Soraya Chemaly is a writer and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. Her new book Rage Becomes Her, urges 21st Century women to embrace their anger and harness it as a tool for lasting personal and societal change. Ahead of her appearance here at Southbank Centre as part of London Literature Festival, Chemaly drew on her work on Rage Becomes Her and beyond, to invite us to consider six myths about anger.
This is an age of anger and, notably, of women’s anger. It is often the case, historically, that during times of crises and tumult and unrest women are freer to express anger politically and publicly. That greater freedom does not, however, bring an end to myths and stereotypical beliefs surrounding the emotion and its uses. It is still crushingly true that anger is considered the moral property of boys and men and that women face real penalties when they express and display negative emotions, particular in their own defence.
Studies show that when men show anger, particularly in professional or political contexts, they gain influence and credibility, whereas the opposite is true for women. A male lawyer, for example, can be angry in closing arguments and win over jurors when he does. A female lawyer, on the other hand, is more likely to be seen as less trustworthy. Similarly, during the 2016 US election, male candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could use their own righteous anger, on very evident display, to leverage widespread populist anger. Hilary Clinton, however, could not. Even on days when she expressed simply her opinion, she was criticised for being shrill, nagging and worse. In an effort to appear credible and rational, she was deemed 'inauthentic'.
A similar dynamic was evident in the recent US Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who had come forward to share her memory of assault, remained demure, calm and unemotional, even though anger would have been a reasonable and logical response to her assault and subsequent treatment. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, threw an ugly temper tantrum, to no real opprobrium. Had she done the same she would easily have been categorised as untrustworthy and unhinged. Only two weeks before, similar disparate treatment could be seen at the US Tennis Open which levied the highest ever fine for “verbal abuse” against Serena Williams, despite an endless stream of examples of male players behaving in far more egregious ways.
Men associate anger with power, and women associate it with powerlessness, because that is often how we respectively experience anger. These double standards around who has the right to be angry, claim anger, display anger or use anger personally, professionally or politically are abiding in our lives. The circumstances of inequality that women face daily are rage generators, and yet we are still strongly discouraged as girls and punished as women for anger as a reasonable and self-defensive response. Below are some common myths about anger and anger and gender.
Anger is a human emotion and a valuable one. It is a signal emotion – meaning it warns us of danger and threat, and conveys valuable information about what we should do about both. Anger is not the problem, it’s how we manage anger, or, more specifically, don’t, that causes negative and destructive outcomes. This is true whether the expression of anger is a violent and explosive outburst or a deeply self-destructive suppression, repression or unhealthy diversion of anger. While anger can be associated with disgust, resentment and contempt it is also the emotion linked to empathy, compassion and fights for social justice.
Stereotypes about anger abound. Two of the most persistent are that men and boys, because of testosterone, are ‘naturally’ angrier than girls and women. Studies show that most people, starting as young as four or five years old, associate negative and angry facial expressions with men and masculinity. Gender biases like these shape childhood socialisation, encouraging children to associate anger with masculinity and discouraging them from believing girls and women have either angry feelings or the right to express them equally.
The same biases that lead to people being more likely to ‘see’ anger in men’s faces results in their attributing sadness and fearfulness to women’s. Similar, the trope of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ leads people to believe that black women are inherently belligerent, aggressive and angry. Research consistently finds, however, that women actually report feeling anger more frequently than men do and for longer duration. Studies also reveal that black women are no more likely to feel anger than anyone else. These stereotypes are primarily used to police women’s expressions of anger and to socially reinforce rules about whose behaviour – expressing strong opinions or beliefs or acting in self-defence – is socially acceptable.
Venting, or what is sometimes called ‘destruction therapy’, not only doesn’t actually address the causes of anger, but is likely to make anger and strong negative emotions worse. One researcher concluded that contrary to popular belief, venting anger in these ways “may be worse than useless”. When people throw something, or act in other physically destructive and aggressive ways, they are actually engaging in a looped thought process called ruminating, which can often result in unhelpful and obsessive thinking. Even venting verbally in sarcasm or by complaining doesn’t result in a desired catharsis. Person who ‘vent anger’ in these ways are more likely, not less, to say that they feel worse after the fact.
It is frequently the case that little or no attempt is made to distinguish between girls’ and women’s assertiveness, aggressiveness and anger. This is generally true, but particularly true when the girl or woman is of colour. Black girls, for example, are often excessively disciplined or policed in schools for acting confidently, defending themselves, or asserting their opinions without apology. The same behaviour in a young white boy is far more likely to be deemed ‘leadership potential’. Anger is an emotion, assertiveness and aggression are types of behaviours. It is entirely possible to be assertive or aggressive without any anger, and to be angry without being assertive or aggressive.
Anger is now better understood as a contributor to many forms of mental distress and illness. Mismanages and unacknowledged anger is a known factor in depression, self-harming behaviours, eating disorders and more. Anger is also, however, implicated in a host of other ailments. These include autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, a person’s ability to recover from sickness or surgery. Strong, unprocessed angry emotions also negatively affect our immune systems. One study concluded that within three to four days of an anger incident, people are more likely to develop the common cold. Studies show that even remembering an angry experience results in a decline in a person’s antibodies, the first line of defence in fending off disease.
Anger management techniques often take into account only an excessively narrow band of anger expression recognised as problematic: destructive, monstrous rage — mainly the kind that is stereotypically associated with men. For women, healthy anger management doesn’t require us to exert more control but, rather, less. We are managing anger all the time without even realising it. Even this idea of ‘control’ and ‘management’ is a limiting way to think about anger if you want it to be purposeful, deliberate, engaging, and change making. For so-called anger management to be truly relevant, it must focus equally on self-silencing, somatisation, unhealthy anger diversion, and negative social responses.
Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK, and the venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.