4 women on how they learned to harness the power of female anger

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Emma Ledger
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For too long we’ve been told to calm down when we feel fired up…

Women’s anger has joined the list of contentious issues in 2018. When Serena Williams furiously smashed her tennis racquet at this month’s US Open after the umpire accused her of cheating (an accusation she strongly denies), she landed a $17,000 fine and sparked a thousand think pieces. Would the backlash have been less harsh if she were a man? Yes, according to male tennis players who spoke out in her defence (Andy Roddick tweeted: “I’ve regrettably said worse and I’ve never gotten a game penalty”). Some argued that it was simply a matter of politeness; that male or female, she was being rude. But why is it that so often an angry woman is seen as rude while an angry man is seen as normal or justified?

It is a timely debate. This autumn sees the publication of two books exploring female anger – Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister, and Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly. Instead of ‘managing’ anger, the authors encourage women to embrace anger as a tool to fight against both personal and political oppression.

Serena Williams argues her case with tournament referee Brian Early during the US Open

“In the school playground girls who get angry are labelled sad, but boys are allowed to just be angry,” says Chemaly. “Anger is an emotion of higher status and suggests something is wrong that they have the right to want to change. Those boys grow into men who learn to use anger for control, but girls are taught to suppress angry feelings and are encouraged to become part of the environment that is being controlled.”

Women may have a lot to be angry about, but it is still a deeply gendered emotion. Chemaly says that while male anger is treated seriously, when a woman sees red she can be labelled hysterical, irrational or even unattractive. “Females are still expected to be pleasing and likeable, so rejecting that by displaying rage can be seen as a gender transgression,” she says.

Chemaly thinks the Williams incident neatly encapsulates how society regulates anger along gender lines. She urges us to see our anger not as destructive but as something that can create positive change. 

Here, four writers explore their own relationships with anger.

Lizzie Pook: “My anger is not ‘becoming’. It is ugly and inconvenient”

You should know, firstly, that I am embarrassed about this. My anger is not ‘becoming’. It is not an attribute. It is not something that can be tactically channelled to motivate me to achieve stupendous things or get me ahead in life.

It is ugly. It is inconvenient. It is a big, lolling albatross around my neck that sheds its toxic feathers into the air whenever I get defensive, or consumed by grief, or if my sense of self-worth has plummeted to nothing, which happens more often than I would like.

My anger knows no geographical bounds. It can show itself at the airport with a barbed comment at a fellow traveller who has cut the queue (I once got into an argument with a grown man at Heathrow who then proceeded to kick furiously at my wheely suitcase). It can happen during work meetings in central London, on sun-splashed holidays to Greek islands.

But that doesn’t mean I am going to apologise for it. I’m not ‘sorry’ for being angry. I don’t regret being angry. It just is. It’s as much a part of me as my saliva or my fingernails or my eyelashes or my skin. I’m just as prone to joy and jealousy as I am to anger. I run the full gamut of emotions on an almost daily basis – some of them good, some of them abominable – and that’s just fine. If I were a man, I would not be expected to apologise for my anger. It would make me authoritative and masculine and, probably, powerful. But women who are angry are not seen as powerful. We are seen as inelegant. Difficult. That’s what has to change. We are just as human as men. Just as passionate and flawed and fickle as men. We need to start being treated as equals in every single part of our lives – and that should extend to our anger, too.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff: “Anger leads me down a path of regret and faint nausea”

I have never actively sought out confrontation. As a journalist who makes a living from speaking my mind – and often finds herself drawn to controversial matters – this sometimes makes life hard. Anger is generally not a fulfilling emotion; unless it is righteous and indirect. The last person I shouted at, caught up in that hot, hard surge of rage, was a man who rudely cat-called me on the street as I stopped on my bike, puffing, to look for directions on my phone.

“Am I bothering you?” he asked eventually. “Yes,” I snapped. “You f**king bitch, why are you being so rude?” was his return. We exchanged a few more vicious words before I cycled away.

Even after this interaction, encased as it was in sexism, I didn’t feel good. It’s much easier to write angrily about systemic prejudice from afar than figure out how to engage with it in your day to day life. As illustrated by the recent Serena Williams debacle, black women experience micro and macro aggressions all the time – where they have to decide whether it’s worth showing annoyance or anger and being stereotypically labelled, or to just smile as a clammy hand tugs at the knots in our afro or pulls on our perfectly laid braids like they’re a bathroom light switch. As with cat-calling, it’s a minor irritation which has major implications of dehumanisation and objectification.

Beyond this, being actively angry with people in my life who I love or work with, however justifiably, seems to lead me down a path of regret and faint nausea. That’s not to say I don’t ever get angry with people I know, but mostly I am rarely led to the point of anger or confrontation because I don’t believe I would be forgiven for the emotion. But being able to use anger in a confrontational way is important.

At some stage I want to harness the emotion, control and expel it so I am not left internally seething or forced to have it burst out unwarranted. Sometimes it’s OK to be angry. 

Robyn Wilder: “I love how it gusts up in my chest. It’s freeing”

I grew up in a Latin-Asian household where temper tantrums were a minute-to-minute feature. There was swooning, shouting, wild gesticulation, and even the odd death threat – then it would all blow over within seconds, and everyone would be friends again, until the next storm blew in. It was like living in a telenovela.

Perhaps as a reaction to this, I am very repressed. The most generally offer is a tut and an imperceptible shake of the head. When, rarely, I do let my Latin temper out, though, I love how it gusts up in my chest. It feels freeing; like a newly discovered source of limitless energy. It feels like I’m Cyclops from X-Men, blasting the anger out of my eyes and setting the world on fire.

However. I am a short, rotund woman with bad coordination and very little upper-body strength. So, when I’m really angry, while I might feel as though I’m striding about like some world-destroying kraken, I actually look more like an emperor penguin trying to wreck a hotel room while hampered by a lack of opposable thumbs.

Mine is a pratfalling, impotent rage. My husband’s favourite stories are about that time I stormed out of the flat but then had to come back 10 minutes later because it was dark in the alleyway outside and I got a bit scared. And that time I threw an empty fabric laundry bin at his head, only to watch it waft down to the ground like a feather. And that time I slammed a door in anger then had to come back and fix all the cracked paintwork around the doorframe, because we were renting.

But I don’t care what I look like on the outside. It’s what’s on the inside that counts and, when I’m angry, I feel like The 50-Foot Woman. I feel like a natural disaster. I feel like Godzilla destroying Tokyo. Maybe, if being angry feels so good, I should let myself feel it more often. So essentially, what I’m trying to say is don’t make me angry. But if you do, lock up your laundry bins.

Emily Reynolds: “Like many young women, I turned my anger inward”

I’m angry about lots of things. Sexism, global warming, people who wait until the very last minute to get their Oyster card out, my own inability to concentrate for longer than 10 minutes at a time, sexual assault, being treated badly by friends. There’s so much, so often, that it can start to feel overwhelming.

As a teenager, I was angrier still. But the difference was that my anger was misplaced, unmoored: I was angry about something, I just didn’t know exactly what. Like many young women, I tended to turn it inwards: I never had tantrums, didn’t punch walls or act out, get into fights. Instead, I failed to eat, cut myself, hated profoundly whatever it was inside me that was making me feel this way.

It wasn’t until I discovered other angry women that I realised it didn’t have to be like this. Courtney Love, Tracey Emin, PJ Harvey, Kathleen Hanna – all powerfully angry; furious, in fact. Their anger – at being hurt, at their trauma, about being in pain, about being a weird, f**ked-up woman in a world where that’s not really allowed – was justifiable. It was also cool. I wasn’t a monster, I realised: I could harness my anger and turn it into art – in my case, writing. Feminism gave me some direction, too. I wasn’t angry about being a woman, as such; I was angry about what that meant for me as I moved through the world.

As an adult, my relationship with anger is more complex, richer. I not only allow myself to feel it when necessary, but have learned to direct it outwards, away from myself and towards the things that are painful, that are unjust or unfair. It’s no longer corrosive: it’s powerful, an energy. Learning to harness it is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Images: Getty