This morning my head is full of this
Last night I fell asleep burning to write about Kathleen Hanna, but then my son woke me up at 1.44am and 6am needing help because he has a dicky tummy and was exploding with diarrhoea, and now I'm looking at the eight-project to-do list and wondering if I should bother.
This morning my best friend from teenage years, the girl who stood on stage with me in an upstairs room in Camden and read out poetry by Sylvia Plath while I clanged around with a guitar (we only did it once), sent me an email confessing that she feels ordinary, vanilla. “Having kids knocked the stuffing out of me,” she writes. The line rattles in my heart like a pebble.
Last night we saw The Punk Singer together. It reminded me of every time I've thought about starting a band and weaselled out. Of every time I've shut up and let someone else tell me what to do rather than standing my ground. Of wanting to start a magazine and looking for permission, which is slightly more than but also the same as looking for money, instead of just slapping one together with a stick of glue and a stapler. The constant nagging thought in my head: I'm not doing enough, I'm not loud enough, I'm not strong enough to remake the world.
But that's not what it's about.
There's a brilliant line in The Punk Singer, where Hanna talks about making the first Julie Ruin record, alone, in her bedroom, quietly rebuilding herself after the fallout of Bikini Kill. I won't paraphrase it; here's her making the same point in an interview in 2013:
I needed to get used to the sound of my own voice, and I think that’s what makes a girl’s bedroom special. You can make whatever you want when you’re alone in your room. The thing that’s interesting to me about the mention of it in the film and the way it was structured is that there are all these different girls' bedrooms and all these girls are making their stuff, and then they’re throwing it away, and how can we connect these bedrooms? We’ve seen today that we can connect these bedrooms through the Internet. That’s one of the positive things happening.
Around the time that interview was published, I threw away most of my teenage years and 20s: it was all just so much clutter. Not the fanzines, though. I kept those.
(I talk a lot at the moment about wanting to connect the disparate conversations happening in theatre, about finding ways to share ideas, the responsibility I feel to join the dots. How writing might do that, a magazine might do that. The itch to make another fanzine is strong.)
Truth is, when my best friend and I went to see Bikini Kill, I guess when they toured in 1993, I was disappointed: they were a racket, and aggressive, and the whole thing was so confrontational I couldn't connect to it. The anger terrified me. And there was a lot about their construction of feminism I didn't understand. Why push boys to the back, instead of fighting for a space where girls and boys could stand-dance-sing side by side? I have a letter from another riot grrrl, older than me, explaining that one with gentle patience; I remember reading it and feeling like an idiot.
I'm berating myself again.
Watching The Punk Singer, I recognised the extent to which Kathleen Hanna raised the stick against which I have measured most of my life. Riot grrrl changed me. It gave me feminism, politics, a way of looking at the world. I knew I wanted to make stuff when it happened (writing, art, music, I didn't know, but something), and it told me to just get started. It told me to think hard about what I was saying. And something else it told me, which even now I keep needing to remind myself: if, by saying something truthful, something vulnerable, you can connect with one other person and make them feel less weird, less stupid, less alone, that is enough.
Like all feminists, I have moments of feeling unutterably depressed by apparently how little has changed for the positive in the 20 years since I encountered it. From the micro – girls are still pushed out of the front at gigs – to the macro, which is just about everything. When I started reading Susan Faludi's Backlash last year, a book I bought some 20 years ago, I was astonished: she's writing about the virulent media, cultural and political backlash against feminism in the 1980s, but all the newspaper articles she quotes, all the instances she gives of films and speeches and stupid attitudes, could have dated from any time since.
But the systems we struggle against are strong, and we can't give up, I can't give up. There's another brilliant line in The Punk Singer where Hanna talks about starting Le Tigre with Johanna Fateman, the two of them sharing all the shit they'd experienced, and deciding they wanted their new band to be celebratory, to focus on the stuff that made them happy. By the time I got home I had Diane di Prima shouting in my ears: ALL POWER TO JOY, WHICH WILL REMAKE THE WORLD. Anger is vital. But so is joy.
Having kids knocked the stuffing out of me, too. I still feel I have to ask for permission to work, not just from the family, from myself. Every day is a fight against spurious expectations, guilt, convention. If dismantling the patriarchy starts at home, I'm failing. I don't need anyone to tread me down: I do it to myself. As for the kids, every time one of them espouses conformist gender cliches, a bit of my soul breaks. But it's not just about me teaching (nagging) them to be different: it's about letting them find the culture that will give them the tools to make themselves different. If they find something even half as inspiring, challenging, electrifying as riot grrrl, I'll be happy.
This morning, over breakfast, I played them Le Tigre, and we talked about What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?, and my son said he's not a misobogutist because that would mean he hates me and his sister. So, you know, that's a start.