2017 Was a Start, But Women Need to Stay Angry
We're no longer gagged by a culture that doubts, rather than believes, women – but that's not enough.
Illustration: Abraham Magnawa / Alamy Stock Photo
Last week, I pushed a man in a bar. Not a gentle nudge, but a shove. And I was spoiling for it. My muscles clenched, urging him to retaliate. I stood with a drink in one hand, wanting for the first time in my life to use the other to punch this person in the face.
The guy hadn't done anything especially wrong – maybe bumped into me a few times as he swayed and clutched his pint. But then he turned, the gaze of one eye landing on my forehead, the other on the windowsill to my left, and said: "Give us a smile, love!"
And that was it. I just lost it. I was suddenly absolutely livid – seething, with a real, shocking intensity. My arm shot out and I shoved him backwards.
"No, you can’t demand a smile from me. I hate you for asking and I hate myself for obliging every time until now. When did I first decide to smile, laugh or make noises in bed when I didn’t feel any of it for real, to flatter or assuage you or persuade you to leave me alone? When did I begin to forget that this was my body? My body. My hands. My lips, which perform for you in this world we’ve built. Can't you see that this is broken?"
Is what I wanted to say. But I was silent.
He looked shocked. So was I. Ashamed, maybe. But I wasn’t sorry. My behaviour was totally unwarranted. It was aggressive, unpleasant and, until recently, out of character. But I don’t think I’m the only one to feel like this.
Something has shifted in the past couple of months. The seed was sown last year when a qualified, experienced woman lost out to a sexist, racist, alleged rapist in the American elections. A comic comparison in eligibility if it hadn’t also broken my heart. But it set a ball in motion. And it has been a year of savage blows to women since. Speaking to other women, many say they’re also charged with this new alien anger.
I confessed the way I’d been behaving to a friend, guiltily, assuming it was work stress. I’d been irritable, snappy. Feeling very sudden flashes of rage in everyday interactions with men that might have just irritated me before. And now, this involuntary physical aggression.
I couldn’t understand it. Lots of my best friends are wonderful, kind, hilarious, good men. I wouldn’t live in a world without them. But everything has changed very suddenly, and I couldn’t believe how ignorant I had been until now to the fury collecting in my bones.
Women who I’ve spoken to this week described themselves as regularly feeling angry and "combative" towards men. They are no longer reacting with passive fatigue to catcalling, mansplaining or a stranger’s hand on their waist in a bar. But it’s not anger with men the individuals, really. Maybe blame falls on them domestically because they’re within reach. But they are just a consequence. The man who told me to cheer up is simply a representation. A by-product of the system I can no longer stomach.
Harvey Weinstein is awful. Sexual abuse in Parliament is awful. But if we're honest, none of it is that surprising. The gory details, perhaps. The violence. The scale of the cover-ups. But inequality and harassment are not new things. Nor is the frustration of women. But this feels different.
What’s causing a shift right now is that, for the first time, women are not gagged by a subconscious knowledge that if they state what’s happening they will be ignored, mocked or called a liar. But the idea that women have a voice in the public eye in any real, empowered sense remains laughable. In television, film, in print, on the radio, in comedy and in politics they are still far outnumbered by men. We know this.
Deirdre Mullins is an actress, awarded a Scottish BAFTA this month. On the subject of female rage, she said: "Yes, I guess I am angry. A long-gestated fucking furious. It’s an everyday thing that has come to be totally normal, like the sound of traffic in London." She pointed out that there are two men to every one woman onscreen (on children’s TV, that figure is three to one). She and her boyfriend are both actors. She earns around ten times less than he does for the same work. While she’s paired in a relationship with men up to 30 years her senior, her boyfriend of the same age is paired with women ten years his junior.
While the sudden, explosive spilling of guts and truth and the ugly underbelly of huge machines is all happening above ground, invisible ripple effects are going far deeper within women’s bodies.
Ria Chatterjee is a broadcast journalist for ITV. "Women can’t move forward without expressing their anger over centuries' worth of inequality and misogyny," she told me. "And let’s not forget that even the act of expressing that rage is manipulated by men." Which is interesting, because when women scream and shout they’re "hysterical". Unstable! So, is that why we’re feeling this all the more savagely? Stepping into a full-bodied anger that we’ve rarely owned?
This apparent universality of the dark side of male desire and power being exposed as each big institution clinks to the ground like a domino is catching speed. Each fallen, disgraced institution becomes less shocking. At once, utterly depressing and utterly galvanising. The state of affairs is no longer some fabled creature, seen by some – should you choose to believe them – but never proven.
And so women have license, finally, to angrily hack at the roots of the behaviour that led to this point of extremes: of violence, of rape. They can’t take down the giant ogre Weinstein as he surrounds himself with gold-bought shields, but they can fight on their own streets, feeling very certainly that small challenges must be made to keep the ball rolling.
"It’s just a joke, love! You looked like you’d be fun!" – and I would acquiesce, smiling. But it’s not fun. I’m not having fun. I wasn’t having fun at university when I felt I owed a man something after a date. Or when I was 16 and men put their hand up my skirt in clubs. Or on the countless occasions in the past seven years since coming out as a lesbian when men have told me not to worry – they can still fix me.
Very small inequalities fester and multiply and culminate in huge, grotesque cover-ups. And these droplets of priming that we have felt every day from birth have suddenly become a tinder box.
I’m not usually an angry person. But then anger can be protective – and I think that is what’s belatedly happening now my body senses hope. I feel responsibility in a way that I never have before. Because big, whole world change was never on the cards. Up until now I placated myself in the name of self-preservation, because fighting a futile fight every day is demoralising. Depressing. It kills desire to live. If you stop responding to a crying baby it will just stop crying.
To maintain self-respect when things were unchangeable, I ignored how things were. Suppressed the extent of the full, ugly picture. But the complete realisation of the void between men and women’s power, and the depth of the insidious attitudes slumbering in all of our bodies, is so huge for me now that I can only process it as a physical response: rage.
Our world is in chaos and darkness laps at the edges. But if women stay angry it’s all up for grabs. This world – this house of ours – it’s time to tear it down and rebuild, while we have anger, the energy, the petrol in the machine.
It is a rare thing to witness real change in real time. A true shifting of the landscape and the rules by which we measure ourselves. Perhaps unsettling, perhaps thrilling, depending on your temperament and position in this new proposed world. There’s no precedence; no markers. Maybe, though, this fire in women’s bellies is burning extra savagely for a reason. Something we’ve learnt from our history about fury, change and the limited window of time in which we can harness its power. Right now we are poised. A collective heart, beating red and bloodied. We can’t repress what we have always known to be true any more. The monster has grown too big for the blanket that used to hide it.
But as the year draws to an end – as the lethargy of holidays washes over us all – I can't help but wonder how long this period of fire and anger will last/ And how will we use it? As Mullins says, "I'm quietly worried that public anger might end before profound changes have happened... and then, people will be bored. And girl, there ain't nothing more dangerous than boredom."
Emily Sargent is commissioning editor at The Times Weekend.