Burn It Down

Cover of book Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger, edited by Lilly DancygerThere’s been a flood of feminist titles being published in the past couple of years throughout 2018 & 2019, many of which have been fueled by so much anger accumulated over so many years that it has bubbled over and had to find an outlet, be written out and find an audience. A couple titles listed below are quite new (e.g. Burn It Down edited by Lilly Dancyger, Seven Necessary Sins for Girls and Women by Mona Eltahawy), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the floodgates remain open with more and more titles being published over the next year or two at least, but all these books about women’s anger, the reasons behind the anger, what we can do to make things better for this generation and the next – I can’t help but wonder what will come of reading these titles. There’s a part of me that remains cautious while reading through them. I’ve made my way through portions of some of them, and come away feeling incensed and frustrated, but not really feeling quite incendiary or powerful because of being fueled by anger, necessarily. Perhaps that comes at the end.

Although what jumps out most through all these texts is first and foremost the feeling of anger and the recognition of injustice and inequality fueling the emotion, there is also a desire on the part of these authors to not only tear down the flawed system, but also to build something up in its stead. Each of these books might have a slightly different agenda, whether it wants to incense you to be angry (in order to convince you to join the cause); discusses the various ways in which anger can be harnessed to become a political weapon; but all of them have this in common: they’re a call to do something with that anger. To express the anger in constructive ways and help make the world a different – dare I say better? – place not only for the girls and women that will follow, but for everyone. Where it gets a bit dicey, then, is that beyond gender parity as the overarching goal (and even then it’s not clear how exactly the final vision looks), there isn’t much else that tells us what to direct our anger towards the future of. Which is strategic, I’m sure, too, because to make it too strongly of a particular political slant might alienate readers, and obviously we should think for ourselves what to put our anger to use towards… but, as the author of this New York Times article notes with respect to Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad & Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her:

While their positive view of political anger makes sense within the context of social justice movements, I did wish for an accounting of anger that could also take in what’s happening just outside the frame. There is obviously a lot of anger on the right, including among the majority of white women who voted for Trump — a fact that both authors acknowledge without letting it trouble their emphasis on women’s political anger as a specifically progressive force.

People of various persuasions can read these books and use their anger about various injustices that speak to them to justify wildly different causes, which is why I can’t help but be a bit cautious here in grouping together all these fuming, furious books written by women angry about various consequences of the inequality inherent in North American society (because that is what is written about, not because societies elsewhere in the world do not have the same issues).

Let’s start with Burn It Down, edited by Lilly Dancyger (2019), a collection of pieces written by a variety of women about their anger – their experiences of anger. I enjoyed the introduction by Dancyger, which addressed some of the reasons why I’m a bit cautious throwing all this anger together in one list (also see this Quartz article: 2018 is the Year Women Tried to Reclaim Anger But Failed, which discusses some concerns regarding where the anger leads, and how, as Audre Lorde famously put it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”). There are some essays that deal with the ways in which anger has been harnessed by some of the women included in this collection in order to protect them or otherwise fuel them to do what they need to do, but what struck me about a lot of the anger expressed in this volume is that there is an acknowledgement that women have a troubled relationship with anger which seeds are planted at a young age. A few of the writers speak of either knowing or learning from a young age that anger is unacceptable vocalized or expressed in a woman, in a girl, and the ways in which that swallowed anger has turned around and hurt them in various ways through coping mechanisms as a result of the sublimated anger. The first essay was already highly relatable and had me start this essay collection on the right foot for sure: the author speaks of how she doesn’t get angry; she gets sad (a version of the essay is published on the New York Times – I’m actually not sure whether it’s the exact same or if it’s been changed from/to the one in the book). There’s another who talks about her experience of anger as a trans woman after transitioning, and how her career as a lawyer has been impacted – it is infuriating, especially as you make your way through the examples she gives of just some of the aggressions she experiences, but she ends the essay talking about how she is persevering in order to pave the way for trans lawyers to come.

All in all, I devoured this book in a few days and would heartily recommend it, whether just for yourself or as a starting point to think about various issues. I actually think each essay would be a great starting point for a book chat discussion.

I’ll only be briefly covering the rest of the titles, as I haven’t read through them all, and in some cases (noted below) actually stopped reading them. You might think it odd that despite my giving up on the book, I’m still including it in this list, but I’ll explain myself below:

  • In Eloquent Rage (2018), Brittney C. Cooper addresses the intersection between race and sex, being a black woman.
  • Era of Ignition by Amber Tamblyn (2019; Biography & Memoir)
  • Seven Necessary Sins for Girls and Women by Mona Eltahawy (2019) is one of the titles I only made past the intro: in part this was because someone else had a hold on this book, so I figured I’d get it again later, but it was also because the story she relates in the intro made me seriously consider whether or not I wanted to read the rest of her manifesto. This was what gave me pause: that in punching a man out who had groped her at a club while she was with her husband, she felt free & empowered. I’m all for the ideal world where men and women should both be allowed to experience their anger, but reaching for the same unhealthy expression of anger that men currently have more socially accepted access to isn’t my personal idea of what that looks like. However! I am still keeping it on the list because I fully intend on continuing on and reading more about what Eltahawy has to say, because I’m hoping there is more to her relating this story than that. Furthermore, there might still be gems to be gleaned even if we differ on this point.
  • Rage Becomes Her by Soraya L. Chemaly (2018)
  • Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister (2018), author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016), which I unfortunately did not finish but remember wanting to. If you’re interested in reading All the Single Ladies, I would also recommend Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick, though I would’ve enjoyed Spinster more had it been a microhistory of spinsterhood (as it is, Bolick does cover some history, more generally and through five women in history who were spinsters).
  • And a last one, because I wrote a bit more extensively about Trick Mirror: Essays on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (2019) earlier. While Tolentino isn’t explicitly raging most of the time, I’d say it is incredibly relevant, especially in light of reading all of these essays on women and anger. Trick Mirror is also available on Overdrive as e-book and e-audiobook.