here. I’m going to let them in.’ It’s funny right? Clearly, I knew she was kidding,” she says. “But when I first got together with [Adam], I’d do shit like shove crazy notes under the door while he was having private time in the bathroom. Like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I shook the handle a couple of times to freak him out. I was like, ‘This is for you, Mom.’”

image4 Sonia Rykiel blouse and dress; Paul Andrew platform heels; We Who Pray gold/pink shimmer ring

The early days of Hanna’s relationship with Horovitz were also around the time she retreated to her bedroom, got her hands on a drum machine, taught herself production, and created the first Julie Ruin album as a solo venture. It’s no coincidence that this is the project she decided to resurrect when she was wanting to make music again during Le Tigre’s hiatus and while Lyme ravaged her body. At its heart, the Julie Ruin is Hanna at her most stripped down. “I was in a deep depression both times and I used the music as a way to help me out,” she says. “It gave me something to look forward to.” If the first Julie Ruin album helped her through the dissolution and disillusion of the riot grrrl scene, getting a band together in 2010, and releasing their first album in 2013, was her way of identifying with something other than being sick. But the new album, Hit Reset, certainly reflects everything Lyme put her through. “During the record I was weaning off steroids that I had been put on because my adrenal glands were just shot. And getting off steroids is no joke. In between takes I would just lay on the floor and then get back up and drink like a triple espresso and just go for it,” she says. Just going for it was the mantra that governed her writing process, too. “It’s still weird for me to give myself permission to just write what I want to write and not have this weight of, ‘YOU HAVE TO WRITE A FEMINIST ANTHEM!’” she says, affecting a monster voice. “Because I didn’t want to. I just felt like writing about stuff and the illness totally influenced me.” 

“Women who already feel totally under-represented are much more likely to strike out against another woman than against the men who control the system. It’s easier. It’s a lot easier.”

Hanna might not feel like she’s writing feminist anthems, but doing what she wants is perhaps just the next iteration of her feminist art, especially as the pop-culture currency of feminism increases. “[Feminism is] becoming this trendy thing that publishers use as a way to pit women against each other. Like in the ’70s—there was a whole myth that feminists hated housewives. Even though feminists were actually saying that it’s a job and women should get paid for it,” Hanna says. “Women who already feel totally under-represented are much more likely to strike out against another woman than against the men who control the system. It’s easier. It’s a lot easier.”

As a remedy to this kind of girl-on-girl aggression, Hanna suggests it’s time we change the conversation. “Tons of big names have said stupid stuff when asked if they’re a feminist, like, ‘No, I don’t hate men.’ [But] that has nothing to do with the conversation. The whole idea that feminists are man haters is made up so that people won’t fight back against oppression—and it’s totally obvious. I don’t care if women are like, ‘I’m not interested in [feminism].’ Like, fucking fine. I don’t give a shit what you do, but don’t act like you know about something that you don’t,” she says. “Here’s the thing. Why aren’t we asking men [if they’re feminist]? I want Justin Timberlake to be asked if he’s a feminist. Are Vampire Weekend? I’m actually curious. Why am I always asked what it’s like to be in a band with other women and not asked what it’s like to be in a band with other white people? I’d love to talk about racism in the indie scene but people don’t ask that, they ask me about fucking Miley Cyrus twerking.”

image3iiJin pink and white sequin top, shorts, and boots

Ultimately, feminism has to “connect to something,” says Hanna. “It has to connect to ending oppression for everybody.” And sometimes, that means men. She launches into a discussion of how sad and unfair it is that men are now often being objectified in ways similar to women, before interrupting herself. “If someone told me that when I was 19, I would’ve been like, ‘No! They have all the privilege!’” she says. “So that’s where my feminism has changed. I think seeing nuances and understanding compromise is what’s changed for me. The anger is still totally there, I just take out the knife when I need it. I’m not carrying it outside of the sheath 24 hours a day.”

On our way out of the restaurant, Hanna rolls her eyes and juts her thumb at a table of suits, then hugs me goodbye on the sidewalk outside. As she walks off down Sixth Avenue, her pseudo-bun bouncing, I realize I still don’t really know Kathleen Hanna. I only know what she means to me, and to legions of women like me. And that’s enough. 

--

By Lisa Butterworth
Photos by Mary Ellen Matthews
Stylist // Kemal Harris
Hair // Linh Nguyen @ Kate Ryan
Makeup // Tsipporah Liebman using MAC Cosmetics
Nails // Alexaundra McCormick @ honey artists
Set design // Shawn Patrick Anderson/ACME Studio

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today

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