I don’t know about you, but I’m so tired of being angry.
When The Flock’s editor, Jen, and I first discussed me writing a piece on female anger and activism, it was in the immediate wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, as images of the brutal police response to a peaceful vigil in her name were going viral. We knew I was going to write this piece for just now, in early May, the week of the elections. I remember saying: “I’m sure something else horrendous and depressing will have happened by then.”
It was only half a joke. Right on cue, the night before I’m due to file, my Twitter feed fills up with reaction to a Guardian article in which 20 women allege that they experienced sexual harassment and abuse working with the actor and producer Noel Clarke between 2004 and 2019.
This comes a week after Kevin Guthrie, the baby-faced star of Sunshine On Leith, Sunset Song and the Fantastic Beasts films, was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who had passed out in his friend’s flat. Because these stories concern actors, they’re deemed noteworthy, they get the column inches. Think of all the stories we’re not hearing about.
I’m so tired.
The Guthrie case bore striking similarities to the plot of Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s now Oscar-winning film, released on streaming services in the same week as his verdict was delivered. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, an avenging angel seeking revenge for her best friend’s rape and subsequent death by suicide. I watched the trailer, read the reviews and expected some sort of cathartic air-punch of an ending, feminism triumphant. Instead (spoiler warning) the film serves its eventual justice at a helluva cost. Stuck in pastel-coloured stasis with no friends or interests beyond her quest for vengeance, Cassie has already swept her life to the side to make room for her anger at the time we join the story; in order for her campaign to triumph at the end, the film also requires that she has to be completely destroyed.
I’m so tired. Maybe Fennell was too when she wrote that ending. Because we’ve become so accustomed to neatly-resolved Hollywood-forged narratives, perhaps it felt as though that one moment of mass anger in 2017 that became the MeToo and Time’s Up movements could really make a change and – and what? Men would stop sexual assault? People in positions of power would stop abusing that power? Fennell described Promising Young Woman as a “fairytale”.
In the outpouring of grief that followed Sarah Everard’s murder, I had a conversation with a distraught pal, a mother of two daughters, where I felt the need to reassure her that I was raising sons her girls would be safe with. My boys are two and five and already I’m always conscious in our interactions that I need to teach them about consent and abuses of power; how to be a ‘good man’. Otherwise, my desperate thinking goes, how can things ever change? Another friend suggested gently that this shouldn’t just be on the mothers; talking it through with her, I realised that it felt like the only thing I had the power to affect.
My second novel, Scabby Queen, tells the story of Clio Campbell, a (fictional) one-time pop star-turned-activist, over the fifty years of her life. Clio, who would say she lived a life in solidarity, involves herself in the anti-Poll Tax movement, the miners’ strikes, the anti-war marches of the early ‘00s, the Greek socialist protests, the Scottish independence referendum and a campaign against those undercover police officers who had relationships with the women they were surveying. Basically, she gets in about it.
I wanted to try and examine what a life dedicated to fighting the power – specifically a female life – would feel like. It was written in a state of political fugue, after the Brexit vote and the Trump victory and the defeat of the Yes campaign in the independence referendum. I put blinkers on, stepped away from social media and refused to engage with the news –much to the frustration of my partner, with whom I’d shared a politically-active life, until he read the book. “Oh, that’s where you went,” he said.
There’s a scene in Scabby Queen in which Clio gets into a drunken argument on a beach, with a former comrade, Xanthe. Both women are in their forties at the time, and lived together in an activist squat in their twenties. Clio is still living that life, and Xanthe has fled it.
“Waking up angry every day at the state of the world, wanting to fight – nobody can go on and on doing that indefinitely. Don’t you ever get tired of it?” Xanthe asks. Clio replies that no, she doesn’t. “If everyone did that, there wouldn’t be any point in keeping on going. The world would harden. The bastards would have won.”
As their author, I agree with both of them at once.
When we reached that milestone figure of 100,000 Covid deaths, I thought I picked up on a certain feeling through the media coverage and social reactions. Exhausted resignation, perhaps? Anger that we no longer had the energy to be angry enough?
In the depths of Lockdown one, when we were all glued to our phones as our only source of social contact, I remember seeing someone tweet (ironically) that it wasn’t healthy for us all to be aware of, and continually reading, other people’s thoughts 24 hours a day. The pandemic has put us all in a state of hyperawareness. At first, in the strangeness of lockdown, there was a compulsion to scroll, to refresh our screens continually for news of change; in doing that, we widened a portal to a world that never, ever stops, and in which there is so much to be angry about.
Below the splashy headlines grabbed by the Clarke allegations and the evil clowning in Downing Street, right now I’m thinking about (in no particular order) the billions this government has spaffed away on private contracts lacking accountability, Dominic Cummings, Dido Harding, Michael Gove, the piles of fish rotting on harbours, the “hostile environment” presided over by Theresa May then Priti Patel, Nigel Farage’s continued platform, the influence media magnates have over our democracy, the treatment of asylum seekers during the pandemic and overall, the recommencing of dawn raids in Glasgow, vaccine apartheid, Bill Gates denying his patents to poorer countries…
I’m. So. Tired. And I’m one of the lucky ones – none of these issues affect me directly. It’s very easy for me, white, cis and middle-class, living in a small village, to look away, block Twitter, spend some time doing jigsaw puzzles with my kids or going for a walk in the woods. The real-life women who were deceived into relationships with undercover officers from the Met’s Special Demonstration Squad over forty years have been fighting a legal battle against the full might of the force, over many different cases and almost ten years, trying to find some way of making the law admit what was done to them. I’m in awe of how they keep on going.
Because I have that luxury of being able to disengage, even temporarily, where millions don’t, perhaps this isn’t for me to say, but I think we need to be honest about the fact that fighting systematic injustice – particularly as a woman, a person of colour or a queer person, where your identity can become part of the battleground – is exhausting. And in order to keep us resisting and making change happen, everyone needs some balance. Go on. Switch off the headlines, just for today.
Maybe, too, we’ve been thinking about the wrong films. Rather than Promising Young Woman’s hollow laugh into the abyss, perhaps we should take inspiration from the ending of Toy Story 3, where the toys in the daycare system agree to tag each other in and out of shifts being played with by the destructive toddlers, sewing each others’ burst seams and mending broken parts. Or from Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, revealing his new ability to Hulk out at will in between bouts of nerdy scientist downtime – “My secret is, I’m always angry.”
Kirsten Innes’ second novel, Scabby Queen, is out now in paperback, published by Fourth Estate (£8.99). Buy your copy here.