By Kathryn Morris McHarry
The past few years, we have seen an increase in the exposure of inequalities faced by women; movements such as #MeToo have highlighted the oppression women have faced for years and, because of this, society is beginning to be held accountable. Women are rightly angry and more than ever feeling empowered to talk about the injustices they experience. Despite this, it is apparent that a disturbing narrative surrounding female anger persists. Women who express their anger are labelled ‘hysterical’, ‘nasty’ or ‘mad’, devaluing even the most justifiable of feelings.
Soraya Chemlay explains the danger of the demonization of female anger in her book Rage Becomes Her saying that anger:
Makes it clear that we take ourselves seriously. This is true in our homes and in our public lives. By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood’, we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice. (Chemlay, 2018, xxi)
In this book Chemlay also explores how socialisation in formative years sets out clear and worrying gender stereotypes concerning anger that only continue to grow, limiting women’s and girls’ emotional expression and behaviour. This idea is supported by a questionnaire study in 2000 in which men and women were asked questions used to assess anger expression and personality traits such as assertiveness, self-esteem, sense of effectiveness, and expectations for success. Deborah Cox said that the study found that:
In the focus group interviews, several women told us they felt that their anger was disabling. They felt ashamed of feeling angry and tried to control it, hide it, and apologize for it. (University of California, 2000)
This supports the idea that women are socialised to see their anger as shameful. This is problematic because anger is an important and powerful emotion which can help individuals in many ways, allowing expression of feelings in an obvious and clear way that makes the world more likely to take notice. This was discussed by Lewis, Fischer and Manstead who explain that ‘The social function of anger is to impose change upon another person’ (2010, 457). However, this is not the only positive function of anger, particularly psychologically. As well as allowing a person to sufficiently air their discontent, anger allows us to recognise injustices and motivates us to right these wrongs and do something, promoting proactivity.
This ability of anger to provide a route for realising wrongdoing and demand change also gives the emotion and its release specific political power; throughout history displays of anger have been used by the oppressed to force a conversation. When anger is recognised for its positive power rather than as a merely negative emotion, it is easier to recognise the detrimental effect that may result when half of the population is made to believe that it is unbecoming. It is important to note that this oppression of female anger serves as a tool for the patriarchy in its systematic oppression of the female voice and thus in its oppression of women. By painting anger and rage as unreasonable in females and simultaneously claiming women who fight against the patriarchy to be ‘angry feminists’, any woman who would consider herself a feminist is portrayed as a bad woman, even when her anger is justifiable.
Like every other sector of our society, the art and theatre worlds have undoubtably perpetuated troubling stereotypes of femininity and specifically women’s anger. This being said, more and more we are seeing examples of practitioners, often women, using their art to challenge patriarchy in its depiction of their emotions.
One example of the deconstruction of the tropes of female anger is Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Overall (1997). This large-scale projection installation, filmed on a standard video camera, showed a woman dressed in a pale blue dress and red high heeled shoes happily walking down a street. Accompanied by a dreamy, almost etherial soundtrack and with a large grin on her face she smashes the windows of cars using a metal flower while female police officer salutes her as the walks by. The action seems to provide a cathartic release from the stuffy feminine image we are often shown by the male gaze. The use of the flower as a weapon of destruction is also important to consider. Much like the woman, the flower is considered delicate and feminine but is used in an action of violence. This idea is noted by Serina Ferrao who says ‘The flower represents the delicate nature of the female; Rist describes the flower as “clitoric’” (Ferrao, 2014)
In the video, Rist seems to capture the hidden and confined rage of the exhausted housewife. This image of a woman smashing up a car has become ingrained into modern culture, often linked to the idea of being wronged by men. For example, in 2016 the music video for Beyonce’s Hold Up (2016) was released. This video is startlingly similar to Rist’s, as Knowles-Carter sashays down the street in a long yellow dress and smashes the windows of cars, smiling all the while and in the accompanying song the artist sings about an unfaithful partner. Ariella Grittlen comments ‘The video offers the same exhilaration as Rist’s, the notion that anger itself might free us from everything from cheating spouses to systemic racism and sexism’ (2018). As Grittlen infers, these depictions seem to provide an insight into the female view of anger and rage – that it’s display and acceptance could provide a welcome release and a purge of emotion for the female audience to whom female anger is usually shown to in a negative way.
It is however arguable that this depiction of feminine rage, especially in Beyonce’s case, instead of empowering women, perpetuates the image of the ‘crazy ex/girlfriend’. This has become a worryingly common sexist trope, depicted in TV, film, music, theatre and has been persistently transferred to the general public. As is the same with many sexist myths, the concept of a ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’ ex applies almost exclusively to women and similar behaviour by men is portrayed as ‘romantic’ rather than unhinged. This is perhaps most clear in modern rom-com films. A recent study by Julia Lippman involved participants watching a range of romantic comedies which depicted arguably abusive and stalker like behaviour from males and then completing a questionnaire on stalking. Lippman found that:
Results indicate that media portrayals of gendered aggression can have prosocial effects, and that the romanticized pursuit behaviours commonly featured in the media as a part of normative courtship can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs. (Lippman, 2018)
Despite these unfortunate readings, it is my hope that perhaps, if women see their anger reflected in performance and media, they may begin to recognise the positive uses it can have. As Chemlay and Chakrabati note, ‘we have an emotional culture that thinks of [female] anger as destructive and as negative when in fact it’s the way we perceive and manage anger that yields these bad effects.” (2018) Through seeing anger performed by female artists and activists we can begin to acknowledge its positive effects and challenge the patriarchy’s portrayal of the ‘hysterical’, ‘nasty’ or ‘mad’ angry woman and instead recognise why they are right to be angry.
Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd.
University of California, San Francisco. (2000, January 31). Comparison of Anger Expression in Men And Women Reveals Surprising Differences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 7, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/01/000131075609.htm
Lewis, M., Fischer, A. and Manstead, A. (2010). Handbook of emotions. New York: The Guilford Press, p.457.
Rist, P. (1997). Ever Is Overall.
Ferrao, S. (2014). Pipilotti Rist Ever is over all 1997. [online] Sabrina Ferrao blog. Available at: https://sabrinaferraoblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/pipilotti-rist-ever-is-over-1997/ [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].
Knowles-Carter, B. (2016). Beyoncé – Hold Up (Video).
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeonBmeFR8o [Accessed 7 Nov. 2019].
Gittlen, A. (2018). The 7 Most Vengeful Depictions of Female Rage in Art History. [online] Artsy. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-history-female-rage-art [Accessed 7 Nov. 2019].
Caldwell, J., Swan, S. and Woodbrown, D. (2019). PsycNET. [online] Psycnet.apa.org. Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-26363-001 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
Lippman, J. (2019). I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking – Julia R. Lippman, 2018.
Chemaly, S. and Chakrabati, M. (2018). ‘Rage Becomes Her’: The Current Conversation Around Women’s Anger. [online] Wbur.org. Available at: https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2018/09/12/rage-becomes-her-soraya-chemaly [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].
Karthyn Morris McHarry is a BA Drama and Theatre student at York St John University.
This post is a extract from her third year dissertation titled: ‘The myth of anger as an unfeminine trait in contemporary performance practice.’