By Olivia Heersink
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. The website of the documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, claims that it is a bold memorialization of the successes of second-wave feminism in the United States. She’s Beautiful seeks to “inspire women and men to work for feminism and human rights.” I watched the documentary and hoped to be inspired and to learn about the feminists of my mother’s generation.
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 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their memories of the movement, laid over archival footage of creative stunts and protests, poignantly and amusingly outdated news footage and collages of contemporary magazine articles.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 organizations 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 unwilling to succumb completely to the film’s celebratory atmosphere. I 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, 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 marginalization. This chasm in opinion between some older and most younger feminists can result in 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 color, 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 like She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry was made for us. It is a film which will affirm the standards 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 women’s successes – their newly-conferred titles, power and political platforms – denote complicity with the liberal establishment which continues to oppress, marginalize and exploit women across the world, especially women of color, trans women and low-paid workers.
There is certainly room for the kind of celebratory memorialization 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 memorialized is a spur to action. 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 was 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.