A Radical History, by Rita Cannon
Mary Dore’s documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which chronicles the birth of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, comes at a particularly contentious time for the word “feminist.” When Beyoncé performed at the VMAs with “FEMINIST” behind her in giant glowing letters, it launched a flurry of think pieces on what the term means nowadays, and who has the right to declare themselves as such. It seems like whenever a young female celebrity says she’s not a feminist, a certain segment of the internet shrieks in horror. When, a year or two later, she comes around and says she actually does consider herself a feminist, a whole other segment is ready to analyze all of her work and explain why she doesn’t deserve the distinction. Part of the appeal of Dore’s film is its depiction of a time when feminism was . . . well, simpler isn’t really the right word. There has always been plenty of infighting and ideological clashes – which She’s Beautiful, to its credit, goes into some detail about – but the movement, at least through the lens of this film, looked a lot more unified than it sometimes seems today, if only because the forms of oppression it confronted were much more codified and easy to point to.
Dore’s film does an admirable job of shining a light on the wide array of people and organizations that fell under the label of “women’s liberation,” from relatively mainstream to much more radical. While it’s certainly edifying to watch women like Shirley Chisolm and Betty Friedan work to change the establishment from the inside, the footage of and interviews with more radical activists is sometimes more compelling because it’s so of its time, and so unlike the way many feminists seem eager to present themselves today. I’ve heard so many women say things like, “Not all feminists are hairy-legged lesbians who hate men!”, that’s its refreshing, even thrilling, to see the unabashed protest of women who often didn’t shave their legs, and sometimes were lesbians, and in the case of one particular group (the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or WITCH), ran around wearing witch costumes and chanting hexes at men in the street. There’s so much energy expended these days trying to make feminism seem less scary that it’s worth remembering a time when women played up and reveled in scariness in order to prove a point.
It’s easy to dismiss theatrics like those of WITCH as over the top, but She’s Beautiful makes the point that, in any movement, you sometimes need a handful of people to take things too far just to get the rest of America to look up and take notice. As Susan Brownmiller, one of the film’s many illustrious interview subjects, puts it, “They don’t like to admit in the United States that change happens because radicals force it.” Dore also explores the ways in which women’s lib sometimes found itself at odds with other radical movements. Black feminist activist Frances M. Beal recalls having to defend the idea of reproductive freedom to members of the Black Liberation Army, who considered birth control a conspiracy to commit genocide against blacks, and thought it was the duty of women like to Beal to “have babies for the revolution.” Conversely, lesbian author Rita Mae Brown discusses her frequent clashes with the National Organization for Women over their failure to expand their work beyond the sphere of straight, middle-class white women.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry covers a lot of ground in a fleet 92 minutes, and manages to tell a number of personal stories within its survey-course structure. Some viewers might wish for a deeper dive into certain topics, but considering what little attention has been paid to the women’s movement in both documentary and narrative film, putting together a competent introduction to the period is an admirable accomplishment in itself. There’s a wealth of compelling characters and narratives on display in Dore’s film, and it if it inspires some people to fall down a Google rabbit hole about one of two particular facets of its already rich story, then that’s all the better.