Joshen Mantai //
Somewhere in the narrowing hallway of a school, a teenage high school girl is clenching her fists to contain the rage bubbling inside her, enveloping her slowly. She’s developed what feels like a fierce flame inside her, one that almost feels like it will break her if she lets it, her throat tightening while she fights back the tears that almost certainly will burst out in a harrowing fit of exasperation. Her fingers loosen as she swallows her tears in a subtle manner, and she sits idly by while her male classmate tells her to “calm down” in response to some derogatory phrase hurled at her, something along the lines of calling her a “know-it-all.”
Anger is an emotion that demands us to make those in our lives take accountability, which can be used as a weapon for political power, or independent righteousness. Despite the inherent power of anger, it has generally become associated with masculinity, whereas softer emotions like empathy and sorrow are connected with women. Research has shown that girls are discouraged from expressing their anger or being demanding, instead being pushed towards “smiling more.” Studies by psychologists on social dynamics have shown that girls who are assertive in nature are designated by adults as “rude” and “confrontational,” while the same qualities in boys are seen as signs of a true leader. Unfortunately, this blatant mistreatment unfortunately carries on into career life. A 2018 study by the Center for WorkLife Law shows that white men felt much freer to express anger at work than any other group, 62% saying they were not penalized for anger compared with less than half of all women. Those in the limelight also face similarities in unequal treatment, with US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh openly expressing anger during his confirmation hearing, which was largely seen as an act of “necessary masculine self-defense.” This is compared to another famous female figure, tennis star Serena Williams, who angrily conversed with a chair umpire during the US Open final. She was fined and reprimanded largely for this incident in the media, which sparked a conversation about double standards for aggression shown by men and women on the court in tennis, and accompanying historical penalties.
So where did the villainization of the “angry woman” begin? Well, an explanation originates from society dubbing women “witches” as early as the 15th century. Women made up the vast majority of those accused and killed for “witchcraft.” Literature traced back to 1487 delineated women as “addicted to evil superstitions” and portrayed women as greedy, with a slippery tongue and jealous nature. Many of the women accused of witchcraft were low-income and single, who had no protection or means of defending themselves. Today, this leaves us with a notorious stereotype that is ubiquitous within film, literature, and pop culture, or utilized to label powerful women like Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “witches” in order to portray them as “less likable” and silence them for their outspoken views. What exists today is a duality between using the symbol of the “witch” as a method of resistance and reclamation of female empowerment, and the opposing use of the word by patriarchal powers as a derogatory term.
Personally, I don’t remember when I first recognized the deep and explosive anger I often kept bottled within me. I was always classified as the “shy” girl throughout 18 years of schooling, who didn’t utter a peep in response to well… pretty much anything. I was basically mute in circumstances where I thought it would make me “prim and proper” — a model student, daughter, and friend. I don’t know if I inherently learned to be quiet in order to avoid negative attention, but I often wonder now if my learned willingness to speak as freely would have gone over as well as the many warnings my male classmates received before facing actual consequences in school. While I excelled in school, there was an instance in which a classmate of mine questioned if I had the ability to be assertive enough to take over her role in leading a club. Although this slightly offended me at the time, I later realized she was right, and I had no idea how to stand up for myself because I had no experience with resistance.
There are still pieces of me that linger from when I was growing up — I won’t berate those in my life if they offend me until it is beyond continuous, actions which my friends consider being “too nice sometimes.” I definitely face this duality within me: having compassion, sometimes in excess when I deem necessary, but still not being afraid to stand up for what I believe in and what I think is right. A cloud of terror in my mind still remains of what I might have to face if I voice my emotional anger, and if it will contribute to more harm than help. Will I be called a bitch or a bad person?
However, overwhelmingly I am learning through my anger that it is not something that should silence me, but should be an aspect of my aura that I should celebrate as antidotal, used towards or against the things that impassion me. This has been a process for me, and still is, but is largely overdue. I still contemplate: In what boundaries am I allowed to be angry? A large portion of my anger stems from the sexist patriarchal bullshit that still persists like the wage gap that many still insist does not exist, the stereotypes unfairly assigned to women to limit us, and having to explain to the men in my life why I can’t take a stroll in my neighborhood alone in the dead of night. However, my anger should not just be tolerated in a fight against social injustice. I have a lot of anger brewing about other miniscule or colossal personal happenings as well — and it should not humiliate me or anyone, nor detract from my worth.
The need for women’s anger is not a simple construct. The popular topic of the female struggle to craft emails without exclamation marks at the end of each sentence is a conversation that detracts from larger issues at hand. A fight against including “Thanks so much!” and “For Sure!” in an email will not solve our collapsing fear against expressing irritance. I include exclamation points in my emails most often because I genuinely want to show my excitement for opportunities. In a varying manner, our fight for equality is not an issue of gender alone, but also intersectionality, black girls being six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, which illustrates the prevalent concept of the school-to-prison pipeline. Harmful stereotypes such as the “angry Black woman trope” paints African-American women as ill-tempered, often misconstrued as irrational anger. This social norm serves as a brimming societal mechanism to silence women of color and encourages them to be increasingly passive, quiet — invisible.
In modern society, women are starting to claim their right to express anger, in resistance to female aggravation constructed as a “forbidden taboo” by authoritarian patriarchy. To sum up my sentiments, I want to share some quotes from one of my favorite pieces of literature called “The Uses of Anger” by Audre Lorde. Lorde writes defiantly “my fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.” She asserts that “every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” Individually, I look forward to accepting the nuances of my anger as I grow, not only as a form of internal therapy for myself, but as a possible agent for societal change. As novelist James Baldwin once said, “The place in which I will fit will not exist until I make it.”
“I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger.”- Audre Lorde