Good and Mad

by Rebecca Traister
October 2, 2018 · Simon & Schuster

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, especially books that focus on cultural or sociological analysis and the arduous work of reframing how we talk about and examine people, events, groups, or all of the above. Good and Mad is a wonderful example and I highlighted the absolute crap out of it. I expect the file I sent back to the library was glad to get away from me. I enjoyed it in a cathartic manner because I was able to re-examine things I lived through but was too young or too inexperienced to fully comprehend the whys behind them, and because I was able to recognize the larger pattern hidden in or from history, which is at times both frustrating and soothing (I love patterns. So much). My biggest problem was that the resolution or call to action at the end felt insufficient, though that may be due to my own expectations and experience.

Good and Mad is an analysis of the history of women’s anger and rage, and an examination of how it appears, is suppressed, and eventually evolves into something new but also very familiar. It also examines the forces working against or undermining historical movements, and the flaws and fundamental ignorance in, for example, the work of people who woke up mad on November 9, 2016, but didn’t know or acknowledge the longer history of women’s reactionary rage and the suppression of marginalized voices in each iteration of women’s movements.

Like I said, I highlighted the shit out of this book. If I had to write a TL;DR, it would be something along the lines of, “Women are and have been furious, and that fury can organize to cause massive changes, and then that fury and the women who carry it are suppressed and undermined because they threaten the dominant power structures. White women’s rage is always treated differently than the rage of women in marginalized communities, too. Lather, rinse, repeat, goddammit.”

There are two, I think, dual attractions to this book for me. The history part, and the elucidation of rage and frustration part.

The history part allows for what I think of as a 35,0000-foot view of history as a shifting pattern of rage/revolution then suppression/shame. As Traister writes:

Perhaps the reason that women’s anger is so broadly denigrated—treated as so ugly, so alienating, and so irrational—is because we have known all along that with it came the explosive power to upturn the very systems that have sought to contain it….

[F]emale rage in America has a long and righteous history, one that we have, very pointedly, never been taught.

The book mentions so many women whose work in a pivotal moment or a massive shift-causing movement was essential, but whose names I didn’t know. And it examines how the rage of women and the suppression thereof is a repeating phenomenon in history, almost like a ship tilting left, then right, then left again as it moves forward. To carry that analogy further: history’s waters are never smooth, and the complexity of the currents which cause the rocking back and forth is hard to see beyond the churned surface immediately behind the rudder. This examination of organized anger, what caused it, and what it accomplished moves below the surface to include more of the influences, and highlights a depressing sameness in the problems that undermine and often destroy the forward momentum.

One element of reframing influenced how I saw some murky memories of my own, including how popular culture has portrayed women in my lifetime, and how I was influenced by those portrayals. Looking at movies in the 80s, Traister writes,

Popular culture showed liberated white career women as oversexed monsters, as in Fatal Attraction, or as cold, shoulder-padded harpies who had to be saved via hetero-union or punished via romantic rejection (see Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl).

That was a “holy shit” moment for me. I realized I hadn’t been able to articulate my frustration with those stories, or that I’d partially rewritten them in my own mind to fit a narrative I preferred. The reframing of film and popular culture narratives aligns with my own constant re-examination of the romances I read and critique, the messages they contain, and their varied portrayals of women’s anger. For example, my deep, undying love of Laurenston heroines, especially the Crows, is partially due to the fact that they are often freaking livid about so many things and justifiably so, and have no shame or hesitation in reacting to and being fueled by that rage. This book also made me sit and think a lot about the repeated contemporary romance motif of the heroine in a small all-white tweely-named town who has a dream to Do A Thing Elsewhere. So often, in the end, her drive and determination to Do A Thing Elsewhere and any accompanying anger and frustration at her limitations has been reduced or altogether eliminated by the presence and desire for the hero and the town she suddenly no longer wants to leave.

Then there’s the elucidation of rage, more specifically of how honest, visceral representations of public rage are addressed and suppressed:

Anyone who wants power within a white male power structure has been asked to quell anything that sounds like wrath, to reassure that they come in cooperative peace and are not looking to mete out repercussion against those who have oppressed or subjugated them.

The narrative examines suffrage, the labor movement, the women’s movement,  “#metoo” and the campaign of Hillary Clinton and other women in office, and the pattern remains terribly, exhaustingly familiar and visible once its pointed out. And it is always complicated by kyriarchal oppression.

We are primed to hear the anger of men as stirring, downright American, as our national lullaby, and primed to hear the sound of women demanding freedom as the screech of nails on our national chalkboard. That’s because women’s freedom would in fact circumscribe white male dominion….

…the fact that they have all the power is precisely what permits them to turn every instance of their misbehavior into a referendum on whether the women around them are reacting appropriately.

The ways in which we are taught to deny our anger made me sit up and want to scream – and then I questioned why I didn’t do so:

These women were angry; of course they were angry. But they were conditioned to deny it from the start.

Women yearn for permission, and simultaneously hunger for someone to express any curiosity at all about what they might be feeling. “We get told all the time that our anger is disruptive, that it is a distraction, that it is not helpful, and that in fact it is divisive and moving us backwards,” said Alicia Garza. “Yet nobody ever seems to question: why are you so fucking mad?”

“You are the first person who’s ever asked me explicitly about anger,” said Aditi Juneja, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer and activist who co-created an activism guide called The Resistance Manual in the wake of the 2016 election. “People ask me about self-care, about inclusion; no one ever asks me if I’m pissed off.”

But Juneja said she knows why. “If you ask women if they’re angry, everyone will say no.”

The look at the 2016 election, and how women, especially Hillary Clinton, were described and portrayed prompted a lot of highlighting, too:

There’s perhaps no neater example of how rage is an emotion that is permitted and encouraged in (some) men—and can be used to their advantage—while for women it is forbidden, invalidated, and treated as a path to self-defeat, than the 2016 presidential election.

The elucidation and reframing of rage is also painfully represented in current discussions happening right now about every female presidential candidate who has declared themselves. Reading this book while different individuals announced their candidacy gave me a rather awful feeling of, “Crap. Here we go again. Here comes more of the same.”

Reading this book was sometimes invigorating, and sometimes depleting, but frequently inspiring. Any person’s action or activism joins that individual with a long, incredible history of people who allowed, as my favorite Crows do, their rage to be their guide and the jumpstart to their work. There is a lot to be angry about, and there’s a lot that can be done to fight it, but that work is exhausting and hard. So is the work of recognizing how my own anger has been used against me, how I’ve taught myself to sublimate and transform it (often into dry sarcasm) into something more appealing or tolerable. The work of examining the frames I carry and use on others and on myself is important, and it’s tough.

So, while I recommend this book, I recommend reading it along with a second, newer book. My experience reading both concurrently was serendipitous: I was reading Good and Mad because it was a library borrow with a time limit when I started reading Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle to prepare for a podcast interview with Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Reading Good and Mad can lead to feelings of burnout – at least, it did for me – because the structures of oppression are so pervasive and so difficult to dismantle. Good and Mad made me, well, really fucking angry. Having the tools to, as the Nagoskis describe, “complete the stress cycle” and address that anger in a way that’s honest and healthy and supportive (as opposed to oppressive, reductive, and unhealthy) helped me process both books in a manner I found unforgettable. They’re a great pair. (And yes, I’ll review Burnout when it comes out in late March 2019).

One of the things I try to do when reviewing romance is to give words to the feelings that a book creates, and to codify or create a lexicon for what romance does. Good and Mad gave me language, arguments, history, and perspective into the feelings that being alive and awake in the world can cause, and gave me a better understanding into what more I can do about it.

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