She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which opens in NYC this week followed by a national rollout, gazes back on the second wave of feminism: lingerie-trashings, consciousness-raisings, and abortion speakouts; black feminism and womanism; fledgling lesbian communes; and a massive women’s strike for equality in 1970.
Yet you don’t have to be an expert in feminism, or even care about the movement’s origins, to derive value from the nuggets of history and commentary unearthed by filmmaker Mary Dore.
Activist movements leave legacies containing both hard-won social progress and bitter infighting (“You’re oppressing me just by existing,” is a choice quote from the film delivered as a rueful, laughing recollection by a movement veteran). Made up of individuals who are often deeply damaged by some aspect of the status quo, movements are inherently flawed even as they do the crucial work of shoving the culture forward. Squabbling and hierarchies replicate the world activists are trying to change. Within these alliances and coalitions, men talk over women, white women dismiss women of color, straight people bully gay people. And at the end of the day, after the rallies and sit-ins and tent cities, people in power convene committees and agree to maybe think about the problems that have been raised.
If activists are lucky.
So, the question that followed me as I watched the film was: Can those who carry the scars of activist implosions come, in time, to see movements as useful, or at least beautiful — despite the pain they caused? She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry lives up to its name. Lovely. Infuriating. Yet it might also prove a healing experience, a chance to laugh at the old battle wounds. To be fair, it also might offend those who are still scarred, or those who think feminism still remains too white, too upper-crusty, too straight (it does, it does.)
But the quest for beauty is a noble one. By filming her subjects, pioneers in the mid-century fight for gender equality, as they now express measured pride and mirth about their mistakes, their dogmas, their internecine battles over ideology, Dore tenderly brings to light not only the foolishness and blindness of the movement (“I saw a sea of white women,” says one black activist about an early gathering) but also its playfulness, its radical roots — and above all, its newness. “We heard each other into speech,” one activist says. Feminism, or this iteration of it, was like a newborn. It flailed around, and its birth hurt its creators.
Yet it saw no limits. How imaginative social-change efforts were back then, before feminism was an identity, when it merely was an emerging movement (“Women’s lib”) with goals. Just think: ideas like wages for housewives, free abortion on demand and universal daycare were still very much on the table. Instead of fighting to get more women on corporate boards, feminists were envisioning an entirely different way of organizing society to begin with. And they had a whimsical sensibility. Viewed today, the street theater of the lingerie-trashing outside Miss America that resulted in bra burning stereotypes (recently reclaimed as hip) actually read as hilarious, provocative and purposeful. One scene I particularly adored in the film depicted a group of feminists, trailed by cops and cameras, walking down Wall Street catcalling men and giving them a taste of their street harassment medicine. The rawness and directness of this protest reminded me very much of the Slutwalks of a few years ago (which close the film, a coda).
The movie also recreates the banner day during which lesbians stormed a feminist conference hall in “Lavender Menace” t-shirts to demand gay inclusion in feminism. There were less enshrined moments. We learn of the formation of Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, shortened to W.I.T.C.H, and the “Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band” and how in the JANE network, “Janes taught other Janes” to perform illegal abortions. We see banner drops off the Miss America balcony and the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and the triumphant Strike for Women’s Equality in 1970, 50 years after suffrage.
Dore’s film assiduously documents missteps too, such as all the “isms” but also some attempts at separatism from patriarchy that meant members of collectives couldn’t even bring their infant sons with them to meetings. Talk about purer than thou. There was a rash of women getting kicked out of the groups they had begun, victims and perpetrators of a “tyranny of structurelessness.”
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” is the take-home message from many of the film’s retrospective interviews. And yet, how much was achieved by trying anyway and seeing what worked. A great deal of the framework we use now was born from these circles of women and queer people, just sitting and figuring shit out. The concept of reproductive justice began taking root in gatherings of feminists of color. The idea that rape is about power instead of desire. The very concept of domestic violence. This stuff may have been thought out alongside bans on infant men, but it when it was thrown at the wall, it stuck.
Watching She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry made me think that we should really revive radical ideas like the push for universal daycare and base salaries for stay-at-home parents. Feminism has become too careerist and lost some of the community-oriented focus of the early days that was both gorgeous and gorgeously messy.
Yet the film also re-cast my discouragement after watching Occupy wither, my handwringing over the fact that protests don’t lead to indictments of cops who kill with impunity. Because it demonstrates that only time will be able to separate what activism is achieving and where it’s falling short, which slights and exasperations leave scars, and which will merely make us laugh.
The best thing we can do is keep being angry, and keep trying.