“women who expressed their anger in public were sometimes fitted with iron masks that covered their faces and depressed their tongues. Scold’s bridles served a dual purpose: public humiliation that mouthy women would be mouthy no more”
And, so, the anger has been steadily controlled. Since the days of the scold bridle—since the era in which an easy answer to the problem of feminine anger was to accuse its possessor of witchcraft—American culture has found decidedly more cunning and cutting ways to keep women’s rage in check. The equation of feminine frustration with the workings of the “spleen,” and the assumption that the particulars of the female body exert themselves over the particulars of the female soul (hysteria: “Latin hystericus, Greek ὑστερικός—belonging to the womb”). The treatment of women who give voice to their outrage as, sexually and socially, undesirable. The fact that anger has, through the canny work of centuries, been made proximate to ugliness: Shrill. Nagging. Blood coming out of her wherever. Smile. You’d be so much prettier.
It’s a policing mechanism that carries on, into this current wave of celebrity-endorsed feminism and commercially savvy empowerment, through age-old double standards. Bernie’s anger seen, the journalist Rebecca Traister pointed out, as righteous and compelling; Hillary’s as bitter and off-putting. Jeff Sessions described, during his Senate Intelligence hearings this spring, as full of “vinegar and fire in his belly”: Kamala Harris described as—yep—“hysterical.” Kirsten Gillibrand dismissed by Tucker Carlson as “positively unglued”; Elizabeth Warren, by Mika Brzezinski, as “unmeasured and almost unhinged.” Maxine Waters as having an “angry meltdown.” Michelle Obama as being, generally, “angry.”
Women bear the brunt of the double standards; women of color bear it most of all. In 1982, after Shirley Chisholm announced her retirement from a career in politics that found her 1) becoming the first black woman to enter Congress, 2) serving seven terms in that body, and 3) becoming the first black major-party candidate to run for president of the United States, The New York Times published a valedictory of that career. Chisholm told the paper—the quote that doubled as the ending to its article about her—“I am at peace with myself. It’s been a remarkable challenge. I am not looking back.” The Times headlined its story “Rep. Chisholm’s Angry Farewell.”
Day by day, story by story, in public and private, women, through all this, have been taught that the emotions that make them most interestingly and authentically and incorrigibly human are precisely the ones that disqualify them from full ascendance in humanity’s various institutions. In politics. In business. In pop culture. “Calm down,” the world has said, rolling its eyes. “Don’t be so emotional.” As if to ratify the message, in recent years a new cultural paradigm has arisen: the cool girl. The chill girl. The girl who is in control of her emotions, because, indeed, she experiences none of the inconvenient feelings that might complicate her coolness. The cool girl washes her double cheeseburger down with whiskey. The cool girl does not bother with makeup because the cool girl is naturally beautiful. Happy and breezy and appealingly uncomplicated—anger and its attendant inconveniences are simply not part of the cool girl’s emotional vocabulary.
Women are embracing the emotion for which, in earlier eras, they were so efficiently punished.
It’s a trope, however—manic, pixie, cool—that reads, recent though it may be, as ever more out of date. Outrage, instead, is the ethic of the moment. Comedy has gotten angry. Witches, unapologetically indignant, are trending. Rage rooms, places “to physically act out on emotions and stress,” are on the rise. (The tagline of one of these places: “Nothing You Expect, Everything You Deserve.”) As more and more people are able to share their experiences of the world and its betrayals—#MeToo and also #BlackLivesMatter and also #TakeaKnee and so many, many more—anger, increasingly, is the emotional posture that best reflects the world as it is lived and navigated. Fury, now, is the thing. There is anger in the ether.
And women, in particular, in this moment of post-Weinstein shakeup, are now embracing the emotion for which, in earlier eras, they were so efficiently punished. Because they have no other choice, and because there is relief in honesty. In May, speaking at the commencement exercises of Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton—the woman who for decades had been stymied by the American discomfort with feminine vexation—advised graduating seniors, “Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your dreams, or even your anger.” This fall, the woman who for so long had been mocked for expressing even the slightest hint of pique (shrill, nag, I already have a mother) came out with a book that was unapologetically seething. And the most significant pop-cultural image of the current era—still—is that of Beyoncé, clad in lemonade yellow, walking down a city street, taking a baseball bat to a car window. And a fire hydrant. And a storefront. And a surveillance camera. There is joy in her journey. There is liberation in the destruction she brings. There is serenity in her rage. Grant me the wisdom to know the difference.
In June of 2016, the writer Roxane Gay noted that “I keep most of my anger to myself, swallowing it as deep as I can, understanding that someday, I won’t be able to swallow it anymore. I will erupt and then there will be fallout.” It’s a truth that the witch-burners and the shrill-shamers over the centuries have known all too well: Rage will, inevitably, rise. It’s happening now. Prominent women are erupting. Rose McGowan. Asia Argento. Maxine Waters. Uma Thurman. A year after that initial Access Hollywood tape, there’s another one taking its place—one that suggests that fury is no longer a cause for shame. The stigma instead, more and more, comes from seeing the world as it is and yet opting for the conveniences of complacency. The fallout is here. Anger is power. What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy? Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately?
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