Where does all the rage go now?
The death of Jezebel and the backlash to our anger
On January 21, 2017, approximately 1 to 1.6 percent of the US population took to the streets to protest the presidency of Donald Trump. The Women’s March was the largest single-day protest in US history. It drew hundreds of thousands of angry women and others into the streets of Washington, D.C., and cities across the nation. That demonstration of rage helped to inspire political action: a historic midterm; the election of some of our most powerful voices for justice in America. It helped to fuel the overwhelming power of the #MeToo movement, later that same year. And it would contribute to the end of my marriage. Of course, who could know that then? All we knew was that rage was filling the streets.
I watched the protest from my phone in the Cedar Rapids Library, where I had taken my kids for the day. I wanted to go to the march. I’d tried to go. But my marriage was threadbare by then. My husband’s barely concealed rage at my request had felt like a warning: If I went, I’d cross a line. He said he wouldn’t take care of the kids if I went. And when I said I’d bring them, he told me he refused to let his children go.
A different version of me would have just gone. Would have loaded the children up. Would have headed out. Would have said, “You don’t get a say.” But that version of me did not exist then. The woman that existed then was trying to hold fast to a life that had no room for me. I was trying to prop up the walls of a home that was suffocating me.
I see that now. But I couldn’t see it then. Not from the inside.
I remember too how the protest was mocked, belittled and then also blamed for not being everything to all people. I remember how little room there was for error in the Women’s March. How progressives and conservatives alike scoffed and nitpicked the movement and how pundits routinely underestimated what had been unleashed.
A decade earlier, in 2007, the editor Anna Holmes at Gawker Media founded a website called Jezebel. I remember watching the site launch and being swept up in the discussions and the writing. I participated in the comments sections, which were often visceral and nasty and felt like the lancing of a boil. It wasn’t something I fully understood then. I was married and living in Iowa and spending my weekends renovating an 80-year-old house. But it pulled me in. After all, that same year two of my sisters had been in a car accident and the healthcare system had rendered one of them bankrupt simply for having the audacity to live. I’d seen that same sister have her revelation that she’d been sexually assaulted as a child, then dismissed, minimized, and ignored, for what? For a false idea of family and forgiveness.
I remember collapsing at the end of 2007 on the floor of my home and sobbing. I was furious. I had driven my sisters to their appointments. Sat by their beds as they recovered. I’d helped one sister learn to walk again, cleaned her bedside commode, screamed at her to breathe, just breathe, as she struggled on a ventilator. I was furious at the world for crushing them. I hadn’t had the courage to realize I was being crushed, too.
Six years later, I began writing for Jezebel as a freelancer. I was a mom then. And whatever rage had been latent in me was boiling to the surface. Caught in the never-ending snare of motherhood and work, I was exhausted, and my rage leaked out through my obsessions with dark stories of mothers and mythology.
Writing about Jezebel and the site’s legacy, Holmes noted, “I see Jezebel not as the beginning of the end of the digital-media era but as a moment — a spark — within an ongoing discussion about gender politics. That conversation has led to new realities around sexual assault and harassment, pay inequity, and cultural depictions of women. It also makes some people uncomfortable — in part because it involves women expressing their anger in public and sustained ways.”
“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” Audre Lorde wrote in 1981, and that anger can act as a “powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
Jezebel was shuttered last week — a move that the site’s new owners say was motivated by an inability to sell ads off its content.
But in the era where the driving forces of our economy are the Barbie movie and Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, not being able to make money off a feminist website feels less an economic necessity and more an intentional shuttering of women’s voices.
It’s part of a backlash to the rage that gained a new voice in 2007 with the founding of Jezebel and 10 years later flooded the streets. It’s backlash to the airing of rape culture’s dark secrets during the #MeToo movement, which Jezebel had a hand in — the site and its journalists were at the forefront of the reporting of many of those stories.
There is other backlash happening, too. The rollback of reproductive rights across the country. A rollback of LGBTQ rights, particularly for trans people. After all, expansive definitions of gender free all people. Heteronormative roles trap us. And there is a renewed call for limiting rights to divorce. Cultural discourse is pushing women to marry and have children.
I have an essay in a book titled Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture. My essay is titled “All the Angry Women.” In it, I talk about my rage at my sister’s sexual assault and about my mother’s rage, which so often has been taken out on me. I wrote about my time volunteering at a women’s shelter, where I watch so many women try to bottle up their anger.
In that essay, I wrote, “We speak of men and their rage as if it is laudable. ‘Men just get mad and push each other and it's over,’ we say. ‘Women are just bitches; they never let it go.’ That's because we never can let it go. Because where would we put it? What system? What faith? What institution has room? Has patience? Has understanding for an angry woman?”
Last month, I learned that the book is included in the list of books banned in school libraries across Iowa.
That book and essay were banned by the same types of people who cost me my job at the newspaper. The politicians who wrote and complained to my bosses and the same progressives who sat by and watched it happen. The people who were mad about what I wrote. And the people who thought I should be quieter, more polite — be mad, just not like that.
It’s as if all the voices of women and our rage have a giant hand clapped over our mouths by forces both conservative and ostensibly progressive. In one survey of men across the globe, a third said that feminism does more harm than good.
It’s easy, at this moment, to feel helpless. As if all that work had been for nothing.
I’ve recently read two books about women’s rage that essentially concluded that there is really nothing we can do. We are mad, sure. But okay, men won’t change society won’t change, they argue. So we muddle on, do some self-care, knit a little frog.
There is nothing wrong with rest and knitting. But that should not be the end of our rage.
This should not be where our anger ends, smothered by the efforts of mediocre men who insist they can’t sell ads off it. Who insist it isn’t profitable. Who tells us it’s destroying our society and harming our children.
I think about the spaces that allow women’s rage but then quickly cap it off – TikTok videos that joke about men not cleaning the kitchen or filling the house with mess. A recent Women’s World article that encouraged women to just say “ugh” to let off some steam, right next to articles about how to lose all that holiday weight and how to be more positive. Like our anger is steam from a pot, allowed to escape but only so the pot doesn’t explode.
The people pushing the backlash are right. That rage is destroying our society. And it should. That rage is ruining our children for the establishment and for all the lies we tell them about what is and is not possible. For example, that we don’t have the money to stop children in our own country from starving but we can fund a war abroad whose victims are disproportionately children.
Rage can and should change us. It is not the end of something but the beginning. It’s the motivation to resist. But that’s so hard to see when you are still inside the home, still holding onto the life that creates the conditions of your frustration.
In the endless cycle of backlash, it’s hard to believe that our rage can make a difference. It feels futile and I think that’s the point – forces of culture that resist change, want to belittle us, to mock our protests, a say that our efforts amount to nothing, and nothing we can do will make a difference. But that isn’t true. The protests of 2017 mattered. Our voices and our rage matter. Before there was Jezebel, there was Ms. (which still exists); there was Bust, Bitch, and Sassy. And after Jezebel there will be others. We just have to make them.
As Susan Faludi wrote, “The anti-feminism backlash has been set off not by women's achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finishing line.”
Backlash rears its head because our efforts are effective.
Right now, in America, outrage and protests against the killing of civilians in Gaza are slowly, painfully shifting the Overton window on Middle East policy. Our collective rage over injustice is making us take action — to pick up the phones, to once again fill the streets. And it makes a difference.
I don’t know where our anger goes after this, but I know we can’t go back to where we were. We have to keep moving forward, especially when it feels like we are going backwards.
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And if you want to read a book about an angry woman, you can pre-order my forthcoming book This American Ex-Wife.