Menu

Anger, the ‘Unfeminine’ Emotion

Issue 244

Isobel Van Hagen Mar 8

Soraya Chemaly’s new book begins with a description of her mother and father’s beautiful white-and-gold wedding china that was only used in her household on very rare occasions. “That’s why, one day when I was fifteen, I was dumbfounded to see my mother standing on the long veranda outside our kitchen, chucking one china plate after another as hard and as fast as she could into the hot, humid air.” Her mother never discussed it with anyone.

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger and Rebecca Traister’s new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger both center around the supposedly unfeminine emotion: anger, and its repression in women.

Much of what both Traister and Chemaly address in their books is a catch-22: We live in a time where there is plenty for women to be mad about, but responding to the feeling comes with its own negative consequences. When a woman shows anger, Chemaly discerns, “she automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent, and unlikable.” On the other hand, other kinds of self-assertion by women are often labeled as anger, and are therefore dismissed as an emotion impossible for a woman to legitimately feel.

They also both examine the double standard associated with all forms of anger, as men’s anger is often seen as forceful and righteous, while women’s anger is often dismissed as bitterness, and as being “overly emotional” or even as “unhinged.” Young girls are taught to prioritize other kinds of feelings, taught that anger is undesirable.

Good and Mad focuses specifically on the intersection of politics and anger. It scrutinizes historical and current feminist political action, particularly in response to the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement that followed shortly thereafter. Rage Becomes Her takes a more open-ended approach, focusing less on the consequences of the emotion of anger itself and examining a wide range of social norms that create the disparities that should make us angry.

Rage Becomes Her opens with the idea that women actually rarely even learn how to feel anger, “Sadness, yes. Envy, anxiety, guilt, check, check, check. But not anger.” Sadness — a more ‘feminine’ state — is a “retreat” emotion, the opposite of anger which is an “approach” emotion, an emotion that requires action.

While sadness often means thinking more deeply, its downside is that it “can easily turn into paralyzing rumination, lowered expectations and costly impatience. Sad people accept and are satisfied with less.”

In order to counter this, Chemaly — in a long polemic, almost textbook-like format — methodically takes the reader through a woman’s life, from girlhood to adulthood, highlighting the systemic sexism that should make them feel angry, rather than sad. She covers healthcare, sexual assault, how women have been written out of history and much more.

One of the main concepts Chemaly focuses on as a key reason for subconscious female rage is what she refers to as “The Caring Mandate.” You guessed it, women are taught, groomed and expected to take care of everyone else. She invokes an economic argument, that women’s unpaid and undervalued care stands as the single greatest wealth transfer in today’s global economy — and it is basically ignored as legitimate “work.”

At the heart of the Caring Mandate is the particular entanglement of “woman” and “mother.” Societies glorify motherhood and not the mothers themselves. Every 90 seconds, for example, a woman dies from a preventable pregnancy-related complication. What could be more infuriating?

She offers a pertinent suggestion, an antidote to the suppression of anger that women face — using anger as a form of connection, particularly between women. This is also a key ingredient of empowerment according to Good and Mad. In fact, solidarity among women is as important a theme in Traister’s book as anger itself.

In what feels like a string of essays rather than a single narrative, Traister, a New York Magazine writer, deftly focused her writing on the specifics of rage in the context of American politics, and how this newfound feminist anger could and should be revolutionary. The main impediment to this pending feminist political revolution, she argues, is women’s habit of hiding and minimizing rage. Like Chemaly, she illustrates the many ways American society stresses that women’s anger is impolite, unfeminine and unattractive. But she specifically chooses to spotlight anger because it is politically important, despite being underplayed in the history of female political activists: “Anger has rarely been acknowledged as righteous and patriotic when it has originated with women…”

Good and Mad was borne from the 2016 election, and more specifically from the Women’s March. It starts with a look at the recent reemergence of feminism, after “decades of a feminist deep freeze.” Feminists no longer seemed to be angry, so “mainstream feminism was funny, hip, enthusiastic about sex … and kind of cool.” Not to mention, she added dryly, as Hillary Clinton geared up for the presidency, what was there to be angry about?

The Women’s March sparked a newly awakened rage of white women that was, as Traister brilliantly puts it, “just that: newly awakened.” Traister makes a concerted effort to honor the leading roles of women of color in resistance movements, and urges newly awakened white women to educate themselves about the struggles of women “who have never not been angry.”

The election of Donald Trump produced raw fury, disillusionment and political activism, and Traister paints this new anger as a specifically progressive and good force for women, but where do we go from here?

There are many different forms of anger — resentment, rage and disillusionment, to name a few, and neither book takes much time to carefully define the emotion. Perhaps the assumption is the specific kind of anger doesn’t matter, and long as it is funneled into something politically or socially progressive. But is all unadulterated anger virtuous? That occasionally feels like the suggestion when reading — whether it is meant to or not.

So, while the exact definition of productive anger may need more addressing, there is something positive about the acceptance of “pure” female anger, no matter the type — it allows for an acknowledgment of that specific emotion (no it’s not sadness, it’s not hysterics, you’re not “crazy”) and knowing that action must be taken.

So when the world comes to tell you that you shouldn’t get mad again, writes Traister, “because you were kind of nuts and you never cooked dinner and you yelled at the TV and weren’t so pretty, and life will be easier when you get fun again… I say to all the women reading now: What you’re angry about now — injustice — will still exist, even if you yourself are not experiencing it … others are still experiencing it … Stay mad for them. Stay mad with them.”

Rage Becomes Her: The Power Of Women’s Anger
By Soraya Chemaly
Atria Books, 2018

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
By Rebecca Traister
Simon & Schuster, 2018


Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.