I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore. On female rage.
This article was published by the New York Times on January 17th, 2018. We are reposting this article.
For years, I described myself as someone who wasn’t prone to anger. “I don’t get angry,” I said. “I get sad.” I believed this inclination was mainly about my personality — that sadness was a more natural emotion for me than anger, that I was somehow built this way. It’s easy to misunderstand the self as private, when it’s rarely private at all: It’s always a public artifact, never fixed, perpetually sculpted by social forces. In truth, I was proud to describe myself in terms of sadness rather than anger. Why? Sadness seemed more refined and also more selfless — as if you were holding the pain inside yourself, rather than making someone else deal with its blunt-force trauma.
But a few years ago, I started to get a knot in my gut at the canned cadences of my own refrain: I don’t get angry. I get sad. At the shrillest moments of our own self-declarations — I am X, I am not Y — we often hear in that tinny register another truth, lurking expectantly, and begin to realize there are things about ourselves we don’t yet know. By which I mean that at a certain point, I started to suspect I was angrier than I thought.
Of course it wasn’t anger when I was 4 years old and took a pair of scissors to my parents’ couch — wanting so badly to destroy something, whatever I could. Of course it wasn’t anger when I was 16 and my boyfriend broke up with me, and I cut up the inside of my own ankle — wanting so badly to destroy something, whatever I could. Of course it wasn’t anger when I was 34 and fighting with my husband, when I screamed into a pillow after he left the house so our daughter wouldn’t hear, then threw my cellphone across the room and spent the next 10 minutes searching for it under the bed, and finally found it in a small pile of cat vomit. Of course it wasn’t anger when, during a faculty meeting early in my teaching days, I distributed statistics about how many female students in our department had reported instances of sexual harassment the year before: more than half of them.
A faculty member grew indignant and insisted that most of those claims probably didn’t have any basis at all. I clenched my fists. I struggled to speak. It wasn’t that I could say for sure what had happened in each of those cases — of course I couldn’t, they were just anonymous numbers on the page — but their sheer volume seemed horrifying. It demanded attention. I honestly hadn’t expected that anyone would resist these numbers or force me to account for why it was important to look at them. The scrutiny of the room made me struggle for words just when I needed them most. It made me dig my nails into my palm. What was that emotion? It was not sadness. It was rage.
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.
For a long time, I was drawn to “sad lady” icons: the scribes and bards of loneliness and melancholy. As a certain kind of slightly morbid, slightly depressive, slightly self-intoxicated, deeply predictable, pre-emptively apologetic literary fan-girl, I loved Sylvia Plath. I was obsessed with her own obsession with her own blood (“What a thrill ... that red plush”) and drawn to her suffering silhouette: a woman abandoned by her cheating husband and ensnared by the gendered double standards of domesticity. I attached myself to the mantra of her autobiographical avatar Esther Greenwood, who lies in a bathtub in “The Bell Jar,” bleeding during a rehearsal of a suicide attempt, and later stands at a funeral listening “to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” Her attachment to pain — her own and others’ — was also a declaration of identity. I wanted to get it tattooed on my arm.
Whenever I listened to my favorite female singers, it was easier for me to sing along to their sad lyrics than their angry ones. It was easier to play Ani DiFranco on repeat, crooning about heartbreak — “Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating/when you stopped calling me?” — than it was to hear her fury, and her irritation at the ones who stayed sad and quiet in her shadow: “Some chick says/Thank you for saying all the things I never do/I say, you know/The thanks I get is to take all the [expletive] for you.”
I kept returning to the early novels of Jean Rhys, whose wounded heroines flopped around dingy rented rooms in various European capitals, seeking solace from their heartbreak, staining cheap comforters with their wine. Sasha, the heroine of “Good Morning, Midnight” — the most famous of these early picaresques of pain — resolves to drink herself to death and manages, mainly, to cry her way across Paris. She cries at cafes, at bars, in her lousy hotel room. She cries at work. She cries in a fitting room. She cries on the street. She cries near the Seine. The closing scene of the novel is a scene of terrifying passivity: She lets a wraithlike man into her bed because she can’t summon the energy to stop him, as if she has finally lost touch with her willpower entirely. In life, Rhys was infamous for her sadness, what one friend called “her gramophone-needle-stuck-in-a-groove thing of going over and over miseries of one sort and another.” Even her biographer called her one of the greatest self-pity artists in the history of English fiction.
It took me years to understand how deeply I had misunderstood these women. I’d missed the rage that fueled Plath’s poetry like a ferocious gasoline, lifting her speakers (sometimes literally) into flight: “Now she is flying/More terrible than she ever was, red/Scar in the sky, red comet/Over the engine that killed her — the mausoleum, the wax house.” The speaker becomes a scar — this irrefutable evidence of her own pain — but this scar, in turn, becomes a comet: terrible and determined, soaring triumphant over the instruments of her own supposed destruction. I’d always been preoccupied with the pained disintegration of Plath’s speakers, but once I started looking, I saw the comet trails of their angry resurrections everywhere, delivering their unapologetic fantasies of retribution: “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.”
I’d loved Rhys for nearly a decade before I read her final novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” a reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” whose whole plot leads inexorably toward an act of destructive anger: The mad first wife of Mr. Rochester burns down the English country manor where she has been imprisoned in the attic for years. In this late masterpiece, the heroines of Rhys’s early novels — heartbroken, drunk, caught in complicated choreographies of passivity — are replaced by an angry woman with a torch, ready to use the master’s tools to destroy his house.
It wasn’t that these authors were writing exclusively about female anger rather than female sorrow; their writing holds both states of feeling. “Wide Sargasso Sea” excavates the deep veins of sadness running beneath an otherwise opaque act of angry destruction, and Plath’s poems are invested in articulating the complicated affective braids of bitterness, irony, anger, pride and sorrow that others often misread as monolithic sadness. “They explain people like that by saying that their minds are in watertight compartments, but it never seemed so to me,” Rhys herself once wrote. “It’s all washing about, like the bilge in the hold of a ship.”
It has always been easier to shunt female sadness and female anger into the “watertight compartments” of opposing archetypes, rather than acknowledging the ways they run together in the cargo hold of every female psyche. Near the end of the new biopic “I, Tonya,” Tonya Harding’s character explains: “America, they want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.” The timing of the film’s release, in late 2017, seemed cosmically apt. It resurrected a definitional prototype of female anger — at least for many women like me, who came of age during the 1990s — at the precise moment that so many women were starting to get publicly, explicitly, unapologetically angry.
Harding was an object of fascination not just because of the soap opera she dangled before the public gaze — supposedly conspiring with her ex-husband and an associate to plan an attack on her rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan — but also because she and Kerrigan provided a yin and yang of primal female archetypes. As a vision of anger — uncouth and unrestrained, the woman everyone loved to hate, exploding at the judges when they didn’t give her the scores she felt she deserved — Harding was the perfect foil for the elegant suffering of Kerrigan, sobbing in her lacy white leotard. Together they were an impossible duo to turn away from: the sad girl and the mad girl. Wounded and wicked. Their binary segregated one vision of femininity we adored (rule-abiding, delicate, hurting) from another we despised (trashy, whiny, angry). Harding was strong; she was poor; she was pissed off; and eventually, in the narrative embraced by the public, she turned those feelings into violence. But “I, Tonya” illuminates what so little press coverage at the time paid attention to: the perfect storm of violence that produced Harding’s anger in the first place — her mother’s abuse and her husband’s. Which is to say: No woman’s anger is an island.
When the Harding and Kerrigan controversy swept the media, I was 10 years old. Their story was imprinted onto me as a series of reductive but indelible brush strokes: one woman shouting at the media, another woman weeping just beyond the ice rink. But after watching “I, Tonya” and realizing how much these two women had existed to me as ideas, rather than as women, I did what any reasonable person would do: I Googled “Tonya and Nancy” obsessively. I Googled: “Did Tonya ever apologize to Nancy?” I Googled: “Tonya Harding boxing career?” and discovered that it effectively began with her 2002 “Celebrity Boxing” match against Paula Jones — two women paid to perform the absurd caricatures of vengeful femininity the public had projected onto them, the woman who cried harassment versus the woman who bashed kneecaps.
In the documentaries I watched, I found Harding difficult to like. She comes off as a self-deluded liar with a robust victim complex, focused on her own misfortune to the exclusion of anyone else’s. But what does the fact that I found Harding “difficult to like” say about the kind of women I’m comfortable liking? Did I want the plotline in which the woman who has survived her own hard life — abusive mother, abusive husband, enduring poverty — also emerges with a “likable” personality: a plucky spirit, a determined work ethic and a graceful, self-effacing relationship to her own suffering?
The vision of Harding in “I, Tonya” is something close to the opposite of self-effacing. The film even includes a fantastical re-enactment of the crime, which became popularly known as the “whack heard round the world,” in which Harding stands over Kerrigan’s cowering body, baton raised high above her head, striking her bloody knee until Harding turns back toward the camera — her face defiant and splattered with Kerrigan’s blood. Even though the attack was actually carried out by a hired hit man, this imagined scene distills the version of the story that America became obsessed with, in which one woman’s anger leaves another woman traumatized.
But America’s obsession with these two women wasn’t that simple. There was another story that rose up in opposition. In this shadow story, Harding wasn’t a monster but a victim, an underdog unfairly vilified, and Kerrigan was a crybaby who made too much of her pain. In a 2014 Deadspin essay, “Confessions of a Tonya Harding Apologist,” Lucy Madison wrote: “She represented the fulfillment of an adolescent revenge fantasy — myadolescent revenge fantasy, the one where the girl who doesn’t quite fit in manages to soar over everyone’s [expletive] without giving up a fraction of her prerogative — and I could not have loved her more.” When Kerrigan crouched sobbing on the floor near the training rink, right after the attack (Newsweek described it as “the sound of one dream breaking”), she famously cried out: “Why? Why? Why?” But when Newsweek ran the story on its cover, it printed the quote as: “Why Me?” The single added word turned her shock into keening self-pity.
These two seemingly contradictory versions of Harding and Kerrigan — raging bitch and innocent victim, or bad-girl hero and whiny crybaby — offered the same cutout dolls dressed in different costumes. The entitled weeper was the unacceptable version of a stoic victim; the scrappy underdog was the acceptable version of a raging bitch. At first glance, they seemed like opposite stories, betraying our conflicted collective relationship to female anger — that it’s either heroic or uncontrollably destructive — and our love-hate relationship with victimhood itself: We love a victim to hurt for but grow irritated by one who hurts too much. Both stories, however, insisted upon the same segregation: A woman couldn’t hurt and be hurt at once. She could be either angry or sad. It was easier to outsource those emotions to the bodies of separate women than it was to acknowledge that they reside together in the body of every woman.
Ten years ago in Nicaragua, a man punched me in the face on a dark street. As I sat on a curb afterward — covered in my own blood, holding a cold bottle of beer against my broken nose — a cop asked me for a physical description of the man who had just mugged me. Maybe 20 minutes later, a police vehicle pulled up: a pickup truck outfitted with a barred cage in the back. There was a man in the cage.
“Is this him?” the cop asked. I shook my head, horrified, acutely aware of my own power — realizing, in that moment, that simply saying I was hurtcould take away a stranger’s liberty. I was a white woman, a foreigner volunteering at a local school, and I felt ashamed of my own familiar silhouette: a vulnerable white woman crying danger at anonymous men lurking in the shadows. I felt scared and embarrassed to be scared. I felt embarrassed that everyone was making such a fuss. One thing I did not feel was anger.
That night, my sense of guilt — my shame at being someone deemed worthy of protection, and at the ways that protection might endanger others — effectively blocked my awareness of my own anger. It was as if my privilege outweighed my vulnerability, and that meant I wasn’t entitled to any anger at all. But if I struggled to feel entitled to anger that night in Nicaragua, I have since come to realize that the real entitlement has never been anger; it has always been its absence. The aversion to anger I had understood in terms of temperament or intention was, in all honesty, also a luxury. When the black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde described her anger as a lifelong response to systemic racism, she insisted upon it as a product of the larger social landscape rather than private emotional ecology: “I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger ... for most of my life.”
After the Uma Thurman clip went viral, the Trinidadian journalist Stacy-Marie Ishmael tweeted: “*interesting* which kinds of women are praised for public anger. I’ve spent my whole career reassuring people this is just my face.” Michelle Obama was dogged by the label of “angry black woman” for the duration of her husband’s time in office. Scientific research has suggested that the experience of racism leads African-Americans to suffer from higher blood pressure than white Americans and has hypothesized that this disparity arises from the fact that they accordingly experience more anger and are simultaneously expected to suppress it. The tennis superstar Serena Williams was fined over $80,000 for an angry outburst against a lineswoman at the U.S. Open in 2009: “I swear to God, I’ll [expletive] take this ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat.” Gretchen Carlson, a Fox anchor at the time, called another one of Williams’s angry outbursts in 2011 a symbol of “what’s wrong with our society today.” Carlson, of course, has since come to embody a certain brand of female empowerment: One of the leading voices accusing the late Fox News chairman Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, she recently published a book called “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.” But the portrait on its cover — of a fair-skinned, blond-haired woman smiling slightly in a dark turtleneck — reminds us that fierceness has always been more palatable from some women than from others.
What good is anger, anyway? The philosopher Martha Nussbaum invokes Aristotle’s definition of anger as “a response to a significant damage” that “contains within itself a hope for payback” to argue that anger is not only “a stupid way to run one’s life” but also a corrosive public force, predicated on the false belief that payback can redress the wrongdoing that inspired it. She points out that women have often embraced the right to their own anger as a “vindication of equality,” part of a larger project of empowerment, but that its promise as a barometer of equality shouldn’t obscure our vision of its dangers. In this current moment of ascendant female anger, are we taking too much for granted about its value? What if we could make space for both anger and a reckoning with its price?
In her seminal 1981 essay, “The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde weighs the value of anger differently than Nussbaum: not in terms of retribution, but in terms of connection and survival. It’s not just a byproduct of systemic evils, she argues, but a catalyst for useful discomfort and clearer dialogue. “I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger,” she writes, “and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter.” Anger isn’t just a blaze burning structures to the ground; it also casts a glow, generates heat and brings bodies into communion. “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions,” Lorde writes, “which brought that anger into being.”