Why Women Don’t Get to Be Angry
When men get angry, their power grows. When women do, it shrinks.
(excerpt from Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Soraya Chemaly, 2018)
My parents’ wedding, in 1965, was a lavish affair that went on for more than 20 hours and with
more than 500 guests in attendance. Among the most prized gifts my parents received that day
was their wedding china. These white-and-gold plates were more than an expensive gesture:
They were an important symbol both of adulthood and their community’s and family’s approval
of marriage in general and this marriage in particular. When I was growing up, these look-butdon’t-touch dishes were used only on the rarest and most special occasions, and always with
That’s why, one day, when I was 15, I was dumbfounded to see my mother standing on the long
veranda outside our kitchen, chucking one china plate after another as far and as hard as she
could into the hot, humid air. Our kitchen was on the second floor of a house that sat perched
atop a long, rolling hill. I watched each dish soar through the atmosphere, its weight generating
a sharp, steady trajectory before shattering into pieces on the terrace far below.
While the image is vivid in my mind, I have no memory of any noise. My mother didn’t utter a
sound the entire time. I have no idea if she even knew anyone was watching. When she was
done, she walked back into the kitchen and asked me how my school day had gone, as though
nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I desperately wanted to know what I had witnessed,
but it didn’t feel like a good time to ask questions, so I sat and worked on my homework as my
mother prepared dinner and the day morphed into night. We never talked about anger.
Why do we so rarely learn how to be angry?
Like most of us, I learned about anger in a vacuum of information by watching the people
around me: what they did with their anger, how they responded to other people when they
were mad. I don’t remember my parents or other adults ever talking to me about anger
directly. Sadness, yes. Envy, anxiety, guilt, check, check, check. But not anger. It turns out that,
for girls, this is par for the course. While parents talk to girls about emotions more than they do
to boys, anger is excluded. Reflect with me for a moment: How did you first learn to think about
emotions, and anger in particular? Can you remember having any conversations with authority
figures or role models about how to think about your anger or what to do with it? If you are a
woman, chances are the answer is no.
As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as to fear, ignore,
hide, and transform it.
As far as my own early understanding of anger, the plate-throwing incident said it all. My
mother may have been livid, but she gave every appearance of being cheerful and happy. By
staying silent and choosing this particular outlet for her feelings, she communicated a trove of
information: for example, that anger was experienced in isolation and was not worth sharing
verbally with others. That furious feelings are best kept to oneself. That when they do inevitably
come out, the results can be scary, shocking, and destructive.
My mother was acting in a way that remains typical for many women: She was getting her
anger “out,” but in a way that explicitly separated it from her relationships. Most women report
feeling the angriest in private and interpersonal settings. They also prioritize their
relationships — at home, work, and even in political contexts — in determining, consciously or
not, if and how to express negative emotions.
While we experience anger internally, it is mediated culturally and externally by other people’s
expectations and social prohibitions. Roles and responsibilities, power and privilege, are the
framers of our anger. Relationships, culture, social status, exposure to discrimination, poverty,
and access to power all factor into how we think about, experience, and utilize anger. Different
countries, regions — even neighboring communities in the same state — have been shown to
have anger profiles, exhibiting different patterns of behavior and social dynamics. So, for
example, in some cultures anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it is more for
exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and
patriotic, but in black men as criminality, and in black women as threat. In the Western world,
anger in women has been widely associated with “madness.”
Of course, everyone feels anger. Studies show that differences between men’s and women’s
experiences of feeling angry are virtually nonexistent. But while women and men feel anger
similarly, there are stark differences in how we respond to those feelings and how they are
received by the people around us. At home, children still learn quickly that for boys and men,
anger reinforces traditional gender expectations, but that for girls and women, anger
confounds them. It’s as children that most of us learn to regard anger as unfeminine,
unattractive, and selfish. Many of us are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others,
making us irksome and unlikeable. That it will alienate our loved ones or put off people we
want to attract. That it will twist our faces, make us ugly. This is true even for those of us who
have to use anger to defend ourselves in charged and dangerous situations. As girls, we are not
taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.
There is not a woman alive who does not understand that women’s anger is openly reviled. We
don’t need books, studies, theories, or specialists to tell us this. Over the past several years, I’ve
spoken to thousands of girls and women at schools, conferences, and corporations. Without
fail, afterward they come up to me to say the same two things: They want to know how to
stand up for themselves “without sounding angry or bitter,” and they want to share stories
about how, when they do express anger about issues specifically relevant to their lives as
women, people respond with doubt and often aggression.
Women experience discrimination differently, but we share the experience — in anger or when
simply speaking assertively — of being told we are “crazy,” “irrational,” even “demonic.” If we
are worried and, as studies show, compelled to repackage, ignore, divert, or trivialize our anger,
it is because we well understand the costs of displaying it. Our society is infinitely creative in
finding ways to dismiss and pathologize women’s rage. I have always understood that being
seen as an “angry woman” — sometimes simply for sharing my thoughts out loud — would cast
me as overemotional, irrational, “passionate,” maybe hysterical, and certainly a “not objective”
and fuzzy thinker.
When a woman shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she
automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile,
irritable, less competent, and unlikable — the kiss of death for a class of people expected to
maintain social connections. The same people who mightopt to work for an angry-sounding,
aggressive man are likelyto be less tolerant of the same behavior if the boss were a woman.
When a man becomes angry in an argument or debate, people are more likely to abandon their
own positions and defer to his. But when a woman acts the same way, she’s likely to elicit the
opposite response. For some of us, considered angry by nature and default, the risks of
asserting ourselves, defending ourselves, or speaking out in support of issues that are
important to us can be significant. Black girls and women, for example, routinely silenced by
“angry black woman” stereotypes, have to contend with abiding dangers of institutionalized
violence that might result from their expressing justifiable rage. It makes sense that men, as
studies find, consider anger to be power enhancing in a way that women don’t. For men, anger
is far more likely to be power enhancing.
Ask yourself why a society would deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel,
express, and leverage anger and to be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is
actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions. It begets
transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational
and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide
between what is and what ought to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.
Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult. By effectively severing anger from
“good womanhood,” we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects
us against danger and injustice.
It took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say “You sound angry” are the
same people who uniformly don’t care to ask “Why?”
Like many women, I am still constantly being reminded that it’s “better” if women didn’t “seem
so angry.” What does “better” mean, exactly? And why does it fall so disproportionately on the
shoulders of women to be “better” by putting aside anger in order to “understand” and to
forgive and forget? Does it make us “good” people? Is it healthy? Does it enable us to protect
our interests, bring change to struggling communities, or upend failing systems?
An unqualified no.
Mainly, it props up a profoundly corrupt status quo.
That anger metaphors are filled with kitchen imagery — anger simmers and smolders before
reaching a boiling point; a person has to “mull things over” and “cool off”; we are supposed to
“contain” or “put a lid” on our anger, or it will leave a bad “taste in the mouth” — strikes me as
more than an interesting coincidence. As women, we often have to bite our tongues, eat our
words, and swallow our pride. It’s almost, as one of my daughters put it, as if we are supposed
to keep our anger in the kitchen. Where we might, for example, throw plates.
I don’t throw plates, but I do throw words. It took me years to acknowledge my own anger, and
when I did, I didn’t know what do with it. I had the distinct sensation of being alien to myself —
which was ironic, since the real inauthenticity was in my denying anger, not my recognizing it.
Now I write and write and write. I write my rage onto paper and into bits and bytes. I write
anger out of my head and my body and put it out in the world, where, frankly, it belongs. This
can cause deep discomfort in the people around me, and at times it has brought personal or
professional costs. But it also leads to richer and more productive experiences, relationships,
and life outcomes. It took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say “You
sound angry” are the same people who uniformly don’t care to ask “Why?” They’re interested
in silence, not dialogue. This response to women expressing anger happens on larger and larger
scales: in schools, places of worship, the workplace, and politics.
A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women, not as
human beings, thinkers, knowers, active participants, or citizens. Women around the world are
clearly angry and acting on that emotion. That means, inevitably, that a backlash is in full swing,
most typically among “moderates” who are fond of disparaging angry women as dangerous and
unhinged. It is easier to criticize the angry women than to ask the questions “What is making
you so angry?” and “What can we do about it?” — the answers to which have disruptive and
There is real urgency behind these questions. We are living in what feels like an age of
pronounced rage and near-constant outrage. There is a lot to be angry about, and everywhere
you turn, people seem furious, indignant, and impatient. Every time I see a bold, outspoken,
and unapologetically angry woman, I applaud her because of what her expression represents
culturally. Despite the fact that many women are freer to take their considerable fury-fueled
energy into homes, streets, schools, the workplace, and voting booths, anger is still poorly
understood and, in women, often harshly penalized.
The truth is that anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way. All we have to do is own it.
From Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly. Copyright © 2018 by Soraya
Chemaly. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Not Here to Make Friends, Roxane Gay
“My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women.”
—Marguerite Duras, The Lover
In my high school yearbook there is a note from a girl who wrote, “I like you even
though you are very mean.” I do not remember the girl who wrote this note. I do not
remember being mean to her, or anyone for that matter. I do remember I was feral in high
school, socially awkward, emotionally closed off, completely lost.
Or maybe I don’t want to remember being mean because I’ve changed in the 20 years
between now and then. Around my junior year, I went from being quiet and withdrawn to
being mean where mean was saying exactly what I thought and making sarcastic
comments, relentlessly. Sincerity was dead to me.
I had so few friends it didn’t really matter how I behaved. I had nothing to lose. I had no
idea what it meant to be likable though I was surrounded by generally likable people, or I
suppose, I was surrounded by people who were very invested in projecting a likable
façade, people who were willing to play by the rules. I had likable parents and brothers. I
was the anomaly as a social outcast, but even from a young age, I understood that when a
girl is unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally
mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human. It is either a
blessing or a curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman.
Inevitably on every reality-television program, someone will boldly declare, “I’m not
here to make friends.” They do so to establish that they are on a given program to win the
nebulous prize or the bachelor’s heart or get the exposure they need to begin their
unsteady rise to a modicum of fame. These people make this declaration by way of
explaining their unlikability or the inevitably unkind edit they’re going to receive from
the show’s producers. It isn’t that they are terrible, you see. It’s simply that they are not
participating in the show to make friends. They are freeing themselves from the burden of
likability or they are, perhaps, freeing us from the burden of guilt for the dislike and
eventual contempt we might hold for them.
In the movie Young Adult, Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary. Nearly every review of
the movie raises her character’s unlikability, painting her with a bright scarlet U. Based
on this character’s critical reception, an unlikable woman embodies any number of
unpleasing but entirely human characteristics. Mavis is beautiful, cold, calculating, selfabsorbed, full of odd tics, insensitive, and largely dysfunctional in nearly every aspect of
her life. These are, apparently, unacceptable traits for a woman, particularly given the
sheer number working in concert. Some reviews go so far as to suggest that Mavis is
mentally ill because there’s nothing more reliable than armchair diagnosis by
disapproving critics. In his review, Roger Ebert lauds Young Adult screenwriter Diablo
Cody for making Mavis an alcoholic because, “without such a context, Mavis would
simply be insane.” Ebert, and many others, require an explanation for Mavis’ behavior.
They require a diagnosis for her unlikability in order to tolerate her. The simplest
explanation, of Mavis as human, will not suffice.
In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct
dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikable.
Critics who fault a character’s unlikability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely
expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to
breach the norm of social acceptability.
Why is likability even a question? Why are we so concerned with, whether in fact or
fiction, someone is likable? Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any
character who doesn’t behave in a way the reader finds palatable. Lionel Shriver notes
in an essay for The Financial Times, “This ‘liking’ business has two components: moral
approval and affection.” We need characters to be lovable while doing right.
Some might suggest this likability question is a byproduct of an online culture where we
reflexively like or favorite every status update and bit of personal trivia shared on social
networks. Certainly, online there is a culture of relentless affirmation, but it would be
shortsighted to believe that this desire to be liked, this desire to express what or whom we
like, begins or ends with the internet. I have no doubt that Abraham Maslow has some
ideas on this persistent desire, in so many of us, to be liked and, in turn, to belong, to
have our deftness at following the proper code of conduct affirmed.
As a writer and a person who has struggled with likability — being likable, wanting to be
liked, wanting to belong — I have spent a great deal of time thinking about likability in
the stories I read and those I write. I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who
behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they
want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad
things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and
make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without
apologizing for it.
I don’t even mind unlikable characters whose behavior is psychopathic or sociopathic.
This is not to say I condone, for example, murder, but American Psycho’s Patrick
Bateman is a very interesting man. There is a psychiatric diagnosis for his unlikability, a
deviant pathology, but he has his charms, particularly in his scathing self-awareness.
Serial killers are people too, and sometimes they are funny. My conscience, Bateman
thinks in the novel, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at
Harvard) if they ever did exist.
I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more
unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things —
That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd. It implies we
are engaging in a courtship. When characters are unlikable, they don’t meet our mutable,
varying standards. Certainly, we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t
be dictated by whether or not we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we
Frankly, I find “good,” purportedly likable characters, rather unbearable. Take May
Welland in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. May’s likability is, to be fair, deliberate, a
choice Wharton has made so Newland Archer’s passion for Countess Olenska is ever
more fraught and bittersweet. Still, May is the kind of woman who always does
everything right, everything that is expected of her. She is a perfect society lady. She
knows how to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, everyone looks down on May’s
unspoken rival and cousin, the Countess Olenska, a woman who dares to defy social
conventions, who dares to not tolerate a terrible marriage, who dares to want re …
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