Reclaiming Our Rage

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There’s a lot being written about women and anger right now and I am here for all of it.

Rebecca Traister, who is writing a book on the subject, recently posted a thread on Twitter pointing to a number of recent articles on women’s anger: “Does This Year Make Me Look Angry?,” by Ijeoma Oluo in Elle; “#MeToo Isn’t Enough. Now Women Need to Get Ugly,” by Barbara Kingsolver in the Guardian; “We are Living Through the Moment When Women Unleash Decades of Pent-Up Anger,” by Katha Pollitt in The Nation; “Most Women You Know Are Angry — And That’s Alright,” by Longreads columnist Laurie Penny in Teen Vogue.

But one piece she included resonated with me on a deeply personal level: “I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore,” by Leslie Jamison in The New York Times Magazine.

Jamison examines women’s long-standing conditioning against owning and expressing anger, instead sublimating their rage in sadness, which has historically been more acceptable. I know this mechanism all too well. It long ago became second nature for me to respond to affronts and offenses of all kinds by bursting into tears and withdrawing deep into sorrow rather than raging or even just speaking up for myself in a firm and reasonable way. In my 50s, I’m only first learning how to do the latter, and usually only after first defaulting to the emotional bypass toward crying instead. For so many of us — maybe for most women — this is a conditioning that is difficult to root out because of a culture that taught us our anger makes us threatening.

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.

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