It was a foggy day in San Francisco when a friend suggested I tag along to a private screening of a new film by a documentary maker I'd never heard of, Mary Dore. The subject: the birth of modern feminism. I was just exiting jet lag, an old friend was royally pissed at me because I'd screwed up a dinner invitation, and my bank had just blocked my main credit card. What better to do than go watch a movie I supposed would smack me with guilt over all the historic abuses we white men have inflicted on women for the last half century?
Ten minutes into She's Beautiful When She's Angry I was transfixed. Funny, poignant and fast-moving but most of all open-hearted and smart, this visually intense 90 minutes brought back the sounds, scenes and voices that had made it so exciting to be alive during the years of hope, dreams and passion of the 1960s and early 70s. The title itself, which steals the patronizing attitude of frat-boy men toward women of the era, celebrates the real beauty of any collective human action bent on recrafting the shape of history.
She's Beaufiful does tell the story of Betty Friedan's Feminist Mystique, Kate Millett's Sisterhood, the faux-terrorists of WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) who gathered in black robes and pointy hats to issue their "threats." but it also takes us through the campaign for birth control and abortion rights and Angela Davis's challenge of abusive black men. It also reminds us, with jaw-dropping humor of the stupidity of Mitt Romney declaring that Planned Parenthood "had to go" and of the evangelists who argued on the public airwaves that women who have been raped somehow produce a mysterious chemical that prevents conception -- and therefore they have no need of abortion.
As much as the film resurrects the energy of the creative chaos of those decades, it reminds us as well of the internal conflicts that the women's movement let loose: between the mostly male civil rights leadership that saw the mostly white feminists as challenging their authority and diluting their power; of the shock when funny, sexy lesbians like Rita Mae Brown entered the arena talking about the desire that dare not speak its name; and of the battle between the radical separatists and NOW (the National Organization for Women) as sell-outs to conventional, which the Rad Fems saw as milque toast collaborationists with male supremacy.
But at the end, as the credits were rolling, what brought soft tears to well in my eyes, She's Beautiful tells the much larger story of how all our lives have been transformed and reinvented, not merely to bring women into high-tech boardrooms but releasing men to change diapers and bake cookies without shame and to push toddler strollers down the sidewalk without having to apologize. The convulsive, painful, contradictory -- and yet still threatened -- movement to see women as full partners in the human dance has, we too often forget, also enabled those of us with Y chromosomes to re-imagine who we can be as well, which is why Mary Dore's film is much more than a simple documentary.
photo credit: Virginia Blaisdell