it’s an interview with kathleen hanna, known to kids of today thanks to her band le tigre, & known to me as a teenager from her riot grrrl band bikini kill. i loved bikini kill a lot when i was younger, & when kathleen’s solo record under the name julie ruin came out, i was psyched. i had secretly been into very un-punk disco/dance/pop music for years & it was gratifying that a musician from the same punk/feminist background as me was taking that sensibility into a musical direction that i could finally admit liking (because suddenly it was hip…this was clearly before i stopped giving a fuck about what was cool). & then le tigre came along, & at first i was excited, & i bought the record & i saw the band when they played the meow meow in portland, oregon sometime in 2000 or so. they performed “bang! bang!” from their EP, which is a song about amadou diallo being shot 42 times by cops in new york city. there’s a “breakdown” where kathleen leads the crowd in counting to 42. i was at the show with a friend, who happens to be a woman of color born & raised in a new york city borough. she became increasingly uncomfortable as the song progressed & eventually had to leave. i took a walk with her & she explained that it felt sickening to her to be in a room full of white people (because portland is mostly white, & let’s face facts: bikini kill/le tigre/kathleen hanna fans in general are mostly white) counting down how many times an unarmed black immigrant was shot by white cops. the song is supposed to be about police brutality & raising awareness of that issue among white kids, but…it did feel weird. the counting got louder & louder & became almost anthemic, like the kids were celebrating. it was creepy & i always skipped that song when i listened to the EP.
& then, of course, le tigre signed on to play the michigan womyn’s music festival, an extremely long-running woman-only music festival. the fest was started in the late 70s by some young lesbians who were sick of having to drive all the way to new york to see the lesbian singer-songwriters they liked so much. the fest has expanded its focus, musically, over the years, but still maintain a “woman-born-woman” policy, which means that you can oonly attend if you have a vagina, apparently. trans men are allowed, so long as they still have vaginas & don’t identify themselves at the event as men. trans women are not allowed, because supposedly they are men playacting as women. basically, the policy is patently transphobic & fucked up. it’s fucked up even for the trans men that are allowed on the land, because it invisibilizes their male identities by reducing their genders to their body parts. it’s like saying, “well, maybe you think you’re a man, but you can hang out here because you’re really a woman.” & it tells trans women that they are straight up not women.
people have been protesting MWMF & their policy for years & years, to no avail. supporters of the policy insist that they should be allowed to have the occasional event that is a woman-only space, & that some women with histories that involve abuse & assault at the hands of men would not be comfortable at the festival if men were there–that the presence of men could be triggering. the policy extends to children as well–i think the cut-off age for male children permitted at the event is twelve years. apparently there’s a lot of strutting around nude that happens at the festival, & many women who support the policy say they want to protect themselves from the male gaze. none of this changes the fact that, you know, trans women are women & not men! so what the hell!
anyway, people who have been protesting the policy (& hence, the event itself) extended their protests to also protesting bands/artists that pley the festival. & when le tigre & labelmates the butchies signed on to play the fest in 2001, those of us who had grown up with bikini kill & team dresch & all these formative feminist/queer-posi bands felt like we’d been slapped in the face. i was pretty involved in the protesting, i wrote about my experiences for my old zine, “a renegade’s handbook to love & sabotage” #5, & i couldn’t bring myself to listen to my le tigre CDs anymore. i’ve barely even listened to bikini kill in the last ten years. the bands & the folks who ran their label, mr. lady, were so completely unapologetic about the MWMF policy. & every time i’d try to cut them some slack & think, “well, it’s not like THEY made up the policy, they’re just playing the fest, maybe it’s not the end of the world,” they’d do something fucked up like comparing trans activists to terrorists (seriously!) or something. they just made it impossible for me be at all sympathetic to their perspective, because their perspective was so deeply entrenched in completely unchecked transphobia, even while they trotted out le tigre member J.D. samson (a trans dude) as proof of their credentials.
all of this is just kind of background on why i have not really paid any attention to kathleen hanna in the last ten years, & why i am incredibly reluctant to be into much of anything she has to say. but she’s been in the punky underground news a bit recently, thanks to donating her papers (including zines, correspondence, flats, etc) to NYU. i watched this interview with her yesterday & was kind of blown away by some of the ways i related to what she was saying. i cannot relate to the hideous glasses or the valley girl intonations of her speaking voice, which really grate after fifteen minutes, but that’s beside the point. the point:
#1: the thing about getting caught up in “horizontal oppression” stuff in her twenties & wasting too much energy arguing over “personal issues that have been politicized.” i can’t remember exactly how she phrased it, something like focusing too much on “nitpicking instead of action”. this is something i would LOVE to talk to someone about more, because i can totally relate in some ways, & have huge reservations in other ways. i think it’s just a hallmark of any young activist-oriented person to get overly wrapped up in minutiae, at the expense of real work. pretty much every activist type i have known has grown through a huge identity politics period where everything they read, think, say, or do relates directly to them & their positionality in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not always relevant or helpful. it leads to people sometimes drawing lines in the sand & fractiousness which does a lot more harm than good. HOWEVER, where to draw the line? while i sometimes think that certain things are “nitpicking” or “irrelevant,” that is exactly the same criticism that people in positions of privilege & power use to discount things like feminism, anti-racist activism, anti-oppression issues in general. i mean, so much of the critique that MWMF policy protesters faced was that fighting for the inclusion of trans women was “nitpicking,” & that trans activists were “hurting” the feminist/lesbian legacy of the MWMF event by casting the marginalized (in mainstream society) as oppressors (of trans women).
i eventually realized that the whole MWMF issue was a question of basic values & principles. either you accept that trans women are women & the policy marginalizes their self-identification & dignity as human beings, or you feel that trans women are some “third gender” or something & that their rights & demands need to take a week-long backseat to the primacy of cissexual women enjoying a music fest. i happen to think that people of the latter opinion are short-sighted assholes, but i don’t kid myself that thinking that, or even saying it, is going to change their minds. & the fact remains that on a whole host of other specific issues, like abortion rights, queer liberation, anti-racism, et al, i probably have more in common with le tigre & the ladies at MWMF than i do with the guy ringing up my groceries or my mailman or whatever. so where does that leave us?
#2: kathleen talks about getting older (“being a grown-up”) & realizing that she doesn’t necessarily need to scrap in every argument or every little thing. WORD, kathleen. people who have known me for a long time know that i am fierce in a debate. but lately, it seems like a waste of energy. it doesn’t feel constructive. sometimes i feel hopeless (which isn’t constructive either), because i feel like nothing i can say will ever change anyone’s mind. the best i can hope for is managing to say something that coalesces some scrambled thoughts that someone who vaguely agrees with me is already thinking, you know? like they’d say, “wow, i’d never really thought of it this way before, but ciara really put this into words that make sense to me.” that’s nice, but kind of anti-climactic.
in the interview, kathleen also mentions coming to the realization that your voice is not necessarily helping matters. i could really relate to that too. kathleen & i are both polarizing forces in some ways (to different degrees & in different ways), & sometimes i feel that me throwing my hat into the ring is going to do more harm than good, because…
#3: the part where the interviewer mentions “being a woman whose reputation precedes her”? man, that resonated with me. i have often been described that way. it’s a blessing & a curse. there are some people who will always consider what i have to say respectfully & with interest, because they like me & are willing to hear me out, just because of who i am & what i’ve done in the past. & there are other people who will never listen to anything i have to say, no matter how well it may dovetail with their own perspectives, because of who i am & what i have done in the past. they just hate me.
#4: i liked what kathleen had to say about zines as an ephemeral medium, & how they were created to be historical, in a way. she talked about giving NYU her zine flats so people in the future can look at them & understand that not everything came from the internet; people used to cut & paste. i almost felt a little stirring of inspiration regarding the zine medium again. it made me remember being 17 & making zines after getting home from work at 4am, listening to bikini kill & sleater-kinney, cutting & pasting & tapping away at the typewriter.
#5: i also liked what kathleen had to say about leadership, & how some people just have a knack for being spokespeople, but they are sometimes cut down & silenced because people in our punky little anarchist-y scene look at spokespersonship as some kind of fucked up replication of leadership & hierarchy from mainstream society. this is something that has long bothered me, & i have trotted out the opinion that some people have gifts that can be useful & ought to be nurtured, & that we can’t all be “equals” in terms of interest & ability. as far back as 1999, i did a huge independent research project on zines & issues of hierarchy & came to the conclusion that, yeah, our scene replicates some fucked up superstar tendencies, but also, sometimes there’s a reason for it. people whine about distros all carrying the same zines, & they offer examples like “doris” & “brainscan” (& my zines have been mentioned a few times too). there are tons of zines that are just as good or maybe even a little better than those zines, but ultimately, people love “doris” because it’s full of great writing, it comes out regularly, & cindy seems like a very kind person. people like “brainscan” because it has an iconic zine look (often imitated), the writing is friendly & approachable, & alex is great at getting the word out about her projects. people liked my old zine, “a renegade’s handbook,” because it was monstrously enormous compared to most other zines out there, & the writing was slightly more polished & sophisticated than most of what you find in zines. & some people hate on all these zines for the same reasons.
there’s just no pleasing all of the people all of the time, & in a scene where bikini kill erupted from a record label called kill rock stars, people are going to build their idols up only to tear them back down again. you’re never allowed to feel too comfortable with your achievements or too proud of a job well done. it helps keep people humble & pushing themselves to do their best, but it also crushes people, because hard work is quickly minimized & scuttled, raw talent is dismissed & ignored, & the tallest stalk is first to meet with the scythe.
food for thought, i guess. i hope people comment on this, because this is the kind of shit i am talking about when i say i want to engage in “dialectical learning”. i certainly do not have all the answers about things like hierarchy & horizontal oppression. every statement i come up with seems to generate ten new internal questions. i am trying to be cool with that, because i kind of think that broad statements that say, “this is how it is & how it should be” are for confident kids that haven’t yet fully grappled with the complexities of the world. like i have said before, as i get older, the only thing i am sure about is that i am not sure of anything. (except the deliciousness of cheesecake on the lanai.)