I did not go to the David Wojnarowicz show at the Whitney Museum. My sense of morality is a tricky form of advanced algebra. It calculates whether paying, say, a $22 admission fee means I’d be supporting an exhibition I thought immoral—and whether that realization has a higher value than the emotional power of seeing the work of an artist I have loved in a tight, held-breath kind of way since I was fifteen.
The exhibition was protested for presenting a narrative of AIDS as a thing that happened and is now over, and it was criticized for trying to clean up Wojnarowicz’s work and make it less jagged and less raw. Less angry, in a word. There was something in me that couldn’t bear to see a less angry Wojnarowicz when anger was so often his primary medium, nor did I wish to see a Wojnarowicz celebrated and appreciated by the wealthiest New Yorkers—the New Yorkers who, when Wojnarowicz and his friends and peers were dying, snatched up the real estate they left behind. This same vulture class then proceeded to recreate those artists’ bohemian lives—originally cobbled together out from conditions of acute precarity and social marginalization—as the lives of well-appointed Creatives. Now the cold-water lofts so many gay artists died in have underfloor heating and granite countertops and ten-foot walls, all the better to display their work, which has become a good investment.
And maybe I still want to believe that Wojnarowicz’s work is my secret, which is how I felt about his 1991 memoir Close to the Knives—that it was written specifically for me. In truth, of course, it absolutely was not written for heterosexual teenage girls in middle America, but it felt like it was in my case because I had been choking on rage my whole life. Born into an unacknowledged sick family and raised in an unacknowledged sick home, I saw Wojnarowicz’s stencil of a house of fire and thought, yes. I read his words, “I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.” I thought of the neighbor girls, one of them around my age, who had been murdered by their father, and I thought of my mother, whose brother tried to kill her twice and still was allowed to babysit us as kids. And I thought of my father, and I thought of all of the times I had vomited—half of my childhood I had unintentional bulimia from the stress of living in this family, this town, this society where women are loved by men and then murdered by those same men, either slowly or in a sudden middle-of-the-night blast.
Anger is fashionable for women now. I don’t mean the anger of David Wojnarowicz dropping bloody cow bones outside an art gallery to protest the rapaciousness of collectors and gallerists and the market profiting off of the work of broke and broken artists. I mean girls taking selfies at a protest march. Real anger, the kind that contorts the face and bends the body, still makes women as ugly as it ever did. But someone figured out there would be a market for books telling the kind of women who knitted pink hats for the Women’s March, posted a couple Facebook entries about their experience, and then went back to their cozy suburban lives that they were brave to do all of that. And this is how we ended up with a book in which an upper-middle-class white woman compares her own act of writing a column in a large-circulation East Coast magazine for a hefty fee to a teenaged Rosa Parks throwing a brick through a window.
That book would be Rebecca Traister’s recently released Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, but a near-identical tract was just published by Soraya Chemaly, called Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Their joint appearance is either another example of the classic publishing trend of market pandering, or else there is literally an algorithm that creates books like these, desperate to speak to a moment but not of a moment. Perhaps it simply lets writers enter in a topic and then spits out all of the studies, statistics, uplifting quotations, and anecdotes they could need to fill 300 pages.
Real anger, the kind that contorts the face and bends the body, still makes women as ugly as it ever did.
Both of these books tell us that women are socialized to stifle their anger, but that anger is a good, healthy emotion. Traister tells us that anger made her want to exercise more, that her “appetite was healthy. . . I was having great sex.” Chemaly tells us anger makes us more creative. Both books have Alice Walker epigraphs.
Both books, of course, also tell me why I should be angry. Both books say I should be angry that men on the street tell me to smile. (No man on the street in the history of my life has told me to smile.) Both books say I should be angry because women are socialized not to express anger, so they feel like they should be pretty and nice instead. (No one has ever considered me to be pretty or nice.) Both books assume that I should be furious at the unfair treatment Hillary Clinton received at the hands of the media during the 2016 presidential election.
Neither book considers the possibility, even for the length of a sentence fragment, that one thing making some women angry might have been the insistence by a certain segment of elite women leaders that Hillary Clinton was the feminist choice despite her having made the lives of an entirely other segment of women unlivable through her support of military intervention, the gutting of social welfare programs, and the financial ruin of our nation by the wealthy. We should only care that some commentators were mean about her pantsuits, and her laugh, and her hair.
Neither book tells us what to do with our anger, other than use it to drive our ambitions in corporate culture or get more exercise. Nor does either Good and Mad or Rage Becomes Her come to terms with the often selfish and self-righteous nature of anger. Both books focus on protests, on #MeToo accusations, and on the Women’s March, but neither takes seriously the criticisms that these displays of women’s rage have attracted. They ignore formidable figures like Judith Levine, who has argued against retribution and warned against the #MeToo movement turning into a moral panic, or JoAnn Wypijewski, who has criticized the idea of claiming collective victimhood, or Yasmin Nair, who has shown how complicated narratives are simplified into stories of abuse or harassment in order to further the cause. Traister and Chemaly also largely gloss over the many activists who have admonished the #MeToo movement for focusing on powerful industries like Hollywood and the federal government while neglecting the challenges faced by working class women. To them, it’s mere sexism to question these movements, and they overlook real feminist critics concerned with the aims of these efforts to complain yet again how unfair male television commentators are.
And of course neither book manages to explain how women’s anger is different than men’s. When a woman is angry in these books, it is because of injustice, not because of immigrants. An angry woman is working toward progress—she is not a white supremacist, or a mother trying to suppress trans rights for the sake of “the children,” or an online troll sending death threats. Readers of Traister and Chemaly would never guess that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016. When a woman is angry in these tracts, she is Elizabeth Warren, not Marine Le Pen.
Similarly, both books focus on the injustices done to women, not on the injustices committed by women, often in the name of anger—such as the disproportionate punishments handed out to men accused but not proven of harassment or abuse under #MeToo, or the calls for harsher prison sentences for men who commit acts of violence against women despite the widespread abuses of the prison industrial complex, or the use of pro-woman rhetoric in support of our endless war in the Middle East. But a woman who is angry about what has been done to her in her workplace or by her government and chooses to join a protest against Trump, or circulate an anonymous accusation against her coworker, is not fundamentally different from someone who is angry about their financial situation and joins the Tea Party, or shouts to Build That Wall. The most salient difference is the ideological template that interprets and channels that anger. If we assume that all women are angry in a justified, left-leaning sort of way, we don’t have to discuss how their anger is interpreted or channeled, and we can assume all women are on the side of the light.
Neither book tells us what to do with our anger, other than use it to drive our ambitions in corporate culture or get more exercise.
I wonder how long we’re going to have books like this for women, books in which we sing only a song of our own oppression and tell ourselves we are special and brave for having suffered for so long. I also wonder how long the monolithic celebration of anger as a faintly subversive, gender-wide posture will continue to obscure the ways in which we claim a collective identity predicated on victimhood despite each of us existing on a spectrum of victim to victimizer.
But it also makes me wonder: Who in the world is only waking up to their anger now? Despite years of watching people murdered by the police on our Facebook feeds, despite decades of attacks on our right to choose and pursue private health care decisions, despite the fact that there is an entire generation alive today who has never known our country not to be at war. The answer, apparently, is that it’s the good girls. It’s the good girls who only started caring about mass deportations when Trump was doing it and not when Obama did exactly the same thing. It’s the good girls who prioritized their own ambitions and comforts over any sense of fairness or justice. It’s the good girls who saw a marketing opportunity to capitalize on in this moment in which other women who played by the rules and expected to be rewarded for their behavior suddenly realized the world isn’t fair after all. And it’s the same good girls who only recognize that injustice when it heightens their inability to continue using the system that allows the few to exploit the many.
Those good girls who want to sell books that insist women have the right to be angry right now ironically erase those of us who have been here, absolutely fucking incandescent, the whole time.