Popular Feminism: Structural Rage




SINCE I WROTE my first “Popular Feminism: #MeToo” column for LARB in January, the stories about sexual harassment in the workplace and in everyday life have continued to pour in, every day, with varying intensity, across all industries. I read these stories, and like many others, I feel what is being called “outrage fatigue.” Simply put, my outrage at the commonplace occurrence of tragic, violent sexual harassment and assault is so great it overwhelms me, producing a feeling of hopelessness.

To work against “outrage fatigue,” I am focusing on the “outrage” rather than the “fatigue.” I have been thinking about the palpable presence of rage in the contemporary moment, and what it opens up for us. The #MeToo movement has forced all of us to confront female rage — a rage at the injury of being harassed and assaulted, a rage at not being believed, at being called hysterical and out of control.

Women’s anger has been explained away for so many years as an inappropriate emotion, as evidence of our inferiority and overwhelming corporeality. But in the current moment, women are insisting that their rage and anger be taken seriously and dealt with. Our rage and anger are spilling over — so what do we do with them? As feminist author Laurie Penny has said, “Female anger is taboo, and with good reason — if we ever spoke about it directly, in numbers too big to dismiss, one or two things might have to change.”

Another feminist scholar who has tried to capture the invisibility of women’s rage, Angela McRobbie, points out that the rage that women have expressed against inequality, of patriarchy, or of just being a girl or a woman, is “illegible” in contemporary culture. Because female rage is taboo, it is often channeled into something that can contain it, lessen its force, trivialize it — and, well, takes the “rage” out of it.

One efficient way to do this is to commodify rage, make it into a thing, a metric, with clear borders and boundaries — to make it a salable object in the ever-growing markets for girls and women. We see this commodification with #MeToo products, with TimesUp pins, with clothing, jewelry, and phone apps. These commercial items are not problematic per se, but if they are left simply as products, they can become mechanisms to defuse and distract. They make rage fashionable, they make it “all the rage.” And since consumer purchases are, by definition, largely individual acts, to be “all the rage” is to have a popular feminism that is mainly concerned with individual women, not a collective politics.

But commodification is not the only mechanism for rage in the contemporary moment. One of the most hopeful manifestations of #MeToo has been the focus on the sheer number of women coming forward, forcing people to deal with the collectivity of it all. We need to focus on those numbers, rather than the number of media outlets that carry a story, or the number of clicks and likes on social media, or retweets on Twitter. Such metrics easily get caught up in a feedback loop, where the focus becomes the number of stories themselves, rather than the content of the stories.

As Rebecca Solnit put it a few months ago, the stories of women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted have been historically rendered invisible “until something broke; until journalists went fishing for the stories that had been hidden in plain sight. And the stories poured forth: about publishers, restaurateurs, directors, famous writers, famous artists, famous political organizers. We know these stories.” The “something” that broke came in the form of rage, spilling out of the frames that have historically contained it.

We saw this in a stunning way, in January 2018, in a Michigan courtroom, where rage came to us in a torrent: the former athletic doctor who worked for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar, was on trial for sexually assaulting more than 260 girls and women who were in his care, most of them teenagers.

In an unusual move, the judge in this case, Rosemarie Aquilina, allowed women to tell their stories to the court, and to Nassar himself. There were a total of 169 statements given, and 156 women personally delivered them in the courtroom over seven days, during the sentencing hearing. To hear these young women give their testimony was heart-wrenching and stomach-turning. They were filled with rage, powerfully channeled and no longer repressed. Here, rather than investing in the accumulation of numbers of likes and clicks so important to media, investing in the volume and onslaught of these particular women enables a kind of productive rage, the kind that is perhaps more difficult to commodify.

For example, two-time Olympian Aly Raisman testified:

Imagine feeling like you had no power and no voice. Well you know what, Larry? I have both power and a voice, and I am only beginning to just use them. All these brave women have power, and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve: A life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors.

Tiffany Thomas Lopez, an MSU softball player, claimed that she told three athletic trainers about the abuse in 1998, according to ESPN; she said: “The army you chose in the late ’90s to silence me, to dismiss me and my attempt at speaking the truth, will not prevail over the army you created when violating us.” The last woman to testify, Rachael Denhollander, asked: “How much was a little girl worth? How much were these young woman worth? […] I submit to you that these children are worth everything.”

At one point, Nassar wrote a letter to the court asking the judge to stop the girls’ testimony, calling it a “media circus” that was “detrimental to his mental health.” He wanted to stop the spectacular visibility of numbers of women coming forth with their stories, to minimize the damage that these kind of numbers can potentially do. The judge refused.

Raisman’s words, along with others in that courtroom, remind us that sometimes rage can’t be easily contained. The testimonies from the gymnasts were broadcast on mainstream media platforms like CNN, but the visibility that the judge allowed exceeds media visibility: it spills over onto the offender and the system that enabled him. We are seeing, as Moira Weigel has written, “sexism at scale.”

These testimonies show us that rage doesn’t have to be transactional but can be transformational. The gymnasts in that courtroom are certainly part of the #MeToo movement, but their rage was one that transfigures popular rage into a powerful, collective rage, directed at a sexist system. All these numbers of women who are coming forward need more than to be counted as part of a metric, an accumulation that becomes its own feedback loop. The #MeToo movement is not just a response to structural misogyny and sexism — it is a response to the visibility of popular feminism, what this visibility can’t open up.

We need to recognize that the solidarity that these stories present is about a structural feminism, which may be popular but is not necessarily commoditized. We need a different sort of transformation — one that calls for an alternative form of visibility. We need, as the US gymnasts said so powerfully, to be a kind of army. We need a lasting, structural feminist rage.

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Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor and director of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Some of the themes captured in this column are explored further in a forthcoming book, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018).

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Banner image by Backbone Campaign.


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