The Shared Trauma of Women: A Reflection on Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

CW: This article talks about lived experiences of emotional abuse that may be uncomfortable for some.

On a warm day last April, laying out in my parent’s yard as I tried to summon some serotonin to offset the dread of the “new normal,” caused by COVID-19 I was punched right in the gut.

Fiona Apple’s new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters had just dropped, and all my favorite women on Twitter were raving about it.  I listened, and I felt sick, seen, validated, healed, inspired, and freed, all at once.  Apple touched upon a very real phenomenon among women that I had never seen in art before — kinship with those women who have had their lives irrevocably harmed by the same man as you.

I initially experienced this at age 17, when I entered my first real, “Facebook official” relationship.  My new boyfriend spoke about his ex girlfriend negatively, calling her selfish and crazy.  Many of his friends echoed the same sentiments. I, innocent and naive, and still unaware of my own internalized misogyny, prided myself on not being like her.  I was loving and rational.  I took nudes. I had male best friends.  I liked to drink beer.  I was a cool girl, everything a teenage boy could ever want.

Then the abuse started.   It was never physical, but the emotional and psychological torment that followed nearly broke me. Calling me selfish for going away to college, rather than staying home to take care of him.  Ignoring me on weekends, resuming contact only to say he knew I was going to get drunk and cheat on him. Picking a fight with me on my birthday, after a new friend mentioned a night out that I had “hid from him.” At my young age, I had nothing to compare this experience to. I had been taught, through art and media, that relationships often equated to suffering. I believed I was simply experiencing yet another reality of adulthood–to love is to hurt. My boyfriend rationalized his own shitty behavior by his poor mental health, I rationalized my acceptance of it by the same. This same pattern, of allowing men to aggressively push their trauma on to me, pulling me down to that same place of self-loathing they occupied, would continue on for at least another decade. I’m still working on it.

In the wake of this young relationship’s ending, however, I realized the so-called “selfish and crazy” ex-girlfriend was, like me, coping with the impact of gaslighting, inconsistent communication, and emotional manipulation. I felt connected to this woman whom I’d never met, recognizing that my pain must mirror her own.

Girls are taught from a very young age that their own self-sacrifice is essential for success in a romantic relationship. Boys are taught that they should seek out a partner who will tolerate all their bullshit, and if she voices her own emotional needs, they should give only the bare minimum, and expect everything in return. It is very difficult to break this cycle. A more feminist societial approach to parenting, education, and media can help. But sadly, as I’ve learned, reading bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, or Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble does not stop a man from being an asshole to women. Understanding feminist theory does not mean living a feminist life.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an undeniably feminist album, blew my mind because I had never heard a woman articulate the feelings I had. In an interview with Vulture, Apple says, “This album is a lot of not letting men pit us against each other or keep us separate from each other so they can control the message.” Throughout the record, Apple does sing to lovers, past and present, but her overall message is her desire to connect with other women– to thank them, to help them, and to warn them.

In “Newspaper”, a song that brings a lump to my throat upon every listen, Apple sings to her ex’s new partner:

And it’s a shame, because you and I didn’t get a witness

We’re the only ones who know

We were cursed, the moment that he kissed us

From then on, it was his big show

I grew concerned, when I saw him start to covet you

When I learned what he did, I felt close to you

In my own way, I fell in love with you

But he’s made me a ghost to you

I’ve been the “I” in these sonnets, wanting to caution future victims, and I’ve been the ‘“you,” too, letting someone do to me the same horrible things I knew they did to someone else, because I believed I was different. 

“Ladies,” explicitly lays out Apple’s desire to feel camaraderie with those who have been loved by the same man she has, past and present. She sings:

There’s a dress in the closet

Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it

I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine

It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine

She left it behind with a note, one line, it said

“I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying”

She was very kind.

I wish I had learned as a girl to prioritize my connections with other women more than with an undeserving man. I wish I had learned that loving someone doesn’t mean letting them take out all their pain on you, and accepting it as a hallmark of your dedication to them. I wish I had learned that other women weren’t the competition, and a man’s affection wasn’t the prize. I wish I had learned that if he did it to someone else, he will probably also do it to you.

Even with feminism at the center of my worldview, my ethics, and my relationships, I’ve still allowed the shittiness of male privilege and misogyny dig its claws into my psyche. Fetch the Bolt Cutters reminded me that I’m not alone, and connection with other women is what will heal me. It is the strength of other women that has helped me overcome the pain inflicted on me by men, handing me those bolt cutters, reminding me that I can get myself out.

Thanks to Andrea for writing her first article for GSC! Go follow her on twitter and be on the lookout for more stellar writing from her soon.

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