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.
“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their memories of the movement, laid over archival footage of creative stunts and protests, poignantly and amusingly outdated news footage and collages of contemporary magazine articles.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.