Culture

'Good Girls Revolt', "Nasty Women" and the Politics of Recognition

Kristina Deffenbacher
Anna Camp, Genevieve Angelson, and Erin Darke in Good Girls Revolt (2015)

Amazon's Good Girls Revolt may be set in the past, but it resonates loudly with the electoral present.


Good Girls Revolt

Cast: Genevieve Angelson, Anna Camp, Erin Darke
Network: Amazon
Amazon

The stories that we tell about the past reveal more about the present than about the historical events they claim to portray. The new Amazon series, Good Girls Revolt, is a fictionalized account of the women who brought a landmark gender discrimination lawsuit against Newsweek magazine in 1970. The series opens in the past as a foreign country, following a wide-eyed, mini-skirted researcher, Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson), through the glamorous seediness of 1969-era New York City. We soon recognize the world of the show as our own: the American mythology of righteous revolt invoked by some people to reinforce deep social divides and by others to fight inequality; the desires, anxieties, and rage -- they also belong to the present.

The wave of Mad Men-esque nostalgia suggested by the mini-dresses, sexual innuendo, and hard liquor flowing freely through the workplace in Good Girls Revolt has dark and dangerous undercurrents. The male editors and reporters at News of the Week openly size up women’s bodies and sexual availability. Just as Jane Hollander (Anna Camp) begins to think that her boss might be taking her ideas seriously, he reminds her of her place by exposing his penis to her. Cindy Reston (Erin Darke) descends into alcoholism after she discovers that her husband has poked a hole in her diaphragm to control her body and decide her future.

Although women claiming their bodies and sexuality is an important thread across the season, liberation in Good Girls Revolt comes not through free love, but rather through women validating each other's experiences and collectively fighting back against everyday oppression and institutional sexism. In ladies' room conversations, consciousness-raising sessions, and revelations under the influence, the women researchers (they're not allowed to be reporters) at News of the Week realize that their experiences of inequality at home and at work are common. They find empowerment in that mutual recognition.

One of the more quietly painful moments of unspoken recognition happens at the beginning of the season finale, at a meeting to determine the cover image for a story on the women's movement. None of the women at the magazine -- including Jane, who pitched the story -- were asked to write it. They're unconsulted bystanders on the edges of the photo room while most of the men stand in an inner circle around the light table, picking up and casting aside images of feminist leaders and protesters. The men's comments include "Betty Friedan... ew, Jesus Christ… woof", and "Do you have any pictures of them showering together? I’d like to see that". As the men share some hearty, good-ol'-boy chuckles, the women's eyes meet, silently expressing the shared alienation and anger that determine them in their action against the magazine.

At the end of the last horrifying and emotionally exhausting month of the election season, many American women readily recognize those feelings of alienation and anger. Amazon couldn't have better timed the release of Good Girls Revolt. At the beginning of October, we were subjected first to recordings of the President-elect boasting about sexually assaulting women, and then to his attempt to downplay his remarks as just "locker room talk".

In the presidential debates, he persistently interrupted and spoke over Secretary Clinton, summarily dismissed her almost four decades of professional experience and public service, paced and loomed behind her at the town hall Q & A, and attempted to see her off the premises with an epithet: "Such a nasty woman." The women's experiences in Good Girls Revolt -- of sexual objectification and harassment, of professional disregard and disrespect, and of physical and emotional bullying -- are all too recognizable.

If any good has come of out of the political nightmare of the past month, it's the empowerment that many women have felt in the common recognition of their experiences and validation of their responses. During and immediately after the debates, many women used social media to share their stories of male bosses and colleagues interrupting and speaking over them, "mansplaining" their fields of expertise to them, dismissing and/or claiming their ideas, and physically intimidating them. Since the final debate, the intended insult, "nasty woman", has become the collective "Nasty Women": a feminist rallying cry.

Good Girls Revolt shows that the recognition and voicing of shared oppression is a difficult but liberating process. The series also briefly suggests that recognition of others' oppression -- especially when one is structurally complicit in it -- tends to take much more consciousness-raising and rigorous self-examination. The white characters coordinating legal action against the magazine don’t think to invite a black researcher, Denise (Betty Gabriel), to join them until she accidentally overhears their plans.

After Denise politely declines their invitation, Patti corners her in the hall at work, putting their jobs at risk. Denise tells her, "I don't have the luxury of believing in your cause. I am a black woman working at a white magazine." When Patti looks utterly confused, Denise has to teach her to see institutional racism: "Your story on the Black Panthers called them the most important new organization in the struggle for black civil rights… Did any black people have anything to do with researching, writing, or editing that story?" As Denise walks away, a visibly stricken Patti whispers, "Oh!"

Although it's frustrating that Patti -- the first white woman at the magazine to see and name women's exclusion -- has to have black peoples' exclusion pointed out to her, Patti's moment of recognition is a hopeful one. Unfortunately, that moment's quickly shoved aside by both Patti and the series itself. In the next and last scene in which Denise plays a significant part, Patti ambushes her in the mailroom to introduce her to their ACLU lawyer, Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant), a black woman who convinces Denise to "help these women" because "the only way any of us are going to break out of this box is if we stand together".

After that exchange in episode six, the question of black oppression isn't considered again, and Denise only appears briefly, uncomfortably accepting a box of chocolates from a reporter, and smiling supportively in the background at the women’s meetings. It's understandable -- however disappointing -- that a white, middle-class woman in 1970 has blind spots when it comes to race, but it isn't clear why the show has to push the issue of institutional racism and Denise herself to the periphery. A number of secondary characters, such as the Jewish reporter Sam Rosenberg (Daniel Eric Gold), get complex subplots and character depth. If there's a second season of Good Girls Revolt, hopefully it'll extend the radical possibilities of recognition to others.

Kristina Deffenbacher is an English professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She teaches and writes on a range of subjects, including gender and sexuality in pop culture.

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