Several weeks back during the #MeToo campaign, an article of suggestions on how to be a feminist ally came up in my newsfeed. In the comments, a male acquaintance had commented something along the lines of “Yikes, this is put in such an angry way! If it had been put differently, maybe it would be received better. Especially that last point!”
The last point he’s referring to was: “Don’t read a list like this and think that most of these don’t apply to you.” (Another point on the list I’d particularly like to mention here was: “Don’t get defensive when you get called out.” However..)
There are a lot of things wrong with what this person wrote, not least of which is the fact that the list – which you can read for yourself right here – doesn’t come across as ‘angry’ to me at all. It’s straightforward, it’s clear, and it doesn’t mess around. True, it doesn’t “soften the blow” (read: perform emotional labour) for you, and it doesn’t sugar-coat things or try to make you feel better about yourself. But angry? I don’t read it that way.
Just for fun though, let’s play along and presume that it was written in a furiously rage-filled tone.
The first thing that comes to mind is: Um, duh? Of course women are angry. Lots of men are angry too, about the exact same things. Because guess what! These issues matter and they matter for everyone. Can you think of one feminist issue that is not utterly infuriating? I can’t. For so, so long, we have lived with the narrative that angry women shouldn’t be taken seriously. It gives me hope that I and many others have finally come to the conclusion that we can turn this one right around: Yes, we are angry. How could you possibly not be angry?
The other thing that has stuck with me and haunted me was his suggestion that had there been less anger implied in this article (an emotion, we have established, that is incredibly valid in this conversation), the information it provides would have been considered somehow more valid or acceptable. Had it been presented in a more “measured” way, this man would have considered it worth his attention. Had it been “less angry”, he might have deigned to actually listen, or (at a stretch) even found a way to learn from the content inside.
(Do I sound angry? Good. Because I am.)
Privilege takes many forms, but one of the features common to all kinds of privilege is that it grants those with it the ability to look away. If you are not personally affected by something, you are, by definition, able to ignore it. You don’t have to care because it’s not “your problem”.
And there is such privilege inherent in this person’s statement. It reads as though he’s saying: “Do the work to present this information to me in a way that I find acceptable, and then perhaps I will consider what you are saying. Until then, I don’t have to care, I don’t have to listen, and I can feel very free to ignore this cause.”
Of course, though, that’s not how this works. It is not my (or anyone’s) job to convince you why you should care about social justice and human rights issues. The issues are real and important, and we’ll be over here fighting them with or without your support. Yes, your privilege grants you the ability to not care or participate or get involved, which is “fine” (it’s not fine)…just please don’t pretend to be a supporter of the cause in the meantime.
Lindy West recently wrote, in a beautifully powerful piece for the New York Times, that women are finally brave enough to be angry. She writes about the historical dismissal and rejection of angry women and the preponderance of women who have been labeled as angry even when they’ve behaved in a neutral or straightforward manner. Dismissal and rejection are powerful, painful forces, and we have not always been strong enough to face them.
Personally, I still don’t feel strong enough to face them. I keep my anger to myself and work through it with the many other angry women in my life who are struggling with these issues every day. There is a private, seething rage that is happening for women behind closed doors, in living rooms, through text messages, over the phone, in group chats. We are seriously grappling with the force of our anger, the sheer power of it, and the way it makes us feel helpless. We don’t do it publicly though, because we know what it means to be an “angry woman”, and we know how they are treated.
Nevertheless, we are exasperated, furious, and spluttering at the unfairness that we all have to make sense of in the world. We make jokes to each other: “Which famous man was revealed to be a sexual predator today?” and laugh awkwardly until we realize that yep, there actually were three such stories in the news that day. We wrestle with the fact that although we support them, we also somehow resent Spacey’s male victims for being so easily believed and validated, while countless women in similar situations were (and are) instead shamed and bullied. We privately feel afraid when the people around us reveal themselves to be at worst, misogynistic and racist, and at best, apathetic.
So as I write this, I am angry but I am also scared. I know what it means to be a woman who speaks her mind about things that are upsetting, and I know the risks. I am used to my private anger because as any woman instinctually knows, it’s not safe to share. But because I am trying to be brave enough to be angry, I’ll end with this quote from Lindy’s article that resonated with me and so many of my friends:
“I did not call myself a feminist until I was nearly 20 years old. My world had taught me that feminists were ugly and ridiculous, and I did not want to be ugly and ridiculous. I wanted to be cool and desired by men, because even as a teenager I knew implicitly that pandering for male approval was a woman’s most effective currency. It was my best shot at success, or at least safety, and I wasn’t sophisticated enough to see that success and safety, bestowed conditionally, aren’t success and safety at all. They are domestication and implied violence. To put it another way, it took me two decades to become brave enough to be angry. Feminism is the collective manifestation of female anger.”