A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.
Why Are We So Afraid of Angry Women?
In the July edition of the Milkfed Criminal Masterminds newsletter, a semi-regular status report from writers Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, DeConnick mentioned a fan interaction that took place at this year’s Heroes Con. Though DeConnick did not go into particulars about the conversation, she did explain that it centered on whether or not her critically acclaimed comic Bitch Planet condones violence. She maintained that the series, being a satire, does not. Nevertheless, the conversation led her to pose a rhetorical question: Why are we so afraid of angry women? And, moreover, why are we so afraid of them when we are not, as a society, equally frightened of angry men?
It’s a question that’s stayed with me through recent readings.
There are different kinds of anger: controlled and chaotic, rational and irrational, righteous and unjust. Regardless of impetus or justification, the ability to express anger is an act of independence, of autonomy, and of will—all things that society has rarely been comfortable with when it comes to women. Evidence of society’s discomfort with female anger litters history, from the vicious and persistent harassment of women who dare to critique the trappings of modern sexism in pop culture, to the witch hunts of seventeenth-century England and America, and all the way back to the implementation of laws designed specifically to police female behavior. So pronounced is this discomfort that it feels almost inescapable, and finding examples of it requires a bare minimum of Internet searching. One need look no further than the double standards presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faces to find it, but other less sensationalized examples abound and always have. Sometimes you find yourself confronting them in places you wouldn’t expect.
I recently picked up a copy of Poltergeists: Fact or Fancy, a deliciously earnest academic treatise by the British baronet, and jack of all (eloquent) trades, Sacheverell Sitwell. I expected to find an interesting, if silly, exploration of one of my favorite brands of supernatural phenomena. What I actually found was a man who couldn’t stop himself from rambling on about the Salem witch trials and who argued for the conflation of ghosts, poltergeists, and witches. For Sitwell, these seemingly disparate cases are linked by the presence of women, who he believes either inadvertently cause or deliberately engage in the troubling antics that have been variously interpreted by outside observers as supernatural phenomenon and/or the practice of witchcraft. In posing his hypothesis, Sitwell effectively lays blame for a variety of social disturbances—both private and public—at the feet of women, who are expected to maintain rather than disrupt the status quo and whose refusal to do so is cast as evidence of a hysteria not found in men.
These comparisons may seem incongruous, and much removed from one another in time, but, in fact, they’re far more closely related than any of us would like to admit.
Scolds, Witches, and Bitches Through the Ages
In an online lecture for a course on historical fiction that I’ve been auditing, Geraldine Brooks—author of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague—identifies old court documents as the best sources if you want to find historical records of women speaking on their own behalf. Women are often missing from history, and it is regularly necessary therefore to find them on the margins. As a historian myself, I am no stranger to this reality. Nevertheless, there was one surprising fact from these court documents that caught my attention: many women who appear in the records were brought to court on the charge of being a scold.
Being accused of being a scold was a serious charge—a type of disorderly conduct particular to England and the colonized Americas and restricted to women. Essentially, a scold was a woman who publicly criticized others, and such women were punished first by ducking (being forcibly submerged in water) and later by monetary fines. Though scold cases had largely died out by the twentieth century, scold laws remained on the books in England and the US until well into the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, laws against practices associated with witchcraft, most notably divination, also remained on the books for much longer than might be assumed. Anti-divination laws weren’t done away with until the mid-1980s, when Zsuzsanna Budapest successfully fought for the repeal of the law and the overturning of her own 1975 conviction for tarot reading.
Of course laws are only one aspect of societal control. Cultural attitudes, reinforced by family values and media representation, serve to police the behavior of women as well—sometimes in lethal ways. In the seventeenth century a Massachusetts woman was put on trial for being overhead to criticize a laborer whose work was late, of poor quality, and over-budget. Thus, in the simplest terms, it was—at that time—against the law for a woman to raise a legitimate grievance in public, and while it’s true that such behavior is no longer a legal offense, it’s hard not to see echoes of that mentality—some more extreme than others—in operation today. After all, the persecution of a woman who tried to demand fair service from a paid worker in the seventeenth century is not a far cry from the twenty-first-century case of filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, who was brutally murdered by a construction contractor after they argued.
And it’s not a far cry from the crimes of non-compliance for which the protagonists of Bitch Planet are prosecuted. It is no longer illegal for women to speak their mind in public, or for them to fail to conform to social norms, but to do so remains a practice that can be met with significant hostility.
This is what struck me when reading Kelly Sue DeConnick’s account of her encounter with a male fan at Heroes Con: that Bitch Planet, though a feminist fantasy set in a scifi-style future, is a reflection of a past that many people forget (or would like to forget)—a past that existed not that long ago. At the same time that the series satirizes the lingering anti-“scold,” anti-“witch” attitude that characterizes many contemporary conversations about proper feminine behavior (so many of which begin and end with “Don’t be such a bitch”), it is also an exploration of what our world would be like if the laws against scolds and witches were never repealed, or were reinstated, or were augmented by even further restrictions of behavior. At the end of the day, the social oppression portrayed in Bitch Planet is not really all that far-fetched. Is it any wonder then that critics of the series worry about its portrayal of angry women and the revenge they might seek against their society?