Depending on who you ask or what you read, the summer of 2021 is a Hot Girl Summer, a Hot Vax Summer, or perhaps, per this Vice article and also Lorde, a Feral Girl Summer. But scanning the pop-cultural landscape as we approach the July 4 weekend, I am inclined to brand it something else: Mad Girl Summer.
Mad Girl Summer shares some things in common with Hot Girl Summer and Feral Girl Summer in that all three celebrate women living their lives with confidence and a complete lack of fucks to give. But Mad Girl Summer is more specifically about women expressing their frustrations publicly, honestly, and not giving a hot-and-humid damn what anyone else thinks about it.
Obviously, the notion of strong women letting everybody know they’ve had it up to here is not some new cultural phenomenon. Over the past half-decade or so, especially in the wake of the mainstream Me Too movement, essays and trend pieces have been written over and over about the representation and interpretation of female rage in our culture. Last year, that phenomenon collided directly with the stress of the pandemic, which, as has been noted in many media outlets, was more acutely felt by women. That only amplified the sound of the exasperation, something Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday noted in a piece about the number of films in 2020, from Wonder Woman to Promising Young Woman, focused on women unafraid to express their anger.
“There’s no doubt that many of those productions were greenlit in the wake of Hollywood’s own reckoning with entrenched institutional sexism over the past few years,” Hornaday wrote last December. “But by the time they arrived, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, the resentments of the post-Weinstein, Trump White House era had been joined by florid pandemic-era mom rage. The screen heroines of 2020 wound up meeting their moment in unexpected and diabolically cathartic ways.”
Halfway through 2021, there are even more heroines — on screens, in pop music, in real life — meeting a mostly vaccinated, back-to-normal-ish moment by airing their grievances as though every day is now Festivus. The honesty right now? God, it’s brutal out here.
Again, as Hornaday noted, a lot of the art being released now was conceived and created pre-pandemic. Some of it, like Marvel’s forthcoming Black Widow, an MCU movie that also explicitly condemns men who attempt to control women’s bodies, would have come out in 2020 in an alternate, COVID-free world and had been in the works for even longer. But the fact that these movies, TV shows, pop songs, and moments of unfiltered celebrity honesty are happening now, as many of us are still mentally and emotionally processing the pandemic’s impact, makes them register even more sharply. After a year-plus of loss — of actual lives but also the everyday activities that give life structure and purpose — there’s a heightened sense of urgency to all this, one that may heighten further in the wake of the overturning of Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault convictions.
When the news broke yesterday that Cosby would be set free, it landed like a punch in the face to everything the Me Too movement has been trying to achieve, and many women (Phylicia Rashad not withstanding) reacted accordingly: with outrage. “I am furious to hear this news,” actress Amber Tamblyn, a founding member of Time’s Up, wrote on Twitter. She later tweeted, “I feel another op-ed about to rage through my body.” Last weekend, the New York Times published an essay by Tamblyn with the headline “Britney Spears’s Raw Anger, and Mine.”
But even before Cosby or the increased attention on the conservatorship Spears has been subjected to for years, Mad Girl Summer vibes were already baked into the pop culture of the season. The aforementioned Black Widow, out July 8, is the first Marvel movie to arrive in theaters post-pandemic and blatantly embraces feminist ideas, even if it presents them in a palatable, mainstream context. An origin story of sorts for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, the film explains how she, her sort-of-sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), and scores of other young women were indoctrinated in the Red Room, a program that trains them to be assassins and aims to strip them of any sense of agency in their own lives. In one climactic scene, Natasha finally gets to tell a key upholder of this abusive system how she really feels. “You took my childhood. You took my choices. You tried to break me,” she says. “But you’re never going to do that to anybody ever again.”
It’s a line you could imagine hearing in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, which ended its fourth season earlier this month — spoiler alert! — with a mob of former handmaids clawing, beating, and biting one of the show’s key male villains to death. It also feels like something that Britney Spears could have included in the justifiably angry remarks she made last week during a court hearing where she requested an end to the very real conservatorship that has stripped her of her agency in ways that parts of Black Widow eerily echo.
“I am traumatized,” Spears told a judge via Zoom, while describing how her father and other enablers of the conservatorship put her on lithium against her will and prevented her from removing an IUD so she could attempt to have another baby. “You know, fake it ’til you make it? But now I am telling you the truth, okay. I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane.”
Look around. Listen. Read. You can see, hear, and sense that a lot of women also feel so angry it’s insane even though they are sane, they know they’re sane, and they also know that the sanest way to deal with their anger is to vocalize it. You can hear it in the music, from the violent honesty in the lyrics of Lucy Dacus (“I would kill him / If you let me / I would kill him / Quick and easy,” she sings to the deadbeat dad of a close friend in “Thumbs”) to the screams of all-girl teen punk band the Linda Lindas wailing “Racist, Sexist Boy” in a public library, a place where older women traditionally shhh! younger women. (FYI: The Linda Lindas will not shhh for you.)
Every time the reigning mad girl of the Billboard charts Olivia Rodrigo sings or any time any female-identifying human sing-shouts along with an Olivia Rodrigo track, another Mad Girl Summer gets its wings. Seriously, try to belt out the sarcasm-coated words to “Good 4 U” — “Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy, not me / If you ever cared to ask / Good for you, you’re doing great out there without me, baby / Like a damn sociopath” — without punching a sunburnt arm into the air in righteous anger. You can’t. You can’t do it.
Even music made by fictional girl bands on TV shows, including the pop divas attempting to reclaim their crowns on Peacock’s Girls5Eva and the furious Muslim punk rockers of We Are Lady Parts, another Peacock gem, flips the middle finger at the status quo. The early days of Mad Girl Summer also improbably revealed that Cruella de Vil, one of the most famous Disney villains of all time, is actually a bitter, rage-filled punk rocker herself (you know … sort of).
On television, the Mad Girl Summer energy has been running extra-rampant. Flip to AMC — or AMC+ if you’re into that and/or have heard of it— and there’s Annie Murphy plotting to kill her husband in Kevin Can F**k Himself, a dramedy that flips the tables on classic, misogyny-riddled three-camera sitcoms. Starting July 5 on the same network, you can see Cush Jumbo channel her grief over the loss of a son into a quest for retribution in the aggressively titled limited series The Beast Must Die. Fire up HBO Max and you can watch Jean Smart absolutely obliterate a lame, sexist comic on Hacks or Kirt (Nina Moran) on the skater-girl series Betty lambast a bunch of dudes for catcalling women.
On Apple TV+, Rose Byrne viciously attempts to aerobicize her way out of a stifling home life in Physical. On Starz, Jasmine Cephas Jones channels her fury into busting up a hotel suite with a tennis racket while dropping incensed rhymes — “Why y’all get to live so free? Why shit only happen to me?” — on Blindspotting. On Amazon Prime, Thuso Mbedu, as Cora, almost never drops her steely gaze as she attempts to flee the chains of slavery in The Underground Railroad. On Adult Swim, Bertie (voiced by Ali Wong) tries to out-bro the bros and outachieve the chef who once sexually harassed her on Tuca & Bertie. While telling stories in wildly different time periods, contexts, and genres, the TV shows that coincide in the present moment are reminders that women are mad as hell and more than willing to say they’re not going to take it anymore.
When the delayed Olympic Games get underway in a few weeks, we’ll no doubt see even more of that on our small screens. We already have. During the U.S. Olympic trials last weekend in track and field, hammer thrower Gwen Barry, well-known for her activism around racial justice, turned away from the American flag when the National Anthem was played, an action that didn’t involve talking or primal screaming but nevertheless made a statement.
In a recent interview with Hoda Kotb, America’s star Olympian, gymnast Simone Biles, made it clear that she’s competing in Tokyo not just for herself but to make sure USA Gymnastics continues to be held accountable in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal.
“I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles said. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side. But since I’m still here, and I have quite a social-media presence and platform, they have to do something.”
Biles feels like she has a responsibility to honestly stand up and speak out. But in an off-the-cuff, hilarious ESPN interview at Wimbledon this week, tennis great Venus Williams highlighted another reason why so many frustrated women are compelled to say what they feel: Because they’re too pissed and tired to fake it.
After fielding the kinds of questions that highlight why another outspoken tennis star, Naomi Osaka, has expressed reluctance to fulfill her press obligations —“Can’t y’all ask me about something else?” Williams said after two queries related to her age — Williams commended Roger Federer for his sense of humor. “You’re funny, too,” responded tennis legend and ESPN commentator Chris Evert. “You’re on fire today,” added analyst Darren Cahill.
“You know why?” Williams responded with a laugh. “Because I just don’t care anymore. I’m telling the truth, and if you can’t take it, then I’m fine with that too. I’ve done a thousand interviews and just — the truth comes out now.”
Mad Girl Summer may be a season, but as those previously noted female-rage think pieces prove, righteously angry, honest, and vocal women have been and will remain at the forefront of our culture. A lot of women had it before, and they’ve really had it now. And even when it stops being hot outside, they’re not going away.