Magazine | October 29, 2018, Issue

Rage Is the Machine

A protester screams from the lap of “Lady Justice” outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., October 6, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Feminists churn our best-selling, burn-it-down advice

‘Don’t ever let them talk you out of being mad again.”   That’s the final line of feminist writer Rebecca Traister’s splashy new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Lest you be confused about just how mad every woman in the world is supposed to be at this particular moment in time, the book helpfully displays the F-word — with a not-so-subtle asterisk replacing the letter U — approximately 50 times on its cover. Released on October 2, Good and Mad was described by Booklist as “timely and absorbing.” Vanity Fair labeled it “a hopeful, maddening compendium of righteous feminine anger.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, found the book to be “urgent and enlightened.”

“Enlightened.” It’s an interesting choice of words, is it not? As a person with a decent grasp of the elevator-pitch versions of various spiritual traditions over the centuries, I can report that you’re probably not going to find “Don’t ever let them talk you out of being mad again” in, say, the Tao Te Ching. Heck, you’re not even going to find advice like that in Star Wars. Who on earth doesn’t remember how the evil Emperor Palpatine almost managed to lure Luke Skywalker to the dark side by urging him to let his hate and anger flow?

Well, never mind. “All white-hot rage, all the time” might as well be the official credo of today’s feminist movement. Exhibit A, of course, could be the awe-inspiring “howl and scratch at the Supreme Court doors” performance put on by roving gangs of protesters infuriated by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest judicial bench. “With Kavanaugh Confirmed, It’s Time to Burn It All Down,” declared one not so mild-mannered October 6 column in Harper’s Bazaar — a publication I used to read, at least in happier times, for advice on pore-reducing creams and ridiculously overpriced shoes.

Much to the delight of sundry publishers, along with a gaggle of feminist writers who appear to have overdosed on half-baked sociology classes such as “Deconstructing Gendered Power Imbalances and Female ‘Othering’ in Too-Long Starbucks Latte Lines,” this credo of eternal rage has also launched a minor cottage industry of seriously angry — or perhaps “righteously angry,” as Vanity Fair might tell you — books.

“If there was a moment tailor-made for a new book about women and rage, it would be now,” Hilary Howard wrote in the New York Times in September. Boy, oh boy, was she right. This year, along with Good and Mad, we’ve been gifted with Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.

These books join last year’s Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, by Laurie Penny; Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman — one of NPR’s “Best Books” of 2017! — and Sex Object, a memoir by Jessica Valenti. That last book features the following dispiriting line: “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?” (Not someone who earns money and media accolades for over-the-top questions like that one, that’s for sure.)

Clear-eyed equanimity apparently fails to tear up the best-seller lists. With sincere apologies to the entire cast of Casa­blanca, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world — but slapped-together volumes bemoaning largely imaginary feminist problems have the potential of selling big.

But let us not be flippant. Let us examine the texts, or at least skim them, as many are excruciatingly painful to read. What exactly is everyone so mad about? Whence comes the outrage in a nation where women are so oppressed that one political party went so far as to nominate a disastrously unlikeable and frequently incompetent candidate largely because she was a woman? (Don’t try to argue with me on that point, friends. Deep down, you know it’s true.)

We’ll start with Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her. This tome “will be good for women, and for the future of this country,” says feminist icon Gloria Steinem. “After all, women have a lot to be angry about.” Yes, Gloria, okay: We’ve already heard that last line about 15 gazillion times. But how about an example, please?

If I were writing a book about why women should be angry in this day and age, for instance, I might start with the fact that today’s brand of feminism seems suspiciously like a scheme cooked up by the patriarchy to make life worse for women, not better. Or I’d at least try to address a genuinely horrifying problem such as sex trafficking. I hope I don’t disappoint you by revealing that Rage Becomes Her opens with a story of a mean and unruly boy repeatedly knocking down the carefully constructed block tower that the author’s daughter had stacked together in a preschool class.

I’m not kidding. Read it yourself! I mean, look: The boy seems like a pest, and his parents sound like they don’t know how to discipline a child. But in a dead-on imitation of those infamous half-baked sociology classes, Rage Becomes Her immediately morphs an annoying preschool incident into a sweeping indictment of our twisted society’s callous promotion of unfettered male power and suppression of female rage.

Here is a true story: In preschool, a cute little girl had a crush on my son. She sent him notes — so many notes, stuffed in his backpack every week! — written in pink marker, adorned with hearts and carefully drawn pictures of the two of them romantically sharing one spaghetti noodle, as in that famous scene in Lady and the Tramp.

After weeks of my son’s ignoring the notes, things suddenly turned dark: The next note he received was scrawled in a black, thick marker, on slashed paper, with large and sinister X marks run repeatedly through his name. Because I am a normal person, I found this hilarious. So did the little girl’s mom, who joked that she hoped her daughter wasn’t perpetrating our own personal “Me Too” moment.

If I had happened to be a feminist writing a book and the gender roles had been reversed, heaven help us all.

Certainly, America has numerous gender-related problems that deserve serious examination. As the Me Too movement has shown, our nation’s greater sexual culture is a dysfunctional disaster, and not enough people have a genuine interest in honestly exploring why this is the case.

But with these very real problems in mind, it is difficult to take seriously a book such as Rage Becomes Her — a book that features repeated intonations in the mode of “We are living in what feels like an age of pronounced rage and near-constant outrage. There is a lot to be angry about.”

Unfortunately, many of the items we should supposedly be very angry about seem randomly plucked from a grab bag of half-hearted clichés.

“Women are most visible as sexualized entertainment,” Chemaly writes. “On the day that I was writing this, for example, I wondered what a girl would see if she searched for ‘women athletes.’ The No. 1 result was ‘The Top 50 Hottest Female Athletes of 2017.’”

Dear heavens! The horror! Just thinking about it, right now, I almost fell out of my chair. Because I am a curious sort of person, however, and because Google is not difficult to use, I couldn’t help but wonder — after I had simmered down from my surge of high-minded outrage, of course — what would happen if I took the time to search for “male athletes.”

Gird your loins, America, for a world of oppression awaits. Here are the results, in order: “25 Hottest Male Athletes,” “The 50 Fittest Male Athletes,” “Hottest Male Professional Athletes,” “Famous Male Athletes,” “The 25 Hottest Male Athletes on Instagram” . . .  Readers, it goes on and on and on. You get the idea. You have probably been on the Internet before.

“My hope is that Rage Becomes Her will change our thinking about anger, gender, emotional life, and their political impacts,” Chemaly says.

I hope that it will arm you with tools to see yourself and your environment more clearly, ultimately improving both your life and the lives of those in your orbit. Because the truth is that anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way. All we have to do is own it.

Well, that’s certainly interesting: Anger, the argument goes, can help people see their circumstances and environment more clearly. That goes against every single lesson I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way! — in my still-unfolding earthly experience. It conflicts with all of the best advice I’ve ever gotten from wise and trusted friends. Now that I think of it, it also contradicts the stances of philosophers and religious leaders around the world over the course of centuries. But hey, what do we yokels know?

Then again, perhaps finding clarity isn’t the ultimate goal of modern feminists. Increasingly, it looks as though that goal involves coaxing people into buying a narrative that blatantly serves certain overarching political aims. After all, if a group of dedicated people pretends long enough, the phenomenon of socially constructed anger — a brand of anger easily manipulated by cynical political types — can eventually become real. In this light, ginned-up anger can be no more than a means to an end — and in the case of today’s feminism, it’s a decidedly leftist end.

In Good and Mad, Traister’s central argument is that anger has political utility. As she put it recently on CBS This Morning:

If you look at almost every movement that has transformed this country, there are angry women at the start. Women’s anger is politically catalytic, and that’s something we need to recognize in this moment where so much of it is spilling over.

In an interview with Vox, Traister spelled out the “long-term effects” that she hopes will stem from all this uncorked female rage:

I’d like to see Brett Kavanaugh denied a seat on the Supreme Court. I would like to not confirm someone who will overturn Roe v. Wade or gut voting rights or further diminish collective bargaining rights. I would like to see Democrats take back the House, the Senate, and, as soon as possible, the White House. I would like to see a $15 minimum wage and a federal jobs program and much stronger social safety nets.

If you look to Traister’s other writings, you can fairly assume she would also like gun control, socialized health care, and lots of supposedly “free” stuff that you are actually paying for, but with extra money to be skimmed off the top by bureaucrats. Hooray!

Conservatism and limited government, you see, are apparently only for men. Does this suggestion — that women can run their thoughts down only one narrow and preapproved political trail — sound not so liberating to you? It certainly does to me, but perhaps I misunderstand what “liberation” really means according to the feminist definition. After reading this latest batch of “let’s get angry” books, one could be forgiven for thinking it means largely one thing: abortion.

Rage Becomes Her mentions abortion 62 times; Good and Mad tones it down to a more modest 26. Both authors are dedicated fans of the procedure and assume that all women should be as well. Eloquent Rage informs readers that “there is no shame in having an abortion.” In Sex Object, we are told that “the feminist who gets one abortion is understandable, expected even.” Shrill, by Lindy West — “a witty and cathartic take on toxic misogyny,” according to NPR — has a chapter entitled “Abortion Is Normal, It’s Okay to Be Fat, and Women Don’t Have to Be Nice to You,” which certainly covers an impressive number of bases.

This brings us to The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, by Jill Filipovic, released in 2017. It’s a bit of an odd duck in the world of feminist literature, given that it doesn’t pretend to be rip-roaring mad — at least not on the surface. Kirkus Reviews described The H-Spot as “a timely, enlightening exploration of what American women truly want and need to live purposeful, fulfilling, happy lives.” The book mentions abortion 102 times.

It is also full of disastrous life advice. According to The H-Spot, societal fears about women’s naturally declining fertility as they age are overblown. Relax, ladies: You’re fine! Please proceed to ignore the growing chorus of panicked New York Times pieces written by your female peers who have now reached the age of 48 and made the mistake of following this same feminist life hack!

The H-Spot assures you that children can be a real drag on your creative output and that abortion is a “nearly unparalleled” social good, making both “sex” and “life” better. (Life for whom? It’s probably better not to ask.) Filipovic approvingly quotes women such as the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, who felt her career was illustrious enough to justify the following behavior: “I had three abortions because I was convinced that it would be a disaster for my work, that you only have so much energy in your body and I would have to share it.” Ah.

Then there’s Merle Hoffman, a 72-year-old “feminist activist” and “abortion clinic owner” — her clinic is called “Choices Women’s Medical Center” — who describes her own abortion this way:

This child had come at a time when I was in the full flush of my being a warrior, building Choices, helping to lead the movement, debating all the antichoice movement. I was in my reality, and I was not going to stop or change or alter anything I was going to do.

It is here that one might pause, dazed and astounded, and woefully stare up at the sky. But Hoffman’s quote is worth rereading, painful as it may be. She fully acknowledges that she has ended the life of a child — a human being — which should be stunning in itself. But let’s look at that last sentence, which says more, perhaps, than it intends: “I was in my reality, and I was not going to stop or change or alter anything I was going to do.”

If you know your history, that’s an alarming sentiment. Numerous tragedies have unfolded — wars, genocides, and systematic human oppression — at least in part because of a locked-in, cloistered view of reality and a ramrod refusal to change. Pair that sentiment with widely encouraged cultural anger and you’ve got a prescription for disaster, not to mention a fairly concise description of the contemporary feminist movement.

What a mess. Farewell, pretensions of nobility: We hardly knew ye, if we ever did. Anger is going to sell at least some books. We can only hope that fewer and fewer women will buy the message.

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