Kathleen Hanna - Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk [Book] (Cover Artwork)

Kathleen Hanna

Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk [Book] (2024)


I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never reacted to a book as strongly as I did to Kathleen Hanna’s memoir Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk. I cried for the first time a few paragraphs in to the prologue and that certainly wasn’t the last time. A box of Kleenex was never far away as I read the story behind the Julie Ruin song “Apt #5” and read about her missing her last opportunity to see her friend Kurt Cobain. I screamed with rage multiple times as I read about how her art was treated in comparison to that of the male students in college and the times she was threatened before/after/during playing punk shows. My palms started to sweat and I felt fear when Kathleen spoke of the “gun incident”, being trapped in a speeding car with the class president, and being stalked while she was working on the first Julie Ruin album. I felt the warmth of the love and support her husband, friends, and mom had for her when she was really sick with Lyme disease. I threw my hands up in celebration when Kathleen and Adam’s adopted son was born and when Bikini Kill reunited. That I felt all of this speaks not only to Kathleen Hanna’s writing style but to who she is as a person. You can feel the power of her statement, “The things I’m writing about aren’t stories, they’re my blood”, in every single word. She presents herself and her experiences as they were and never resorts to looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses in order to make the reader feel comfortable. She is telling her life story on her own terms there is nothing more powerful than that.

Much like how Davis the orange cat came into Kathleen’s life at the right moment, Rebel Girl came into my life right when I needed it most. I felt drawn to this book the minute it was announced and I’m glad I acted on that feeling and picked it up. Reading the book not only reconnected me with my love of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and Julie Ruin (and introduced me to her first band Viva Knievel), it also helped me reunite with the full spectrum of my emotions. You can tell that it must have been a very cathartic book to write because it is an extremely cathartic book to read. Kathleen talks openly and honestly about events from her past and takes us along with her on her journey not only of reflection but of healing. Some of the stories she tells are so cathartic because they show her reclaiming her power. Early on in the book Kathleen talks about being routinely sexually harassed and undermined by her guidance counsellor in high school. Years after graduating, she decides to go back to that high school to file a formal complaint against him and after doing so, hands out flyers called ‘Why Aren’t Boys Called Sluts?” to girls around the campus. After standing up for herself and helping educate young people she wrote, “That day reminded me that I wasn’t gonna let life happen to me anymore. I was gonna make things happen”. I cheered when I read that and I think about that line often.

Strengthening and rebuilding friendships is also a huge source of catharsis throughout the book. This is especially strong when Kathleen talks about Bikini Kill’s decision to reunite for a show with the Raincoats. While Kathi and Kathleen had rekindled their friendship a few years prior - Kathi also helped Kathleen when she was very sick with Lyme disease, prompting one of the sweetest stories in the book - Kathleen and Tobi had barely interacted with one another for years. Kathleen describes playing together again feeling like “a wound heal[ing] up in one day” and you can feel the weight being lifted off her shoulders as well as the pure radiating joy they felt at being back together once again. The love they all feel for each other is on full display and the way Kathleen describes reuniting with Tobi is heartwarming, to say the least. Over the course of the book, there are many more moments of extreme catharsis with the most intense one coming near the end but I won’t spoil any of those for you, you’ll have to read it to find out what they are.

Kathleen’s commitment to growth and learning is highlighted on multiple occasions throughout Rebel Girl. Sometimes when she is recounting events she talks about what could have been done differently, how she views the event now, and how she’s implemented what she’s learned from it into her life. This happens most notably when she’s talking about the disaster that unfolded at the ‘Unlearning Racism’ workshop at the first Riot Grrrl convention in Washington, DC. She walks us through her intention for the workshop and looking back, discusses what she feels could have been done to make the workshop run smoothly and what would have helped the people who attended talk about race in a constructive way. Later in the book, Kathleen talks about how she’s put what she learned into action especially when she gives talks about feminism in punk rock and art. She cites several works by writer Mimi Thi Nguyen (known for confronting racism in the punk scene) including her zine Evolution of a Race Riot and her essay “Race, Revival and Riot Grrrl” to open an honest discussion of the flaws within Riot Grrrl and highlights the contributions of many influential artists, writers, and performers who often get left out of the history of the Riot Grrrl movement including Leslie Mah, Ramdasha Bikceem, Iraya Robles, and Vaginal Creme Davis. Oftentimes, especially in autobiographies, people tend to try to erase their mistakes and present themselves as perfect at every opportunity but, as we all know, that is bullshit. Kathleen approaches her missteps with honesty and presents them as opportunities to grow instead of things to be hidden, which is extremely refreshing.

I struggled to write this review because reading this book meant so much to me and there were so many stories that I wanted to include but couldn’t do so in a way that did them justice. The way that Kathleen Hanna writes really needs to be experienced. She packs so much information and an incredible amount of emotion into the short chapters that make up the book. Whether she is describing soaring joy, experiencing pure rage, exploring the depths of despair, or talking about eating ten foot-long hot dogs, she makes you feel like you are there with her. Rebel Girl is without a doubt an essential book for anyone interested in punk, feminism, art, or great writing. You will learn a lot about Kathleen Hanna but you will learn a lot about yourself too.