Punk Rock-Feminist Pioneer Kathleen Hanna on Her SXSW Doc and More

The feminist punk rocker is the subject of a new documentary premiering at SXSW. She talks to Marlow Stern about feminism, loving Taylor Swift, inspiring ‘Teen Spirit,’ and more.

03.13.13 8:45 AM ET

It was the age of unbridled excess, avarice, and machismo gone haywire. Wall Street Masters of the Universe were treating people like tradable commodities, hair metal bands were plowing through sexual conquests like Charlie Sheen after banging seven-gram rocks, and punkers were leaving each other bloodied and bruised in mosh pits.

The 1980s was a very tough time to be a woman—let alone a female musician.

But Kathleen Hanna wouldn’t stand for any of that bullshit.

A victim of childhood abuse, Hanna began her artistic career as a spoken-word performer, addressing issues like violence and sexism against women. Eventually, she segued into music, forming the seminal punk band Bikini Kill and later Le Tigre. At early Bikini Kill shows, she demanded that women stand in the front—and be protected—from their testosterone-fueled male counterparts. She also helped pioneer the feminist zine Riot grrrl, which had an indelible impact on the women’s rights movement, and came up with the title to the Nirvana anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” tagging it on the wall of her good pal, the late Kurt Cobain.

Hanna, who is married to Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, is the subject of Sini Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer, which made its premiere at the 2013 SXSW festival. In an expansive interview, the feminist and punk icon opened up to The Daily Beast about her dark past, feminism, why Taylor Swift is a feminist, Nirvana memories, being assaulted by Courtney Love, and more.

I understand you became interested in feminism when your mother took you to a Gloria Steinem rally in Washington, D.C., when you were just 9.
That’s right. My mom was a secret feminist. She worked at a domestic-violence center in the basement of a church, and she would find places for women and their children to sleep for a few nights. It was all very clandestine, and she didn’t really tell my dad about it. Then, she’d bring copies of Ms. magazine into the house, and I remember making a poster that said, “Girls Can Do Anything” and cutting out pictures from Ms. of female construction workers. My mom really had an “aha!” moment after reading Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. My dad grabbed the book out of her hand and started reading it and telling my mom what feminism was. It just made her so angry. He’s just a total dick … That’s really all I can say.

And your parents split up around the time you were in high school.
Yeah. My dad was a sprinkler fitter and he was in the union, so we moved around every three years for his job. When we moved from Washington to Maryland, right before I went to high school, my parents split. So I didn’t know anyone from high school. But I had wanted my mom to divorce my dad for a number of years, so I was relieved.

That must have been a very rough time for you. In the film, it’s revealed that you had a very difficult and abusive upbringing.
A neighborhood boy molested me when I was 7. And my dad was sexually inappropriate and creepy—though he didn’t molest me—as well as verbally and physically abusive. When I was 15, I was raped when I was drunk and took a ride from the wrong person. I could go on and on about other incidents … like being stalked by my landlord. I was like, “Why am I the person that all these men are drawn to? What am I doing wrong?” I ended up working at a domestic violence/rape shelter, and when these things happen to you so young, you get set up to feel like that’s all you’re there for, and you project that out. Then, predator men smell out that you’re a victim and won’t talk. I feel like a lot of women get revictimized and revictimized, and when it happens five times, women feel like they can’t tell anyone because nobody will believe them.

You say your father was “sexually inappropriate.” Did you try to communicate this to people, like your mom? And did this ruin your ability to trust people?
I just couldn’t risk fucking up my family. I was too young to deal with it all. And then you live in denial, and then you go out into the world in denial and you date people and, even though you see red flags around people, you ignore them because you were trained to live around red flags your whole life and ignore them. So you trust the wrong people because you have no intuition.

It’s the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and I understand the abortion issue is a personal one for you.
In 1985, I was living with my sister in Virginia and, since I was still in high school, I worked at McDonald’s to save money to get an abortion. It sounds really terrible, but it was the best decision I ever made. It was the first time I took responsibility for my actions. I messed up, had sex without contraception, and got pregnant at 15. It was the first time I realized I wanted a life. Maybe I wanted to have kids down the road, but I thought, “I would not be able to have the life I want unless I do this.” When I was in Bikini Kill, I thought, “Wow, if I had had that baby, I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things I’ve done or travel around the world.” It’s about women not dying in back-alley abortions, but it’s also about women saying: “My life is worth it, too. I deserve to have control over my life and my health care.” Imagine if a man was told, “You can’t make the decision to have a vasectomy.”

In the film, it’s revealed that you managed to support yourself while attending Evergreen State College in Washington through stripping, as well as doing a work-study job as a photo lab technician. What was your experience with stripping like? 
When I first started dancing, I was 17 and worked in a juice bar where you could have younger people because they didn’t serve alcohol. I was wearing a bikini, though—no nudity. I was away from my family and I started to figure out what was inappropriate or appropriate, because I struggled for a long time with that due to my past. I was trying to make lemonade out of lemons, in a way. I thought, “If I went through these shitty experiences, how can I turn that into cash?” It wasn’t a political thing or a sex-positive decision, because I don’t find anything sex-positive about stripping. It was just a shitty job to make money for school.

Why did you decide to start Bikini Kill?
I realized that I loved music and that was a way I could channel my energy into something positive. When we were on tour with my first band, Viva Knievel, I couldn’t believe how sexist the underground music scene was. So, I started writing to this girl Tobi Vail who had a fanzine called Jigsaw, and she was very supportive. When I got home, it just seemed like the right thing to do to start a band together. We were really idealistic and thought we could go into male-dominated spaces and make them places women felt welcome in—at least for one night.

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It seems like Bikini Kill and the Riot grrrl movement live on in a group like Pussy Riot.
Before they got imprisoned, I watched some of their videos and thought it was the best thing ever. In Le Tigre, we wore really bright colors, so I loved their aesthetic and the performance-art aspect of going into public spaces and doing unplanned performances. It’s political, smart, and funny. And then they were imprisoned and I was like, “Wait … what the fuck?” I felt a real kinship because even though I’ve changed from spoken word to music, I’ve always considered myself a feminist performance artist more than a musician. I’d been waiting to be blown away by something, and I was very blown away by them … and so saddened.

Many contemporary pop stars, like Taylor Swift, get a lot of flack for not self-identifying as feminists when pressed in interviews.
I’m totally into Taylor Swift. I think she has super-clever lyrics, and I love that she writes her own music. Some of the themes she writes about are stuff I wish was there for me when I was in high school, and I’m so happy she really cares about her female fans. She’s not catering to a male audience and is writing music for other girls. I don’t care if she calls herself a feminist or not. There is something that she’s doing that feels feminist to me in that she really seems to have a lot of control over what her career is doing. She’s 23. People say she’s dating all these guys. Well, yeah, she’s a young person and is dating all these people ’cause that’s what you do when you’re young. John Mayer can fuck 84 people in one day and nobody calls him a slut. I think that’s the subtext of some of the things she’s said recently.

You famously came up with the name for Nirvana’s anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Can you tell me the story behind that?
I was just at Kurt’s apartment, and he was living in the back of this house that my friend Slim lived in. We got really drunk and then headed out into the woods. There was this fake abortion clinic—those clinics that ask if you’re pregnant and then show you scary movies about fetuses—and one of those had just opened in our town, so we were furious. We staked it out and I think we even had binoculars. We spray-painted all over the side of it and I just wrote, “FAKE ABORTION CLINIC,” and Kurt wrote, “God Is Gay.” We went downtown and got more and more drunk and ended up back at his place. I remember we just turned off all the lights and broke everything in his room; it was a metal tornado, really insane. I just started writing shit on his wall with a Sharpie and I wrote, “KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT.” He called me six months later when they were working on the record and he said, “Hey, I want to use that title for a song … would that be cool?” I don’t think he knew that Teen Spirit was actually a deodorant! He found that out much later.

You also made headlines in the ’90s when his wife, Courtney Love, assaulted you at Lollapalooza. What the hell was that about?
You’d really have to ask her what that was about. I was just standing there. I didn’t do anything, say anything, or even look at her. I have no idea if she was jealous of me, of my band, or because I was in a band with Tobi, who dated Kurt before her and they had stayed in contact … I have no idea. She used to be good friends with our bass player, and I thought our bands had camaraderie, even though we never hung out. I was unpleasantly surprised when we weren’t able to be comrades. It’s a rough world out there for female musicians. People always told me she was super-difficult, and I didn’t believe them because that’s what people say about all women. And then she assaulted me and that was really sad. I was a fan and I stuck up for her when people said shit about her, so I was like, “Wow, why is this happening to me?” It was really depressing and I wish it didn’t happen. It’s not fun to be punched in the face, and it was really hard for me that it became a joke heard ’round the indie rock world, because I didn’t do anything to deserve it.

Will Le Tigre ever get back together?
I’m in a new band called the Julie Ruin, and it’s nice to hear live drums again when I sing. If Le Tigre does something together again, which I would love, I think we’d really change around what we were doing, like do something with a live band or write songs with other people. I definitely still love them and think that collaborating with them in the future is definitely in the stars. But the Julie Ruin’s album comes out in three months, and hopefully we’ll start playing in the springtime.