Flipping Off the Patriarchy, Three Chords at a Time

REBEL GIRL: My Life as a Feminist Punk, by Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna’s ability to flip — and flip off — expectations has made her one of the most riveting frontpeople in recent musical history. As the singer for the band Bikini Kill in the 1990s (they reunited in 2019), she shifted from seductive dance moves she learned as a stripper to bullhorn roars of “Suck my left one!,” a riposte she borrowed from her older sister. In Le Tigre, her next major group (their reunion came in 2023), she delivered feminist history lessons with electro-pop glee.

But what has made Hanna a radical artist is not just the way she tears away preconceptions, but the fact that she re-centers the embodied experiences of women. Rape, incest, empowerment, harassment and what Bikini Kill famously called “Revolution Girl Style Now!” — it was the title of their first self-released demo — had rarely been the subjects of three-minute punk songs or Xeroxed manifestoes until the quartet made it so.

As with the riot grrrl zines Hanna and her sisters-in-arms once created, her first memoir, “Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk,” unfolds in raw, ragged segments. She has always explored difficult subjects, but without the music’s cathartic power and her commanding stage presence, the book can be dark. (I recommend the 2013 documentary “The Punk Singer” as a visual and sonic accompaniment.) Here, Hanna reveals details of the personal traumas she hinted at in such songs as the alienation anthem “Feels Blind”: a sexually inappropriate alcoholic father, a sister who overdosed and almost died, multiple rapes.

She writes that she can’t untangle her artistry “from the background that is male violence.” But the critiques from her peers seem to have been equally damaging to her psyche. The rock star who recorded for the formative indie label Kill Rock Stars was always a walking, shouting contradiction. She suffered vicious personal, political and physical attacks for standing out in a field of standouts; in Australia, they call this tall poppy syndrome.

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