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2017 was the year of women’s anger, onscreen and off

Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017. Kainaz Amaria/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

2017 was the year of the Women’s March. It was the year of the great Reckoning with powerful sexual predators. It was the year of red-robed Handmaids, of women seething over goblets of white wine by the sea, and women splashing their rage across billboards for everyone to see. In real life and in fiction, 2017 was the year of women’s anger.

That anger is justified. The president who took office this year faces more than a dozen accusations of sexual assault against him, and was caught on tape boasting about how when he sees a beautiful woman, “I don’t even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.” The vice president who took office this year once, as governor of Indiana, signed an anti-abortion bill that would have required women to pay for funerary services for aborted or miscarried fetuses. Over the past year, the current White House administration has filled courts with anti-abortion judges and has systematically rolled back protections for women and for reproductive health.

In 2017, some of America’s highest offices are filled by people committed to stripping women of their legal rights and protections, some of them accused sexual predators themselves. And women are furious.

And so the year that began with the Women’s March, in which millions of pussy-hatted women came together to protest the Trump administration, ended with the Reckoning, in which hundreds of women have come forward to accuse powerful men of acts of sexual violence, and dozens of those men have been fired or resigned in disgrace. And in between, popular culture has told story after story about angry women who are burning shit down.

This year’s popular culture was not made in direct response to this year’s rage; most of it was in production well before Donald Trump was elected president. But over and over again, the stories and images and aesthetics that left their mark in popular culture centered on women’s anger and its power — and sometimes, almost pointedly, how inaccessible we make those stories to women of color.

“I’m a witch and I’m hunting you”

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu

“Yes, this is a witch hunt,” wrote Lindy West in the New York Times this October, as the Reckoning began to take off. “I’m a witch and I am hunting you.”

Pop culture’s witch obsession has been brewing for a while, and 2017 was a tipping point. There weren’t witches in TV and the movies — the dark-and-gritty Sabrina the Teenage Witch reboot is still in development, and The Love Witch was last year — but they were everywhere else.

Women dressed as witches at the Women’s March and carried signs proclaiming, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.” Women did binding spells to keep Donald Trump from doing harm. Teen witch queen Lorde returned to haunt the music world, and the teens of Tumblr blogged endlessly about witch aesthetics. Broad City devoted an entire episode to the fantasy of becoming a witch in post-Trump America.

2017’s witch fantasy is, at its heart, an expression of rage under the thinnest veneer of irony. The witch fantasy is about identifying both with women who were unjustly persecuted — the historical women who were killed in the Salem witch trials — and with women who are immensely powerful, like the witches of fairy tales. The witch fantasy allows women to half-jokingly lay claim to all of that anger, all of that pain, and all of that power at once. It says, “You have hurt us, and that makes us powerful.” It says, “The thing that made you persecute us is the thing that’s going to make us stronger.” It says, “You should be afraid of us.”

The anger that powers the witch fantasy also helped power the 2017 revival of Margaret Atwood, via new television adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. Atwood’s women seethe with rage on the page, and they do on the screen, too.

Alias Grace’s Grace spends much of her screen time ostensibly sitting quietly and working on her quilt. But the camera turns her needle and scissors into weapons that repeatedly stab at the quilt and sever thread from thread; as she works, she muses that for women, a quilt is like a battle flag, and a bed a site for war — “There are many dangerous things that need take place on a bed,” she says.

All of Grace’s violent rage is carefully repressed, but it lurks behind every word she says: Grace is a celebrated murderess, and the central mystery of Alias Grace is whether she could have actually committed the crime for which she has been convicted — whether she could have been angry enough, violent enough, to kill.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, meanwhile, all of the women are angry enough to kill. They are so angry that the dystopian government under which they live needs to give them regular outlets for their rage. So in the first episode the government holds a Salvaging in which the Handmaids, the women who have been forced to live as breeding stock, violently beat a man to death. The camera hovers over this circle of women, the red of their robes screaming off the screen, as en masse they are possessed by anger and the whole group becomes a mob. And in the season finale, they begin to turn their rage onto the government itself. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” says Offred.

Rage lurks in the present, too, among the wealthy and well-groomed. The women of Big Little Lies spent much of their screen time standing on palatial seaside verandas, sipping goblets of white wine as the wind blew through their immaculate hair. But what made the whole show work, what made it so compelling, was you could see that those wine-drinking women were, secretly, furious.

That’s why one of the most iconic moments of the show became Laura Dern’s Renata shrieking, “I said thank you!” on her veranda as her plans for her daughter’s birthday party were foiled — and why it was so cathartic, when, in the final episode, the women came together to destroy the man who was hurting them.

Laura Dern as Renata Klein on Big Little Lies Tumblr | Batawan

But while this year’s pop culture has been fantastic at expressing the rage of white women, it hasn’t always given the same platform to the anger felt by women of color.

This year’s stories of women’s anger have tended to discount women of color

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Fox Searchlight

Almost as soon as the Women’s March was announced last fall, it was plagued by accusations that it was ignoring women of color, that it was overwhelmingly white, that it was a movement for white feminists. Some argued that the ubiquitous pink pussy hat suggested that the genitalia of cis white women was all that mattered. The event was originally named the Million Woman March, an apparent play on the name of the Million Man March for civil rights, which struck critics as appropriative.

“But most disturbing,” wrote Maiysha Kai at the Root, “were firsthand accounts from women of color who attended the march, who would subsequently report being fetishized, dismissed and outright disrespected by some of the white women they were marching alongside.”

And when women of color made their concerns known, many white women felt that they were under attack. “I’m starting to feel not very welcome in this endeavor,” one said, after the Women’s March posted a bell hooks quote about the need for intersectional feminism on Facebook.

Fifty-three percent of white women voters supported accused sexual predator Donald Trump. Sixty-three percent of white women voters supported accused pedophile Roy Moore. “The numbers don’t lie,” wrote Angela Peoples at the New York Times: “For many white women, it’s racial identity, not gender or party, that guides their choices in the voting booth.”

The same biases affect the way we talk about sexual violence. As the post-Weinstein Reckoning has taken off, the most-discussed victims have typically been wealthy, white, and famous women. Meanwhile, R. Kelly, accused of creating an abusive sex cult and multiple charges of pedophilia, has managed to skate through the Reckoning mostly unscathed; his alleged victims, who are mostly black women, have not gotten nearly the attention that Weinstein’s have.

(It’s worth noting that Harvey Weinstein has taken the time to offer a detailed denial to exactly two of his accusers: Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek, who perhaps not coincidentally are the only two women of color among the famous actresses who have accused Weinstein of harassment.)

Our fictional depictions of women’s anger have had a similar myopia. The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a near-future dystopia that is riddled with sexism, but is also apparently color-blind: There are multiple black families among the patriarchal Commanders who rule Gilead, black Aunts can rule over the Handmaids, and black Handmaids don’t appear to be subjected to any form of treatment more brutal than that received by their white counterparts.

It’s a vision of the future that bafflingly suggests that someday soon, America will be ruled by violent theocratic misogynists but on the plus side, racism will be over. (Showrunner Bruce Miller has promised that The Handmaid’s Tale will begin to engage more actively with race in season two.)

Perhaps most striking was the case of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and its grim, unflinching star performance from Frances McDormand. As Mildred, the woman who is so angry over the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter that she wants to burn the whole system down, McDormand is astonishing; she blazes across the screen. But Three Billboards is unable to bring the same sensitivity to its discussion of racism that it brings to its depiction of Mildred’s personal anger.

Racism exists within the world of Three Billboards, but only to give shading to the morality of white characters. One of the police officers is accused of torturing a black man in jail, which shows us that he is immoral; Mildred condemns this action, which shows us that she is righteous — and also apparently gives her carte blanche to toss out the n-word as she pleases, a move from which the film seems to take a Tarantino-esque thrill.

There is a single woman of color in the world of Three Billboards. She and Mildred work together, and the police arrest her in order to send a message to Mildred. The film has made it clear that the arresting officer is the one who tortured black people in jail, but apparently we are not to worry about that in this case: the woman later emerges cheerfully from jail, having been freed offscreen, and demands to learn what Mildred has been up to while she was gone. Her ordeals are brushed aside as unimportant to the story. The racist police officer, meanwhile, gets enormous attention paid to the inner pain that makes him racist, and to the question of whether there’s anything he can do (for white people) that can ever redeem him.

The result is that the pain of a white woman and a racist white man seem to trump the pain of people of color, as though it’s only possible to focus on one form of oppression at a time, rather than examining how different systems of oppression interlock and feed off one another. And while that belief system is most apparent in Three Billboards, it lurks under the surface in shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, and offscreen at events like the Women’s March, too.

2017 is going to end (finally, soon). And, inevitably, the Reckoning is going to die away: That backlash people are talking about might happen, or people might just get so tired of talking about sexual violence every day that they stop paying attention to it.

But people in positions of power are going to keep abusing people below them. Which means that powerful men are going to keep harassing women. Which means women are going to continue to be angry. And they are going to need to find catharsis in popular culture: in stories of powerful women and witchy women and women getting shit done and women burning the world down to the ground around them.

This year gave women lots of great stories of women’s anger — but those stories are limited. So as 2018 takes off, here’s to stories that let all women be angry, and that let all women do something about it.

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