© 2019 by RUBY GRAHAM PHOTOGRAPHY.

 rubyvgraham@gmail.com

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does feminism need anger in order to ignite change and progress?

We’ve all heard the negative stereotypes of the angry feminist, the feminist whose rage appears synonymous with a fight for superiority instead of equality. Online connectivity has given us all a chance to voice our opinions, and with that the trope of the angry feminist seems more prevalent than ever. While we have made leaps and bounds with gender rights, there is still a long way to go in the fight for equality.

One needn’t go far to find examples of misogyny within contemporary society. All it takes is a glance at the extreme comments left on the YouTube videos of any feminist debate, to find large amounts of graphic death and rape threats. Or to look at the political framework of the last three years; with Donald Trump’s sexist comments being celebrated by many, and his followers wearing t-shirts sporting ‘Trump that Bitch’ to attack Hillary Clinton. Misogyny remains at large within our culture, yet so many people still distance themselves from feminism.

I am interested in exploring the notions of the angry feminist, and whether this anger is a justified reaction which is used as a muse for change, or whether it hinders the progression of feminism by working to alienate people. Perhaps it’s a case that feminism and anger simply go hand in hand. After all, is it not that every movement pushing for societal change comes from a place of anger? If we look at the Black Lives Matter campaign for example, would it have so many followers if it was peaceful and without protest?

However, despite the sometimes-progressive nature of anger, when considering the reasons why so many people alienate themselves from feminism, the notion that it’s synonymous with hatred seems to be number one. I myself, was apprehensive to become a feminist because I’d seen so much of this anger. It appeared for a movement fighting for female equality, there was an overwhelming amount of criticism towards women and their choices. I felt withdrawn as a girl who enjoys makeup, and fashion and feeling attractive, because I presumed that feminism would argue my femininity was conditioned into me by men. I believed that feminism had been constructed for only one type of woman, and it didn’t speak for young women in a contemporary society which places more expectation on us that ever before. It was the prevailing anger within the movement which drew me to these conclusions.

Given my complex relationship with feminism and anger, I wonder whether its needed at all within the movement. Rage is a one-dimensional emotion that perhaps doesn’t encompass the same nuance that more thoughtful reflection provides. To contextualise my posed question, I will use four feminist pieces of literature as case studies to explore the success of antagonism as a motivation for change.   

To start with a feminist who was once quoted as saying ‘My hatred is precious’, Andrea Dworkin’s ‘Pornography: Men possessing women’ (1981), is a book which is undeniably angry. The main theme of the book is the criticism of pornography, as being a platform where abuse towards women is celebrated. The impact the book had on feminism is immeasurable, many consider Dworkin’s writings to be some of the most important for the movement, while others scold her as taking feminism to a damaging extreme. The negative criticisms made against this book far outweigh the positive, but what’s irrefutable is that Dworkin’s words made people angry and made people think.

Dworkin paints a picture of the female as degraded and oppressed, which may have argued has caused possible allies to run and hide. As one reporter from The Guardian states: ‘when a woman is portrayed as a victim, even when she is not, and certainly does not feel like one, you not only insult her, but you alienate her as well.’ One could also critique Dworkin’s extreme attitude towards men, as at some points she seems to be denying their very humanity. This is shown when she concedes; 'A disgust common to all feminists who have tried to be participants in the so-called humanism of men, only to discover through bitter experience that the culture of males does not allow for honest female participation.’ She continuously throughout the book places the terrible actions of some men, as a responsibility of all men, she is quoted as saying ‘Men are rapists, batterers, plunderers, killers’. Surely if feminism is supposed to ignite men to change their actions, then it is beneficial to open the dialogue to them, instead of just inciting shame.

The mission of the book is not to reconstruct pornography, but to eradicate it all together. She states in the book that ‘Pornography reveals that male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimising, hurting, exploiting; that sexual fun and sexual passion in the privacy of the male imagination are inseparable from the brutality of male history.’ The latent worry of statements such as these, is the possibility of them mirroring the barbarity of misogynistic views. If the belief of feminists is that to have a penis is to have a need to control, one must wonder how they are to expect equality if reducing men to mindless animals. There is a thin line in opinions such as these, whereby it may start to cross over into misandry.

But when observing Dworkin’s first example of pornography, the extremity of her words becomes more justified. She details a photo of two males hunters holding guns, with a lifeless naked woman mounted on the car. She is reduced to an animal, an object, a trophy. While I believe that there is still a long way to go in the fight for equality, this is an example which I wholeheartedly believe would not be normalised today. It’s important to consider the historical context of ‘Men Possessing Women’, after all this book was written at a time before marital rape was illegal. Possibly women had more to be angry about at this stage, so in this case, it’s easy to sympathise with the resentment behind Dworkin’s words. Perhaps it was the intention behind the extreme sentiments of feminists such as Dworkin to encourage the media to drift from this material.

Dworkin concludes the book by asserting ‘we will know that we are free when pornography no longer exists.’ This aim is not only unlikely, but its also uncompromising, therefore Dworkin isn’t really providing her audience with a clear solution. She comes across as being angry without hope. It’s significant to note how in Dworkin’s refusal to humanise men, she allows no room for any allies in the movement, consequently she may be shutting down the conversation.

While this book has become very prominent, one way which it cannot be described is widely popular. One could argue that if a book on feminism is popular, then it is more successful in its ability to reach and inspire larger amounts women. One book which was popular in a way that Dworkin’s could never be, was ‘The Female Eunuch’ (1970).

Germaine Greer’s pivotal book proved to be hugely popular with over a million copies sold in the UK alone. The theories described in ‘The Female Eunuch’ were ground-breaking in that they made women have a different relation with their bodies. In her writing, Greer encourages women to reclaim their sexuality, which up until that point, she believed had been brainwashed into women through a patriarchal society which incites then as sexual slaves.

Many consider this book to be one of the most important turning points in feminism. Greer pioneered numerous theories in this book, one being how female sexuality is built on shame, and how the language of men has determined this; ‘The worst name anyone can be called is cunt. The best thing a cunt can be is small and obtrusive. The anxiety about the bigness of the penis, is only equalled by anxiety of the smallness of the cunt.’ She continues this emphasis on language by stating ‘all the vulgar linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element, fucking, screwing, rooting, shagging, are all acts performed upon the passive female; the names for the penis are all tool names.’

A theory which Greer challenges is the Freudian idea of the woman as a castrated man (hence the title of the book). She quotes Freuds thoughts of women; ‘they show less sense of justice than men, that they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life, that they are more often influenced in their judgments by their feelings or affection or hostility…. we must not allow ourselves to be deflected from such conclusions by the denial of the feminists who are anxious to force us to regard the two sexes as completely equal in position and worth.’ Freud highlights the ‘emotion driven’ nature of femininity in poor light as though this is somehow synonymous with weakness. Greer challenges this notion in suggesting ‘if judgement had not been separated from feeling so unnaturally in the Nazi officers presumably they would have not carried out orders so crisply.’

Greer doesn’t shy away from anger driven commentary as shown, however the difference between her rage and Dworkin’s is in its poignancy. She portrays frustration which is less one-sided, and unlike Dworkin, she acknowledges that women must work as well as men, to reclaim their true sexualities; ‘women will have to accept part of the responsibility for their own and their partners enjoyment, and this involves a measure of control and conscious cooperation. Part of the battle will be won if they can change their attitudes towards sex and embrace and stimulate the penis instead of taking it.’ In Greer’s overtly critical analysis of the female sex, she portrays a broader view of the underlying issues of sexism. Greer’s frustration towards femininity worked in a ground-breaking way to empower many of its readers and stands for many as a positive outcome of feminist anger.

Another example of a feminist writer which ‘turns the mirror’ onto the actions of women, is theorist Bell Hooks. Particularly in her book titled ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre’ (1984). Hooks is part of the postcolonial feminist subculture, which is concerned with the lack of representation of ethnic minorities and the working classes within feminist theory. In the book, she condemns feminism for often defining women as being the same class, and she continues by stating that ‘This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc, do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women.’

Another example of a feminist writer which ‘turns the mirror’ onto the actions of women, is theorist Bell Hooks. Particularly in her book titled ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre’ (1984). Hooks is part of the postcolonial feminist subculture, which is concerned with the lack of representation of ethnic minorities and the working classes within feminist theory. In the book, she condemns feminism for often defining women as being the same class, and she continues by stating that ‘This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc, do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women.’

Much like I am, she is concerned with the reasons people may dismiss feminism. A reason, she believes that women of colour may distance themselves from the movement, is because they do not want to associate themselves with possible racist theorists. Another reason which might deter women of all varieties, is the belief that an anti-male stance may only strengthen the beliefs of misogynists, which may be why extreme comments are left on YouTube videos as I detailed before. 

 

Hook’s also suggests the dismissal of feminism may have been fuelled by the anger of radicals. She states how ‘Militant white women were particularly eager to make the feminist movement privilege women over men. Their anger, hostility, and rage were so intense that they were unable to resist turning the movement into a public forum for their attacks.’ Rage within feminism may work to distract from the overall issues, which is something Hooks frequently suggests throughout the book. When considering the actions of radical feminists, she continues; ‘they chose instead to emphasize hate, especially male-womanhating, suggesting that it could not be changed. Therefore, no viable political solidarity could exist between women and men.’ However, when reflecting on this critique of anger, we must acknowledge that similarly to Dworkin, Hooks was influenced by her own anger at the lack of representation within feminism.

 

Most of her critiques are towards women, which is a concern many have with feminism. In a society where women constantly compete with one another, perhaps feminism is just an elaborate disguise of girl-on-girl hate. Although, in the fact that Hooks provides a considered review of feminist behaviour alongside suggested solutions, she proves that she is more concerned with progression of the movement.

 

The exclusion of people of colour from feminism, remains a concern to this day. Yet with the writings of Bell Hooks, alongside other black feminists like Audre Lorde, feminism seems to be more inclusive. A massive turn of events within the movements progression, has been with the rise of the internet. Nowadays, with the privilege of having an internet connection, anyone can have their voices heard.

To look at a book which has been developed through the digital age, Laura Bate’s ‘Everyday Sexism’ appears more inclusive than that of early feminists, in that it includes all women in the conversation by adding in their tweets and conversations. Any woman had a chance to participate, as before the book was published, ‘Everyday Sexism’ was an online blog produced by Bates, which encouraged women to share their experiences of harassment. To combine this with the attention placed on the specific issues black and LGBTQ women face, in her chapter titled ‘Double Discrimination’, Bates seems to represent a positive change within feminism, whereby it has moved out of the shadow of its potentially racist past. 

Published in 2014, this book is by far the most contemporary of my case studies. For many years before this publication, feminism seemed to be in decline, this may be because with the rise of the third-wave, the rage of second-wave feminism had started to be rejected. Female anger once again had become taboo, and many women may have felt that feminism displayed by the likes of Dworkin, was too aggressive. But it may have also been in decline because many had believed than feminism had done its job, with the rise of female presidencies, and the pay gap being less distinguished. It was with the increase of personal internet blogs, and books such as ‘Everyday Sexism’, which reminded people that we still have a long way to go.

The book details women’s experiences of sexism across many areas of society, including in the workplace, in the family and in politics. ‘Everyday Sexism’ is far more liberal and calm in its approach than the previously mentioned books, with Bate’s constant reassurance that she doesn’t believe all men are to blame. Much like Bell Hook’s she relates that ‘this is not a men vs women issue. It's about people vs prejudice.’ She even at times, appears overtly defensive of men. In the chapter titled ‘What about the men?’ she states, ‘there are some people who tweet using the hashtag #killallmen. I hate it, it's offensive, distasteful and not conductive to progress, particularly when used by those who identify as feminists.’ This mentioned attitude works further to demonise the intentions of feminism and intensifies the stereotypes of the angry feminist. Bates’ approach to men is unique in the fact that she specifically highlights that men can face sexism too.

She does address anger within feminism, however instead of critiquing feminists like Bell Hooks, she places the reactions of men towards this anger accountable, and highlights how men have used silencing tools to control female rage. She points to another harmful stereotype which men have created, that of the ‘humourless feminist’. She declares that ‘this idea of the humourless feminist is an incredibly potent and effective silencer. It is used to isolate and alienate young girls; to ridicule and dismiss older women, to force women in the workplace to ‘join the joke’, and in the media to castigate protest to the point of obliteration.’

 

This use of female silencing can be noticed throughout the whole of society. The anger of women has always been considered a taboo which is unladylike, meaning that women have often been manipulated into being silenced. Women are told in countless ways that anger is an inappropriate response to the discrimination we face; we’re told its embarrassing, unprofessional, over-emotional and unattractive. One must wonder how much this hushing debilitates us in other areas of our lives. The effects of this silencing are shown in the statistics bates includes throughout the book. The particularly telling are: ‘Only 15% of female victims of the most serious sexual offenses reported it to the police, and 28% of women who are the victims of the most serious sexual offenses never tell anybody about it. (Ministry of justice, home office and ONS 2013.)’

 

In ‘Everyday Sexism’, Bates in no way critiques or challenges the notions of feminism. However, in writing in such a sympathetic way she has been critiqued as being excessively polite. One critic from The Guardian described Bates as being ‘relentlessly nice’, stating that this new era of supportive feminism reflects the sexist trope that women should be well-mannered and passive. She continues by critiquing what she believes to be an exclusively young target audience, and cautions Bates’ lack of anger; ‘feminism should confront. It should be unladylike. But, no, they must be tidied away lest they scare teenage girls browsing the feminism table in Waterstones who are worried that fighting sexism is incompatible with wearing lip gloss.’ To many, the friendliness of the third-wave movement has morphed into something which defies the very intention of feminism, as one critic described; women have ‘basically confused sexual liberation with shopping’.

These criticisms stand out harshly in contrast to the approachability of Bate’s writing. When contemplating the critique of ‘Everyday Sexism’ as being too age specific, its important to note that feminism has not often accounted for the experiences of young women living in contemporary society, therefore this is hardly a valid critique. As pointed out by Hooks, the white and scholarly nature of publications such as ‘The Female Eunuch’, have meant that such books for many, become unreachable or too uncompromising. It’s unrealistic for Greer to suggest to every woman reading the book to completely change her sexuality and therefore humanity. Perhaps these books fail in that they are not as approachable as the like of Laura Bates. The solutions posed by Hooks and Bates appear far more practical than that of the sometimes-extreme notions set forth by Dworkin and Greer. If you include this with the subtle (or sometimes overtly) angered motivations of feminism, you may simply be further deterring people away from the movement.

Nevertheless, when considering my posed question, it’s essential to highlight that all these books with their differing views have one underlying parallel. They’ve all come from a place of frustration with the way things are and were, this frustration in a way is undeniably partnered with anger. Despite my concerns with the relationship between rage and feminism, anger has helped me shape my identity as a feminist and has allowed me to build my moral compass. Anger has been the fuel to the fire within feminism since day one, and such women have had a right to be angry, as a Vice journalist once put it ‘anger is a radical refusal to remain silent’. I think the concern should be more placed on where and how feminists direct their anger, it should be something which is negotiated carefully and thoughtfully. If anger is mirrored with suggestions of attainable solutions, then it can have the power to bring people together.

However, it’s exhausting to be angry all the time, and it can create vast division. I believe this is where Dworkins writings fail, as its with unabashed sentiments like hers which may ultimately damage the reputation of the feminists that are fighting for achievable equality. Despite the aim of the movement as being about women, it may be that it’s also essential to include men within the conversation, and to allow them to be allies. Unfortunately, this is another area where feminist theory often falls short. Writer Audre Lorde conveys this point perfectly; ‘anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies’.

The taboo of female anger is still one which silences many feminist expressions. Yet, the use of anger as a motivator as opposed to an alienating force, may be used as an effective way to encourage people to recognise injustices in our society, and to move forward into equality. I conclude with a quote from feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie;

"i am angry. we should all be angry. anger has a long history of bringing about positive change."