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I’ll Bark if I Want To: On Letting Women Be Angry

Alice Garnett discusses the stigma around women expressing negative emotions.

Within our current (deeply patriarchal) state of affairs, femininity and anger is not allowed to coexist. Raised voices, holes in walls, and sporadic fits of passion all belong to the masculine domain. We’ve grown up believing men have a biological predisposition to anger, so when they spiral into a rage it’s dismissed: ‘boys will be (testosterone-fuelled) boys’ — but when a woman raises her voice, she’s a “bitch” or “psycho.” Women’s anger can never be “passionate”: it’s petty, silly, irrational, hysterical. It’s infuriating that our anger is confined to this binary: petty-office-bitch or blood-thirsty-psycho. Women cannot be angry without being either depreciated or vilified. 

Most women have confronted someone only for them to flippantly dismiss their legitimate anger with an, “is it that time of the month?” or, worse, an, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It’s a travesty that our predecessors have created an environment so toxic that many men can’t swallow their pride in a real apology without feeling emasculated, and most women can’t be angry without feeling hugely guilty about it. Women’s anger is constantly made into our own responsibility as we’re constantly reminded that our emotions risk affecting others – more so than they might affect ourselves. We are entrapped within roles as emotionally responsible peacemakers and maternal caregivers.

Personally, I struggle not to shrink away from my own anger – particularly in cases where the only affected party is myself. Girls are taught from an early age to be altruistic, to care for others far more than they do for themselves. This is why it is always our friends who are enraged when a partner fucks up, or when a colleague fails you. We are not taught to defend ourselves. If a man catcalls us in the street, we’re urged to ‘just take it as a compliment’ and move on. If a boy violates us (in any way), we’re told that ‘boys will be boys’. We tend to accept that there’s almost no point in ‘making a scene’ because both perpetrator and society will inevitably gaslight us into silence. To this day I can’t feel anger without somehow feeling that it’s my fault

It is under this pressure to not be angry or assertive that passive aggression is born. The passive aggressive woman is perhaps one of the scariest tropes to walk our cultural space. They won’t directly tell you to do something, they’ll merely gesture vaguely – but nonetheless obviously – at the thing that needs doing. They will never raise their voices at you, or tell it to you straight, but there will be an angry subtext lurking beneath the surface of their eyes, under raised eyebrows and pursed lips. The ‘Karen’ is the champion of passive aggression; she seethes, emanating a bitter pettiness wherever she goes. But Karens might cease to exist in a world where women are allowed to be angry. 

I’m not defending the Karens of the world, given that they perpetuate racism as well as passive aggression. It would be wrong to assume that all female anger comes from a just place. This is particularly relevant when we scrutinise some women’s treatment of other women, depending on factors such as race, class, and gender-identity. Because it is the Karens of the world who have contributed to the development of another misogynist and racist trope: the angry black woman. Far more than white women, black women are denigrated for speaking out against the numerous injustices that exist to oppress them within our society. The stigma surrounding black female anger runs far deeper than that of white female anger. The toxic tropes play out in different, more insidious ways for black women. Working class and trans women also face their own unique pressures to not fully express their own anger. My experiences as a white, middle-class, cisgendered woman will differ from those of black, working-class, and trans women – if other women of my demographic could acknowledge this fact, there would be far fewer Karens in the world and more space for productive conversations on how to handle our anger without tearing other women down.

No one wants to be reduced to a toxic trope, so most women simply won’t express aggression of any kind. Instead, we nod politely, smile awkwardly, and walk away from conversations – often defeated – probably wondering if it really was us in the wrong all along. So, we never get angry, we put up with emotional neglect, and we never make demands. This all brings to mind the Gone Girl cool girl monologue – something I was recently shown and found harrowingly relatable. I was appalled by my own resonance with this image of the beer-drinking, head-giving, all-appeasing cool girl that I cannot help but aspire to be. It is my own internalised misogyny which checks me every time I ask someone to do something. I can’t ask a simple favour without immediately feeling like a ‘nag’ or a ‘bore’. I want to be the cool girl, but being the cool girl means not reminding my housemates to do the dishes, not bringing up my feelings to a sexual partner, and – most importantly – not allowing myself to ‘get my knickers in a twist’ over anything.

Women’s relationship with anger is a similar paradigm to ‘boys can’t cry’. If men can’t cry then their sadness is going to be dealt with in unhealthy ways; this translates into a crisis in men’s mental health and higher suicide rates. Thanks to an increased understanding of this phenomena, we have a whole term for it: toxic masculinity. The same can’t be said for women and their relationship with anger – even though there is something similar going on here. In fact, there are studies[1] which show that if women disown their aggression and project it onto others, they inadvertently posit themselves as helpless victims, whereas if they internalise their anger, they become vulnerable to depression. Within psychoanalytic studies, the Kleinian therapeutic approach has been cited as a useful means to make sense of human destructiveness – and so has been used to help women manage their anger in ways that aren’t self-defeating. If we’re finally addressing the crises in men’s mental health, and the importance of their self-expression, is now not also the time to address women’s need for holistic self-expression? While anger has more negative connotations than sadness, it is nevertheless a universally felt emotion that requires management across all genders – just like every other aspect of the human condition.

So I say: let women be angry. Let us bark at men in the streets who catcall us, let us foam at the mouths when men tell us to smile more, let us hiss at those who deem our clothes ‘too revealing.’ Let us reclaim being a bitch. 

[1] Gyler, Louise, The Gendered Unconscious: Can Gender Discourse Subvert the Psychoanalysis (Taylor & Francis Group, 2010)

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