“The worst thing you can call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy. That’s bullshit.” – Dave Chapelle
What is anger? What does it look like in women or more importantly, what is it expected to look like in women?
The myth of the angry woman is one that takes no prisoners. Every stereotype from the “disgruntled housewife” to “angry black woman” and a personal favorite, “turbo bitch,” injects itself into the idea that anger and femaleness do not correlate, “crazy” tailgating close behind. It’s the self-setting trap that catches everyone, ensnaring even the most even-keeled into the consequences of being the angry woman carried away by her emotions. Our personhood is taken away from us when we are perceived as angry, losing wholeness, and becoming a collection of rattled-off, tired descriptions: out-of-control, crazy, less competent, PMSing, unstable, you can pick your favorite.
The idea that anger is always unhealthy or destructive is one that has been disproven countless times over. Without anger as a necessary social and emotional action, we probably would still exist in a world more reminiscent of the structures of the 1700s, rather than the one we live in today. Though, the myth of what anger often looks like and its exact boundaries are still lay unclear, existing in a murky foundation of what is acceptable and what’s not. Stereotypically, anger is rigidly viewed as a hyper-masculine trait, therefore regarded as a defining construct of what it means to express yourself as a “man.” But apply that in a feminine sense? Expressing our anger is still considerably a bad thing yet it’s proven that not expressing that very same anger can lead not only to emotional problems, but physical ones as well.
Most women are socialized to not only believe anger is bad, but that acting out on this anger is even worse. It brings up issues that are taught to us early on, without any real examination – control, calmness and of course, niceness. Anger expressed gets even stickier if issues like low self-esteem, depression or mental illness are brought into the picture, conjuring up images of the “bad mother” or Virginia Woolf/Sylvia Plath generalizations that reduce the complexities of the intersections of mental illness, anger and depression, into a nice, neat little package, only full of the tragic lady narrative. Lets also not forget that women’s anger exists also as an excuse for a lot of misogynistic thinking wrapped up in bad science, as well as paternalistic advice columns when actual thought-provoking articles won’t do the trick.
“Both men and women have been poorly served by the gender socialization they have received,” says psychologist Sandra Thomas, PhD, a leading researcher in both men and women’s anger, in a 2003 New York Times article, where Thomas had studied the differences of anger and internal conflict across the strict gender binary. “Men have been encouraged to be more overt with their anger. If [boys] have a conflict on the playground, they act it out with their fists. Girls have been encouraged to keep their anger down.”
There is an underlying history of anger and its lack of presence (or really, ignoring it) in the feminine and in women’s lives, mostly due to the baggage of women acting “mad,” residual thinking still leftover from the extremes that women and their emotions were psychiatrically gauged by for the past hundred years. In Lisa Appignanesi’s book, Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present, Appignanesi looks at these defining emotions through the lends of psychiatry, recording the consequences of what happens when women in the past aren’t able to write their own stories on their mental illness or experienced, stigmatized emotions like anger. These ideas still give way to a narrative that defines what we consider “bad” or “uncontrollable” behavior, mostly directed at women experiencing anger. Historically, anger meant chaos, it meant unraveling and explosion- it was one of the cited causes of hysteria. It seemed once accusations of sorcery and witchcraft faded due to time, madness and anger became the new way at taming an overly “active” woman and all her attempted liberation’s.
“He tried to tell me I was too angry, but that always struck me as being more about him than about me. I think I threatened him. And I think it threatens a lot of people when you are angry but even more so when you have a good reason for it.”– Janet Eldred
Though women usually feel worse about their anger, they are also more likely to be punished for it. The continuing logic is that men are taught that anger is natural or even a sign of power, yet women are taught that their own anger is instead a negative reaction that reflects weak character. Call it the caretaker’s guilt or blame the culturally instilled fear of damaging those around us, anger, it seems, while normalized in men or in masculine behavior, becomes hostile, unmanageable and crazy in women or femininity.
Of course, being “angry” is qualified as much more than just that word and its connotations. It’s not only what we express our anger over, but also how we express our anger, what we think about when we are angry and how we act on that anger. We can all agree that anger has the potential to lead to violence, emotional and physical, if expressed in a way that becomes abusive, not proactive, not just potentially affecting others at our hands. But it also is the anger aimed at ourselves, the anger that builds up quietly, yet weighs heavier each time. The boiling hot feeling of frustration and rage and sadness that sits in your chest, until it wears into a thinly veiled resentment that is worn on our sleeves, ever present in all our interactions.
When women have tried to engage in proactive expressions of anger, in say, the name of assertiveness, we get the media a buzzing with terms like cat fights, girl-on-girl crime and in general, just being a bitch. If we do act on the perceived irrational aspects of our anger, we are often labeled as “crazy bitch,” adding a dimension of absolute chaos and ridiculousness to our behavior, making it easily dismissible. Just look at Australian Senator Penny Wong as she was “meowed” at by her male colleagues when expressing her own anger and frustration. Here was an incredibly powerful woman, angry and professionally keeping her cool, yet her anger was reduced to being considered catty or bitchy. Why? Why is female anger so stigmatized?
The thing about Senator Wong’s anger and most anger in general, is it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has foundations, whether they are the smallest of occurrences or larger incidents that rattle our core. The three main causes of anger, powerlessness, injustice and the irresponsibility of other people, are reasons enough to be angry, obvious and justified. Yet in these situations where there is an attempt to regain control or autonomy, it is met with ridicule or dismissiveness. Why? Comedian Margaret Cho explains:
These days, I strive to be a bitch, because not being one sucks. Not being a bitch means not having your voice heard. Not being a bitch means you agree with all the bullshit. Not being a bitch means you don’t appreciate all the other bitches who have come before you. Not being a bitch means since Eve ate that apple, we will forever have to pay for her bitchiness with complacence, obedience, acceptance, closed eyes, and open legs.
Being constantly angry is bad, destructively so ““ but just experiencing anger? Being angry because you have a reason to be? That’s life. Everyone has a right to that emotion and that place and more than not, rightly so. So how are we able to deal with anger proactively? How do we take the steps to translate our anger into something that produces results? And how do we change the attitudes that exist into just being okay with our anger, without boiling it down to being mad, sad, or bad?