Medusa and Me: Twenty-Five Years of Female Rage
Written by Mary Valentis and Phill Arensberg
For 25 or more years Mary Valentis and her son Phill Arensberg have been carrying on a cross-country conversation, sometimes fiery, about culture, gender, race, rage, and the way we live now and lived then. During the 90’s, the era of Bill Clinton and Women Who Run with the Wolves, feminist ideals and identity were thrust into the public square and long held tenets were challenged and rewritten largely as a mural across pop culture and etched into new ideas of women’s strength. This discussion, empowering, acrimonious, and liberating was focused on how women viewed themselves and how the expressed their identity within that introspective context. Now, that private examination has exploded into the culture – politics, entertainment, sports, and linguistics – from who am I to #MeToo to #TimesUp. 25 years after Mary Valentis wrote Female Rage, the examination of what it means for women and now, womxn, produces tangible and overdue change.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book called Female Rage. Swept to the forefront on a wave of media publicity by such celebrated cases as Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, the breakup of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage, and films like Fatal Attraction, female rage announced its presence. There were cat-costumed pro-choice advocates who called themselves Pussies for Choice, Guerilla Girls, and FURY, a band of high school girls who painted themselves in bright colors to express their outrage at rape. These were the stirrings. Women were just beginning to tap into the energy and power of this often demonized but ultimately empowering force.
My own rage had been buried for years under shrouds of people-pleasing, sadness, low self-esteem, and a willingness to buy into the lies and deceptions of spousal “gaslighting.” My first husband’s clever psychological manipulations, aimed at engendering doubt, fear, and undermining a person’s very being, had worked until the “mad” woman became the mad-as-hell woman. Exploring my history and the realities of my rage allowed me to understand the powerful weapon any woman possesses. When I learned how to use this lethal weapon and train it accurately to channel its aggressive surge, new worlds opened for me.
Now as I revisit Female Rage twenty-five years later, I find myself comparing what things were like then to today’s collective, more democratic, public expressions of rage. Instead of “rage referees” on talk shows overseeing endless parades of betrayals and abuse, women’s rage has seized their microphones and demanded a hearing in the streets and law courts of this nation.
I am sitting at a table in the golden glow of an upscale Manhattan brasserie, stealing sidelong glances at the next table. The erudite and elegant PBS host Charlie Rose pours refills for his adoring guests. Flanked by strawberry blond college-age twins whose coiffed, molded curls frame their blushed alabaster skin, he is regaling them with inside dope about his guests on the show that evening. The year is 1995. My editor and I are celebrating the publication of Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power. Charlie Rose is living the high life with a home in the Hamptons and a coterie of public television devotees who glom on to his witty, cosmopolitan style and penetrating interviews.
Back then Lorena Bobbitt had become a folk hero of the nineties, particularly for women outside the loop of the feminist establishment. Lorena’s act of penile mutilation against her macho Marine husband, who had subjected her to verbal abuse and painful rapes, became a watershed dividing men and women. Underneath the snickers, the groin holding, and the clapping of grassroots women each day as Lorena left the courtroom, serious gender issues were at work and festering. Like Thelma and Louise on screen and Anita Hill in the hearing room, Lorena Bobbitt’s bedroom surgery entered the mainstream as the reinstatement of female power:
vigilantism. By identifying with Lorena, Anita, and the doomed Thelma and Louise, women around the world vicariously released their personal fury at husbands, lovers, bosses, and boyfriends. A collective but relatively silent catharsis had occurred that left men sleeping on their stomachs, and seething women beginning to awaken.
#TimesUp for Charlie Rose began with eight women. Then there were an additional twenty-seven, some on the record, others nameless. A few days before this past Thanksgiving 2017, as family members lounge on sofas in the television room after breakfast, the breaking news red banner scrawls across the bottom of the screen. We turn up the volume and an announcer’s voice reads the prompter:
“Most of the women said Rose alternated between fury and flattery in his interactions with them. Five described Rose putting his hand on their legs, sometimes their upper thigh, in what they perceived as a test to gauge their reactions. Two said that while they were working for Rose at his residences or were traveling with him on business, he emerged from the shower and walked naked in front of them. One said he groped her buttocks at a staff party.”
As the news begins to sink in, images of those two pre-Raphaelite late-teen beauties at the restaurant emerge like Aphrodite from the sea of my memory. No longer a scene of a fatherly boss treating his interns to a night out, it is tainted, slimed, like a Bill Cosby sitcom. “Concerns about Rose’s behavior were flagged to managers at the network as early as 1986 and as recently as April 2017.” There were testimonials the rest of that holiday week. His girls were known as “Charlie’s Angels” backstage and among certain staff at CBS, CNN, and Bloomberg. Female assistants summoned to his various residences knowingly compared notes about the shower trick. Rose would call them from the bathroom to interrupt their work and attend to him in the bathroom. They would rush at his command only to be greeted by the boss sans towel, dripping, nude, and erect.
I am teaching an honors class in 1996 on the history of sexuality. The required books include Michel Foucault’s text of the same name as the class, Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality,
George Sand, and The Starr Report. A document generated by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, the report, with great relish, details the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, which began in 1995 during a government shutdown and ended with Clinton calling it off two years later. Scandalized, the nation is trying to adjust to a First Lady scorned in public. She stands by her man even though she is a feminist, a Wellesley College Phi Beta Kappa, a Yale Law School grad. Bill Clinton has been dallying with a raven-haired intern with a huge crush on him, enjoying oral sex in the Oval and using a big cigar as a prop. The red-faced Lothario president is caught in the act by a dried semen stain on a dark blue dress delivered to Starr by Lewinsky’s mother in exchange for immunity. Clinton endures impeachment but escapes conviction. The Starr Report reads like a saucy Victorian novel and adds to the collective voyeurism of a fixated nation.
It is Sunday evening, October 9, 2016, and the country’s gaze is trained on the second debate between Hillary and Trump. In the pre-debate warm-up, the camera switches from the audience inside the hall to a green room with Donald Trump chatting up two of the five guests he has brought to the show. In response to Clinton’s move, seating Trump’s rival billionaire Mark Cuban in the front row, Trump resurrects four of Bill Clinton’s now late-middle-aged accusers from the impeachment days to taunt Hillary during the debate exchange. They include Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones.
Framing and preceding the debate is the infamous video screening of a 2005 video showing Trump and host Billy Bush on a bus arriving at a studio to film an Access Hollywood episode. It is a late Friday afternoon and The Washington Post has published the video. Trump warns he might start kissing a woman that he and Bush are about to meet. He adds, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
When pressed by co-moderator Anderson Cooper whether he ever did any of the things he described on the tape, which included kissing women against their will and groping their genitalia, Trump said he did not.
“We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him berate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms,” Clinton said. “So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is.”
Personal to Public
When Female Rage first came out, expressions of rage were personal, an explosive act that altered an intolerable situation. Lorena Bobbitt again comes to mind. This trope was echoed and reimagined in the zeitgeist to the extent of self-parody. The “Lifetime Movie” has become shorthand for the story of a brave but deeply beset woman forced to some extraordinary act of courage and resourcefulness to either escape from or exact vengeance against some villainous man. It’s as if someone remade 9 to 5 into a horror movie. Interestingly, despite the proliferation of these narratives, almost always “based on a true story,” the discussion never made the leap to consider why these stories of emotional and physical abuse were so relatable. Everyone knows someone who was in a situation, if not as dramatically captivating, at least as unpleasant. Even in these melodramas, the conditions that produced acts of rage were still seen exclusively as a series of individual problems.
Twenty-five years later rage has turned into a movement. “I will not take this anymore” has evolved into “You’re not going to do this to anyone ever again.” The number and rapidity of falling dominoes could almost be comical if it weren’t so heartbreaking. Weinstein, Cosby, Lauer, Batali… It is to the point where one checks cable news to see which lauded man has been outed as a serial abuser. And while it’s easy to decry that we have entered a new age of abuse, it is the merciless fact that it has always been thus, and we are merely seeing the extent of the problem. “Me too” literally is the result of recognition and connection. In the past a woman who was harassed would look for all the reasons it was her fault, what she did wrong, and how she would have to negotiate the situation going forward, on her own. It’s like the idea prevalent in different cultures that a woman who has been raped is now unclean and impure and soiled.
“Me Too” turns this on its head, and instead of being ashamed of being “dishonored,” women are pissed off and recognizing the strength in shared experiences. #MeToo, started by Tarana Burke over a decade ago, continues to move beyond traditionally feminist spaces, or perhaps it would be more accurate to characterize them as spaces that don’t traditionally allow for the degree and number of successful, powerful women as in movies and TV. From the Pulitzer Prize to the Southern Baptist convention, there is a movement to the acknowledgment of the problem and, hopefully, movement toward change. Female Rage was primarily about white female rage. As more people share their stories and as marginalized voices gain prominence, different, specific aspects of the female experience become incorporated into the conversation.
The Wolf & The Bee
Corresponding conditions still exist twenty-five years after the original publication of Female Rage. The obsession with female perfection, especially expressed through material success, remains strong. Draw a line from the perfect ’50s homemaker to twenty-first-century “Perfect Woman.” She’s successful at her job, from which she, of course, derives deep fulfillment; she always follows her bliss and also is a dedicated partner and mother—NOT too much helicopter/NOT too much free-range. She is artist, activist, capitalist, mother, best bud, and, of course, perfect in bed. While the goals have changed, the internalized desperation remains. This requirement for women to be all things, all the time, is reflected in the recent spasms of outrage surrounding two female comedians.
Both Samantha Bee and Michelle Wolf received deep public shade and outrage over their now infamous comments at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and, for Bee, on her TV show. Twenty-five years ago, there was something of a renaissance for women stand-ups. Comics like Ellen DeGeneres and Paula Poundstone achieved solid industry success. Their routines eschewed the traditionally female comic territory of frustrating husbands and the travails of being a homemaker. Their brand of observational humor, rooted in personal experience, was both hilarious and well received. Flash forward twenty-five years and both Bee and Wolf are shamelessly, joyfully feminists and activists. Where twenty-five years ago, the focus was on a humanist relatability, the laser of comedy is now targeted on systemic shortcomings as well as individual outrages. And lots of people did not like that. The outrage against two women who used language excused when used by men was towering and immediate. Women, it seems, are dangerous now, not because of their mystery but because of their anger.
A New Enlightenment
In his recent Atlantic article, Henry Kissinger prophesied the death of the Enlightenment at the hands of artificial intelligence. If the Enlightenment was the ascendency of the human over the dogmas and rituals of a calcified past, then we are in the midst of a New Enlightenment. It is the ascendency of a new human—The Woman. #MeToo, through the ubiquity of experience, has taken steps to democratize abuse and the reactions to it. When powerful, successful women like Uma Thurman and Rose McGowan come forward, it shatters the illusion of this only happening to a “certain type.” Women whose careers are based on idealized images of talent, appearance, and behavior show moments of deep vulnerability and powerlessness. Beyond this resonance of experience, however, these women possess a degree of power and the media platform large enough to not be brushed aside by systemic bias like many non-famous women facing abuse on one hand and implacable bureaucracy on the other. Through public statements at highly publicized events like the Oscars, they force the discussion, resist the urge of the spotlight to move away to the latest outrage, and enact justice.
From its inception, #MeToo has sought to switch the responsibility onto the perpetrator, not the victim of abuse. Footage of Harvey Weinstein in cuffs or Bill Cosby sputtering in court is the first ramification of a continuing movement. The rapidity of consequences to allegations draws accusations of mob justice, but also indicates the corporate money that supports entertainment and is in turn supported by public opinion and responds immediately to a perceived swing in the vox populi. When Roseanne went on a very public and completely in character Twitter rant, it was a matter of hours before her show, the most popular sitcom on TV, was a thing of the past, cancelled by the president at ABC, Channing Dungey: a black woman. Plucky spokesperson for nerd culture, Chris Hardwick was summarily disavowed by virtually every media entity that he had ever worked with upon publication of accusations of a long-term abusive relationship by former girlfriend Chloe Dykstra (as of this writing, Hardwick denies any occurrences of sexual assault).
When portraying rage in women, cultural images focus on two areas of the female body: her face and her genitals. For Freud, Medusa’s head, with it snaky corona, twisted features, and gash for a mouth, “evokes the terrifying genitals of the mother” and the dread of castration glimpsed when the boy sees a mound of pubic hair with no penis. For Freud, Medusa is a kind of ancient hex sign going as far to invoke Rabelais’ image of the devil “who took to flight when the woman showed him her vulva.”
In the fall of 2016, the spectacle of “Medusa’s head” was literalized and played out during the Donald Trump/Megyn Kelly feud. In her darkly rich voice, the Fox News host startled Trump when she opened the Republican debate by asking him about the sexist, degrading comments he has made about women, calling some “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” The next night Trump slashed back, describing Kelly’s appearance as Medusan, menstrual, and enraged. He said, “You know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, uh, blood coming out of her, wherever.”
In her post-election book, It Happened, Hillary Clinton compared two Medusan images to demonstrate the double standard at work: the outrage when a man is depicted as beheaded and bloodied and when a woman is portrayed. “We recently had this big kerfuffle—this condemnation of Kathy Griffin—for the picture she had of herself holding a head of Trump like a play on Perseus holding the head of Medusa,” Clinton said. She was referencing the photo of Griffin holding up the bloodied, decapitated, papier-mâché head of Donald Trump as Medusa.
“They were selling T-shirts and mugs at the Republican [National] Convention with Trump holding my head. Nobody said a word. Not a word!” According to other reports, offensive anti-Clinton merchandise on display at the convention included an image of Hillary falling off a motorcycle and another of Trump punching her out. In this male-dominated culture, women do not know much about Medusa because her story has always been told from Perseus’ point of view. By switching the holder of the hideous head from male conqueror to a demonized trophy, Kathy Griffin and other women are attempting to turn the tables on patriarchal myths and gender stereotyping.
It’s spring 2018. I am sitting in an upstate New York diner having just grabbed the check from the server who has broken into a heated conversation I am having with a male cousin. As I fish out the cash to pay for our lunch, he continues to insist that life was so much better in the 1950s when women stayed at home, didn’t enter the workplace, and were there to cook the meals and cater to the wishes of their man. My cousin, who pines for the mythical days of Father Knows Best, depends on the generosity of his family and the largess of the federal government to keep a roof over his head and medication in his failing joints. I actively struggle to keep my eyes from rolling. He either doesn’t notice or pretends not to. Either way, the gulf between us, either the result of willful ignorance or culturally bred thoughtlessness, microcosm the voids that infest our national character. At least we can still have lunch together, I think to myself as I start to make mental notes to update and reissue Female Rage.
Mary Valentis is an associate professor of English and director of the humanities center at the University at Albany-SUNY. She is the author of Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power (Clarkson Potter, 1994); Brave New You (New Harbinger Publications, 2001); and Romantic Intelligence: How To Be As Smart In Love As You Are In Life (New Harbinger Publications, 2003).