The furore surrounding Serena Williams' recent "meltdown" at the US Open; the outcry over Kirstie Allsopp admitting to smashing her kids' iPads in frustration; the faux outrage and hysterical online reaction when a female activist dared to challenge Piers Morgan on live TV. It's clear that even in 2018, large swathes of society have a problem with angry women.
We've always been angry – we're underpaid, overworked at home and in the workplace, thwarted from reaching our potential and diminished. But female rage is suddenly all the rage, and in recent months female anger and the causes thereof have been taken more seriously and given greater validity than before. There has been a flurry of articles, TV shows (Sharp Objects and Killing Eve to name just two) and books on the subject, the latest of which is Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger by award-winning writer and activist Soraya Chemaly.
Described by fellow activist Laura Bates as "a love letter to women’s anger" and "a battle cry for women's right to rage", the book is a vital read for anyone whose anger is so often turned inward, manifesting as tears or depression, instead of being channelled productively.
Why does Chemaly believe writers like her are so interested in female anger right now? "In times of social and political tumult, women are generally given free rein to express anger publicly," Chemaly told Refinery29. "I think it’s more than just this instability, however. I think that, implicitly or explicitly, we’re moving towards an understanding of women as central political actors, which means we can’t ignore their anger."
Due to the weight of gender-role expectations bearing down on us, expressing anger as a woman is still taboo – we fear people thinking that we've "lost control" or are acting "inappropriately" or even "dangerously", Chemaly says. But suppressed female anger is a wasted resource, as she argues forcefully in her book. In Chapter 10, "A Rage Of Your Own", she outlines 10 strategies for anyone who wants to use their anger productively. Extracted below are some of her top tips.
1. Develop self-awareness
"Anger does not, in and of itself, make you 'right'. It is, however, explained feminist writer and thinker Audre Lorde, 'loaded with information and energy'. Use it this way. People who understand how they are feeling are able to be patient and thoughtful in anger. They develop a liberating detachment that enables them to decide what solutions will work for the problem they face."
Chemaly goes on to explain: "The more you know about anger, the less you will be subject to it as a negative force. Experts agree that owning one’s anger— knowing what it is and naming it—enhances relationships and intimacy. Some people benefit also from finding 'their people', the ones who will understand, listen, empathise and, often, are angered by the same issues or problems. Even if you can’t act immediately on how you feel, simply talking about anger is beneficial; other people often see solutions and alternatives that you don’t. Sharing is important for specific reasons. Naming, writing, and talking, known as affect labelling, is different from simply venting the way you might, for example, by throwing plates. Naming, talking, and writing, are beneficial because they actually interfere with the neurological mechanics causing anger or anxiety. They constitute a kind of anger mindfulness."
The more you know about anger, the less you will be subject to it as a negative force. Owning one’s anger – knowing what it is and naming it – enhances relationships and intimacy.
2. Distinguish the three As: anger, assertiveness and aggression
"Anger, assertiveness, and aggression are frequently and unhelpfully lumped together, particularly when the person who is being assertive, angry, or aggressive is a girl or woman. All three are, however, related by the word 'no', and a simple, unapologetic, declarative 'no' is not a word that girls and women are taught to embrace. Assertiveness is simply the act of stating a position with confidence."
Aggression, meanwhile, "is a more directly confrontational behaviour, less civil, but, in many cases, respectful. It is possible to be both assertive and aggressive without being angry at all and, conversely, to be angry without being assertive or aggressive. Each, depending on context, has its place."
Chemaly continues: "Anger, assertiveness, and aggression also all become entangled in the word 'passionate'. 'I’m not angry, I’m passionate' is an expression I often hear when talking about this topic. The word 'passionate' always strikes me as a particularly gendered one, women being more likely to be described as passionate, whether they are angry or not, for speaking firmly and with determination. 'Passionate women' are often women who have developed an exquisite ability to select their words and convey their strongest beliefs while navigating anger-averse people and cultures. Anger is the emotion generated by feeling passionate about an issue or topic of serious interest or commitment. Ask yourself, why might you prefer to be thought of as passionate and not angry?"
3. Be brave
"Be brave enough to stop pleasing people, to be disliked, to rub people the wrong way. In many environments, all you have to do to be castigated as an angry woman is to say something out loud, so you might as well say exactly what’s bothering you and get on with it. This means that, usually, you have to come to terms with not always being liked. Your anger and assertiveness will make some people unhappy, uncomfortable, sensitive, cautious. They will resent you, your thoughts, your words. They will hate your willingness to risk social connections and challenge social conventions. Be prepared to be labelled humourless, difficult, a spoilsport, and a ruiner of parties, meetings, dinners, and picnics."
4. Take (deliberate) care
"It is possible to take care of others without being careless with yourself. Most women take on what they do not only because they are expected to but also because they love and care and want to. But the expectation that we do so infinitely and selflessly, and the demands that such expectations produce, exhaust us. Care with purpose. Understand that this includes taking care of your own health and wellbeing. Learn to say no and to say no unapologetically. One of the most effective ways to address care creep is to think deliberately and to make conscious choices. It is possible to audit the paid and unpaid work you do and even the emotions that you manage for other people."
Chemaly recommends setting clear boundaries, seeing your anger "not only as a possible symptom but also as a way to recover yourself", rethinking forgiveness, teaching those around you to name and talk about their anger, and considering therapy to help you make sense of your emotions.
5. Cultivate body confidence
"If your appearance is important to you (and studies show that it is for the overwhelming majority of women), it is important to consciously balance how your body looks with your body’s health and competence, meaning health and functioning as opposed to attractiveness. Self-objectification makes it harder to feel your anger or do anything about it. It makes you more vulnerable to threat and assault.
Your anger and assertiveness will make some people unhappy. They will hate your willingness to risk connections and challenge social conventions. Be prepared to be labelled humourless, difficult, a ruiner of parties, dinners, and picnics.
"It contributes to low self-esteem, self-silencing, and a heightened likelihood of self-harm, anxiety, and depression. If there are people in your life telling you or girls that you know that 'girls are prettier with their mouths shut', demand that they stop. Studies of athletes show a strong correlation between body competence, self-esteem, and healthier anger expression. Think about how you can develop a sense of your body’s strength and abilities in order to refute damaging, pervasive messages undermining self-esteem and the almost inevitable mental distress that comes with it."
6. Take your anger to work
"Anger is often part of the average workday, and occupational status directly affects how we feel and express our anger. Women are far more likely to be employed in jobs that require them to suppress anger, with spillover effects into their personal life. For example, a nurse who spends her day silencing herself with both doctors and patients is more likely to respond explosively at home to a relatively minor frustration."
Chemaly advises: "Chances are, if you are angry about a problem, so are others; this is information that you can use to your advantage. If there are issues too hot for you to confront directly, consider what Trojan horses you might be able to develop to achieve your goal. If you fear consequences or retaliation, find allies and champions who can represent your interests. If you don’t have a mentor or sponsor, get one. It might also make sense to explain explicitly to your employer the positive contributions that anger can generate in a workplace, in terms of diverse ideas and outcomes. The communication of anger can improve organisational functioning and workplace environments, and can benefit not only you but also those around you."
7. Cultivate communities and accountability
"Anger can feel very isolating, but, in fact, it is an emotion that demands communication and conversation. It also finds strength in community. Finding communities that validate and share your anger creates powerful opportunities for effective collective social action. In these settings, anger is often a source of energy, joy, humour, and resistance. Anger, awareness, listening, and strategising are all key components to social movement. Communities built by women in response to what makes them mad also have the added benefit of making women’s anger and community public and visible, creating important shifts in representation and understanding."
8. Challenge binaries
"Binaries make up the male-female structure of the world. They mark the differences between home and work, personal and professional, private and political, and emotional and rational, to name only a few. In terms of anger, context often governs how you feel and express it, and for women, one of the foremost regulators of our expression is how we are supposed to act in public versus in private. In both places, we are more subject to being tone policed, but in public spaces, this is especially true.
"The private/public divide is fundamental to keeping women isolated from one another and, historically, from engaging in politics and commerce. The divide also masks the relationship between interpersonal sexism and institutionalised discrimination."
A second binary to reconsider, Chemaly explains, "is the one that supports stereotypes about emotions and reason, instinct and thinking. It is frequently used to invalidate women’s anger and concerns. Women are designated more emotional, but then the designation itself is used to undermine our reason. In this framework, a man, a thinker, can have emotions, but a woman, a feeler, is emotional. To paraphrase one study, if a man gets angry, he’s having an off day, if
a woman does, she’s a raging bitch."
a woman does, she’s a raging bitch."
Communities built by women in response to what makes them mad have the added benefit of making women’s anger public and visible, creating important shifts in representation and understanding.
9. Trust other women
"Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. On a personal level, it is often the case that the people or person you would most likely talk to about being angry are the ones causing you to feel angry. Being non-confrontational is an early life lesson for many of us, particularly with other women. Instead, some of us learn to resort to cattiness, silent treatments, passive aggression, and the 'mean-girl' behaviours thought to be inherent to being female. Or, in order not to threaten a relationship, we divert our anger into other channels, never finding an outlet or resolution to what is bothering us. This, however, suggest Cox et al., doesn’t help deepen a friendship the way a more honest and respective exchange does.
"When a friend tells you she is angry, do you ask why and listen? If you see a woman 'losing her shit', do you make fun of her? If a girl is 'moody', do you ask her not about what’s wrong with her but about what’s happening around her? Do you even have a solid cadre of women friends? If not, if you have always thought that the vagaries of female friendship are too demanding and that male friends are 'so much easier to deal with', it might be worthwhile to consider if you are the 'cool girl', the 'no drama' type that some men love and what that might mean."
10. Accept a desire for power
"Anger and power are always entangled. Women are just as motivated by the desire for power as men; it’s just that our cultural ideas about power don’t associate it with femininity. If you are a girl or woman, chances are you have grown up unwittingly associating ideas about power with masculinity. Our primary roles as caretakers make the idea of power, associated as it often is with masculine behaviours like competition, conflicting."
In intimate contexts, Chemaly recommends talking "about expectations in relationships before, undiscussed, they become problematic. The association between our expectations of power and gender are worth examining openly. Both interpersonally and socially, the mockery that women anticipate and dread from men—mockery that sometimes spills into contempt—has been tied to men’s attempts to justify higher status. In cases where there is intimate conflict over gender roles, many women who seek equality in their relationships feel guilt, as though to demand more parity in expectations and care is 'unnatural' and harmful."
In the public and political realm, she advises: "Stand up for yourself and hold the communities and institutions you are part of accountable. This isn’t, despite girl-power mantras, a popular activity when it means demands for serious change. The more comfortable we become with claiming ownership of public and institutional spaces, in anger, the more effective our efforts will be. There is creativity in anger and much anger in creativity. Women are constantly manifesting rage in creative, productive, and visionary ways."
Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly, £16.99, is published by Simon & Schuster.