Let’s start with this Möbius-strip-of-a-title. I used to have a guy friend who, when he wanted to piss me off, would say things like, “Aww…It cute when It try to think!” or “It cute when It angry!” The point is obvious: it is belittling and condescending to state a woman is beautiful when she’s angry, to ignore the emotional and internal motivations of the subject in order to admire the external, agitated physical state of the “object,” charmingly (and momentarily) not docile.
But as I watched the excellent new documentary directed by Mary Dore, I also picked up on the re-appropriation the film title performs. As Claire Messud learned the hard way, (many) stupid people don’t find angry women appealing. But angry women get things done. Angry women fight for change. Angry women take information, their energy, and yes, their anger, and turn it into action. If you don’t believe me, watch this documentary. Such anger is, indeed, a beautiful thing to behold.
In a compact hour and a half, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry covers the women’s liberation movement that shook American culture from 1966 to 1971, and the variety of social issues the movement impacted. A deft compilation of archival footage, contemporary interviews, and dramatizations, the film lightly jumps from topic to topic without allowing the viewer to become confused or fatigued. Excellent cinematography, judicious editing, and a fantastic score make this film as fun as it is informative. Older audiences will swell with nostalgia as younger viewers connect with the historical figures that made our contemporary female lives possible.
The film’s perspective is definitely affectionate to the cause and pretty rosy in its portrayal. However, it is saved from smug self-righteousness by including honest commentary on the various divisions and controversies that affected the large and complex network of organizations and prominent figures that represented the cause.
It begins with Betty Friedan, and her opus The Feminine Mystique. This book is one of the most influential works of the 20th century, and it shook many women out of a dormant feminist slumber. The film moves from a quick mention of Friedan’s work into a discussion of NOW (the National Organization for Women), and its emphasis on providing a legal framework for women to fight for equality in the workplace and in the home. “We in NOW teach women how to fight discrimination against their own companies, how to sue their companies!” Jacqueline Ceballos proudly proclaims in the infamous “Town Bloody Hall” debate, paneled by Norman Mailer, Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling. Second-wave feminism was clearly in full swing.
We quickly move into a discussion of how current events impacted women’s liberation. The Vietnam War, the fight for the civil rights of African Americans, the intellectual revolution shaking universities at the end of the 60’s; the time was ripe for change. While academics such as Ruth Rosen chose to publicly burn their higher education degrees (protesting the male-dominated curricula of the time), other leaders such as Susan Brownmiller were holding sit-down meetings where women could share thoughts, perspectives, and personal experiences, undermining the heavy blanket of shame that kept many silent in the face of widespread discrimination and oppression.
Almost immediately, women began to choose sides between radical demonstrations and more “square” methods of fighting patriarchy. But this division wasn’t the only fault line along which seismic shifts were occurring. African American women began to realize their perspectives were not fully represented by the white women they fought alongside with, and they often found themselves silenced by the very black men who were fighting for equality between the races. Likewise, lesbians were undermined and pressured by fellow feminists to remain closeted in the face of other obstacles to the movement: it was “too soon” to fight for sexual equality, some figures as prominent as Friedan insisted. The Lavender Menace felt otherwise; represented by firebrands like Rita Mae Brown, these sisters made their feelings about staying closeted known very quickly.
Poor women, one of the most overlooked groups of all, began to emphasize the need for social revolution; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz proved instrumental to that fight. Other groups fought for greater access to information: healthcare education, sexual education, to an education that would afford women greater basic knowledge of their own anatomy. Out of this struggle came the hugely popular publication of the book Our Bodies, Our Selves (which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011).
Soon, topics previously deemed taboo were dug out of the shadows and made to explode onto the scene. The novel idea that victims of rape were not at fault for the crime committed against them finally began to circulate (although clearly we’re still having trouble with that crazy notion). Abortion, far from being an under-the-table horror spoken of in hushed tones, was finally dignified with clear-eyed discussion. Women like Heather Booth frankly discuss their involvement in thousands of illegal abortions, performed to protect the lives of women desperate enough to try to end their pregnancies themselves. Far from emphasizing the implicit horror of childrearing (a gross stereotype about feminism), figures such as Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke of the pressing need for a government-funded day care system, and described the crushing disappointment felt when Richard Nixon, apposing a “communist” approach to child-rearing, vetoed the 1972 childcare bill that would have made this possible.
All the while, leaders in the movement faced the value and drawbacks of their own charisma and power. I was strongly reminded of The Normal Heart, when the irascible Ned Weeks finds himself coldly banished from the organization he created. These women are human, and it is natural that various differences in values and opinions would have led to painful confrontations and even disolutions of ties.
The film wraps up by bringing up the hot button issues of today: the attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, the battle against rape culture, the new wave of feminists (male as well as female) continuously struggling towards the far-off hope of equality. It is hard not to feel inspired after watching all these interviews, all the footage, all the hopes and efforts of women’s lib to poke America out of its complacency, to make sure the victories achieved are not ephemeral.
I’m grateful the film is controlled enough to cover this breadth of topics while remaining tight enough to not spill over. The continuous reintroduction of lower thirds identifying the speakers helps keep the various figures distinct, and helps remind one of just how many people and how many groups made up this complex movement. It bears remembering that this film only covers about a decade of social activism; I can only imagine the wealth of material that could cover the rest of the century, never mind the rest of our history. I highly recommend you watch this documentary: for the facts, for the fierceness, for the formidable ambition displayed by thousands of tireless activists. They made the life of the modern American woman possible; the least you can do is enjoy their story.