The media often minimizes women's rage as a fad, from the #MeToo movement to assault claims against the U.S. president, even by high-profile figures like columnist E. Jean Carroll. Are we on the cusp of revolt, or historical erasure?
In Game of Thrones’ seventh season, Daenerys Targaryen, who, after years of struggle and loss and bloodshed, seems poised to reclaim the Iron Throne, speaks to the newly named King in the North, Jon Snow. Daenerys knows her worth, and, most importantly, she knows how easy it is for men to dismiss it. She stares down Snow, and, in a voice that is as strong and unyielding as wildfire, recounts the violations she’s survived: “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped, and defiled.” Her rage crests into righteousness: “Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods, not in myth and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen.”
That righteousness resonated beyond the scope of the series after it first aired in the summer 2017, because at that moment, women’s anger seemed like it was on the verge of being honored as the force of a tide-turning catharsis, a social reckoning that would sweep clean the dirty old fabric of the world. In just a few short months, Tarana Burke’s decades-old #MeToo movement would catch fire, razing the reputations of powerful men in entertainment, politics, and business, and brutally illuminating the commonality of sexual violence and harassment. In the following years, pop culture became a study in “women’s rage”: Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale became an improbable runaway hit and season two of Jessica Jones was critically lauded for portraying the power and pitfalls of owning one’s rage with the grit and nuance usually afforded to male heroes. Despite the pitchfork-waving of the darker bowels of male fandom, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel hoovered up the box-office dollars. Books like Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her drove a cultural discourse about the transformational significance of that rage, a discourse that wondered whether the new wave that swelled into the blue wave of the 2018 midterms—which brought a record number of women into the House of Representatives and to legislative seats around the country—would also, finally, bring about a Madame President to avenge us. The message seemed as clear and sharp at the glass-cutting edge of a diamond: American women had been betrayed and defiled, but we kept standing because we had faith. Not in any gods. In ourselves.
But in the past several months, that potentially civilization-saving manna of righteous anger has soured into something that feels even more sinister than the status quo. The old ways don’t just die hard, they come shambling back as a gnashing zombie of raging misogyny: This past weekend, Elle columnist and author E. Jean Carroll shared a highly detailed, highly credible account of Donald Trump allegedly raping her in a dressing room at Bergdorf’s in an essay for New York Magazine. It was something that should have turned newsfeeds into air-raid sirens and ended any other presidency, yet the mainstream media, by and large, ignored it. The New York Times, the supposed paper of record, buried it in their “Books” section. Political calculus, and not basic humanity, has governed our collective reaction—which is that Carroll is the 24th woman to accuse Trump of sexual assault; not like the first 23 who came forward seemed to matter. Certainly not to the red-capped white men in coal-town diners and the Proud Boys and the frat boys headed for Ivy League law schools—and their opinions echo loudest in the great machinery of our media. To them, Carroll is a slut, a whore, out to smear Trump, like all the sluts and whores who are out to take down all the men. The writer Molly Jong-Fast spoke for so many disgusted, disheartened women when she asked, in anguish, if “the Overton window [is] moving so much towards misogyny that credible allegations of rape no longer matter? Has Trump done this? Desensitized us to violence towards women or has it always been this way?”
History, even fairly recent history, suggests that it has always been this way. In her seminal 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi articulated the idea that each wave of feminist achievement has a corresponding undertow, a whirlpool that whips and churns to drag us under the full fathoms of yesteryear. Faludi was inspired to write the book after reading a 1986 Newsweek cover story that bemoaned the poor marriage prospects of the single, educated career gal—the Harvard-Yale study that story cited was proven to be faulty, still, the blood of a media narrative was in the water of our collective consciousness: The feminist achievements of the 1960s and ’70s may have been great and important and successful and all, but had they gone too far? Did they end up making women lonelier and unhappier, too smart for their own good? “Behind this celebration of the American woman’s victory, behind the news, cheerfully and endlessly repeated, that the struggle for women’s rights is won, another message flashes,” Faludi writes. “You may be free and equal now, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable.”
The backlash she describes—with messaging that “professional women suffering ‘burnout’… childless women are ‘depressed and confused’ and their ranks are swelling… women are unhappy precisely because they are free. Women are enslaved by their own liberation”—coincides with the rise of the Reagan revolution, a more genteel, iron fist in a velvet glove sort of arch-conservatism that maintained women have “so much” already that, surely, an Equal Rights Amendment was really too much to ask for me; that it was perfectly fine for President Reagan to ignore his campaign promise to “enthusiastically appoint women to all levels of Government” (a 1981 New York Times article claims that only 42 of 367 administrative appoints were women), and to alleviate affirmative-action regulations that required Federal contractors to hire and promote women and minorities.
Though all the garment-rending about women and power has clearly persisted, it has dropped the vestiges of civility from its savagery—this backlash feels blunter and more brutal, like a punch from an iron fist wearing brass knuckles. That bluntness and brutality, of course, reflects the mentality of President Grab ’Em By the Pussy—a mentality that demeans women’s agency and autonomy, and dismisses women’s anger as an inconvenient opposition to be smashed down with the force of a hammer landing on a gnat. It’s evident in right-wing media’s malevolent fixation on some of the most visibly outraged and outspoken women in the House of Representatives, like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a frothing rage that reached its zenith when Trump himself tweeted a highly edited video that made Rep. Omar look deliberately dismissive and callous about 9/11. Just as the mainstream media and pundit class once adopted the lines that “maybe this whole women working outside the home thing was more trouble than its worth” instead of wondering what would make life more bearable for working women, they didn’t question the unprecedented violence of a sitting president openly attacking a congresswoman—they wondered if Omar had gone “too far” in her remarks about Israel and Palestine.
The coverage on these women deploys a neurotic intensity on whether they are “good or bad” for Democrats, instead of pondering the harder, thornier merits of their rage. Most notable, and mind-numbing, is the hullaballoo over Rep. Ocasio-Cortez calling the Trump administration’s border camps—where children are concentrated in horrifically squalid and life-threatening conditions that, in a private home, would bring the wrath of Child Protective Services and likely the local news—”concentration camps.” For journalists like Chuck “Hillary Clinton was just ‘too prepared” Todd, Ocasio-Cortez’s justified indignation merits more of a “call out” from Democratic leaders than the camps themselves—Todd is far more sanguine about whether we can call camps where children sleep on floors and live in filth-caked clothing, “a stain on our nation maybe, a necessary evil to others, a deal with untenable situation perhaps.” Though the political narrative this time last year was about the power of pissed-off women, nowadays, we fret over whether loudmouthed women—with their concerns about not being treated like broodmares, chained to unwanted pregnancies or to pregnancies that put our lives in danger, or put in literal chains over miscarriages—are pushing poor Joe Biden to take supposedly unpopular positions, like repealing the Hyde Amendment, that will doom his inevitable victory in the general election.
It’s equally telling that the discourse about the increasingly Gileadean abortion-rights restrictions, which have eliminated the old and supposedly mollifying provisions for rape and incest and the life of the mother altogether, fixates on whether liberals should give ground on choice to mollify white working-class voters and Never Trump conservatives—ignoring that, statistically, most Americans want abortion to remain legal in some form (especially in cases of rape and/or incest and to protect the life of the mother). The more apt question might be whether Republicans’ thuggish fundamentalism could alienate voters—but that would mean admitting the validity of women’s anger.
As we have seen, time and again, in the slow-burn, slow-walked rehabilitations of the men outed as predators—men like comedian Louis C.K., actors James Franco and Casey Affleck, journalists Mark Halperin and Ryan Lizza, and TV morning anchor Matt Lauer (whose omission from a recent Today Show retrospective prompted headlines like “How the Former ‘Today Show’ Anchor is Moving on Following Allegations of Sexual Misconduct,” as if he were going to Cabo to recover from a bad break-up)—women’s anger will inevitably go “too far.” It will scorch lives. It will melt down the bedrock of the old ways, the systems and traditions that have kept everything, and everyone, essentially in place, for millennia. It will leave nothing but ash.
Which brings us back to Daenerys Targaryen, a character whose remarkable, raw-boned will to survive, to rise, to avenge herself and (albeit imperfectly) champion the oppressed, and to, above all, take what is hers, made her a transformational and inspirational figure for many women. In the final season of Game of Thrones, the passion that has animated that abiding faith in herself and her mission has kindled into madness. As she is poised to take the throne, she snaps: She rides her dragon through the city and burns it all down—just because she can, because bitches just be crazy, especially when they get a little taste of power, of having some control. So, of course, she must die. And not just die—but be put down by men whose poor counsel led her to the breaking point, men whose hands are also stained with so much blood, men who earn their heroic redemption by snuffing the light from her eyes.
Daenerys’s tragic arc plays out over a summer where women presidential candidates still receive less coverage and more questions about “electability” than the men who lag behind them in the polls; where Netflix unceremoniously dumps the final season of a critical darling like Jessica Jones with no fanfare; and where the media scarcely covers a graphic, first-person account of the president committing an alleged violent rape, because there are so many other accounts of his sexual assaults and his base won’t care and his base matters more than the life and the body and the soul of a woman, any woman. Her arc illuminates the hard and terrible truth that for every upswing, every time that progress seems possible and victory is within our grasp, the men who write the stories of our culture and who sign the laws that guide our lives, will find their ways to shove their knives into our chests.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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