Kathleen Hanna’s Music Says a Lot. There’s More in the Book.

The first draft of Kathleen Hanna’s memoir, “Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk,” was 600 pages long. As she worked to cut the manuscript, Hanna found herself excising page after page of male violence. “It’s pretty sad, if you read the book, because there’s still a lot in there,” she told me. “I had a joke with my editor about it.” Like, she’d already removed arape and a kidnapping and a guy who threw a wine glass at her head! “What more do you want from me?

Hanna is super funny. When she takes the stage as the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre or the Julie Ruin, she plays a kind of punk trickster, shifting her voice to resemble a bratty Valley Girl, a demonic cheerleader, an obnoxious male fan. She is always subverting femininity and disarming bad guys with her spiky and irreverent lyrics. But when it came time to write her life story, she realized that she could not playfully twist away from her past.

“I keep trying to make my rapes funny, but I have to stop doing that because they aren’t,” she writes in the book, which comes out on May 14.

Kathleen Hanna at home with her dog, Terry. While writing her memoir, she was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder.Credit…OK McCausland for The New York Times

“Rebel Girl” documents Hanna’s long career as an underground artist and musician, and its striking intersections with the mainstream. In the 1990s, she helped instigate the riot grrrl movement, calling girls to the front of punk venues and setting off a D.I.Y. feminist ethos that was later assimilated into a girl-power marketing trend. She was a friend of Kurt Cobain’s who scrawled the phrase “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall, inspiring the anthem that exploded into a global phenomenon.

Nineties nostalgia applies an appealingly gritty filter to that era’s underground rock scene, but it could be punishing for those who stood in opposition to its white male standard. Hanna has sometimes worried that if she put it all out there, she would be disbelieved. “I’ve been told by men: Oh, you’re just the kind of woman these things happen to, as if I have some sort of smell I’m emanating,” she said. “But I knew that other women would understand.”

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