Print Edition - 2018-09-26  |  The Guardian

Angry women are the solution. Not a problem

  • It seems the world has woken up—but the stories we tell still punish women who speak out

Sep 26, 2018-

I’m aware of the consequences for women who go off-script. When I published a book earlier this year—six personal essays about all the things we’re not meant to say—I was fearful of the public response, afraid of being labelled disruptive. And I have been—but mostly in a good way. Every day I get emails from readers thanking me for talking about alcoholism, infertility and sexual violence.

One of the few negative reactions came from a radio journalist, who questioned how—not why—I’d chosen to write about having been raped when I was 15. Why hadn’t I put the description of the rape at the beginning of the book, he asked, to “hit people between the eyes”? I was taken aback by his question, and after the interview I found I couldn’t let it go. His question suggested that the only reason I could possibly have to describe being raped was so I could use it as a weapon. All the emotions I had—fury, sadness, regret and fear—were reduced to one: anger. It’s as if there’s a new script: the angry woman script. And I’m not sure that I like this one, either.

When I was 11, I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Rereading it recently, I stumbled when I came to these words from Marmee: “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it … I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips; and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked.” Marmee’s advice to Jo is: repress your anger, because the cause is not the problem—it’s you.

When I was asked by that interviewer to justify how I had written about being raped, I was not angry. I so wanted to be likable that I only said it was “my life and my story” and left it at that. Did I check myself because as a child I had internalised Marmee’s advice? Should I have reacted with fury?

As we find ourselves in the age of #MeToo, when women’s anger—so long seen as a problem—has been rebranded as a solution, do all women have a duty to be a little bit angry, all the time? This moment seems to demand our individual and collective fury—as Rebecca Traister puts it, “the anger window is open”. Yet it’s complicated, this anger. I find myself dwelling on it, reflecting on its sudden scale, wondering how long the window will be open, whether there’s a right kind of anger, or a right way to express it. And I wonder, too, how I can write and speak into this window without throwing myself out of it.

Where once women’s emotional labour was invested in suppressing anger, now we work to display our pain for a public gaze.

Rage is beginning to feel like a permanent state of being. The cultural turn towards listening to women’s anger is, obviously, a good thing. But there are times when it feels as if being vocally angry has become a requirement, rather than an option. Think of all the hashtags: #MeToo, #TimesUp, #WhyIStayed or #WhyIDidn’tReport. A lot is being asked of women—not only that they identify and labour to fix the problems of gender inequality, but also that they absorb the emotional and social consequences of protest. Protest is necessary. But it is also exhausting.

I thought about all these questions as I watched Hannah Gadsby’s standup show Nanette, a call to action to angry women. She demands that the narrative changes—both her own, and ours—to accommodate her fury. But then, in the show’s final moments, Gadsby declares that she is wary of anger. Anger, she says, is a way to unite people, but ultimately it only serves to spread “blind hate”. It’s a double bind. We need anger to call out inequality and violence, we need anger to provoke a reaction, and we need anger to drive us towards change. But anger will scar and consume us. It’s a salutary warning.

Gadsby’s invocation to tell our stories, but to resist anger, is worlds away from Marmee’s advice to Jo. No longer are women expected to shake themselves; instead, we are being asked to shake the world. But giving permission to women to be angry does not mean that we have divested ourselves entirely of 19th-century attitudes to women and power. And so, while I relish reading angry women on the page and am grateful for those angry women leading campaigns against inequality and violence, most of all I hope for something else. I hope that this moment is about much more than anger. I hope that we can create a permanent space for women to be more than just one thing at a time.

Published: 26-09-2018 08:11

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