Mary Dore’s seminal documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry uses archival footage and interviews with those involved in the early women’s liberation movement (1966-71) to document the foundations of feminism as we have come to understand it. From the establishment of NOW (National Organisation for Women) to the more radical groups such as the theatrical witches of W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), this is study of the radical women and their revolutionary voices that inspired change.
The documentary establishes a dialogue beyond what the early feminist movement is often understood to have been, featuring discussions on race and sexuality such as the Black Sisters United feminist group and the radical lesbian rights group Lavender Menace. The documentary proves the movement was a diverse power of women from a myriad of paths.
Produced within the framework of America’s current reproductive rights campaigns, it’s disheartening to see placards featuring cries for equal and fair abortion laws being paraded in protest in an exact mirroring of forty years earlier. For some, nothing has changed.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a thrilling and exciting film about the power of women and the strength of union and protest. Their actions inspired changes for women’s right that we can sometimes take for granted but the film featuring the Texas abortion laws brings to light the fact that feminism is an ongoing campaign, and a worthy one. We interviewed director Mary Dore about the film and feminist theory.
What incited you to begin this project?
I’ve made other historical documentaries, and always wondered why no one had made a major film on the early women’s movement. There’s been films, including regional histories, but none that from my perspective represented the breadth of the movement. And when I attempted to get funding, it was rejected by many progressive foundations. No one thought that this was an important subject, which really convinced me that it had to be made. I was in the women’s movement, but I’m a bit younger than the women in the film, so more of a feminist follower, unlike these ground-breaking women.
How has your role as a female director aided (or hindered) the funding, production etc of the film, even within the industry in general?
I don’t know that my gender as a filmmaker has been as detrimental as the subject I chose to depict. It was incredibly hard to get funders to recognize this was an important story, and one that hadn’t been fully told. Considering that there’s hundreds of films about the civil rights era, and the LGBTQ movement, all very worthy subjects, it seemed outrageous that the women’s movement is held in such disregard. However, the film has been very successfully shown in theaters all over the US and Canada, and in many international festivals, so glad I persevered. We had a wonderful theatrical distributor, Wendy Lidell of International Film Circuit who did a fabulous job, and it immediately got picked up by Landmark films, who placed it in their theaters all over the US, very grateful to them!
I just wanted to ask about the title of the film. I’ve read some dismissive reports of how it insinuates another focus on female appearance above action? Could you agree?
NOPE, disagree. The title comes from a late sixties film made by the radical film collective Newsreel, and it showed a women’s street theater performance. When we were looking for footage, we saw the film and immediately loved the title, for it’s furiosity and humor. Of course it’s a play on words for the old cliche “you’re so cute when you’re mad” or similar lines. Yes, a few complaints have come in, some took it very literally and didn’t see the many levels that the title implies. To me, anger is necessary to make social change, period. And beauty is not just external, as you can see in the film, the women fighting for their rights we’re transformed by this movement, and that’s a beautiful thing to see. The women’s movement was an in-your-face movement, and this was not a sentimental film, so we chose a provocative title. Most people love it.
The feminist movement at the moment is a largely social media/image based – tumblr/ instagram- community. How important do you think the concept of aesthetic and beauty has been for the movement from its beginnings till now?
I don’t know whether aesthetics was so important to the early movement, though many of the posters, newsletters, etc were brilliantly designed and extremely clever. There were early artists and collectives who did amazing work, like the Chicago Women’s Graphic Collective, and the artists who published Heresies (a bit later). Unless you mean personal beauty, or beauty standards, they were discussed and debated endlessly. Since so much was achieved by sending out newsletter by mail, it was a totally different culture than we have now. Of course imagery is very important, and with modern feminism it’s very easy to transmit, copy etc.
I’m particularly interested in theories of the female performance so have been interested in the W.I.T.C.H women for some time. To what extent is theatre, characters, the concept of entertainment integral to the feminist movement?
Could you consider protest as a performance?
I think all protest has elements of performance, of course you want people to watch and learn about the issues. And in the early movement, this kind of “rabble-rousing” got a largely unknown movement attention, and press. WITCH is particularly theatrical, but so were protests like invading men-only bars and sit-ins to make a point, like when 200 women invaded the Ladies Home Journal, which had a very old-fashioned point of view on women’s issues. Another part of this is the effect on the “performers” who had to be daring and were usually elated by their protests, so it was transformational for them too.
Your documentary is excellent as it doesn’t shy away from difficult issues such as abortion, especially with the surrounding story of US current abortion campaigns. At what stage did you decide to include the contemporary tie-in and for what particular reason?
There’s been a backlash against women’s rights in the US, particularly reproductive rights, that’s been building for decades. So that was part of the urgency of making the film. I believe history matters, and it doesn’t live in isolation from what’s happening today. There’s a lot of excellent films specifically on abortion and reproductive rights, but wanted to show the cyclical nature of repression. As Virginia Whitehill says in the film “You’re not allowed to retire from women’s issues. You still have to pay attention cause someone is gonna try to yank the rug out from under you. And that’s what’s happening now.”
Do you think there’s been a romanticism of the early feminist movement in its cultural representation?
No, I think the women’s movement has been pretty much denigrated, compared to the way the other movements of the late sixties have been treated. Arguably, this was one of the largest social movements of the past decade, yet it gets little respect. When I started to make the film, the term “feminazi” was better known than thedefinition of feminism. Certainly there have been more sentimental depictions, but overall much of this history has been erased.
Goldsmiths are hosting a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry followed by a Skype Q&A with Mary Dore tonight. More information can be found here.