On Female Rage

Leslie Jamison for NY Times
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Leslie Jamison’s piece on cultural and personal responses to female rage, featured in the New York Times.

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The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself, the figure of the angry woman reframed as threat — not the one who has been harmed, but the one bent on harming. She conjures a lineage of threatening archetypes: the harpy and her talons, the witch and her spells, the medusa and her writhing locks. The notion that female anger is unnatural or destructive is learned young; children report perceiving displays of anger as more acceptable from boys than from girls. According to a review of studies of gender and anger written in 2000 by Ann M. Kring, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, men and women self-report “anger episodes” with comparable degrees of frequency, but women report experiencing more shame and embarrassment in their aftermath. People are more likely to use words like “bitchy” and “hostile” to describe female anger, while male anger is more likely to be described as “strong.” Kring reported that men are more likely to express their anger by physically assaulting objects or verbally attacking other people, while women are more likely to cry when they get angry, as if their bodies are forcibly returning them to the appearance of the emotion — sadness — with which they are most commonly associated.

A 2016 study found that it took longer for people to correctly identify the gender of female faces displaying an angry expression, as if the emotion had wandered out of its natural habitat by finding its way to their features. A 1990 study conducted by the psychologists Ulf Dimberg and L.O. Lundquist found that when female faces are recognized as angry, their expressions are rated as more hostile than comparable expressions on the faces of men — as if their violation of social expectations had already made their anger seem more extreme, increasing its volume beyond what could be tolerated.

In “What Happened,” her account of the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton describes the pressure not to come across as angry during the course of her entire political career — “a lot of people recoil from an angry woman,” she writes — as well as her own desire not to be consumed by anger after she lost the race, “so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations,’ rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.” The specter of Dickens’s ranting spinster — spurned and embittered in her crumbling wedding dress, plotting her elaborate revenge — casts a long shadow over every woman who dares to get mad.

If an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily. She often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant. Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It’s as if the prospect of a woman’s anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.

Consider the red-carpet clip of Uma Thurman that went viral in November, during the initial swell of sexual-harassment accusations. The clip doesn’t actually show Thurman’s getting angry. It shows her very conspicuously refusing to get angry. After commending the Hollywood women who had spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault, she said that she was “waiting to feel less angry” before she spoke herself. It was curious that Thurman’s public declarations were lauded as a triumphant vision of female anger, because the clip offered precisely the version of female anger that we’ve long been socialized to produce and accept: not the spectacle of female anger unleashed, but the spectacle of female anger restrained, sharpened to a photogenic point. By withholding the specific story of whatever made her angry, Thurman made her anger itself the story — and the raw force of her struggle not to get angry on that red carpet summoned the force of her anger even more powerfully than its full explosion would have, just as the monster in a movie is most frightening when it only appears offscreen.

This was a question I began to consider quite frequently as the slew of news stories accrued last fall: How much female anger has been lurking offscreen? How much anger has been biding its time and biting its tongue, wary of being pathologized as hysteria or dismissed as paranoia? And what of my own vexed feelings about all this female anger? Why were they even vexed? It seemed a failure of moral sentiment or a betrayal of feminism, as if I were somehow siding with the patriarchy, or had internalized it so thoroughly I couldn’t even spot the edges of its toxic residue. I intuitively embraced and supported other women’s anger but struggled to claim my own. Some of this had to do with the ways I’d been lucky — I had experienced all kinds of gendered aggression, but nothing equivalent to the horror stories so many other women have lived through. But it also had to do with an abiding aversion to anger that still festered like rot inside me. In what I had always understood as self-awareness — I don’t get angry. I get sad — I came to see my own complicity in the same logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence.

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