Allie, a biracial teenager who trusts the voice in her head more than any of the voices outside, braces herself as her foster father climbs the stairs to her room. He’s going to rape her. He always does. Except this time it’s different.
“Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl becomes a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.”
Allie gathers this strength within herself. The strength is literal, biblical: It is an electric jolt she can shoot out through her fingertips. She puts her hands on the man who has his hands around her neck, and she kills him.
This is the hook of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, a deliriously good work of speculative fiction that imagines a world where young girls develop the power to generate electricity that flies from their palms. The power comes in around the age of fifteen. Girls can pass it on to older women. But not to boys.
A girl can release a charge that’s only enough to shock: as a game, or a kink, if you’re into that sort of thing. Or she can fire off enough to kill. (It’s like the gorgeous climax of SZA’s “Supermodel” video, taken to its illogical extreme.) Now it is men who have to be cautious around girls, temper and second-guess and restrain themselves around girls; men who are wary of walking alone in the dark, of taking that late-night meeting with the boss, of going home with someone to have sex.
It’s just one change, but it changes everything.
And while it would be a fantastic read in any context, it is an especially exhilarating one in 2017: A year of women getting to be finally, publicly, gloriously angry, and transforming that anger into a source of staggering power.
Trump’s election ignited something in women across the country, something which only grew with the downfall of each high-profile serial sexual predator whose name was emblazoned across 2016’s front pages: Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly. The biggest water-cooler moment of that year was the release of the Access Hollywood tape wherein Trump bragged about how he liked to “grab ’em by the pussy.” That he won the election anyway was a suckerpunch to sexual abuse survivors everywhere, not to mention the 16 women who say they were sexually assaulted or harassed by him. (It is worth noting here that 53 percent of white female voters cast their ballots for this man.)
To say the year that followed was a good one for women would be, well, an overstatement. (A year in which the go-to uniform of protest is a robe from The Handmaid’s Tale is not, generally speaking, a banner stretch for the female sex.) But it was a good year for women’s anger, for that righteous emotion — long pathologized and minimized by men, suppressed and apologized for by women — to be taken seriously, almost daily.
On our screens and streets, in courts of law and public opinion, no feeling was more intense than the collective anger of women. So it is fitting that our pop culture reflected that rage and reveled in it. 2017 was filled with stories about women letting their fury fly.
Turn on your TV in 2017 and you’d see women taking care of abusive men the old-fashioned way: Homicide.
Start with HBO’s Big Little Lies. Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is the abusive husband of Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and, unbeknownst even to her, the rapist of Jane (Shailene Woodley). In the miniseries’ finale, the women of this idyllic-on-the-surface community realize, all at once, exactly what Perry has done and what he is. In a scuffle that pits five women against this one sad man, it is the woman who seemed least likely to be moved to violence — Zen, yogi Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — who pushes Perry down a set of stairs to his death.
Change the channel to BBC America, and you could see this summer’s series finale of Orphan Black, in which Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) stood over an old white man and bashed his face in.
He was this season’s embodiment of the patriarchal forces that sought to control, define, and oppress her and her genetic identicals (they don’t love to use the word “clones”) she’s come to call her sisters. All of these women, played by Maslany, struggled against the violent interference and panoptic surveillance of male villains of every variety: Religious zealots who claimed their choices were merely the will of God; pseudo-scientific megalomaniacs who made lab rats of grown women; corporate crazies out for a profit and, while they’re at it, immortality.
Sarah killed this man as he tried to murder her, securing some of the freedom and autonomy she and her sisters have been fighting for all this time. “We survived you,” she said, standing over his dead body. “This is evolution.”
The prescient and prolific Margaret Atwood isn’t only responsible for The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, whose imprisoned heroine June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) seethes so palpably that memes of her and her fellow prisoners fill social media whenever there’s a legislative attack on women’s health care and reproductive rights. Atwood’s also the one to thank for Netflix’s Alias Grace, a miniseries based on her 1996 novel about a young woman serving a life sentence for her part in a double homicide. She and a male servant allegedly offed the man of the house and his housekeeper-slash-mistress. Her partner-in-crime got the death penalty. Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.
Grace (Sarah Gadon), we learn as the series unfolds, spent most of her young life being threatened, controlled, and abused by men. Her life as an Irish immigrant, both in her native land and her adopted home of Canada, is one of one indignity piled on top of another and another and another. She is never not fending off the unwanted advances of men. Over the six, hour-long episodes, Grace meets maybe three men who don’t rape her, or try to, or allude to their plans to do so at the soonest opportunity. It’s like a sick version of that game everyone plays as a kid where the ground is lava: One wrong step and you’re a goner. It is easy to believe that someone so methodically tormented could commit an explosive act of carnage.
And even though the series, based on Atwood’s novel, is in turn based on a real murder case; even though vigilante justice is not the most morally or ethically advisable tactic; there is something so viciously appealing about watching Grace tell her hypnotic, gruesome tale. About watching her get away with it.
But it wasn’t just doom-and-gloom prestige dramas where women’s rage was all the rage. On late night, no man could match Samantha Bee’s pissed-off pitch. Her Full Frontal kicked off its second year in February, about a month after those not-quite-record crowds swarmed the National Mall for Trump’s inauguration and those yes-really-record crowds pulsed through Washington and around the world for the Women’s March. She was always an impassioned performer, the only late night host too fired up to sit down at a desk. But the election and its slow-motion-car-wreck of a result seemed to unleash something in her. Her rage, unwieldy and magnificent, erupts out of her each week.
Compare her to the boys. John Oliver’s tone is dumbstruck and appalled. Stephen Colbert’s is closer to “I’m not mad, just disappointed” with the occasional foray into real outrage. Jimmy Fallon is still at the kid’s table, though at least he’s not inviting Trump to sit with him anymore. Jimmy Kimmel is the frat guy who arrived awfully late to the We’re Woke Now party but no one’s mad because better to show up than not, and also he brought beer and that half of the neighborhood that never comes to anything.
But if you want to see some pure, unadulterated white-hot anger — if you believe such anger is the only appropriate response to the rage-induction machine that is reality — Sam Bee is the woman for the job. (Also, the only woman in late night. Still! Not that we’re angry about that.)
On The CW’s musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the most consistently intelligent and entertaining shows on television, unstable-woman-scorned Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is furious that men seem to always betray, abandon, and hurt her. So she leads her pack of girlfriends in an ’80s-style anthem about not bothering to distinguish between men because, whatever, they’re all trash:
“Right now we’re angry and sad / It’s our right to get righteously mad / at every member of the opposite sex / oh God, we HATE them… Let’s generalize about men! / Let’s take one bad thing about one man / and apply it to all of them.“
This joyous generalization is what some hand-wringers over Fall 2017’s Great Purge Of Sexual Harassers, Abusers, And Assorted Rapists fear most: That all these not-Harvey-Weinsteins are getting lumped together with the actually-Harvey-Weinsteins. By the time this Kondo-ing of leadership positions is through — farewell forever, men who really don’t spark joy! — who will be left? (The answer is women, plus the men who don’t harass or assault women.) The Shitty Media Men list, a samizdat spreadsheet passed among women in journalism to warn against male creeps of every variety, exemplified this fear. Isn’t something like this dangerous? As it turns out, yes: If you’re a man who abuses women.
The best single Taylor Swift released this year wasn’t any of the songs off her new, mostly-meh Reputation. It was her testimony in her sexual assault trial against former radio DJ David Mueller, who groped her during a photo op in 2013. Swift reported the assault to Mueller’s bosses and he was subesquently fired; two years later, he sued her for the accusations which resulted in his termination, denying all her claims. So she countersued him for assault and battery, demanding a “symbolic $1.” And she won.
At her trial in August, she testified for just under an hour. In language as clear and evocative as any of her best lyrics, she coolly described what Mueller had done to her, dismantling every attempt at victim-blaming, at gaslighting her into doubting her own memory, at brushing off what Mueller did to her.
Was she sure it was Mueller? “He had a handful of my ass. I know it was him.” Did he maybe touch her somewhere else? “He did not touch my rib, he did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass.” Is she critical of her bodyguard for not doing more to protect her? “I’m critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.” Couldn’t she have taken a break during the meet-and-greet if she was so shaken up? “Your client could have taken a normal photo with me.” If Mueller was really grabbing her, why doesn’t her skirt look awry in the photo? “Because my ass is located in the back of my body.” Does she feel bad about how Mueller got fired? “I’m not going to allow you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions — not mine.”
In an interview with TIME, Swift described her emotional state the day she took the stand. Her mother had been cross-examined earlier that week and “was physically too ill to come to court the day I was on the stand,” Swift said:
“I was angry. In that moment, I decided to forego any courtroom formalities and just answer the questions the way it happened. This man hadn’t considered any formalities when he assaulted me, and his lawyer didn’t hold back on my mom—why should I be polite?”
Swift’s victory was all the more remarkable compared to the struggles of another embattled pop star: Kesha, who saw her legal efforts to extricate herself from a recording contract with producer Dr. Luke — her alleged rapist — repeatedly fail. Swift’s triumph also came less than two months after the criminal case against Bill Cosby ended in a mistrial. Cosby, who has been accused of sexual misconduct and assault by more women than there are states in the union, will be tried again in March. Most perpetrators of sexual violence never see a day in court. In this as in so many things, Swift was an exception to the rule.
The female rage that had been simmering all year blew up in earnest in October, when investigations into Harvey Weinstein and his decades of sexual violence, intimidation, and coercion were published by The New York Times and The New Yorker. It would probably be faster to list the women (and potted plants) in Hollywood who were not victimized by the once uber-powerful producer than to name the ones who were. And it would be hard to overstate what happened next, by the metric of sheer cultural saturation alone. Editors, showrunners, and publishers ousted. News anchors and actors booted from the shows in which they starred. The surround-sound shouts of #MeToo.
Men finally saw what women had been seeing this whole time: A landmine of monsters mingling among us. As the ladies of Saturday Night Live sang: Welcome to hell!
Anger is the electric grid below all of this. It’s what is fueling thousands of women to run for office, an unprecedented rush to wrest power away from men who so often use that power to abuse and oppress women. It seems all but inevitable that the pop cultural aftershocks we’re already seeing on television will make their way to the movies before long. Hints of this, or at least of a hunger for it, were evident in the colossal box office success of Wonder Woman, a superhero who hails from a paradise where it is literally the law to ban all men and who is told (correctly) by her mother that “the world of men does not deserve you.”
Is all this anger really useful? That’s a popular question, as some men start to fret, pathetically, about the end of office flirtation and whether or not they’ll ever be able to creep out their interns with unwanted hugs ever again. And underneath that question is this insistence that everything has to be productive, in a very specific way, all of the time. Women can’t just seek catharsis; we have to be contributing. It’s all very “late-stage capitalism” meets “classic female martyrdom,” sacrificing the self on the altar of the other. And this was a year in which women said, to paraphrase: Fuck that.
Fury is a female thing. That’s the myth, anyway: The Furies were goddesses of vengeance, womanly spirits of the underworld who popped up to the mortal plane to deliver vigilante justice to — who else? — men. Wicked men. Men who had committed unforgivable crimes and managed to evade earthly punishment. Furies pursued their targets ferociously, tormenting them until they died of madness. You can think of them as terrifying nightmare demons. Or you can think of them as the patron saints of the unavenged women. And there are so many unavenged women. Though not quite as many as there used to be.