Indian cinema is the world’s largest film industry in terms of film production – you’ve probably heard of Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi-language film industry and Indian cinema’s largest film producer.
Bollywood, screened worldwide, with its colourful musical sets, expensive aesthetics and elaborate dramatic plots, is often considered an ambassador of Indian culture, usually generalised to stand in for ‘South Asian’ culture as a whole. Unintended or not, Hindi cinema contributes significantly to how South Asian women are perceived, a problem when women are cast in limited and reductive roles. So how is contemporary Hindi cinema scripting women?
Director: Have you read the script? This is the hero’s fight scene. You are the heroine… You just have to be the victim… the damsel in distress… That is the test of your acting.
Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)
Historically, Bollywood idealised women as self-sacrificing mothers, wives, and daughters, cast them as victims, and hyper-sexualised them as objects of the male gaze and as the popular ‘item girl’. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) is considered a classic of Indian cinema: an epic following the piteous trials of a poverty-stricken mother who, through the ultimate act of maternal sacrifice, becomes a pinnacle of morality and Indian womanhood. Women’s roles are overwhelmingly scripted in relation to men: they are wives, mothers, daughters, romantic interests, and victims of sexual violence. The Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media found that only 25% of 493 characters in popular Indian films were women. In 77% of mainstream films screened between 2012 and 2016, women completed a romantic function. Yet, there is a slow increase of women-centric films in which women are not simply plot tropes. In 2018, Veere De Wedding presented us with a female buddy movie about modern relationships, Helicopter Eela charted a single mother’s relationship with her teen son, Patakha explored two rural sisters’ tumultuous relationship, Hichki introduced an aspiring teacher with Tourette’s syndrome, Raazi drew on the true account of an Indian spy, and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a historical biopic of an anti-colonialist warrior queen, is due to be released in early 2019.
Of course, it’s not enough to count the number of women-led films if we aren’t scrutinising their characterisation. Where is women’s anger in all of this? Are women allowed to be angry? The 1980s saw the rise of the ‘avenging woman’ genre in Bollywood, which counteracted the stereotype of female passivity, and envisioned women as avenging agents appropriating violence to deliver justice for themselves. Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), Pratighaat (1987), and Zakmi Aurat (1988) are famous examples. Yet, the whole genre turned on the rape-revenge trope. Films like Insaaf, whilst progressive, reinforced victim-blaming scripts of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victim, and the film industry seized on the opportunity to screen graphic rape scenes to draw in viewers. The avenging woman genre imagined a world where female rage was given agency, yet it was a world where women becamepowerful because of their violent initiation into victimhood. The unsettling message: women can only be angry if they have been subject to extreme brutal violence, and only after they have tried and been failed by the legal system.
The past few years has seen the rise of films centring ‘strong’ female leads who often use their anger, aggression and violence to overcome adversary. Soojit Sircar’s Pink (2016) is a notable example, demanding a national conversation on consent and victim-blaming rhetoric. Minal, the main female lead, acts in self-defense against her would-be rapist by smashing a bottle on his head. She is championed in court: by showing women’s success within the legal system, Pink makes space forwomen’s anger. Avinash Dash’s indie production, Anarkali of Arrah (2017), similarly champions a village performer, assaulted on stage by a powerful politician, who responds by slapping him, and with further verbal aggression when he attempts to ‘buy’ her. Her eventual success in getting justice once again legitimises her rage and rejection of the passive role of the ‘good’ victim. The popularity of biopics like Mary Kom (2014) and Dangal (2016), which look at the lives of an Olympic boxer and two world-class wrestlers respectively, suggest a move away from the idea of violence, aggression and physical strength as exclusively masculine traits. Films like Mardaani (2014), which centres a female cop busting a sex trafficking ring, NH10 (2015), a suspense thriller in which a couple get caught in rural violence, and Akira (2016), where a college student takes on four corrupt police officers, all build up to violent acts by the lead women, acts which are championed by the storyline. Any other conclusion would be robbing the women, and the viewers, of narrative closure. Granted, violence and rage in films like Mardaani, NH10, and Akira are characteristic of crime thrillers and action dramas, when we consider all of these films inter-textually, we see a heightened interest in envisioning women’s rage: what it might look like, how it may be utilised, and what transformative effect, good or bad, it may have.
Of course, in a billion-dollar film industry, if the Strong Woman becomes a best-selling, profitable trope, it’s hardly surprising that films increasingly capitalise on the trend. Based on all-time box office revenues, Dangal was the highest grossing ($340 million) Bollywood movie worldwide. Notably, films such as Dangal and Pink ultimately valorise their male leads, who emerge as the key agents in empowering women and delivering justice to them. Bollywood is still slow to embrace women as their lead ‘heroes’. Independent Hindi films, in contrast, have always taken more risks, and in films like Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), we find a nuanced exploration of women’s rage.
This is Kali, the angriest Indian goddess… Durga takes her most ferocious form to annihilate all evil so a new world order can be formed … Each of us has a Kali inside.
Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)
Set in Goa, Angry follows a group of women as they celebrate the upcoming nuptials of two of their members, Freida and Nargis. Whilst tackling sexual harassment, Angry offers a positive portrayal of women’s sexuality and pleasure, casting them as active, conscious agents rather than hyper-sexualised tropes. The film opens with a humorous montage of each character’s anger at everyday harassment and structural misogyny. Frieda, the photographer, frustrated at having to shoot a misogynoir-promoting advert for a skin-lightening product, tears up her cheque. Pam, the middle-class housewife leered at during a gym session, drops weights on her harassers. Mad, an aspiring indie musician, told to play an ‘item song’, is shown aggressively stamping off the stage towards her male hecklers. Su, owner of a mining company, in a tense boardroom scene, challenges stereotypes of mothers as incapable of being ruthless. Laxmi, Frieda’s maid and companion, catcalled on her way home, gives the perpetrator a dose of his own medicine, grabbing him by the balls. Joanna, an aspiring Bollywood actress, tasked with playing the damsel-in-distress slips out of her script and challenges the director, throwing out all the fake padding on her breasts and hips, yelling that he, and the rest of the Bollywood industry, have ‘no idea about women!’ Through this meta-fictive parody, Angry signals its challenging and rewriting of cultural scripts which regulate how a woman should behave.
The film takes a darker turn when the main characters encounter a group of men, the Lal Topi Gang, known to harass women. The film reaches its dramatic climax when Joanna is found brutally gang-raped and murdered by the Gang. When the police arrive, the women are confronted with a justice system more invested in asking derogatory questions about their clothes, drinking, and smoking, Joanna’s career as an actress, and Freida and Nargis’ ‘unnatural’ relationship, than they are in delivering any justice. Faced with this victim-blaming discourse, the grief-stricken women, filled with rage, are propelled to take matters into their own hands.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Angry is how it simultaneously legitimises women’s rage and envisions a collective social conscience and responsibility as an alternative means of seeking justice. The climactic scene is dark and filmed with shaky angles, mimicking the women’s adrenalin-filled rage: who pulls the trigger when they shoot the members of the Gang, and who stops whom, becomes somewhat blurred. The following day, the policemen interrupt Joanna’s funeral, demanding that the perpetrators own up to their crime. The women, defiant and unapologetic, stand in admission. Then, something remarkable happens. The members of the congregation, in the presence of Joanna’s body, a visible reminder of violent misogyny and the deeply flawed justice system, all stand up one by one. Faced with this declaration of collective culpability – a complete rejection of state authority and an indictment of its inability to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence – the police can do nothing. Angry leaves us with a utopic vision of what happens when women’s rage, and a community’s collective anger and social conscience, finds expression and is utilised to combat misogynistic, violent social structures.
Whilst Angry, like the 1980s avenging woman genre, validates women’s rage after a vicious act of sexual violence, it counteracts the idea that anger can only be legitimised within that context. Throughout the film, the women refuse conventional ideas of victimhood in their professional and personal lives and articulate anger for a variety of reasons. When they discuss vengeful Hindu goddess, Kali, the message is: ‘Each one of us has a Kali inside us.’ Anger is presented as being an emotion, and a resource, we can all tap into. Angry thus presents anger, and violence, as an essential aspect of women’s existence, and challenges the gendering of rage as masculine, the eroticisation of women’s passivity and the sanitisation of women’s behaviour.
Angry’sunflinching portrayal of women’s anger is relevant particularly in recent discussions around India’s #metoo movement: whose voice and whose anger is legitimised and heard, particularly in a caste-based society? Indian feminism has historically privileged upper-caste women’s concerns and issues, often at the expense, and erasure of, lower-caste women. Most of the Hindi films cited in this essay, including Angry, centralise urban, middle class, and upper-caste characters. Angry does make space for Laxmi, the lower-caste maid, to violently express her rage and grief: witness to her brother’s murder, yet having his case pending for eight years, Laxmi takes a cricket bat and smashes his murderer’s bar, aggressively threatening him, and secretly acquires a gun. Through Laxmi, we see the complexity of anger: it is justified, destructive, powerful and powerless at the same time. At the end of the narrative, she chooses to let go of the anger which has consumed her life. Laxmi’s rage is a fitting response to the legal system which specifically fails lower-caste communities; however, the film also highlights that anger is not always the right solution for the individual.
Significantly, Angry chooses Joanna, a half-Indian, British national as the figure around whom the community and national media rally. The police comment that there will be heightened media attention because of Joanna’s British citizenship: a subtle but flaying indictment of how national and international outrage is limited to the ‘right’ kind of victim, and those who fall outside that category (lower-caste women, rural women, trans women, marginalised ethnic communities, sex workers, and non-binary and gender fluid people) do not qualify for the same large-scale, collective response. Angry, in conversation with other contemporary films legitimising women’s anger,can be seen as a call-to-arms. Coming in the wake of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Pandey in 2012, which led to international outcry and public protest demanding changes in the laws governing sexual violence, Angry is an inspiring manifesto for unity and the power of women’s rage. We must push our reading further: whilst the final shot shows the community rallying for Joanna, our anger and outrage cannot be confined to high-profile cases of sexual harassment only. If, as the films suggest, we choose to embrace anger as a tool to combat social injustice, fight for democratic rights, and challenge flawed state structures, it must be inclusionary to achieve its full potential.
 Published in 2014, the study looked at popular films across 11 countries. Figures are rounded. https://seejane.org/symposiums-on-gender-in-media/gender-bias-without-borders
 The Irresistible & Oppressive Gaze: A Survey Report by Oxfam India. https://www.oxfamindia.org/irresistible-oppressive-gazeisurvey-report-oxfam-india
 As of June 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/282411/bollywood-highest-grossing-movies-worldwide
It starts from my center, white-hot behind my ribcage, a supernova replacing my heart. It runs through my veins, fills my fingertips with fire, boils over and spews from my mouth with the savage strength of an atomic bomb explosion levelling everything before me. My vision dims, and the pulsating thrum of my blood running molten is so loud I can’t hear myself think. I am a feral wildling, bestial and brute, at the mercy of my rage run rampant until I eventually fall limp, spent and exhausted by the sheer ferocity of myself.
In the weary lethargy of recovery, I imagine the way my anger looks before it explodes out of me. It is twined tightly around the double helices of my DNA, broken glass shards glittering, embedded deeply as the needle-points of foxtails. It cannot be pried out with a scalpel. My anger is impassive, a cold and calculating causal antecedent of epigenetics passed down through generations. It was a gift from my mother, passed down from her father, passed down from his mother. It was a benefaction that would have been better left abandoned generations back.
There were good reasons for the anger: the marital pact that made my great-grandmother into a slave, so far from a beloved wife. The childhood abuse inflicted by someone my grandfather trusted. The way my mother’s childhood was darkened by her father’s addiction and alcoholism, because that’s what secrets writhe and twist into when left unshared. My mom has done—is doing—her damndest to outrun the promise of those genetics: by escaping to the other side of the country, by interrogating its existence in therapy, by looking it in the eye and not backing down. In many ways she has succeeded, she continues to succeed. But sometimes, especially when I was a teenager—when she felt frightened, backed against a wall, left with only bared teeth and claws for protection—the anger coiled at the base of her spine reared its head and hissed at me, her eldest child, in warning.
(I suspect that even if she had somehow been able to remain passive through the entirety of my childhood, a near impossibility with a headstrong child like me, I would have come into it regardless. My anger, after all, is my promised birthright, and you cannot run away from the blood pumping through your veins.)
At first, the anger was merely a flash, a starshine burst streaking across the sky before disappearing. What did I have to really be angry about at thirteen? But as I got older, life’s cruelties and complications stoked the fires of my rage. My body began to ache, my spine twisted and curling into itself for reasons no doctors could explain. Before I graduated high school, I gave my heart to men who betrayed me, who left me to handle STIs and abortions alone. Before I graduated college, I married a man who punished me for every single thing he hated about himself, using his words and his hands to illustrate his loathing. I met his fury with my own silver-steel, and our anger clashed like blades in a sword fight.
After years, I finally escaped him and floundered, searching for meaning in my work as a mortician—my dream career as a child, a place where I could make sense out of the pain of others while ignoring my own. I struggled to understand why there was so much hurt in my life, and when I couldn’t find answers I simply simmered in the familiar warmth of my own anger. At least that was something I could understand—unlike my spine, which still stymied me and every doctor I saw. Then my jaw began to dislocate, and not even the cold calculations of a surgical suite could realign my teeth into orderly rows like headstones. My left foot followed, a forest fire burning up my shin when I stood straight and tall for funeral services. They twisted two screws into my ankle, but still my bones escaped. Eventually, finally, someone gave a name to my agony and diagnosed me with an incurable, rare degenerative disease; that was only a relief until my diagnosis stole away my deathcare work and my fertility and my ability to heal even the smallest of wounds. Eventually, someone with letters abbreviated at the end of their name added PTSD to my chart.
(How do you carefully paraphrase the traumas of your life? Stack them up and count them like laundry quarters, tarnished and dulled instead of silver-shiny and new? How cut and dry they sound, written down on paper, carefully constructed around proper syntax and the right punctuation.)
I was not yet in my third decade, yet my life had already offered a litany of inescapable hurts. There were good reasons for my anger. I’d lived through enough to last lifetimes. It was unfair and overwhelming and exhausting, but mostly it just made me mad. Some days my anger was so great that I worried I would explode and immolate everyone else around me; other days I worried (perhaps, more accurately, I wished) that I would burn myself down instead. I lived and breathed anger because it was what I had been taught, what my mother had known, what her father had imparted. I spewed fire and smoke and frightened everyone around me.
There was never a silver-screen moment where someone forced me to decide on doing and being better before I could move on to something better, too. There was simply the lived reality of recognizing that my life would be what it would be, and so far it had mostly been hard. I could continue waving the torch of familial fury with all the reasons life had granted me to be angry, I could let my anger smolder and scorch until it destroyed me, or I could try to change the cycle.
A conscious shift required understanding what I wanted to transform my anger into, and what I wanted most was whatever was its exact opposite. What was the light to the darkness of my rage? What was the softness to the hardness of my hurt? If anger was the desire to annihilate and decimate, to leave behind only ashes and then to salt and raze even those until nothing green could grow, then kindness must be the diametric opposition to my wrath. Kindness was the desire to build up, to recreate. It was gentleness and sympathy, affection and loving softness. It was careful nurturing and encouragement until you’d coaxed something verdant from the ground and surrounded yourself with lush new growth.
And so I began to focus my anger into sharp, precision-honed kindness. I wielded this sharp kindness like a weapon in the face of a cold world and a brutality-filled life. Before, in moments where I might normally detonate into a frenzied grenade of ire, I channeled my outrage into deliberate softness instead. I tamped down my furor, consolidating it from unfiltered lividity into something more useful. I packed away my anger, carefully folded it and placed it on the highest shelf of my heart, and used every opportunity I could to purposefully choose kindness instead.
This conscious shift put me in a new position of control and granted me a strength that anger never had. Anger had been pure powerlessness, on my knees at the mercy of my own uncontrollable rage. Kindness was a choice, a mastery of regulation that didn’t leave me cursing myself for how I’d ended up hurting others. Being kind meant not having to back down, because no one could point out my kindness as a character flaw or inability to restrain myself. No one could tell me that I’d lost myself in the impotence of my own vexation. Being kind meant pausing, breathing, and focusing. It was (and is) a skill; it requires practice to hone and properly wield, and still, I do not always succeed.
The world remains cruel. My life is still hard, and my body will always betray me. I cannot control other people—the way that they may treat me and the possible indignities of their indifference. But I can always control myself. Choosing to be kind in the face of the world’s cruelties requires a colossal amount of strength, but adjusting the warp and weft of my anger into something calmly beautiful has been life-changing.
My anger is now my kindness, and my kindness is my strength.
It all began with an article I posted on my Filipino Student Association’s Facebook page.
Entitled “My ‘Get Out’ Moment as an Overseas Student,” my essay is about how my first landlady in New Zealand, a white woman, gradually unmasked her racism to me while I was living in her house, beginning slowly but surely with a series of microaggressions that turned into racial slurs and, eventually, into blatantly hostile behavior. A leading news network in Australia ran this short piece, giving me the chance to finally call my landlady out for the way she had treated me during my first month as a new PhD student in the country. By doing this, I sought to render her and other people who have behaved similarly toward new immigrants accountable for their actions. Finally, my voice had been recognized for its value, and though I expected backlash, I was sure that I was helping those who had once been in my position to feel seen and heard.
Having lived in America and New Zealand, I have grown used to being disbelieved and dismissed by white people whenever I speak openly about my experiences of racism. You are making a mountain out of a molehill, I’m often told in so many words. Maid, illegal immigrant, terrorist, mail-order bride. Why is your country so poor and your English so good? I am expected to invalidate my feelings of hurt and to remind myself, repeatedly, that I’m wrong to feel disrespected. I learn to tell myself that these people who offend me mean no harm. I am told that I must give the benefit of the doubt to those who flatten my humanity by reducing me to a stereotype. They are human, even when they casually disregard my humanity. Like many people of color, I learn to give all sorts of excuses to white people when their failure to acknowledge my feelings becomes too overwhelming, and too difficult to fight.
But while I have learned to expect my experiences of racism to be dismissed and belittled in white-dominated communities, I normally don’t expect the same from fellow people of color, who normally go through these same experiences—almost as though these are necessary rituals of initiation into a world where our existence is erased. This is why I was in shock when my article, which described instances of racism that I felt were pretty obvious to those who have unavoidably experienced it, was mocked and misunderstood in my university’s Filipino student association.
The first instance of microaggression that I cited in my essay was when my landlady, on my second day at her house, said to me, “I do not know how it is in your country, but here we open the windows to let in fresh air.” One doesn’t have to be a genius to sense the statement’s racist implications: that the Philippines is a dirty place, that our air is filthy, and that I have likely grown used to keeping my windows closed. A member of the group immediately replied to my post by saying that I had misinterpreted my landlady’s statement: that indeed, in New Zealand, people open the windows to let in fresh air. He also went on to say that if I hadn’t read malice into her statement, I would have avoided all the other “misunderstandings” that followed my misinterpretation. Never mind that I hadn’t complained, or called her “racist” to her face, when she told me this: all her other actions that followed, like checking on my cooking to make sure I wasn’t preparing something that “smelled,” locking my bathroom door so that I couldn’t use the toilet, hiding my food containers from me, blaming me for making her stove make “weird” noises, forcing me to hose down, squeegee, and towel dry my shower stall after every wash before scolding me for “spending too much time in the shower,” or telling me that I was “so domestic” before asking me if I could walk her dog, were the results of this initial misunderstanding on my part, which unleashed her abusive behavior. But I had been offended by what she said, and because of this, according to him, I had somehow brought on the abuse I received, even if I had kept my feelings to myself.
In response, I pointed out to him that I hadn’t misunderstood my landlady’s statement at all. I had clearly understood the message it was meant to convey: it was meant to remind me of my inferiority and to put me in my “proper” place in her household. I added that his remark indicating my hurt feelings had set the tone of her future behavior toward me was a clear case of victim blaming.
No one in the group came to my defense.
A few hours later, another member responded to my comment with a laughing emoji before proceeding to call my essay “a so-called article.” He said that none of the behaviors I had described in my essay were racist or demeaning: to him, my landlady was just enforcing house rules, and that if she hadn’t done and said these things I mentioned in my piece, I would have failed to keep her house tidy and bright. I don’t know how walking her dog, staying silent when my bathroom door was locked or when my food containers were hidden in a coat closet, or “smiling more” for her whenever I cleaned her kitchen had anything to do with keeping her house tidy and bright. His comment made absolutely no sense: it was clearly meant to belittle my hurt and to cast me as hysterical and unjust in my anger.
I am still trying to understand why these young people were so eager to justify my landlady’s behavior, even going as far as saying that she had behaved fairly toward me. It made me wonder about the kind of abuse they were willing to put up with as new immigrants to New Zealand (since many of the group’s members came to the country as teenagers or young adults), if indeed they found her behavior acceptable.
It didn’t help that a female member expressed sympathy at first in response to my essay, before going on to say, “I know Filipinos who experienced the same with fellow Filipinos too, which just goes to show that this kind of behavior isn’t isolated to any particular group. This doesn’t change that New Zealand is a very welcoming place.” She was condoning my landlady’s racism, implying that because I pointed out how racially charged my landlady’s bullying was, I was singling out white people as abusers while disregarding the nonracist abuse taking place within other ethnic groups. (In other words, if others are doing it toward their own kind, then why call it racist?)
This, of course, ignores the fact that racism isn’t merely a direct attack against another race but a set of institutionalized privileges that are given to one or several ethnic groups to dominate and oppress others. To understand how racism operates in white settler societies such as New Zealand, we must recognize the privileges that white people possess as a consequence of European colonialism and the subjugation of non-Europeans. Though many claim colonialism is a thing of the past, its legacy persists: my landlady possessed immense power in our relationship as a result of her white privilege, and because I was new in the country, and a person of color, she exploited her power over me to belittle me, often with racial slurs, and to bully me. This I tried to explain to the girl, who seemed to have no notion of what white privilege was, and whose understanding of racism was flimsy at best. She did not respond, leaving her boyfriend to defend her honor, and her ignorance, on her behalf.
When I reached out to the association’s president, bringing to his attention the abuse I was beginning to receive, he curtly told me that “he’d deal with it later” before falling silent. This baffled me, considering how he often positioned himself—quite aggressively, too—as an “activist” leader in his posts and in meetings. Due to his claims of being enlightened and woke, I assumed he would see the bullying and tone policing for what it was. But a few weeks later, I received an email from the group’s leadership ordering me to unblock the two young men (which I did to protect myself) so that they could comment on my piece again. If we were to take out the phrase “so-called” from one of their comments, the officers of the group said, the comments of these two men were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” In the interest of allowing a free exchange of ideas, according to them, it was not right for me to block these members from airing contrary opinions to mine. Thus, in the interest of free speech, I had to permit those who had told me that my story was illegitimate, and who had resorted to illogicalities and victim-blaming to justify my landlady’s abuse, to exercise their free speech—even as it delegitimized, and therefore took away, my voice. They ended the email by saying, “None of you are completely at fault,” as though to absolve us of a crime we all shared.
I am still at a loss as to how our leaders came to the conclusion that these comments were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” These two young men had obviously not given much thought to their comments, or to the prejudices inherent in them. Is it thoughtful, reasonable, or objective to call my landlady’s request for me to walk her dog “necessary to keep her house clean and bright”? Is one being objective when one consents to or defends what is clearly abuse? Or does “objectivity” mean a refusal to see the power structures inherent in racial abuse in order to humanize the abuser and “balance out one’s judgment” of the situation?
Perhaps these Filipino student leaders truly believe that allowing racism to persist, even when it is leveled against us, is to take an objective view of the situation by ignoring our feelings of hurt—by becoming “unfeeling,” in other words—even when we experience it first-hand. Perhaps these young Filipino leaders see nothing inherently wrong in these unequal relationships, having accepted them as the natural order of things. The comments our leaders called “well-thought out, reasonable, and objective” were accepting, and even protective, of our inferior place in New Zealand society. If I understood them right, what these commenters hoped to say was that we deserve to be treated poorly by white people. If the leaders of our group had no strong objections to what these two young men told me, it appears to me that they, too, have internalized the kind of racism leveled at me by my landlady, to the point that they have accepted her abuse as a fair and reasonable occurrence, enabling it by consenting to the silencing of my voice.
Denying one’s experiences of racism, and tone policing one’s compatriots who choose to speak against it, is a habit Filipinos have developed from over three hundred years of colonization. To survive, we have learned to disregard our anger, to accept our lower place in colonial society, and to make ourselves small and unthreatening to our white masters. It’s a habit that we carry with us when we move to Western countries. We deny our own experiences of discrimination and gaslight ourselves into disbelieving the facts of our oppression in our efforts to be respectable, uncomplaining, and grateful in the eyes of white people. We think that this will help us survive, when it only results in our erasure, in our disempowerment.
But I will not allow myself to be silenced by my own countrymen. I choose to give voice to my anger, to resist erasure.
The first time I remember seeing Audre Lorde’s proclamation that caring for herself was an act of political warfare widely circulate on social media was during the Women’s March of 2017.
That January, millions of women lined city streets in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump. I imagine that their chants were the same I heard standing outside of Trump Towers after the presidential election of 2016, such as the declaration Trump was not my president and the proclamation that love trumps hate.
I say “imagine” because I did not attend that Women’s March (or its sequel in 2018). Instead I watched in awestruck rage as pictures and video clips appeared on social media of white women wearing pink, laden with signs expressing their fury. This is what solidarity looks like, I saw captioned beneath one image, and I resisted the urge to comment with the correction: No. This is what it looks like when white women feel their power threatened.
Many of these women had been silent in the wake of the state-sanctioned murders of Black folks and even critical of Black liberation protests. The centering of vaginas as an indicator of womanhood by march attendees showed a continued lack of interest in the lives of trans people. Nonetheless, solidarity was demanded and expected from those of us with aspects of our identities that were being minimalized, erased, and silenced.
On Twitter, I watched as Lorde’s words reverberated among Black women reminding each other not to feel guilty for not participating in the Women’s March. These were affirmations of the disappointment I felt that while 53 percent of white women voted a white supremacist into the presidency, a decent portion of the other half revealed that they would only show up in defense of their own interests. That day, I learned caring for myself meant embracing my anger.
Since the election of 2016, the market for self-care has grown rapidly. Beneath its hashtag one can find lifestyle brands, witches proposing group hexes on the likes of Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, pictures of matcha lattes, herbal tonics, crystals, tarot cards, and astrology charts (the latter two being my most-used mediums).
As writers Jordan Kisner and Anna North have pointed out, the ideology that investing in one’s wellbeing is political is rooted in Lorde’s A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer. Through diary entries Lorde examines survival within a racist, homophobic, and sexist healthcare system, as well as the importance of finding joy and her commitment to connecting with Black women and people of color around the world.
Much of the growing wellness industry (worth billions) markets products to upper-middle-class white women who stripped Lorde’s quote of its true context and ignored her emphasis on community in favor of prioritizing individual comfort. Following this logic, women are encouraged to focus on what makes them feel good and cut out what and who makes them feel bad—meaning anything that causes discomfort. This offers justification for not confronting the racism, misogyny, and homophobia Lorde was interrogating.
In this binary, emotional experiences can be defined as negative and positive (with anger often falling on the negative end of the spectrum). It is up to the individual person to take accountability for their undesirable feelings, which can be conquered if that person invests enough money in the right tools and practices. However, one does not have to acknowledge the benefits many reap from structural oppressions, because one of the great tricks of capitalism is spotlighting personal responsibility.
Beyond the dominating images of carefree people of privilege associated with #selfcare, I was able to discover communities of people of who, like me, hold an interest in magic and wellness practices yet also recognize the reality of the world we inhabit. Within these circles there is the acceptance that an exclusively positive perspective is unrealistic when honoring the full range of emotions one’s body endures, especially when challenging outdated frameworks. There is discussion around accessibility to self-care products for low-income people. There is no secret to success for marginalized people whose existences are inherently in opposition to systems built on whiteness and cishet normativity.
Yet even in the most progressive spaces, where anger is perceived to be natural and inescapable, it is also understood as a sentiment that one must ultimately move past in healing in order to achieve the ever-elusive inner peace. But what if anger were thought of not as a challenge to care, or even as a byproduct of unfortunate circumstances, but as necessary for growth and change? And what if the tools we purchased to foster feeling good could also hold space for our anger, highlighting the ways in which we could aim it constructively?
Accepting the aggravation I felt over the Women’s March was critical to the welfare of my being, because it allowed me to look more critically at the relationship of power between white women and Black and Brown women. Unpacking the whitewashing of Audre Lorde’s work assisted with diminishing the final remnants still seeded in my mind that I just needed to think more positively to dispel the negative energy that was blocking me from success.
I do not want to evolve past anger. I want to keep it close, as it reminds me of the work that needs to be done. I step into it fully, because anger is not born just out of fear and sadness. It is aligned with joy and love.
I am angry in defense of what I care for, and that includes myself.
The big fat lies we tell ourselves. Think, then vote…
It may seem easy to live in denial, to push away the truth, to tell ourselves the same big fat lies. Women have been doing so for ages. But denial can in the end lead to self sacrifice, to self-annulment, and the realization can be unforgiving for the Self.
Fortunately, after years of silence, women are finally vocalizing their pain and suffering at the hands of men in positions of power, and it is cathartic just to listen to all those voices, let alone open up oneself about me-too.
The now viral me-too movement has not only revealed the pent-up anger that was hiding inside women across the United States, in so doing it has gloriously released the seeds of a new woman — the kind we don’t know well enough yet.
By providing a conduit for many women to express their anger at the injustices served them, the movement has also made women come together, creating a powerful solidarity front that has the potential to change the world.
This brave group of women are shining the light ahead, showing the way for other women. Teenage women are taking note, in particular, and take pride in their older sisters for standing up, vocalizing their pain and telling the truth — a hard and, at times, humiliating thing to do when it involves a violation of intimacy.
Women across the world, too, however, in developing and underdeveloped countries, have been riveted by the me-too movement, many marveling at the unmasking of powerful men who abused their power and employees, and others who still toe the paternalistic line of labeling the movement “political correctness gone mad.” The debate rages, but debate there is at last. Imagine how energizing the debate is, how empowering it is for women who live in areas where men are never questioned about such conduct.
This new generation of women (and some men who have kept an eye on the allegations arising from the cases against Kevin Spacey), who will one day join the workforce, try out in acting auditions, and navigate the snake pit of relationships with those in power, will now come equipped with an arsenal of both precedent and inspiration drawn from those who spoke up, and for the ramifications and vindication that mostly followed.
This new type of woman, mostly found in the United States and the West, is (a) powerful in her solidarity with other sisters, (b) angry, and (c) exhausted, of course. (What woman isn’t from juggling all those roles?) All that pent-up anger she has struggled with is now out in the open, and it has become encoded in the genes of young and old women alike. Yes, women are finally openly angry — they are not afraid to voice their anger. And now those in power have to tread carefully, for the me-too movement is fresh in their memory banks. As a result, it is hoped that women can finally look forward to a more women-friendly workplace that finds sexual harassment intolerable, providing inspiration for the rest of the world to follow suit.
The facts speak for themselves, as this new angry woman is powerful. By all accounts, she will lead the vote in the U.S. midterms in a few days and prove her power. She will have an impact.
It is not just the me-too movement, however, galvanizing women to vote and to run for seats in record numbers. It is also the polarizing case surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh following allegations of sexual misconduct by Dr. Ford and others.
As the midterms near, both sides are fired up, with polls showing that in particular women — Democrats and Republicans — will be voting in large numbers. The outcome will show who is angriest, for if there is one thing about this midterm that stands out, it’s the anger polarizing left versus right. Women are also at odds with each other over these politics, but let’s not lie to one another.
Who is the bully in the room who does not respect family and allows children to be separated from their families at the border? Who is the man caught paying off a call girl? Who has admitted on tape that he likes to touch women, to abuse his power? That they just let him because it’s him? Forget the politics. Look at the decency of a party that still supports an amoral president.
Women are also well aware that there is no silver lining if you lose yourself in the other. The other being the non-you. The polar opposite of you. A man who has no regard for family, for children taken from their parents at the border? Is he not the other? When society — or a powerful man — expects you to bend out of shape to mold yourself to its expectations, whether through marriage or work, or motherhood, or the vote, or whatever, the loss of identity will only deepen.
Your identity cannot be fished out at a later time and still hold its shape. It will have changed. It will be unrecognizable. And though you can fight to shape it back, it will often be at a high cost, an uphill battle, and towing a weight (the present) to boot.