A Feminist Survival Guide to Seattle
I was a little wary of a feminist film with a title that calls to mind one of the most damaging stereotypes about women—that we must always be beautiful—even when angry. In fact, in an email to the film director I explained my concerns: “Beauty is an exhausting ideal and I am tired of having to squash all of my actions into its suffocating framework. I want to be forcefully and aggressively ugly.” But I still had to check it out because it’s a movie celebrating the Second Wave.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is best when it gives us a view into the radicalism borne of women developing a class consciousness as women and inventing an unprecedented domination-free society, but it takes a while to get there. It begins as a chronological account of just a few years in the movement. First we meet Betty Freidan and white middle-class feminists realizing that they’ve been duped into performing free domestic labor and incubating the sons of a nation, their college diplomas mere accessories. We also meet women who woke up to their own oppression through involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement, and the Anti-War Movement.
As the movie progresses, Rita Mae Brown, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Kate Millet, Jo Freeman, Frances M. Beal, and many others bear witness to their own radicalization and a collective struggle born of consciousness raising. Footage from the era shows women smoking, sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking about how sexual politics play out in their personal lives. It’s as electric an energy as has been described (and mocked and dismissed) by the generation raised by these women. The film captures many of the ingenious, hilarious, and courageous feminist endeavors, like Jane, the underground abortion network, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), a group of theatrical women who dressed like witches and hexed men, or the Lavender Menace, who challenged lesbophobia within the movement. It touched on some of the more extreme elements bound to arise as women grappled with eradicating patriarchy, like: banning male infants from the commune, and the frequent impeachments of women whose leadership seemed to threaten feminist non-hierarchical organizing. SBWSA also delves into the contentious divisions around race, sexuality and class during this resurgence of feminist agitation.
One major critique of the movement is that it elevated the needs of white middle-class women above all others, the blame for which falls as much on the shoulders of a white-supremacist capitalist media industry, as it does on the women who demanded their own liberation while turning a blind eye to their sisters. In reality the second wave comprised an array of women from all backgrounds (it would be absurd to say that Angela Davis, for instance, wasn’t as critical to the movement as Gloria Steinem), but those who didn’t have the social cache to command public sympathy – for their womanhood did not match that which perched atop the nationalistic tripod of racism, colonialism, and capitalism – were routinely ignored. SBWSA offers the perspective of women of color in the movement, but not nearly enough, focusing too much on principles of unity among feminists, rather than the ways black and brown women experienced patriarchy differently, or on their efforts to expand the white and middle-class feminist narrative. I hesitate to say the film tokenizes women of color, but their contributions could have been centered more, considering how much they have already been erased from herstory. To be fair, it would take much more than an hour and a half to showcase the vibrancy of a movement that attacked patriarchy from all angles, many of which disagreed vehemently, and SBWSA makes a deliberate effort to tell a comprehensive and compelling herstory.
By far the most valuable aspect of the film is the giddy pride and power an individual female human is likely to feel from watching an entire movie about how her foremothers changed the world. SBWSA is most commendable for its generous inclusion of 40-year-old footage that makes the consciousness-raisers, protesters, and gleeful bra-burners come alive and reveal their striking similarity to the women fighting this battle today. While those similarities are somewhat depressing – abortion access is still a central issue and Miss America hasn’t gone anywhere – they also show us that we, as regular women, can become Shulamith Firestone’s “revolutionaries in every bedroom.”
In fact, several of the audience members, were immediately inspired to take action. Women from the Seattle Feminist Book Club, the 4th Wave Feminist Collective, and the Furies Collective all tromped back to a huge house in the U District, sat cross-legged on the floor drinking wine out of the bottle, and held an impromptu consciousness-raising session. At another showing, a group of women spontaneously formed a collective around guerilla street art. You still have three more days to catch a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry and I encourage you to do so!