There’s a terrific documentary currently screening on Netflix, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” about the birth of the women’s liberation movement and feminism in the ’60s and early ’70s. I watched it the night before Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman,” which makes the algorithm nation conspiracy theorist in me suspect that Netflix knows us all too well and has its prescient pulse on exactly what this collective hole-in-our-soul nation needs at any given moment.
For my own sanity, then, I was compelled to go back to school and be inspired yet again by the words of pioneering women like Ellen Willis, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Susan Brownmiller. I highly recommend it, especially to my daughter and her friends in the Washburn High School feminist student club, and all my other young feminist friends who fill my daily newsfeed with their travails and tribulations about being a woman in this world, from being told to smile or shut up and worse. And given the toxic dumbed-down times we’re living through, who doesn’t need a reminder of humanity at its progressive best?
Everyone who has ever marched or protested on behalf of Black Lives Matter or Standing Rock or any other social justice movements of the day should also see it, for along with giving the current feminist movement a foundation, it’s celluloid proof that people, as her highness Patti Smith always reminds, have the power. “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” is an important history lesson about how small groups of women enacted the changes that gave women the right to vote, forced legislation on domestic violence and child care, fought for equality and equity and turned the tide in the abortion debate to make sure that women have control of their bodies in this fundamentally sexist and overwhelmingly white male-governed patriarchy.
“They don’t like to admit in the United States that change happens because radicals force it,” Brownmiller comments near the end of the film. “We live in a country that doesn’t credit any of its radical movements.”
True enough, and at the moment it’s not difficult to connect the dots from 1971, when J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. investigated the women’s movement as a subversive force in America to James Comey and the F.B.I. investigating the first serious female candidate for president.
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” took me back to the early ’70s, when I was a teenager growing up in a household of feminists. Led by my mother, a homemaker-turned-professional woman, and my three sisters, my formative years were spent watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” reading Ms. Magazine and listening to debates around the dinner table, and so it was that my two brothers and I cut our teeth on the birth of feminism during what I’m starting to believe was an atypical upbringing.
To wit: One Sunday night in seventh grade, I was at a neighbor’s house watching television with a girlfriend of my older sister’s, who suggested we watch a beauty pageant, Miss America or Miss Universe or something. When I scoffed at the idea, calling it lame and sexist, she turned up the volume and said, “You take it too seriously. You’re just like your sisters.”
Still am, and I’m also like my mother, who posted on her Facebook wall recently, “A feminist is one who believes in equal rights for ALL.” And now that we’re about to elect the first female president and endure all the blatant and covert sexism that will surely come with it, I feel a need to talk about the real world we live in, a place where I and so many of my brethren live and work and have more in common with, say, Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” Lynn Povich’s “Good Girls Revolt” and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” than Donald Trump or the house of white male entitlement cards he represents.
“In Trump’s case, the facade is easy to see through, and what you see is a bundle of anxiety, fragility and insecurity. It’s the thinnest possible mask of masculinity,” said my man Bruce Springsteen in a recent interview. “It’s such a thin costume that for me it doesn’t hold for a moment. But there have been quite a few people he has attracted along the way, so I suppose the bluster works to a certain degree. He’s really quite an embarrassment if you’re from the USA. It’s simply the most rigid and thinnest veil of masculinity over a mess.”
Springsteen’s words come at a time in his beloved America when gender norms are not only being discussed, they’re being dismantled, and the fact is this country is riding a progressive wave that not even a little Hitler can stop. Bring it.
At the United States of Women Summit earlier this year, President Obama memorably took to the speaker’s podium and declared, “This is what a feminist looks like.” In a follow-up essay he wrote, “One thing that makes me optimistic is that it is an extraordinary time to be a woman. The progress we’ve made in the past 100 years, 50 years and, yes, even the past eight years has made life significantly better for my daughters than it was for my grandmothers. And I say that not just as President but also as a feminist.”
It was the first time a sitting president has described himself as a feminist, and the line is taken up mantra-like at the conclusion of “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.” After two hours of ’60s and ’70s footage, the film ends at a modern-day women’s rights rally, with teens and twentysomething girls and women marching in the street and screaming passionately, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
The montage features all sorts of women, as well as two young men raising their voices in “this is what a feminist looks like” solidarity, and hell if I don’t see a lot of myself in those dudes, and in President Obama, and in the next president of these deeply divided and glass ceiling-shattering United States.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org