On Anger: What women in books, songs, movies and life have taught me

Anger is something I’ve been thinking about and experiencing lately. It’s an emotion pervading our country right now, and because of that, in many cases and in many ways, I believe, pervading our private lives, too. It is an emotion that, left untransformed, can cause disorder and darkness. I don’t want to live like that. 

But what do I do with anger when I experience it, and what do I do with it when the people around me experience it? 

Throughout my life, literature has informed the way I think about the world and my own experiences. Through engaging with writers’ thoughts, it gives me a model to question what I believe — the parts of my thinking I want to retain and the parts I want to depart from. That’s why it was revelatory for me the other day when I realized that while trying to think of female characters in literature who are angry, I couldn’t think of any. 

I vaguely recalled having a conversation in one of my grad school literature classes about the three Tenorio sisters who were witches, minor characters in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel “Bless Me, Ultima.” They were all unmarried and lived together away from society. In the class, we wondered — were they perhaps only categorized as witches because they did not conform to expectations of women? Why are only female characters categorized as witches? And why do they usually follow certain archetypes: angry, unmarried, ugly, unlikable?

That’s when I realized: I could think of so few angry women in novels because I didn’t like them. Because of that, I didn’t aspire to be like them, and so they hadn’t made an impression on me, and I didn’t carry them along with me into my life beyond reading the book. Simply put, I didn’t pay attention to them.

Then another thought occurred to me: Anger isn’t something I pay attention to.

It’s true. It is easier to dismiss because that means I don’t have to deal with it. I don’t have to look closely, delve deeply, become uncomfortable. In her 1981 speech “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Audre Lorde spoke about the hard work of change anger calls us to. 

“The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth,” she said. 

If I don’t pay attention to anger and instead allow the people who express it to be only minor characters cloaked in a stereotypical title such as witches or bitches or whatever other word we use as a defense to describe women we are afraid of, then I can dismiss them and remain safely as I am. If I take anger seriously, however — the other’s and my own — then it does not allow me or the other party to stay the same. It calls us to action on someone’s behalf — either our own or another’s — and it asks us both to change in the process. 

If women we are meant to read as “bad” in novels are the ones who express their anger outwardly, what of women we are meant to read as “good?” How do they deal with this very human emotion each of us experience? How do they express it? 

“If an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily,” writes Leslie Jamison in The New York Times story “I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not anymore. On Female Rage.” “She often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant. Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It’s as if the prospect of a woman’s anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.” 

While anger often thrusts pain on another, sadness causes pain to our self. Could this be why it is more socially acceptable for a woman to be sad than it is for her to be angry? As a sad person, she is a passive damsel in distress. As an angry person, she can act upon others.

Later in the essay, Jamison writes of the fact that anger and sadness are often viewed as being mutually exclusive, although they shouldn’t be. 

“A woman couldn’t hurt and be hurt at once,” Jamison writes of her observance while watching the movie “I, Tanya.” “She could be either angry or sad. It was easier to outsource those emotions to the bodies of separate women than it was to acknowledge that they reside together in the body of every woman.” 

After reading this, I recognized the coexistence of these two feelings in my own self when I feel angry. It occurred to me: Maybe I had overlooked women who were expressing anger in the novels I’d read because I’d mistaken their anger as something else, something like sadness or bitterness or craziness (after all, “mad” doubles as a synonym for “crazy”). I started broadening how I thought about the expression of anger.

I came up with a few more. Moaning Myrtle, the ghost in the Harry Potter series who cries constantly because her life was cut short when she was killed by a basilisk while seeking refuge from bullies in a bathroom. Edna Pontellier in “The Awakening,” whose loneliness and inability to express her desires because of the repressive social structure she is ensnared by causes her to walk into the ocean. Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the wife of Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre” who is perceived as mentally unstable — written off more impolitely as “crazy” — because she is locked in an attic by her husband. Could it be, perhaps, Jean Rhys considers in her alternative novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” told from Bertha’s point of view, that Bertha is actually not mentally unstable but instead angry because she has been taken from her family and country and then locked away due to her husband’s racist attitudes so he can fall in love with a teenager? Could all of these women actually be not sad, but rather, angry because of the circumstances society has thrust upon them? Could their sadness and anger be not a reflection of their own character, but a reflection of the ills and evils of the society they are a part of?

Anger is something to pay attention to. It has something to teach us. 

It is easy to dismiss angry women. If everyone in society agrees to turn our heads, to give a little laugh and a knowing roll of our eyes, we can go on living our lives the way they’ve always been. Maybe the work, then, is to unlearn my complicity with society, to instead turn my head toward the angry other and ask, “What did you say?” in a way that wants to understand rather than silence. And hope, with my own anger, others do the same.

 

How and when do we learn this, the socially acceptable moments to feel anger, the socially acceptable ways to express or stifle it? How and when do we learn the consequences of not adhering to these social norms?

The verse goes like this: “Please picture me / in the weeds / before I learned civility, / I used to scream ferociously / any time I wanted. / I, I.” The words are from the song “Seven,” and are, in my opinion, the best lyrics Taylor Swift has written. They are a plea for the listener to see the speaker in her natural, true state, a version of herself before she was taught to be an adult. I think about these words because of what they point out: adulthood is the ability to control our emotions — which oftentimes means lying about or repressing them, and it is something we are taught as we grow. Babies come out of the womb screaming, and how can we blame them? Their exit from what is most often a warm, safe home just their size into something vast and cold and hard. Losing our temper, is, perhaps, the most honest response in many situations, yet we shame people — even children — for “acting like a child” when they show their anger. Perhaps what we don’t want is honesty. 

I love that Swift uses the word “learned” in the lyric. Civility is something, this word claims, she has been taught, and she half-laments it, although not enough to abandon it in a return to “screaming ferociously anytime she wants.” Or perhaps her education in being civilized has been so complete she feels she no longer can return to this state of innocence and honesty about who she is. I love that in the next line, she sings the word “I” almost as a grown-up version of screaming ferociously, a scream she has learned to make beautiful so as to be socially acceptable. It is a sort of tame, vaguely haunting attempt to reclaim what is hers: her self. 

Poet Layli Long Soldier, in her poem “Whereas,” also speaks to the ways our society acculturates girls into women who do not express their true feelings of anger. She writes about an incident in which her daughter falls and skins her knees. Her friends bring her bleeding into the bathroom, and her daughter smiles, nervously laughing to try to hide her pain. Soldier instructs her, “Stop, my girl. If you’re hurting, cry. You must / show your feelings so that others know, so that we can help. … In our home / in our family we are ourselves, real feelings. You can do this with others, be true.” Soldier catches herself, later, however, laughing sadly as she reads the way language is manipulated in service of the oppressor in the U.S. Government’s 2009 apologies to Native Peoples. With her own reaction, she realizes her daughter has learned to hide her pain through mock happiness not from her friends but from her, and that Soldier herself has learned it from “a deep practice very old.” 

A deep practice very old we have all learned it from.

 

In the scene right after Lena runs to tell Kostas she loves him on the ferry dock in Santorini, Carmen summons all of her courage and calls her dad to tell him she is angry with him for marrying a new woman and being a good father to his new stepchildren without telling her, angry he only visits her twice a year, fearful his actions stem from racism and shame of her and her mother. He tries to cut her off, incorrectly assuming she is calling to apologize for throwing a rock through the front window of his house, telling her it’s not necessary for her to say she’s sorry. 

She is not calling to apologize. 

“I am angry with you,” she says, instead. And with that simple phrase, she gave a generation of girls a model.

It is in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” that series that shepherded so many girls of my generation into womanhood, and we were 13 years old watching it — we’d read it the year before. She gave us words to express what we felt: “I am angry with you.” Fifteen years later, I still think about that scene intermittently, Carmen’s courage and boldness, saying those words so directly, so truthfully. I admire it. I admire her. She taught us, even if we didn’t realize it then, to claim our feelings born of our experiences and to give them voice. She still, perhaps, follows us around, bearing that gift, whispering that truth, “I am angry with you,” a fictional example of how we might be in the world, women who stand up and speak our truths with conviction, even when we are scared.

It is interesting to note that while I was growing up, Carmen was my least favorite of the four friends in the series, the one I identified with the least, even though she was the writer. Then, I loved Lena, the sad, unsure, beautiful one who struggles to believe she is lovable while finding the courage to fall in love with a guy who loves her but is also young and fallible and makes mistakes she can never quite forgive him, never quite forget him, for. Her anger at the man she loves who chooses not to love her back like she wants him to turns inward and expresses itself as sadness and heartbrokenness, the more traditionally acceptable way for anger to present itself in women. Growing up, I wanted to be like her. 

Carmen’s anger, on the other hand, explodes outward when she throws a rock into the window of her father’s house, smashing it. Hers is the type of anger not always socially rewarded in women, the type of anger I suspect I was inadvertently socialized to look down upon. One reason, perhaps, I never connected as strongly with her character, although I admired parts of it: I didn’t want to be like that. It is not nice to throw rocks through people’s windows, and society has its ways of telling us that women who aren’t nice aren’t as likable. Aren’t as lovable.

Now, perhaps, I recognize both of these women’s reactions as two responses to the same emotion: anger. Each, however, has a different outcome: Carmen’s less socially-acceptable behavior is destructive to another’s property and, perhaps, to another’s ego. Lena’s quiet, socially-rewarded anger that makes her nice and therefore more likable, on the other hand, is self-destructive; even several books and years later, she is unable to move on with her life from the heartbreak she has experienced, a fact attributed to her ability to feel things deeply (she is an artist, after all). Perhaps, though, her lack of healing from this wound is in part because she never fully expressed her anger at the injustice of being betrayed despite her own devotion. She remains civilized, retaining her social capital at the expense of her self.

 

Do all people have a right to anger and to expressing it? Our country is reeling from violence upon our government incited by anger at a loss of power. Women are physically abused by men who are angry. Businesses are looted during protests to point attention toward anger so as to create change in an economic system that oppresses the people who made the prospering possible for those who benefit from the system. Should all forms of anger be allowed to be expressed? How do we justify our answer to that question? Where does a right to express anger end?

Audre Lorde, when talking about Black women and white women together confronting racism in her 1981 speech at the National Women’s Association Conference, made an important distinction between hatred and anger, two experiences that can often be confused for the other.

“This hatred and our anger are very different,” she said. “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”

Hatred, according to Lorde, destroys and causes death. Anger, on the other hand, leads to dialogue that creates and is life-giving. In this way of looking at it, we are often confusing anger that hardens into hatred with anger that transforms into love. This way of looking at it makes the point that anger is useful, perhaps, to the extent that it moves us toward understanding each other, propels us to work together with another for change. It ceases to become useful for lasting change when it closes its eyes to, isolates or silences the other or our self in any way. 

Sure, violence that is the result of destructive, untransformed anger can be a quick, temporary fix to an issue. As we have seen in our country throughout history and in our own time, anger can be used as a tool by forces that seek to maintain power, manipulate and control. It is a desperate grasp to retain what is believed to be rightfully ours. But it is a shifting solution built on sand and does not last. It demands more and more anger and more and more power until soon, we forget the purpose: to change, transform. 

Untransformed, destructive anger seeks to retain the status quo. With it, we ask nothing of our self; rather, we ask the other to either do the work of changing alone or to continue suffering while we do nothing. It is therefore selfish. This kind of anger leads us deeper into our self, and because of that, it is dangerous.

Anger that leads us outward, however, has the ability to help us connect with each other. And when we connect with another, we can create new possibilities that consider more, that are different from anything we could create on our own. As people who live in a community, making a place for each other is what it’s all about.

When we find our self cherishing our anger in a way that keeps us from going to the other, we can ask our self: What would you do if you weren’t angry? What would you do if you weren’t sad? Letting go frees us to go after other pursuits, opens us to new possibilities in which we do not place limits on ourselves because of something that happened in our past. When anger becomes a pastime that is a barrier to community, ask yourself: What would you rather do instead? We only get so much time. 

 

If part of the issue is that we must allow women to experience and express anger, must give this grace to our friends, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our selves, part of the issue is also that anger wounds, it traps, and, quite without metaphor or hyperbole, it kills. This killing, this poison, this bitterness is not the life we want to live for ourselves, is not the life we want to inflict upon others. “Mostly,” as the poet Danusha Laméris writes in her poem “Small Kindnesses,” “We don’t want to harm each other.” The need to express our anger and the fact that it will cause pain when we do not want it to: How do we reconcile these dichotomous truths?

Many self-help books are eager to sell us one solution.

“If you have ever looked for ways to think about anger, chances are, like I did, you immediately found advice about ‘anger management,’” writes Sooraya Chemaly in the article “Women’s Anger Will Change the World.” “It’s an interesting term, as it implies we have control over how and when we feel anger, and that it must be controlled or reined in.” 

As Chemaly points out, the field of anger management seems to be founded upon the unquestioned idea that anger is negative and not something we want to engage with. Anger, according to anger management, is a problem to be fixed or solved, a chronic truth that must be lived with and hopefully most days — with good effort — kept at bay. Anger management does not imagine anger as able to be healed or transformed, or as a force for healing and transformation. It is the equivalent of taking medicine for back pain rather than having surgery. 

But should the goal of anger be to avoid experiencing or inflicting pain? Or might there be some form of enlightenment if we dare to press into the necessary suffering? 

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book “True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart,” uses the metaphor of a mother comforting her child to propose the idea of receiving and taking care of our anger. 

“When the mother hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she has in her hands, she goes into its room, and takes the baby in her arms,” he writes. “The moment the baby is lifted into the mother’s arms, the energy of wisdom already begins to penetrate into the baby’s body. The mother does not know yet what is the matter with the baby, but the fact that she has it in her arms already gives her child some relief. The baby stops crying. Then the mother continues to hold the baby in her arms, she continues to offer it the energy of tenderness, and during this time, the mother practices deep looking. A mother is a very talented person. She only needs two or three minutes to figure out what is the matter with her baby. … Then when the understanding comes, the mother can transform the situation immediately.”

“It is the same thing with meditation,” he continues. “When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. ‘I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. Breathe — I am taking care of you now.’” 

Taking care of our anger, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, does not mean treasuring it so it festers and becomes bitterness or resentment or hatred. Rather, it means acknowledging it so it can be transformed, through deep looking, breathing in as we say to ourselves, “I know that I am angry” and breathing out, “I know that the anger is still in me” for five to 10 minutes. “You will be able to look deeply at the true nature of your anger,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes. “This discovery, this understanding, this wisdom, will liberate you from your pain.”

It is the fear of feeling hurt — the fear of suffering — that causes us to repress our anger and other difficult feelings, the monk goes on to say. Instead, we fill ourselves with distractions to keep the pain at bay. The pain instead manifests itself as depression and stress. 

“We should not adopt this boycott policy,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes. “On the contrary, we should open our door so that our suffering can come out. We are afraid of doing that, but Buddhism teaches us that we should not be afraid, because we have available to us an energy that should help us to care for our pain — the energy of mindfulness. … ‘I am here for you, dear one, I am here for you.’” 

At the 1981 women’s conference, Audre Lorde spoke about how she has learned to use her anger as a response to racism as a tool for growth and the understanding Thich Nhat Hanh also writes about. “My fear of anger taught me nothing,” she said. “Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.”

Rather, she said, anger can be a tool from which we learn so we can together create new ways of being with and for each other.

“My anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth,” she said. “But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. … Anger is loaded with information and energy.” 

Each of our emotions communicate something, teach us something about our self. And each of another person’s emotions communicates something, teach us something about their self. When babies cry and scream, we don’t yell or scream back at them. We lift them into our arms and try to understand what is wrong, knowing their crying and screaming is their way of communicating to us something is not right; something is not the way they would like it to be for them to go on living in peace and freedom. We lift babies into our arms to hold them and help them when they are angry; maybe we can do the same for our selves and for each other.

 

In her 1981 speech, Lorde pointed out that between women, there are differences of “race, color, age, class and sexual identity,” and that while we might be the oppressed in one experience, we can also simultaneously be the oppressor in another. We cannot assume all women’s anger is the same anger; we must recognize the ways in which women of differing experiences are allowed or not allowed by society — and by our selves — to feel and express anger. We must examine our anger and our guilt toward each other and work to move past it, too. 

“For Black women and white women to face each other’s angers without denial or immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea,” Lorde said. “It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. … The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar.”

It is imperative, Lorde says, that we examine not only how our anger is inflamed, but also how it inflames others. I must do it in my personal relationships: how am I acting as oppressor? I must do it in the public, societal structures and economic systems I participate in: how am I acting as oppressor? I must ask: How do my actions mete out justice, yes, and how do they hinder it? And then I must unite with others — perhaps even those who appear most angry with me — to work to change this hindrance.

On a private scale, anger can sever our closest relationships, causing abuse and neglect, the refusal to consider what another’s anger might tell us. Or, it can build a bridge between two people to new ways of being that consider both people’s needs. On a public scale, anger can lead to dialogue that helps us create a just society for everyone, one that upholds each person’s dignity and gives each person equal footing, or it can stoke racism and unjust social structures, start wars, oppress and kill.  

The choice is ours. Will we consider the other and enter into dialogue? Will we work to ensure anger is the middle of the story — not the end?

 

What do we do with our anger? We know from the chaos of both our own hearts and the world around us that it cannot stay untransformed. We must use it in the service of true peace, allow it to be transformed into love, not hatred. Sometimes, the answer is to let it go. To learn from it and then let our selves go free from it so we can live in lightness and forgiveness and love. Sometimes, the answer is to use it to work toward change so we can live in the truth of equality and forgiveness and love. Either way, maybe it is about loving attention.

Greta Gerwig’s beautiful film “Lady Bird” delves into the ways we have been unfair to both women and men in the ways we allow each to traditionally express anger. The key to understanding the entire movie is tucked in a scene near the end of the film, when the principal, Sister Sarah-Joan, poses a question to teenage Lady Bird, who claims it is not love that has driven her to write an entire essay about the place she is from and desperately wants to leave, but rather the fact that she “just” pays attention. Sister Sarah-Joan asks: “Don’t you think that maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

Yes, when that attention is not self-serving, but rather, open to the other.

I think maybe, that is the key for us, too. In books, in movies and in real life, when someone is angry, we must ask with open hearts, “Why?” Even though attention is the thing we least want to give to the other when we are angry, we must give it because attention validates existence; neglect kills it. 

Because perhaps anger, after all, is a cry for just that: someone to pay attention to us, to listen to us, to see us without forcing their own agenda or prescriptions or ideologies upon us. A cry for an equal portion, for a fair chance, for a warm place. A cry for the other to stay, to care, to love us, like a baby in this world, messy and naked and screaming as we are. 

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