Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
There’s a moment in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women after Amy has fallen through the ice—she’d chased after her older sister Jo who angrily ignores her; Amy skates too far out trying to catch up. Now Amy is lying in bed. Jo and Marmee are sitting on the floor, leaning against the opposite bed, watching Amy sleep. And Jo tells her mother she doesn’t understand it. “I’ve cried over my sins,” she says. But it doesn’t make a difference. “I get in a passion; I get so savage I could hurt anyone and enjoy it.”
“You remind me of myself,” Marmie says.
“But you’re never angry,” Jo says, wanly.
She smiles kindly at Jo. “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”
I cried for most of the movie, but this is the moment I remember as most heartwrenching. Laura Dern says it so gently, sitting next to one daughter in a crisis, looking at another; she seems so distant from the roiling feeling of her girls and their youth. But she tells her daughter it doesn’t go away—all the big feelings stay with you. And, because she’s Marmee, who is unfailingly generous and warm, the leader of this big-hearted, golden family, and because she’s Laura Dern, it feels like an absolution. It’s okay to be angry.
I am angry almost every day of my life, too.
I used to say that I didn’t really get angry, I just got sad—about friends who had wronged me, or folks failing to do the right thing, or about injustices of all sizes. I think I figured that being sad was a more virtuous response. More feminine, because it wasn’t contentious. Crying over everyone’s sins, instead of fighting back. And when I did fight back—when I got into it with my parents, or a friend, or someone I was dating—I inevitably cried, which I took as evidence. Maybe I’ve changed—but I think I’m just more honest with myself. I’m spitting mad, most of the time. They say if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention, and I pay attention.
I’m angry that generations of policy makers and business leaders have destroyed the planet for their own financial gain, and actively spread misinformation to prevent legislative action that would save the poorest neighborhoods in Boston from going underwater. I’m angry that the University of Michigan knew of multiple, credible sexual misconduct allegations against our provost, and they still appointed him to the position that oversees the office that handles sexual misconduct cases. I’m angry that Republican senate leadership are consistently blocking election security bills, even when they know Russia is meddling in our elections—again. I’m angry that the President—well, I’m just angry that the President, full stop. (Let alone the caging of children at our borders, the appointment of at best, incompetent, and at worst, corrupt judges, ambassadors, and officials—there’s too many news stories about his assault on democracy; I can’t even give you hyperlinks for those.) I’m angry on behalf of the students I teach—who have never known a day when the United States was not at war, who were born into a world that knows and does not care about planetary death, who are coming of age as democracy is disintegrating and their extremely expensive college degrees don’t guarantee a decent job, which leaves them strapped with debt if their parents can’t pay it.
And I’m really angry when people tell me not to be so angry.
Aren’t you paying attention?
Don’t tell me not to care.
I know these people are trying to look out for me, and to stave off what can be a self-destructive response to evils I have little power to address. I know that in part, people also don’t want their day ruined by me spouting off about the ways the electoral college was designed to protect enslavement in the antebellum South. It’s a real buzzkill—to hear that what you’ve always been taught was right and good or honestly just fine, and therefore did not require your attention or have moral demands on your conscience or your vote, is, in fact, pretty sinister. Maybe that’s why I’m angry. I feel like I was sold a story of America, and a story of my people and who we were, and it turns out that it was mostly a lie, a lot of people are suffering, and the people who aren’t—and a lot of people I trusted—don’t seem to care.
I don’t know what to do with all that anger.
In that scene in Little Women—and those women, who couldn’t vote, or own property, or make a living, or plan their families, whose country had gone to war over slavery and was in a panic about immigration, who also had a lot to be very, very angry about—to them Marmee says, I’m angry nearly every day of my life. But, “with nearly forty years of work, I’ve learned not to let it get the better of me.” It doesn’t distract her from immediate human need: the lonely Mr. Laurence and Teddy, the impoverished Hummel family, returning Union soldiers and their families looking for news. I don’t know if that’s an answer to my anger. But I suppose it’s a start.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.