She's Beautiful When She's Angry

Mary Dore
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  • 8 Sep 2020
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    A documentary about the women who founded the Women's Liberation movement in the U.S in the late 1960s, it gives a fair portrayal of the issues that brought this movement together and shaped feminism today.

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    F-Rated Gold

    Film Notes

    “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”

    “We felt like we were changing the world,” says one of the women interviewed in Mary Dore’s documentary “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” about the early years of the women’s liberation movement. And as Ms. Dore’s movie reminds us, feminists didn’t just feel as if they were changing the world — they changed it.

    Ms. Dore’s movie packs a lot in, taking us on a whirlwind tour of those early years, roughly 1966 to 1971. Here are consciousness-raising groups; the birth of the National Organization for Women; protests at the 1968 Miss America Pageant; marches; poetry readings; “Our Bodies, Ourselves”; snippets of “The David Frost Show” (“Why are you so sensitive?” he asks his feminist guests); schisms in the movement (race, class, the lesbian “Lavender Menace”); and discussions of abortion, child care, sex, work and motherhood.

    As filmmaking, “She’s Beautiful” is meat and potatoes: It gets the job done without frills. Ms. Dore combines historical footage and contemporary interviews with Susan Brownmiller, Rita Mae Brown, Kate Millett, Alix Kates Shulman and Ellen Willis, among others. (She frequently — and movingly — cuts from a modern interview to images of the speaker in her movement days.)

    The publicity notes say that “She’s Beautiful” is the rare documentary on this subject made for theatrical release. But it might have been a better fit for television, where you can imagine its being an “Eyes on the Prize"-type series with chapters digging deeper into aspects of the story. One chapter could cover the present generation of feminists, who show up only in this movie’s final minutes. Because there’s another thing this movie makes clear: The fight isn’t over.

    Mary Dore's documentary offers a rousing, overdue summation of the U.S. women's liberation movement.

    Rachel Saltz, The New York Times, 4th December 2014

    An overdue documentary flashback to the U.S. women’s liberation movement, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” arrives at a time when, despite notable gains, the clock seems to be turning backward on many of the issues — reproductive rights, sexual harassment, equal pay, etc. — that “libbers” fought more than 40-odd years ago. “The bitter lesson is that no victories are permanent,” one veteran activist says here. But Mary Dore’s feature is less cautionary that celebratory in tone, capturing the exhilaration felt by a generation of women who challenged and shed age-old gender role limitations in a surge of rebellious energy. The result should connect with older (and hopefully younger) women in a theatrical release kicking off Dec. 5 in NYC, Dec. 12 in L.A.

    Limiting its purview to a first-wave period of 1966-1971, “Beautiful” crams a great deal of info, events, issues and individuals into a surprisingly smooth chronicle narrated by three dozen or so original participants. Some had been involved in the civil rights movement earlier that decade, and were encouraged by the presence of female organizers there. But upon returning home, they found that anti-Vietnam protests, as well as more radical causes like SDS and Black Power, remained bastions of strutting male leadership despite all talk of revolutionary change. Women were “used to lick envelopes,” their input ignored or belittled.

    So they began talking and organizing among themselves, often in “consciousness-raising groups” that were revelatory for most, as few had ever been in any position to discuss myriad “shameful,” “private” experiences (including abortion, rape, spousal abuse, workplace harassment, et al.) that turned out to be very common indeed.

    These initial awakenings rapidly led to aggressive public actions in the variously angry and prankish spirit of the era. On the latter front, there was W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!), whose members ran around casting “hexes” in Halloween garb; a “First National Ogling” of men on Wall Street; and other instances of provocative street theater. More seriously, women banded together to agitate against a host of inequities that suddenly seemed as inexcusable as they were obvious: Job discrimination, exclusion from standard academia (triggering the birth of women’s studies programs), the failure to acknowledge housework as “real” labor, etc.

    The rapidly growing, fissioning movement soon spawned offshoots specifically addressing the concerns of black and Latino women, the poverty class, and others not entirely at ease in the largely white, middle-class feminist mainstream. The National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) weathered a crisis when a so-called “lavender menace” demanded acceptance from co-founder Betty Friedan and others who feared the org’s popular gains would be undermined by acknowledging the many lesbians in their midst.

    Dore (“The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War”) crisscrosses the country to recall various regional hotspots for activism, political fights won (the legalization of abortion) and lost (Nixon’s veto of a national childcare bill), cultural landmarks like the publication of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s “Our Bodies, Our Selves” (since translated into multiple languages around the world), myriad feminist intellectual and artistic expressions, and more.

    There are also, of course, glimpses of the considerable opposition, from men (and women) on the street insisting “a woman’s place is in the home” to TV’s David Frost scolding an audience of feminists (“You’re so oversensitive!”). It’s noted that J. Edgar Hoover assigned FBI spies to infiltrate women’s groups, fearing they threatened the security of the nation. Veteran leaders remember the eventual polemical factionalism and contentiousness that would find some ousted from groups they’d founded. It was all a heady, from-scratch learning experience, with plenty of bumps en route.

    This history might easily fill out a 12-part miniseries. It’s to the credit of “She’s Beautiful” that it seems neither hectic nor glib despite the enormous amounts of material that doubtless had to be excluded to fit a single feature’s frame. Recitations from original texts and brief reenactments fill the few remaining crevices left between a bounty of present-day interviews and archival clips. While at times one might wish for a less conventional feel more in keeping with the heady, adventurous spirit of the times portrayed, pic’s straightforward cogency should serve it well in educating new generations of women — particularly those who disavow “feminism” (seeming to equate it with “man-hating,” as many men did 40 years ago) while remaining oblivious to how great a debt their lifestyles owe to its trailblazers.

    Nancy Kennedy and Kate Taverna’s heroic editing is a standout in expert assembly.

    Dennis Harvey, Variety, December 5th 2014.

    First-time documentarian Mary Dore creates a well-deserved appreciation of the women’s lib movement, but her approach often feels disjointed.

    She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a reflection on (sometimes radical) feminism from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, offers no shelter from the difficulty of its crusade. Even the title is up for discussion. Is the phrase quoting a put-down? A shooing-away from a patriarchy that ignores the indignation of half the population, reducing legitimate grievances with a sexist remark? Or is it a straightforward celebration, in which action and agency are bundled with sensuality and self-love? The answer, of course, is yes on all counts, and this diversity of thought, while often difficult to manage, is part of what made the feminist movement a success.

    It’s also, alas, part of what makes this a somewhat less than successful film. There’s a difference between making an effort to be inclusive and hurling everything against the wall to see what sticks. There are so many voices commenting on the heyday of “Women’s Lib” that this movie, from first-time solo director Mary Dore, has no anchor. Instead, there are waves of nuanced points of view, all aimed at larger goal of equality – but often clashing with one another at the same time. If you aren’t already a scholar on the time period, good luck keeping track of who represents which group, and what that group’s key position paper is.

    Maybe that doesn’t matter, as the thrust of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a well-deserved appreciation of these women and the remarkable way in which they changed the world. Though framed by Texas’s recent setbacks regarding reproductive rights, this film implores everyone to take a moment and recognize the battles that have been won – and to listen to the still-quite-alive elders who did the fighting.

    Cross-cutting with old footage, Dore juxtaposes her current interviews with remarkable moments of street theater, protests, and political speeches. A great many of these feminist leaders’ ideals sprang from disappointment with the activists of the New Left – the celebrated anti-war hippies who would have their “chicks” lick their envelopes and heckle them with crude, sexist remarks when they dared to take the podium. (Had social media been around, surely some of these gents would have raced to tweet “#NotAllSDSChapters”.)

    Among the subjects interviewed are the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the landmark text that grew from the work of students who accrued information that wasn’t readily available to them. You’ll also hear from veterans of the Jane Collective, a Chicago-based underground abortion service that used Partisan tactics to help women in need. Much attention is given to the special struggles of African American women, particularly those in radical groups whose male leaders had eschewed birth control for political purposes. There is also friction between lesbian splinter groups and visible forces (like Betty Friedan) who felt the need to keep them in the closet “for now”.

    Despite the desultory nature of the film, it is sure to hammer home some key points. Sexual harassment is taken seriously as a crime because of these women. Accusations of rape, while still woefully swept under the rug, are given more credence than they once were. And abortion on demand is still legal in the United States, even if forces are making the practice increasingly difficult.

    She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a great movie for liberals who want to feel good about themselves without getting too upset. It never suggests resting on your laurels, but it does offer room for a victory lap. But I’m a man. A great number of the people in this film would politely but curtly tell me my opinion isn’t exactly what’s needed here. I’m not going to fight them on that.

    Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian, 5th December 2014.

    What you thought about She's Beautiful When She's Angry

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    3 (25%) 7 (58%) 1 (8%) 1 (8%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 12
    Film Score (0-5): 4.00

    Collated Response Comments

    “Thoroughly enjoyed this film.  Thank you so much for screening this.  Many familiar names and events that I was aware of but had forgotten or never knew the back story.   Would be good for schools/ colleges to screen.  The personal is political !” 

    “It was so nice to have the Film Society back again during the pandemic and we had missed our usual Tuesday slot. Thank you to everyone who has made the continuation of this online service possible. Andrew Lloyd Webber eat your heart out! We were not sure whether this first film was going to be our sort of thing. I was very relieved to find it was purely documentary and not some awful drama documentary trying to reconstruct the past, often through the prism of today's eyes. After struggling for an hour to stream the film to the comfort of our living room rather than sitting on our spare bed we were finally rewarded with a trouble free screening.

    As a woman I found it very interesting to revisit the feminist movement. Although of that generation I do generally remember it for the more outrageous examples of "Burning your Bra" or Germaine Greer supposedly not wearing any knickers. However, I was proud of the things the women achieved not just in the USA but here and worldwide. I well remember my first years at work and the very patronising attitude of male employers. There was also an expectation that once a woman married or became pregnant then her career (!) was ended and at best she might return within five years. When I trained as a solicitor in 1969 there were two of us ladies in a class of 40 men. Now I think the tables are much reversed.

    I can imagine that the programme would have not been so appealing to a male audience, particularly a certain type of man sadly still very prevalent today, particularly in the political arena. In many ways I feel that today's women have taken us back many years by again cultivating the expectation that it is important to be beautiful for men even if it means undergoing dangerous forms of surgery to achieve this. Women still do not seem to have gained the confidence to be their own people and not to bow to some men's superficial standards.

    On the plus side I think the coronavirus situation has shown that women leaders are far more practical and clear thinking in devising a strategy to combat this virus. They are not so concerned with personal glory and adulation but are prepared to work co-operatively for the greater good.

    I welcome this film and its documentary nature and hope there will be more on offer as the season progresses”.

    “For some reason, this felt more like a TV programme than a feature; very bitty, quite difficult to follow a thread, with multiple contributors popping up with their own experiences. However, the content made me sit up and take notice. I wondered 1) why I wasn't more aware of it at the time (my university years) 2) whether there was such strength of feeling and movement in this country (pace the Dagenham women). I had watched the TV series a month ago about the same issues and the lack of overlap was striking; that this was documentary rather than drama made it much more immediate, but no less believable”.

    “Thanks for making this stirring film available. I was trying to think of any other movie I've seen that very effectively pulled together an historic movement, but couldn't. Reflected very well how social movements change people's relationships with each other and with themselves. Liked how the director and researchers had linked the colourful story of a movement that change was brought about through the specific acts of particular groups of women, or individuals. Humorous and uplifting, videos of rebellious actions and demonstrations, pretty much a celebration. But some important limitations are evident about the exclusion of lesbians from the earlier stages of the movement, as well as black feminism. Also wondered where was the discussion of Trans people's critiques of aspects of feminism; I know – you can't have everything shown.

    Film captured well the recollections of women who struck me as uncannily healthy still from an era of the mid-'60s, when many people considered equal pay for equal work a ridiculous concept. So even as late as the 1960s, companies would place want ads in search of good-looking secretaries! Showed women's liberation was not a monolith, with white, educated, upper-middle-class feminists, poor white feminists, lesbian feminists and Black Sisters United. The careful linking of feminists’ theorists, Kate Millett, for example, and radical feminists along with activists was a strength, as was the organizing skills many women learned in the peace and civil rights movements. Felt the causes of abortion rights and a national day care system weren't always shown sharply enough but did enjoy the almost satirical spirit of footage in which the bra burning was done. Perhaps we are left with the feeling that these women were very admirable for their radical spirit, and for the mark they left on American culture. Was there a hint of complicity with the liberal establishment which continues to oppress, marginalise and exploit women across the world, especially women of colour, Trans women and low-paid service workers?”

    “Learned a lot and remembered a lot. Recently read Bernadine Evaristo' Girl, Woman Other. Those radicals from 1965-71 would be amazed at just how far their boat has been pushed out intellectually. But on the political level, Trump”.

    “Washington DC girl here. And a girl who was told by her Physics professor in 1981 that she should pick a 'girl's' degree like teaching because women don't belong in Engineering. FTS, I said. Or would have if it was a term at that time and I am the person I am now. I wish my mother was alive to ask her about her thoughts and views over these decades ... and how women's rights have moved forward but are currently under assault by the, er, whatever that is in the WH. I'm curious to see what the ratings will be on this film considering the demographics of GFS. :^) Thank you all for being able to make this season happen and bringing some normality to this very unpleasant year. I really do love the Godalming Film Society. Thank you again. X”.

    “This documentary hits a zeitgeist with the recent "Mrs America" BBC series & the film "Misbehaviour" - it's as if the world is re-examining the gender roles in societies today.

    I thought the film gave a straight-forward & logical portrayal of the ground-breaking feminist movement (yes, US-based/biased). And the various issues at the time - birth control, race, class differences, sexual orientation, violence against women, childcare - which are still issues today.

    It really is a film about social revolution and I found it educational and fascinating”.

    “Thank you for kicking off the new season with this film. Such powerful stories and images. Heartening, inspiring, but also depressing”.

    “Informative. Showed how far women have come, but how far they still have to go”.

    “Another 50 years on and it's a timely reminder of just how big a social change was started in 1970. Beware the efforts of misguided men trying to put women back in their boxes”.

    “Interesting. Can't believe there is still a long way to go! There was only one mention of Germaine Greer! Trump's attitude to women makes me very angry”.

    “Having watched Mrs America recently I had learned a little about the Feminist Movement and thought this would teach me a lot more. It was quite interesting but, I suppose, I didn't feel I related to it because it was American history rather than British or world. While I was with them in principle, I found the flitting from one person to another difficult to follow. I'm glad they showed them in their youth and as they are now”.




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