Published on August 4th, 2016 | by Meg Lemke2
SHE’S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE’S ANGRY: An Interview with Filmmaker MARY DORE
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a historical documentary about the founding years and figures of the feminist movement (with such an excellent title). The Village Voice named it “one of the year’s best films,” on its 2014 release—but I first heard about the film recently, as I often come now to the pieces of culture that move me most, via recommendation within a ranging and emotional discussion with another mother (in fact a MUTHA contributor). We were talking about, among other things, how hard it feels to envision ambitious creative goals while child-rearing. How hard it is to stay inspired. “You know who you should talk to?” She said. “Mary Dore is a mother in the neighborhood, and she spent twenty years making a full-length documentary about the women’s movement—while raising twin boys!”
On International Women’s Day, I caught a screening at Anthology Film Archives (followed by a lively panel moderated by Lizz Winstead). What did I expect? I’m already a feminist; MUTHA is (I hope obviously) a feminist site. So, I didn’t come to be convinced of the merits of the movement, but hoping to fill in my education—and admittedly with a critical eye towards founding feminism’s perceived myopia around issues of class and race. For me, the film proved a reminder of all that is left out in headline-summary of political history. As Dore told me, “It was important for me to deal with the contradictions that can’t be easily resolved… I tried to be honest about problems within the movement—if you don’t discuss the racism issues, for example, you’re just doing PR work.”
I felt empowered, hearing first-hand from passionate women about their own history. The film’s extensively researched original footage is richly textured, diverse stories embedded in the context of a shot—children in protestors’ arms, humor in the fashion and playfulness of some protest actions (see: witch’s hats). The filmmakers consciously made efforts to be inclusive in their telling of “feminism’s intertwining strands,” following women of color and lesbian activists whose work was intersecting or in parallel, and at least one (male) reviewer complained this didn’t leave an easy central “protagonist” to focus on. Yes, theatrical narrative loves a hero/ine, but the truth of history is that collective efforts are needed to change our culture. As the Globe and Mail put it, the “documentary is powerful proof that the past is prologue…. not only a tribute to past bravery and determination, but also a warning and urgent rallying cry to the next wave.” And Mary Dore was surrounded by rallied women after that screening—I barely pushed in to introduce myself. But later, she welcomed me into her warehouse studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. We had a lot to talk about; here’s just a little of what I recorded.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is now available not just for purchase (with an hour of extras) but streaming on Netflix—check out the trailer below, queue it up on your list, and then share your own response in the comments. – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: When did you start She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry?
MARY DORE: It was 24 years ago—in the early ’90s—before I got pregnant with my kids. I was working for PBS and I got laid off overnight, which happens in television. I had a revelatory moment: now I had the time to make this film.
I had in fact pitched the idea to my boss, telling her how important the women’s movement had been to history and to me personally, and she completely shot me down—which goes to show you, it’s not just men that shoot you down on politics. I started writing grants, and I had good credentials, and for once in my life had connections to the big liberal funding organizations via my work at PBS…. and one by one they turned me down (also all women, I might add). It’s passé, it’s been done, no one’s interested in this anymore, it’s going to be “too white,”—the stereotypes about the women’s movement that had solidified at a certain point. So I worked on it on my own, sporadically, over that first decade.
Eventually, with my producing partner, Nancy Kennedy, we made a sexy trailer—we interviewed the first four featured people in the film. It was a great trailer. And still nobody gave us money.
The break finally happened in 2010, from a donor. I knew then that I could take a vow of poverty and with the initial grant I’d be able to finesse the rest; write letters that say “we just got a great grant!” That’s what worked. No one wants to be first.
MUTHA: Why did you want to make this film?
MARY DORE: Because I was in the women’s movement, though later than the women portrayed in the film. I was younger, and a follower, not a leader. But it affected my life enormously. I got my first job through the women’s movement. I apprenticed at a film collective in Boston, which is a great way to learn—by doing. And it was all guys and me and I had to make clear, no, I wasn’t the girlfriend. If they were going on a shoot, I was going on a shoot. I had to be pushy. At the same time, I was in my first women’s group—studying Our Bodies, Ourselves, and our goal was to set up a women’s health clinic—which happened! That was all revelatory to me. My original copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves has a cameo in the film, it still has all my co-conspirators phone numbers on the inside page.
My first real, seriously paid, job in film was on a PBS weekly series about women’s issues in Maine. They had no women working on it and they had a Title IX grant—so that’s why I got hired! While there, I joined a support network that was working with battered women. Every element was eye-opening for me. As I received training at the shelter, I realized how, like many women, I didn’t understand and looked down on women who had stayed with an abusive man. I had so much to learn about the differences in people’s situations, about cycles and generations of abuse.
Some things innate to feminism were no-brainers to me. I had grown up in a matriarchal family, with a grandmother who was the boss of the world. I grew up in a working class family. Women had always worked in my family so the assumption that I would work came naturally to me. But in issues related to sexuality, looking at other women critically, I had much to learn. For example, I remember first seeing the pamphlet “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm”. That was terrifying to me. I opened it up, but maybe not the first day! Issues around beauty standards were real—like, were you going to shave your legs? When I talk about it now, it sounds so trivial. And yet, at the time, for me, it was profound…
To get back to your question: I’d made historical docs, and I just didn’t understand why there wasn’t a major film on the women’s movement—an equivalent to Word is Out, which was the first gigantic film on the gay rights movement. The more rejections I got from different foundations, who should have funded us, the more pissed off I got.
MUTHA: How did your politics change over time, as you researched and made the film?
MARY DORE: Well, I’m older—my politics don’t change that much from day to day. I’ve called myself a feminist and been active in feminist affairs for a long time. So I’ve worked through issues already—in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, there were always these internecine-fights. It would feel like “ecstasy, I’ve found my home!” and then people would come in and try to co-opt it. In making the film, I wouldn’t say my feminism changed, but I did learn a lot about the generational divide. I met many older feminists in my research who were ticked off about young women, and how they “take everything for granted.” Where’s the activism?” I would tell them, I know many young feminists and there is activism, but it’s mostly online so it isn’t as visible.
That was when I started the film, and things were pretty bad—it was the era of the rise of “feminazi” as a term—I knew the “f” word was held in disregard—it wasn’t cool. The change, when I completed the film between 2010 and 2014, was big—not just the Lena Dunhams and Beyoncés were talking about feminism, but a bunch of people, online and off. I also ran into some younger feminists who were abrasively critical of the second wave, who,considered it racist, homophobic, bourgeois. I knew that wasn’t true; so many of the founders of the 1960’s women’s movement had been active in the Civil Rights movement, too.
MUTHA: You’ve mentioned the term “white feminism” as a derogatory—my reading of the term is it’s reflecting the accuracy of the dominant race of the movement in that period. The use of that term could be about trying to identify and and hold consciousness about one’s race and privilege.
MARY DORE: Maybe different people mean something completely different. But it often comes across as implying that “the second wave was totally racist.” Part of my goal in the film is to show that the women’s movement was more variegated, in so many ways, not just racially. There were many groups of Black women getting together, but they weren’t necessarily as famous. We feature in the film, for example, Fran Beal, who started the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Group in 1968, and wrote the important pamphlet “Double Jeopardy: To be Black and Female.” Many major Black feminist groups arose after the scope of the film—which only covers 1966-1971, the early formation years. It was a lot to tell in those few years. Later on, we also would have gotten into the ERA, which would be a three-hour movie in its own right.
Amy Kesselman, a historian, has described feminism’s intertwining strands. These groups weren’t always working together, but they were working together some of the time; lesbians worked with straight women, Black women worked with white women, NOW worked with radical feminists, when they shared common goals. What most people don’t understand, and I touched on in the film—and wish I had highlighted more—is that the women’s movement and Black Power were emerging at the same time. White people were told, organize your own people—we need to be focused on Black leadership. Which makes perfect sense—like with Black Lives Matter, you don’t want mostly white people in the group. There were white women in SNCC, and other similar civil rights organizations, and many of them were devastated to leave their groups in the late ’60s. They literally said: go organize your own, while we organize our own. Those were different cultural times. About half the white women in my film also worked in civil rights; they were very conscious of race. Even if a feminist newspaper was run by mostly white women, which I’m sure was typically the case, there was a continuing focus on Black issues and perspectives. But, where white feminists did make a mistake was this notion of “we are all together, we are all one.” My point of view is that perspective arose out of a kind of idealism, but it was totally unrealistic. People of different backgrounds—race, income—will have different priorities.
It was so revolutionary for women to love one another, to value relationships with women, particularly for the ones who were older at the time, like Alix Kates Shulman. In the 1950-60’s friendship with other women was discouraged, women were considered rivals—the focus was on getting married as fast as you could, so you could hold your head up. There was a thrilling moment where everyone in the women’s movement felt: We all have the same issues. And that was short-sighted, or shall we say myopic. It was a mistake, and minimized the differences of race and class. It ticked off a lot of people.
MUTHA: You are a parent as well as a filmmaker and feminist. I’m fascinated that you started the film and then became the mother—of twins!—who grew up while you were completing this documentary.
MARY DORE: Well, I didn’t expect to have twins! Twins were thrust upon me. What can I say? I’d been trying to get pregnant for a long time. I was never extremely realistic about any element in my life when it came to supporting myself. I just knew I could. But when it came to kids, it was a punch to the stomach: you are poor now, you have no money! I stayed away from work for about nine months: we were in a car accident when the kids were five months old (they were fine, but my husband’s arm was shattered); one of my kids had a kidney defect and needed surgery when he was a year old… we went through the mill.
MUTHA: Did your experience as a parent influence you?
MARY DORE: I grew up in a matriarchy, with two sisters—it was a girl’s club. It was a shock to have boys. With twins, I thought, one of them at least should have been a girl! Though, I knew before they were born. I was 40 when I got pregnant—I had so many tests it was nauseating. Plus the horrible one where found out my one son would need surgery. The doctors—they were such assholes, it was like the scene from the Our Bodies, Our Selves section of the film [where a woman talks about the male doctor congratulating himself on what a good job he’d done when she gave birth].
But my sons helped me with my gender bias. Raising boys, I saw the biases against them as little kids. When my kids went to preschool, the girls were so much more together and mature and they’d say “Chaarrlie—you can’t run down the stairs!” In their public elementary school, teachers, especially the younger ones, would coo and hold the girls in their laps, comb their hair. If the boys misbehaved at all, it was much harsher.
MUTHA: The film shows that universal childcare—federally supported, not private-—and reproductive rights are together the unifying issues of founding feminism, bringing together political strands.
MARY DORE: Twenty-four hour childcare. They thought big, which I found so impressive. That call did not succeed, but the stereotype that feminists at that period did not care about children, only about getting careers, became a lasting trope. As you can see in the film footage, it’s absolutely not true, on any level.
MUTHA: The cost of childcare still clearly affects the ability of people to work, and to work as activists, unless you find a flexible role that allows you to have your children with you. It’s an issue within feminism today, certainly.
MARY DORE: It should be: it’s essential. Things have changed enormously since the early ’60s. I could not have had my career as a filmmaker if my husband had not been flexible in his career, been able to get the kids when I needed, been a stay at home dad at different points (he’s a writer). Whenever I talk to people about the film world, I’ll say—if you don’t have a supportive partner, who gets it, you can’t have kids. It’s one or the other. Or, if you’re going to do it alone, find someone else to back you up, with time or money. You need a plan.
MUTHA: Or with family support. I’m always suspicious of statements that you can’t undertake an artistic career and parenthood…
MARY DORE: That’s not what I’m saying—I’m saying be careful who you choose. Otherwise, you are going to have a tough time. Any person who doesn’t want to help take care of your kids, shouldn’t have kids—why would you want to be with a person who thinks “it’s all your job,” that doesn’t make sense to me!
MUTHA: What can feminist mothers starting out teach their daughters and sons, for the next generation?
MARY DORE: I think your generation is better about this, but I have a friend who never let her husband even bathe the baby—she was so nervous, and he was so nervous. My husband has done everything I’ve done from the get-go; we both didn’t sleep. Sometimes women have the sense that they can do it better or they care more, and that isn’t helpful—I think you should make it as equal as possible. Though, my husband is a much better cook than I am, we suffer less if he cooks the most. And I do the bills; we split it up. The example you set is so important—not only because of ideology, but because it’s more practical.
MUTHA: So, feminism is about supporting choice; whether reproductive rights or the choice to have children.
MARY DORE: That’s what Denise Oliver says in the film. Reproductive freedom is about intertwining issues. People want to have kids at different times in their life, and you have to support them. But as Oliver brought in to discussion, there are class issues. Reproductive rights is also about being able to feed and house your children. That’s what makes me so crazy about conservatives who are against reproductive rights but are also the first to cut food stamps. The appalling hypocrisy.
MUTHA: You also included a scene of women protesting the FDA clearing the pill. At MUTHA, I’m sensitive in editing writing we might publish on issues around hormonal/systemic birth control, because I don’t want to ever appear anti-choice.
MARY DORE: What they were primarily protesting was not the FDA, but the proceeding of the congressional hearing. On their own, these women sent out 5,000 questionnaires across the country, asking about side-effects. The point was not that they were against birth control, but that women were taking it in ignorance. Then to add insult to injury, they have this congressional hearing with no women, no consumers—just doctors and drug company representatives. Like with the creation of Our Bodies, Our Selves, I was so impressed by how women were taking on their own research—doing it themselves.
How someone responds to medication is unique. I had no serious issues taking infertility drugs; when a close friend was taking the same drug at the same time, she had a terrible experience—it was like her head was spinning around. When I was taking the pill as a young women, after a couple years I began throwing up—all night long—on the first day I took it, every month. And I told my (male) doctor that this was a problem, and he said “Well, it’s only one night out of the month.” Fuck you!
It was important for me to deal with the contradictions that can’t be easily resolved. It’s all complicated—and I wanted to reflect that about all aspects, not just reproductive rights, but race/class, it’s not simplistic. That’s also why I tried to be honest about problems within the movement—if you don’t discuss the racism issues, for example, you’re just doing PR work.
MUTHA: What do you see as the current challenges facing the feminist movement?
MARY DORE: The age-gap is still tough, but it’s getting better. Some younger feminists see the second wave as a failure on many levels. At one screening a young woman was very harsh on the early women’s movement and an older feminist stood up, so upset, to respond, “How dare you? We broke all these rules! We didn’t do everything perfectly, but how dare you treat us with no respect?” I think there is a misogyny so ingrained that it happens for younger women against older women and vice versa, against each other. The women’s movement is awfully critical of itself.
But I think the gap is healing, I see that happening. And I don’t mean to make it simplistic; there have been many movements, not just “second or third wave.”
The challenges to reproductive rights are serious. It’s happening in Florida, it’s not just in Texas, it’s all over. And it impacts disproportionately women in lower-socio-economic situations, who have fewer choices–it’s a class war as well as a war against women. Ninety-seven percent of what Planned Parenthood clinics do is healthcare, so closing a clinic is saying “We’d rather have no healthcare available than the 3% who would need an abortion.” Even with the recent Supreme Court case getting rid of the “Trap Laws” in TX, there’s determined and well-funded anti-choice groups, and they’re not quitting.
I see ugly stuff happening with harassment of women online. And I just came back from India, where the ugliness is more visible—honor killings, unwanted wives get acid thrown in their face. Middle and upper class Indian women spoke about trying to start businesses and not being supported by other women in their community, or their families. They were judged horrifically for even wanting that level of independence. I never thought the film would show internationally, and then they really responded to it on many levels, there were many of the same issues even with great differences, they connected.
MUTHA: Speaking to the age gap issue: I wasn’t there, but I wonder if the person at the screening who first stood up, though, felt that they had been disrespected, that they had been harmed in some way. Feminism gave birth to the freedom and ability of women to critique people in power. And younger feminists, particularly women of color—they are speaking up now to the older, white feminists who are in positions of power.
MARY DORE: But they don’t have all the power, by any stretch. Of course there are large feminist organizations that have name recognition, and funding, but most of them are very active on race and income issues. Did you know that the YWCA now has a slogan, “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women”? It’s more of an issue with what can be called corporate feminism. And yes, there are some who have big names, from the older generations.
MUTHA: Who do wield the power to create and shape a narrative…
MARY DORE: Yes, that’s true. But who has been more influential of late than the women who founded Black Lives Matter? I still believe that social change comes from the bottom up. That’s why the film is primarily about the early organizers, not the most famous people.
How to Set up a Viewing Party of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
- Pick a venue: your living room? Your local community center? Your university’s women’s studies class? Your high school cafeteria? Your independent film forum? A café’s back wall? We’ve had screenings at churches, and women’s prisons. Any gathering place can work, as long as it’s dark enough to see the film, and there’s decent audio speakers.
- Pick a day: International Women’s Day? Mother’s Day? Or send a doodle poll around to your closest feminist friends and encourage them to bring a guest who wants to be educated. Any day is fine – there’s always a historical tie in to choose. One of our favorite ideas is to invite mother/father/kids/ grandparents, to discuss the film. Lots of families came to see it in theaters, and it’s generally fine for anyone age 10 and up, though they should have some awareness of what abortion means. Or be ready to answer questions!
- Pick up the film: Many public libraries and universities have copies of the film, and you can show these at home or a limited space. And if your local branch doesn’t have it—ask them to buy it from Cinema Guild! Or, you can also screen it at home via Netflix and other online sources, or buy a home DVD. (What is not legal is setting up a larger public screening without authorization, especially a benefit or one that charges for tickets. That goes through us, and we charge a screening fee. Reach us at: email@example.com and we’ll help you out).
- Gather resources: What do you want to talk about before and after the screening? You could discuss the film, or decide to have an impromptu “conscience-raising meeting” discussing your own lives. You might know someone who is an activist now that you could invite to speak, and great if you can find younger and older feminists. In many areas there’s a local issue that’s being debated, from Planned Parenthood closings and rape cases, to other that affect everyone, like issues with school closings or bad water supplies. My view of feminist activism is very broad. And there’s a list of useful history books on our website.
- Make time to talk and time to ACT: Even if it’s just you and a friend, be sure to pause after the viewing and unpack your emotions and political take-away from the film. And plan—what can you do to take up the inspiration of the film?