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I'm Leslie Jamison, I'm a writer and the teacher, and in twenty eighteen I wrote an essay about women's anger, so I wrote this piece in early twenty eighteen and actually finished the piece on a hospital bed a few days after giving birth to my daughter.
And now that feels like another universe. My daughter is two and a half. We're in the middle of a pandemic.
I've been in quarantine with a little toddler who's running around our tiny apartment. But in so many ways the ideas that I was writing about in the piece, exploring the shame that can get attached to female anger, exploring the potentially constructive force of female anger, feel more relevant to me than ever.
And I was thinking a lot about the thrilling kind of world building force, the female anger, when I watched Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's speech last week at the House of Representatives, where she was responding to a particular incident of harassment that she'd experienced at the hands of another representative. But she was using that experience to talk about a much larger pattern of sexism, sexual harassment, misogynistic mistreatment, and you could see and feel in her words and in her eloquence and in her self-possession, the ways in which she was simultaneously motivated by fury and also harnessing that fury into argument.
One of the things that Aoki's speech was making me think about was the way that Audrey Moore describes anger as something that can potentially function as a kind of corrective surgery. Which is to say anger can be destructive, it can be horribly destructive, but it's not always destructive. And when that anger is harnessed and. Turned into awareness, turned into argument, it can change the world. So here's my essay, I used to insist I didn't get angry, not anymore, read by Julia Whalan.
For years, I described myself as someone who wasn't prone to anger, I don't get angry, I said I get sad. I believed this inclination was mainly about my personality, that sadness was a more natural emotion for me than anger, that I was somehow built this way. It's easy to misunderstand the self as private when it's rarely private at all. It's always a public artifact never fixed, perpetually sculpted by social forces.
In truth, I was proud to describe myself in terms of sadness rather than anger, why sadness seemed more refined and also more selfless, as if you were holding the pain inside yourself rather than making someone else deal with its blunt force trauma.
But a few years ago, I started to get a knot in my gut at the canned cadences of my own refrain, I don't get angry.
I get sad at the shrillest moments of our own self declarations. I am ex. I am not. Why we often hear in that tinny register another truth lurking expectantly and begin to realize there are things about ourselves we don't yet know, by which I mean that at a certain point I started to suspect I was angrier than I thought.
Of course, it wasn't anger when I was four years old and took a pair of scissors to my parents couch wanting so badly to destroy something, whatever I could. Of course, it wasn't anger when I was 16 and my boyfriend broke up with me and I cut up the inside of my own ankle wanting so badly to destroy something, whatever I could. Of course, it wasn't anger when I was 34 and fighting with my husband when I screamed into a pillow after he left the house so our daughter wouldn't hear then through my cell phone across the room and spent the next ten minutes searching for it under the bed and finally found it in a small pile of cat vomit.
Of course, it wasn't anger when during a faculty meeting early in my teaching days, I distributed statistics about how many female students in our department had reported instances of sexual harassment the year before. More than half of them. A faculty member grew indignant and insisted that most of those claims probably didn't have any basis at all. I clenched my fists. I struggled to speak. It wasn't that I could say for sure what had happened in each of those cases.
Of course I couldn't. They were just anonymous numbers on the page, but their sheer volume seemed horrifying. It demanded attention. I honestly hadn't expected that anyone would resist these numbers or force me to account for why it was important to look at them. The scrutiny of the room made me struggle for words just when I needed them most. It made me dig my nails into my poem. What was that emotion? It was not sadness. It was rage.
The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself. The figure of the angry woman reframed as threat, not the one who has been harmed, but the one bent on harming. She conjures a lineage of threatening archetypes. The harpy and her talons, the witch and her spell's the Medusa and her writhing locks.
The notion that female anger is unnatural or destructive is learned.
Young children report perceiving displays of anger as more acceptable from boys than from girls, according to a review of studies of Gender and anger written in 2000 by men and crying, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Men and Women Self report anger episodes with comparable degrees of frequency, but women report experiencing more shame and embarrassment in their aftermath, people are more likely to use words like bitchy and hostile to describe female anger.
While male anger is more likely to be described as strong, Kering reports that men are more likely to express their anger by physically assaulting objects or verbally attacking other people.
While women are more likely to cry when they get angry, as if their bodies are forcibly returning them to the appearance of the emotion, sadness with which they are most commonly associated.
A 2016 study found that it took longer for people to correctly identify the gender of female faces, displaying an angry expression as if the emotion had wandered out of its natural habitat by finding its way to their features.
A 1990 study conducted by the psychologists Oldenburg and L.O. Lundqvist found that when female faces are recognized as angry, their expressions are rated as more hostile than comparable expressions on the faces of men.
As if their violation of social expectations had already made their anger seem more extreme, increasing its volume beyond what could be tolerated in what happened.
Her account of the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton describes the pressure not to come across as angry during the course of her entire political career.
A lot of people recoil from an angry woman, she writes, as well as her own desire not to be consumed by anger after she lost the race so that the rest of my life wouldn't be spent like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, rattling around my house, obsessing over what might have been. The specter of Dickens's rantings, spinster spurned and embittered in her crumbling wedding dress, plotting her elaborate revenge, casts a long shadow over every woman who dares to get mad.
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Now, if an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily. She often looks beautiful in her suffering and ennobled, transfigured, elegant, angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It's as if the prospect of a woman's anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.
Consider the red carpet clip of Uma Thurman that went viral in November during the initial swell of sexual harassment accusations.
The clip doesn't actually show Thurman's getting angry. It shows her very conspicuously refusing to get angry. After commending the Hollywood women who had spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault. She said that she was waiting to feel less angry before she spoke herself. It was curious that Thurman's public declarations were lauded as a triumphant vision of female anger because the clip offered precisely the version of female anger that we've long been socialized to produce and accept, not the spectacle of female anger unleashed, but the spectacle of female anger restrained, sharpened to a photogenic point.
By withholding the specific story of whatever made her angry, Thurmon made her anger itself. The story and the raw force of her struggle not to get angry on that red carpet summoned the force of her anger even more powerfully than its full explosion would have, just as the monster in a movie is most frightening when it only appears off screen.
This was a question I began to consider quite frequently as the slew of news stories accrued last fall, how much female anger has been lurking off screen, how much anger has been biding its time and biting its tongue, wary of being pathologies as hysteria or dismissed as paranoia?
And what if my own vexed feelings about all this female anger?
Why were they even vexed?
It seemed a failure of moral sentiment or a betrayal of feminism, as if I were somehow siding with the patriarchy or had internalized it so thoroughly I couldn't even spot the edges of its toxic residue. I intuitively embraced and supported other women's anger, but struggled to claim my own. Some of this had to do with the ways I'd been lucky, I had experienced all kinds of gendered aggression, but nothing equivalent to the horror stories so many other women have lived through.
But it also had to do with an abiding aversion to anger that still fester like rot inside me and what I had always understood as self-awareness. I don't get angry. I get sad. I came to see my own complicity in the same logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence. For a long time, I was drawn to sad lady icons, the scribes and bards of loneliness and melancholy has a certain kind of slightly morbid, slightly depressive, slightly self intoxicated, deeply predictable, preemptively apologetic literary fangirl.
I loved Sylvia Plath. I was obsessed with her own obsession with her own blood. What a thrill that red plush and drawn to her suffering silhouette, a woman abandoned by her cheating husband and ensnared by the gendered double standards of domesticity. I attached myself to the mantra of her autobiographical avatar, Esther Greenwood, who lives in a bathtub in the bell jar, bleeding during a rehearsal of a suicide attempt, and later stands at a funeral. Listening to the old brag of my heart.
I am. I am. I am. Her attachment to pain, her own and others was also a declaration of identity. I wanted to get it tattooed on my arm. Whenever I listen to my favorite female singers, it was easier for me to sing along to their sad lyrics than their angry ones, it was easier to play Ani DiFranco on repeat crooning about heartbreak. Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating when you stopped calling me than it was to hear her fury and her irritation at the ones who stayed sad and quiet in her shadow?
Some chick says, Thank you for saying all the things I never do. I say, you know, the thanks I get is to take all the. I kept returning to the early novels of Jean Rhys, who's wounded heroines flopped around dingy rented rooms in various European capitals, seeking solace from their heartbreak, stating cheap comforters with their wine.
Sasha, the heroine of Good Morning Midnight, the most famous of these early, picaresque sort of pain, resolves to drink herself to death and manages mainly to cry her way across Paris. She cries at cafes, at bars, in her lousy hotel room. She cries at work. She cries in a fitting room. She cries on the street. She cries near the scene. The closing scene of the novel is a scene of terrifying passivity. She lets a Wraith like man into her bed because she can't summon the energy to stop him, as if she has finally lost touch with her willpower entirely in life.
Reese was infamous for her sadness what one friend called her gramophone needles stuck in a groove thing of going over and over miseries of one sort and another.
Even her biographer called her one of the greatest self-pity artists in the history of English fiction.
It took me years to understand how deeply I had misunderstood those women. I'd missed the rage that fueled Plath's poetry like a ferocious gasoline, lifting her speakers sometimes literally into flight. Now she is flying more terrible than she ever was. Red scar in the sky, red comet over the engine that killed her. The mausoleum, the wax house. The speaker becomes a scar, this irrefutable evidence of her own pain. But this scar in turn becomes a comet, terrible and determined, soaring, triumphant over the instruments of her own supposed destruction.
I'd always been preoccupied with the pained disintegration of Plath speakers, but once I started looking, I saw the comet trails of their angry resurrections everywhere, delivering their unapologetic fantasies of retribution out of the ash.
I rise with my red hair and I eat men like er. I'd love to rise for nearly a decade before I read her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a reimagining of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, whose whole plot leads inexorably toward an act of destructive anger. The mad first wife of Mr Rochester burns down the English country manor where she has been imprisoned in the attic for years. In this late masterpiece, the heroines of Reeses, early novels, heartbroken, drunk court and complicated choreographies of passivity are replaced by an angry woman with a torch ready to use the master's tools to destroy his house.
It wasn't that these authors were writing exclusively about female anger rather than female sorrow, their writing holds both states of feeling wide. Sargasso Sea excavates the deep veins of sadness, running beneath an otherwise opaque act of angry destruction. And Plath's poems are invested in articulating the complicated affective braids of bitterness, irony, anger, pride and sorrow that others often misread as monolithic sadness. They explain people like that by saying that their minds are in watertight compartments. But it never seemed so to me.
Herself once wrote, it's all washing about like the bilge in the hold of a ship. It has always been easier to shunt female sadness and female anger into the watertight compartments of opposing archetypes rather than acknowledging the ways they run together in the cargo hold of every female psyche.
Near the end of the new biopic, I, Tonya Tonya Harding character explains America, they want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.
The timing of the film's release in late 2017 seemed cosmically apt, it resurrected a definitional prototype of female anger, at least for many women like me, who came of age during the 1990s at the precise moment that so many women were starting to get publicly, explicitly, unapologetically angry. Harding was an object of fascination, not just because of the soap opera she dangled before the public gaze, supposedly conspiring with her ex-husband and an associate to plan an attack on her rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, but also because she and Kerrigan provided a yin and yang of primal female archetypes as a vision of anger, uncouth and unrestrained.
The woman everyone loved to hate exploding at the judges when they didn't give her the scores she felt she deserved. Harding was the perfect foil for the elegant suffering of Kerrigan sobbing in her lacy white leotard. Together, they were an impossible duo to turn away from the sad girl and the mad girl, wounded and wicked, their binary segregated one vision of femininity. We adored rule abiding, delicate, hurting from another. We despised trashy, whiny, angry. Harding was strong, she was poor.
She was pissed off. And eventually, in the narrative embraced by the public, she turned those feelings into violence. But I Tonya illuminates what so little press coverage at the time paid attention to the perfect storm of violence that produced Hardings anger in the first place, her mother's abuse and her husband's. Which is to say, no woman's anger is an island. When the Harding and Kerrigan controversy swept the media, I was 10 years old, their story was imprinted onto me as a series of reductive but indelible brushstrokes.
One woman shouting at the media, another woman weeping just beyond the ice rink. But after watching I Tonya and realizing how much these two women had existed to me as ideas rather than as women, I did what any reasonable person would do. I Googled Tonya and Nancy obsessively. I Googled, Did Tonya ever apologize to Nancy? I Googled Tonya Harding boxing career and discovered that it effectively began with her 2002 celebrity boxing match against Paula Jones. Two women paid to perform the absurd caricatures of vengeful femininity.
The public had projected onto them the woman who cried harassment vs. the woman who bashed kneecaps. In the documentaries I watched, I found Harting difficult to like, she comes off as a self deluded liar with a robust victim, complex, focused on her own misfortune to the exclusion of anyone else's. But what does the fact that I found hearting difficult to like, say about the kind of women I'm comfortable liking? Did I want the plotline in which the woman who has survived her own hard life, abusive mother, abusive husband, enduring poverty, also emerges with a likable personality, a plucky spirit, a determined work ethic and a graceful, self-effacing relationship to her own suffering.
The vision of Harding in I, Tonya is something close to the opposite of self-effacing, the film even includes a fantastical reenactment of the crime, which became popularly known as the Whack Heard Round the World, in which Harding stands over Kerrigan's cowering body, beaten, raised high above her head, striking her bloody knee until Harding turns back toward the camera, her face defiant and splattered with Kerrigan's blood. Even though the attack was actually carried out by a hired hit man.
This imagined scene distills the version of the story that America became obsessed with, in which one woman's anger leaves another woman traumatized. But America's obsession with these two women wasn't that simple. There was another story that rose up in opposition in this shadow story, Harding wasn't a monster, but a victim, an underdog unfairly vilified, and Kerrigan was a crybaby who made too much of her pain.
In a 2014 Deadspin essay, Confessions of a Tonya Harding Apologist, Lucy Madison wrote.
She represented the fulfillment of an adolescent revenge fantasy, my adolescent revenge fantasy, the one where the girl who doesn't quite fit in manages to soar over everyone's without giving up a fraction of her prerogative.
And I could not have loved her more when Kerrigan crouched, sobbing on the floor near the training rink right after the attack, Newsweek described it as the sound of one dream breaking.
She famously cried out, Why, why, why? But when Newsweek ran the story on its cover, it printed the quote as, Why me? The single added word turned her shock into keening self-pity. These two seemingly contradictory versions of Harding and Kerrigan, raging bitch and innocent victim or bad girl, hero and whiny crybaby, offered the same cutout dolls dressed in different costumes.
The entitled Weeper was the unacceptable version of a stoic victim. The scrappy underdog was the acceptable version of a raging bitch.
At first glance, they seemed like opposite stories, betraying our conflicted collective relationship to female anger that it's either heroic or uncontrollably destructive and our love hate relationship with victimhood itself. We love a victim to hurt for, but grow irritated by one who hurts too much. Both stories, however, insisted upon the same segregation, a woman couldn't hurt and be hurt at once, she could be either angry or sad. It was easier to outsource those emotions to the bodies of separate women than it was to acknowledge that they reside together in the body of every woman.
10 years ago in Nicaragua, a man punched me in the face on a dark street as I sat on a curb afterward, covered in my own blood, holding a cold bottle of beer against my broken nose. A cop asked me for a physical description of the man who had just mugged me. Maybe 20 minutes later, a police vehicle pulled up a pickup truck outfitted with a barred cage. In the back, there was a man in the cage. Is this him?
The cop asked. I shook my head, horrified, acutely aware of my own power, realizing in that moment that simply saying I was hurt could take away a stranger's liberty. I was a white woman, a foreigner, volunteering at a local school, and I felt ashamed of my own familiar silhouette. A vulnerable white woman crying danger at anonymous men lurking in the shadows. I felt scared and embarrassed to be scared. I felt embarrassed that everyone was making such a fuss.
One thing I did not feel was anger. That night, my sense of guilt, my shame at being someone deemed worthy of protection and that the ways that protection might endanger others effectively blocked my awareness of my own anger. It was as if my privilege outweighed my vulnerability, and that meant I wasn't entitled to any anger at all. But if I struggled to feel entitled to anger that night in Nicaragua, I have since come to realize that the real entitlement has never been anger.
It has always been its absence.
The aversion to anger I had understood in terms of temperament or intention was, in all honesty, also a luxury.
When the black feminist writer and activist Audrey Lorde described her anger as a lifelong response to systemic racism, she insisted upon it as a product of the larger social landscape rather than private emotional ecology.
I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger for most of my life. After the Uma Thurman clip went viral, the Trinidadian journalist Stacey Marie Ishmail tweeted, Interesting, which kinds of women are praised for public anger? I've spent my whole career reassuring people. This is just my face. Michelle Obama was dogged by the label of angry black woman for the duration of her husband's time in office, scientific research has suggested that the experience of racism leads African-Americans to suffer from higher blood pressure than white Americans and has hypothesized that this disparity arises from the fact that they accordingly experience more anger and are simultaneously expected to suppress it.
The tennis superstar Serena Williams was fined over 80000 dollars for an angry outburst against a lineswoman at the U.S. Open in 2009. I swear to God, I'll expletive take this ball and shove it down your expletive throat. Gretchen Carlson, a Fox anchor at the time, called another one of Williams's angry outbursts in 2011 a symbol of what's wrong with our society today. Carlson, of course, has since come to embody a certain brand of female empowerment, one of the leading voices accusing the late Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, of sexual harassment.
She recently published a book called Beef Fears. Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back. But the portrait on its cover of a fair skinned, blonde haired woman smiling slightly in a dark turtleneck reminds us that fierceness has always been more palatable from some women than from others. What good is anger, anyway, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum invokes Aristotle's definition of anger as a response to a significant damage that contains within itself a hope for payback, to argue that anger is not only a stupid way to run one's life, but also a corrosive public force predicated on the false belief that payback can redress the wrongdoing that inspired it.
She points out that women have often embraced the right to their own anger as a vindication of equality, part of a larger project of empowerment, but that its promise as a barometer of equality shouldn't obscure our vision of its dangers in this current moment of ascendant female anger.
Are we taking too much for granted about its value? What if we could make space for both anger and a reckoning with its price? In her seminal 1981 essay, The Uses of Anger, Audrey Lord weighs the value of anger differently than Nussbaum, not in terms of retribution, but in terms of connection and survival. It's not just a byproduct of systemic evils, she argues, but a catalyst for useful discomfort and clearer dialogue. I have suckled the wolf's lip of anger, she writes, and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter.
Anger isn't just a blaze burning structures to the ground, it also casts a glow, generates heat and brings bodies into communion. Every woman has a well stocked arsenal of anger, potentially useful against those oppressions, LURD rights, which brought that anger into being. Confronting my own aversion to anger asked me to shift from seeing it simply as an emotion to be felt and toward understanding it as a tool to be used as part of a well stocked arsenal. When I walked in the women's march in Washington a year ago, one body among thousands, the act of marching didn't just mean claiming the right to a voice.
It meant publicly declaring my resolve to use it. I've come to think of anger in similar terms, not as a claiming of victimhood, but as an opening of accountability, as I write this essay, eight months pregnant, I don't hope that my daughter never gets angry. I hope that she lives in a world that can recognize the ways anger and sadness live together and the ways rage and responsibility so often seen as natural enemies can live together as well.
Once upon a time, I had enough anger in me to crack Crystal, the poet Kiki Petrosian writes in her 2011 poem At the Teahouse. I boiled up from bed in my enormous nightdress with my lungs full of burning chrysanthemums. This is a vision of anger as fuel and fire as a powerful inoculation against positivity. A strange but holy milk suckled from the wolf. This anger is more like an itch than a wound. It demands that something happen. It's my own rage at that faculty meeting when the voices of students would become statistics at our fingertips were being asked to hush up to step back into their tidy columns.
This anger isn't about deserving, it's about necessity. What needs to boil us out of bed and below our dresses, what needs to burn in our voices, glowing and fearsome, fully aware of its own heat. This was recorded by Autumn, Autumn is an app you can download to listen to lots of audio stories from publishers such as The New York Times. As a surgeon and president of Howard University, Dr. Wayne Frederick believes even our toughest times can lead to strength and change.
This is a difficult, stormy period, but it was strengthened in a way that no classroom activity could ever have.
I'm Alicia Burke, host of the podcast that made all the difference. I talked to achievers about how they're managing the current moment and charting a course for the future. Find that made all the difference anywhere. You get your podcasts created by Bank of America.