Review: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

This documentary aims to celebrate the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. But, argues Kate Bradley, it does little to offer inspiration to feminists today.

Women protest in the 1960s

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry resurrects the buried history of the outrageous, often brilliant women who founded the modern women’s movement from 1966 to 1971.” So claims the website of the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), a bold memorialisation of the successes of second-wave feminism in the USA. She’s Beautiful is currently doing the rounds in UK film festivals, conferences and universities, and seeks to “inspire women and men to work for feminism and human rights”. I went along to a film screening at Goldsmiths, keen to be inspired and to learn about the feminists of my mother’s generation – women whose position is embattled in today’s young feminists’ sense of collective identity.

In the spirit of the phrase “the personal is political”, She’s Beautiful focuses on the personal stories of a wide range of American second-wave feminists as they contend with the gender-political questions of the mid-twentieth century. It features lengthy interviews with (quite) big names like Jacqui Ceballos, Muriel Fox and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. It leads us through their memories of the movement, laid over archival footage of creative stunts and protests, poignantly and amusingly outdated news footage and collages of contemporary magazine articles. It shows protests for women’s reproductive rights, for equal pay and against objectification. The film charts the movement’s organic development across America through consciousness-raising groups and direct-action organisations such as W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell).

She’s Beautiful is necessarily unsettling, reflecting as it must on the experiences of sexual violence and trauma which make solidarity and communication between women so important. However, predominantly, the film aims to be uplifting and humorous, abounding with videos of playful, rebellious stunts and demonstrations, spinning them into a laudatory narrative of the era’s successes. Overall, it is an unabashed celebration. Nevertheless, it does allow for some criticisms: it features segments on the exclusion of lesbians from the earlier stages of the movement, and a short section on black feminism and womanism’s unique take on women’s struggles.

So far, so good. And yet, at the end of She’s Beautiful, I and many other young feminists were sitting rather uncomfortably in the audience, clearly unwilling to succumb completely to the film’s celebratory atmosphere. We felt several major disappointments. Firstly, and most glaringly, there was no discussion at all of trans people’s critiques of some second-wave feminists. Even after a long section on reproductive rights, the film did not bring up questions around biological essentialism, or of the transphobia of some figures in the movement. Perhaps the director would claim that these were not issues being discussed at the time. However, as Kae Smith has argued, there is a forgotten history of trans struggle inside (and outside) second-wave feminist and gay liberation movements, in which a small number of women’s movement veterans are amongst the most aggressive participants in trans’ people’s wider marginalisation. This chasm in opinion between some older and most younger feminists can result in what Smith calls a “generational mistrust” – a climate where trans people are subject to intensified versions of society’s violence towards women, and yet are abandoned readily by those who claim the dangerous authority to speak on behalf of all feminists (such as Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem).

Where She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry does touch on race, class and other categories of the new(ish) “intersectional” feminism, it treats them as issues which the women’s movement managed to resolve. And yet, only around a tenth of its main interviewees were women of colour, and its relegation of black feminist and lesbian critiques of the women’s movement to short, distinct segments implied a willingness to self-assess, but overall, an insufficient level of adaptation. The best moments were tagged on as afterthoughts to the film’s cultural memory.

In order to make this film celebratory, I suppose it was necessary to sideline its critics a little. And yet, because young feminists are so critical, it did not feel to me (or many of the audience at Goldsmiths, seemingly) like She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry was made for us. It is a film which will affirm the baselines of women’s rights in American culture, perhaps – a film to remind my mother’s generation what they were fighting for, and how much they have achieved. However, therein lies this film’s political weakness: in celebrating women’s struggles of the past so uncompromisingly, it also demonstrates how dominant forms of feminism have been made bland by their absorption into liberalism. The very symbols of these older women’s successes – their newly-conferred titles, power and political platforms – denote complicity with the liberal establishment which continues to oppress, marginalise and exploit women across the world, especially women of colour, trans women and low-paid service workers.

There is certainly room for the kind of celebratory memorialisation offered by She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Films like this have an important role to play in inspiring modern activist movements and affirming the sense that what we are doing has value. To imagine one’s own struggles memorialised is a spur to action, a reminder that history that you shape is history that takes your side. Nevertheless, I suspect most of us won’t be particularly inspired by the film’s closing call to reinvigorate the Slut Walk movement. We have our own internal discussions and debates, and those people that this film will reach will almost certainly be primed to see its flaws. I left with the feeling that these women were very admirable for their radical spirit, and for the mark they left on American culture. But they did not, as the film claims, “found the modern women’s movement”. They founded the last generation’s women’s movement. Ours is different. It has the potential to be better.

There are 6 comments

  1. Sue Sparks

    As someone who participated in the women’s movement in the 70s I was interested in this review. I realize the film is about the USA and maybe that is why it seems to have so little to do with my experience. Of course the reviewer is right to point out the problems with people like Greer and the TERFs but what is more surprising to me is that it seems neither the film nor the review have much to say about class or socialism (the review mentions it in passing). The obvious examples of how class was intertwined with the women’s movement then, at least in Britain, were the equal pay strikes, but beyond that ‘workplace issue’, class was central to many other aspects. When we took to the streets repeatedly in the 70s and 80s in defence of the 1967 Abortion Act and for its extension to a Woman’s Right to Choose, one of the aspects that was always clear was that wealthy women had been able to choose for many years, it was poor women who had dangerous backstreet abortions or gave birth to babies they didn’t want or couldn’t afford. And surely now, class is also a thread that runs through women’s struggles? It is poor trans women who get murdered while Caitlyn Jenner is featured on the cover of glossy magazines. I am niot hating on her, but pointing out that just as Greer is utterly wrong in her attacks on her for ‘not really being a woman’ surely it is up to us as socialist feminists to be pointing out that her trajectory is not one which us open to most trans people? That capitalism stands in the way of all our aspirations, no matter what they are?

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  2. Kate Bradley

    Thanks Sue for your contribution; I agree. The film did touch on the experiences of one young working-class woman who focused on women and social mobility in the era, but you’re right, discussion of class was another of many absences in the film. I also don’t think it did enough to challenge the organisations which did emerge from the era on their participation in capitalist ideology. It barely discussed capitalism’s role in women’s oppression, in fact.

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  3. Working Class Zero

    Sue, I think you are absolutely right about feminism. Class is always downplayed when the middle classes move into any popular movement. The ‘intersectionality’ within feminism and with movements that are broadly about working class struggles, be they immigrants, black people, women, white working class people and so on, generally has watered down any real effectiveness against the unfair unfettered laissez faire capitalism we live under at this present time, and in progressing the rights of ALL people being exploited in zero hours contract jobs, jobs that are insecure or badly paid, economic injustice that largely affects the poor, whatever colour or gender or ethnicity they are, and a system that benefits and privileges the wealthy, the privately educated and the connected, against the majority of us, particularly those who are poor and already marginalised in some way. At worst, feminism has become white middle class women getting the same rights as white middle class men, and not a great deal more. Once the careerists have used their working class sisters to break through the glass ceiling and secure their own futures and carve out their own careers, the activism is quietly forgotten, or just morphs into selfish ambition for a lucky few who break through. In short, it is not feminism or equal rights being promoted but individualism and capitalism, under the guise of promoting equal rights. Also, the promotion of small groups separate from each other doesn’t create unity within the broad mass of people who are working class, it merely creates resentment and competition between groups, exactly what the powers-that-be want. And we do not move forward together, but in spite of and against each other. In short, the ‘perfect’ dysfunctional capitalist society.

    Equal rights organisations very rarely if ever mention class as an issue. Class opens up a whole can of worms the largely equal rights leaders and campaigners don’t want to open. It is the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM….

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  4. Working Class Zero

    *Equal rights organisations very rarely if ever mention class as an issue. Class opens up a whole can of worms the largely affluent equal rights leaders and campaigners don’t want to open. It is the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM….

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  5. RayB

    The same reluctance to discuss class pervades LGBT campaigns that I’ve been involved in over the years. This was less of an issue when class struggle was higher in the early 80’s despite less awareness of our struggle across the labour movement at that time and the rise of separatist/autonomous politics in these movements during that period. I think this is not simply about a layer of the oppressed co-opting reforms for individually selfish reasons but also exposes the limits of reformism where workers are encouraged to believe that reforms are piecemeal, only develop so far and must be channelled through official, bureaucratic charities and pressure groups. I suspect this is changing in the UK with the popular support of Corbyn, especially among younger activists who have the legacy of previous campaigning and subsequent reforms to expand upon.

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  6. Working Class Zero

    For me, social transformation has to come about peacefully, and anything I would be involved would always be peaceful, but within that there needs to be a complete honesty and there needs to be less intersectionaliy and playing off one group against another, which has been very carefully and perniciously managed, particularly playing off gay groups, black groups and others directly off against the white working class. Now if those groups were headed by genuine people from the marginalised and the economically working class, there would be more awareness and more of a challenge to this. Those of us in low wage and insecure jobs and marginalised economically need to be more aware of how we are being played off against each other, or we will continue to be manipulated and marginalised and played off against each other. United we stand, divided we all fall…

    And we need working class organisations and groups led by mostly working class people, not filled with Fabian socialists from affluent backgrounds, playing out their little leftie fantasies either. It isn’t about class prejudice, it is merely that working class people have to control their own destiny.

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