The year began with a record-breaking march, and chant: “The pussy grabs back.” At the time, it felt like an abstract promise. As the months went on, it became our warning, until it came to define 2017: the year women took back their narratives — both real and fictional.
Turning the language of so-called “locker room talk” into our rallying cry was just the beginning of reappropriating “male-only” spaces to speak our truths. From politics to Hollywood, we stopped giving institutions ruled by men a free pass to define us. And the seismic reckoning of getting to tell our own stories continues to shake those institutions to their core.
From #MeToo to the biggest box office hits and award winners of TV and film, women’s voices and experiences dominated the internet, prestige entertainment, and everything in between. Wonder Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, Lady Bird, Mudbound, Insecure, The Keepers, Alias Grace, Big Little Lies — in 2017, female writers and creators finally got the the chance to reflect our inner worlds through media.
And their art helped female viewers realize something vital: We are not alone.
Much of the female-centric storytelling this year focused on women protagonists who were themselves struggling to reclaim their stories. And, like those characters, in the real world we realized that, in order to do that, we’d need to find solidarity in our shared experiences.
So take a look at the groundbreaking narratives that, in the hellscape that was 2017, helped women end our silence.
The collective stories of oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale
Arguably the trend began with The Handmaid’s Tale, which demonstrated how men control women through social narratives. Under the guise of Christian values, Gilead doesn’t just alienate women from their own bodies, but from their own sense of self, and each other. Ironically, though, the biggest threat to the regime lies to the very mechanics of oppression they inflict on the handmaids, their collective trauma transforming them into a unified army throughout the season.
It comes as no surprise, then, that words are the most forbidden contraband to a handmaid. And, conversely, words make up the small acts of rebellion that build solidarity between them.
When Offred discovers a latin phrase carved into her closet by the previous Offred, it becomes her mantra for survival: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches. Their reappropriation of the Commander’s stupid “boyhood” joke isn’t just a promise to not let the bastards grind them down. It reminds Offred that she isn’t alone, becoming their own version of “the pussy grabs back.”
In the season finale, both the audience and Offred are given one brief moment of ecstacy through the dangerous package we assume is a weapon. But they’re letters. Hundreds of letters written by handmaids documenting their names, stories, losses, traumas.
“Please don’t forget me. Please don’t forget us all,” one reads, begging not only Offred but history itself to remember their personhood. These letters are weapons, we come to realize, akin to the real-world whisper networks women used before it became acceptable to talk openly about sexual assault.
The stories of trauma in Big Little Lies
Big Little Lies gets at the IRL gaslighting women, especially survivors of assault, must overcome in order to return a sense of coherency to their lives. But they can only regain control over their stories by setting aside the social biases that divide them, and banding together to protect one another.
Often, survivors of sexual trauma describe a fracturing of their memories, represented on the show through the disjointed images and flashbacks that interrupt Jane and Celeste’s narratives. Jane can’t remember the face of her attacker, but will never forget the footprints he left behind on the sand as he simply walked off, returning to his untarnished persona as a loving husband and father.
Meanwhile, the jarring cuts back to gossiping townsfolk during the police investigation shows how these gaps in a survivor’s memory often get judged as a sure sign of guilt. And, technically, these women are guilty of the crime.
But then the question becomes: Who do our laws protect if women feel they must lie about fighting back against a violent predator? As a lawyer, Celeste knows the importance of getting in front of the narrative by giving them all a single, airtight, coherent story to tell the police. It may not be the truth, but it ensures their freedom.
In the final scene, the images that used to haunt Jane — like her rapists footprints — are reappropriated into the footprints of the women’s gleeful children enjoying a beautiful day on the beach. Again, women have found liberation from their trauma through solidarity, and reclaiming their narrative.
The stories of everyday people
Other less-talked-about sleeper hits of 2017 similarly focused on women taking back their own stories after traumatic events.
Alias Grace is about a woman who embodies every female trope from the male psyche: she is both the innocent madonna victim, and the scheming evil whore, all wrapped into one. Even to the kindly doctor who says he just wishes to record the truth of her story, Grace is only an interesting case for his research. The last thing she ever is to all the people jockeying for her “real story” is: a person. So she never concedes the truth to them — or even us, the audience. Because we have not earned her story.
Women have only just begun to find our voices, to tell our own stories in our own words.
In the Netflix true-crime documentary The Keepers, female former students of a Catholic school band together to solve the murder of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine. Instead, as they begin to connect the dots and recover their own repressed memories, they realize that she wasn’t the only innocent whose life was stolen by the hands of the school’s powerful Father Maskell. The real twist becomes how hard every institution that was supposed to protect them (like the police and the church) worked to protect their sexual predator instead. But by becoming each other’s keepers, and ending their silence, they finally get their voices heard.
It isn’t justice, but it’s the next best thing: It finally gives their stories, including Sister Catherine’s, some sense of closure.
The stories to come
The female-centric storytelling of 2017 didn’t just predict the so-called “Weinstein Effect” we’re currently in now. They were precursors. Narrative became the battleground on which we began to wage the war on our systemic silencing. And we found each other through these stories which finally recognized our collective trauma, transforming them into a cry for revolution.
The women creators and silence-breakers at the heart of these Hollywood stories overcame the real-world systems of oppression that kept us quiet for decades. Because almost every story of harassment, assault, or rape that breaks also tells the story of a marginalized female artist.
It isn’t by mistake that Hollywood became the stage where we first started taking sexual harassment seriously. The stories we tell through media matter, and they matter even more when they revolve around the lived experiences that have gone unheard for far too long.
Of course, female solidarity is drastically easier to achieve in the abstract of a TV show or film. Importantly, you’ll notice that the majority of the stories that got the most attention this year, both real and fictional, were those of straight white (often affluent) cis women. Women have only just begun to find our voices, to tell our stories in our own words. There is still a lot of work to be done before other marginalized perspectives are given the media’s megaphone.
But if the women-centric storytelling of 2017 was enough to start this revolution, we can only imagine what the stories of 2018 will bring.