By Marissa Pomerance
I originally wrote this piece for my college rhetoric class, but considering all of the current discussions of feminism, it seemed like an appropriate essay to share here. With so many perceptions and debates about what makes someone a feminist, it seems apt to discuss the image of the "angry feminist."
A storm rages outside as she kneels next to the broad window. A sliver of moonlight falls on the sword that she has drawn from its sheath, her determined glare reflecting in the polished metal. She raises the blade to her neck and holds her hair taut in one hand. In one clean motion, she swiftly slices through her long black locks that, as of a few short hours ago, were tortured and twisted into the most delicate of updo’s. The pieces gently fall to the ground. Without a moment’s hesitation, she ties her newly shorn hair back and fastens the ill-fitting armor to her body: this is not the typical uniform of a Disney princess.
This pivotal scene in which Mulan, the titular character of this animated movie, transforms from a reluctant bride into a fierce warrior in China’s imperial army remains an iconic memory from my childhood. Posing as a man and taking her father’s place in the army to save his old and injured body from a brutal war, Mulan finds happiness in being something more than simply a woman seeking out a husband: a role she was never quite right for. And did I mention that she saves all of China? By the end of the movie, she forces the whole country to accept and even embrace her as a female warrior. I watched the movie with unabashed pride for identifying with a female character other than the ubiquitous Cinderella or another typically feminine princess. A fascinating heroine who defies gender roles and the confines of tradition, Mulan is clearly a positive influence for many young girls, and an unexpected-yet-obvious subject for me to write about when I was applying to college.
The personal essay was a struggle for me; how could I possibly stand out, make myself appeal to colleges, and convey exactly who I am in just one all-encompassing story? I lacked an inspirational tale in which I overcame death/disease/poverty just to learn. I was not The Math Genius or The Dedicated Basketball player; I was a well rounded (albeit boring) student that took part in normal high school activities not worth aggrandizing to an admissions committee. My lack of creativity caused me to settle for the personal statement that discussed who I admired most and why.
It was during an essay-writing workshop that the idea came to me through a (somewhat) natural process of brainstorming. Mulan! It was brilliant! How could I go wrong? She is a strong female heroine; she inspired me as a child; she reflected the strength and confidence that I, as a high school student, aspired to gain as an incoming college freshman. Surely anyone who saw the movie could appreciate the character. I was surprised, then, when not everyone agreed with my choice.
The responses to my initial draft ranged from incredulity over the choice of an animated character (“isn’t there anyone real in your life who is more important?”) to plain confusion (“I just don’t get it”). One admissions officer from the University of Southern California, who lead a group at the workshop, shared this sense of confusion about the subject, but had stronger feelings towards my tone. “You just sound like an angry feminist,” he said after reading my bit about how Mulan inspired me to not let ignorant high school boys make jokes about women being best suited “for the kitchen.” He wasn’t the only one who felt this way, and I received similar responses from other admissions officers and students in my workshop group. I quietly backed off, re-assessing the aggressiveness of the piece without understanding how something so innocent could get so easily misconstrued.
Frustration lurked beneath my confusion. I knew my essay was simply a draft, but the response seemed so personal. I felt defeated, voiceless, and inexplicably guilty. Maybe my paper was a gross overreaction to the inevitably stupid comments of boys my age? Was I exaggerating my admiration for Mulan’s warrior-like determination, strength, and toughness? To be fair, I have never suffered the plight of women that came before me who could not vote, could not work, and could not even receive an education. Instead, I was upset by the trivialities of day-to-day life. I was upset when a guy at my school said something similar to, “Woman! Make me a sandwich!” and laugh; of course, society no longer functions that way, so that is what makes it funny, right? But even as a joke, I just wasn’t laughing. Maybe I just lacked a sense of humor.
Could I really be an “angry feminist?” My armor, or my usual capacity for advocating on behalf of my ideals, had been stripped away by that sole phrase. I no longer felt like going to battle. I had lost my cause and I scrapped the draft at the end of the workshop.
It wasn’t until college, after engaging with so many intelligent, passionate classmates who identified as feminists, that I was finally able to fully understand that my reaction was more than frustration. It was anger. I was angry. I was an angry feminist. I was angry that those two words are always forced together in the parlance of people who are taught that feminism and irrationality are one in the same, as if one can not exist without the other. As if social inequalities -- such as the gendered wage gap I’ve learned still exists—are a cause for celebration. I was angry that, like the boys who would ask me if I was “on my period” when I wittily defended myself from typical high school ridicule, there were still people (intelligent, adult people) who were making me feel like an overly reactionary, emotional fool when I spoke up. Like I was an irrational bully unfairly posing as a victim of inequalities that just don’t exist nowadays. I was angry that the hard-fought and sorely won freedoms, like Title VII and Roe v. Wade, are taken for granted so that continually defending them seems excessive to some. Stop complaining, you have what you want already.
To be honest, I’m still angry. Mostly, I’m angry with myself for backing down. I had put the sword back in its sheath, hung up my armor, and resumed my role as the quiet, obedient, and reluctant bride of an offensive tradition. My voice had been disgraced and then stolen from me, and I had let it happen. I’m angry that I let myself feel guilty for my feelings. Afraid of the social repercussions, I didn’t even attempt to explain to my critics that sometimes anger is warranted and one shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Mulan was furious that her father had to fight in a war and that, as a woman, all she could do was watch him leave as she prepared to be matched to a husband against her will. Unlike Mulan, I gave up the fight before it began. I allowed my resentment to be drowned out by the remorse and embarrassment I felt for it. My heroine would be so disappointed in me.
While in college, I studied and discussed women’s issues with friends and classmates during those wonderful four years. I have come to realize that there are proud, smart women who are not ashamed of being angry about gender inequalities, and I am no longer afraid of identifying as a feminist. I whole-heartedly acknowledge the repercussions that stem from a public perception driving people to believe feminism is an extreme. An extreme set of ideals. An extreme set of actions. An extreme set of women. I am no martyr of social justice, but I am more ready now to don my armor and fight back when this mocking phrase is thrown at me in the hopes of dismantling my ideals and shaming me into submission. I have come to realize that no one should feel guilty for expressing a desire for equality or for maintaining freedoms that have been so hard to acquire. Mostly, I have come to embrace anger as something that is natural and often justified. It can be a tool for recognizing that something isn’t quite right, like pain receptors in the body. And when harnessed correctly, it can be more powerful than any weaponry.
Now go ahead, call me an angry feminist again.