Admit it: you’re angry. You have every right to be. In fact, anger is a normal emotional reaction to perceived injustices. And, these days, the perception that the cannons of injustice are aimed squarely at the figurative (and literal) chests of women is increasingly endorsed by feminists and non-feminists alike. When women experience rage within themselves, it’s often expressed passive-aggressively and relationally, if outwardly at all. In the past couple of decades, there has been a slight shift toward providing more physical outlets for women- boxing and self-defense, for example- but women are still the largest targeted consumers of assertiveness training and self-empowerment programs precisely because these skills are not passed to young girls in either play or punishment in the same manner as young boys.
Women, from a very young age, are socialized to act out toward others (primarily other women) with guerilla attacks of snark and social policing. Don’t like what Sally Sue is wearing? Stand behind her and casually, using your best stage whisper, make rude remarks she can “overhear”. Feel that Wanda Rose has a sexier sex life than you? Defame her as a “diseased whore” by setting up an anti-Wanda Rose group on a social media site.
Increasingly, though, women act out rage upon themselves by endorsing strictly modified eating, compulsive exercising, self-harming behavior (so prevalent it is said to have its own diagnostic code in the upcoming DSM-V*), and sundry other behavioral choices not in line with their identified life goals or value systems.
To attempt to delineate all possible sources of anger down to a manageable blog-bite would be doing further injustice to the fact that women, as a gender, don’t need a reason to be angry. Men are often thought “passionate” or “strong” or “morally convicted” when angry and their anger, unless deemed disproportionate to the situation is acceptable; women are considered “crazy” or “desperate” or “bitchy” or the seemingly innocuous but the ultimately pejorative “intense” when their anger develops a public face. Because women learn to either silence or stealthily express their anger, they often feel they have no place to turn when feeling resentful of being recipients of other’s rage.
All too commonly, anger is acted out upon women. From the verbal abasement of street harassment to the power demonstrations perpetrated by those exhibiting anger through domestic violence or sexual assault, acts of rage are committed against a significant portion of the female population. And, as further testament to the subdued social policy of female frustration as well as the prevalence of victim-blaming (another form of the policing of sexuality and gendered norms), there are scores of women who do not report the violence committed against them. The precedent to remain passive keeps females feeling isolated and afraid and, often, rageful.
So, how then do increasing numbers of women identify and engage with their anger? A sort of Stockholm Syndrome response seems to manifest where more women (and girls) project a romanticized ideal onto angry and rageful men. Rather than associating rage with violence and anger as one of a spectrum of emotions which can be harmful if not managed, social media sites are providing a platform for women to announce their “love” and lust of those who are, fictional or not, violently angry.
Without rehashing the “women as caretakers” trope, describing someone whose anger is outwardly expressed violently upon others (people or animals) as “broken” or “damaged” excuses the behavior and allows it to be more easily sexualized. Because the aforementioned trope assumes women fall in love with those they can change, it’s an easy enough assumption to make that “damaged” angry dude with low self-esteem and mangled childhood needs to “express” his pain through beating and that, with the love of the right woman, can learn to hug instead of hit. This, however, is a fallacious argument. Change occurs when a person both desires change within themself and works toward it by altering thoughts and behaviors. Of course, this is an over-simplification of the nature of change and the premise behind therapeutic work, but the point is that change is primarily internal.
In the much-lampooned Fifty Shades of Grey**, a passive woman attempts to love a tortured man into normalcy by letting him act out sexual violence against her. Without getting into a discussion of the BDSM lifestyle and whether it is feminist or violent or any other adjective (one can use any search engine to find more informed and nuanced writing on the subject than I can provide), some parts of the relationship seem not to be consensual, but undertaken by Anastasia as her attempt to “endure”. When the Daily Beast provided their summation of the “naughtiest bits” of the book, implying that “naughty = sexxxy”, this particular quote caught my attention as indicative of the abusive versus consensual nature of Anastasia and Christian Grey’s relationship:
His arms are wrapped around me, and he’s pulling me to him, hard, fast, gripping my ponytail to tilt my head up, kissing me like his life depends on it … He drags the hair tie painfully out of my hair, but I don’t care. He needs me, for whatever reason, at this point in time, and I have never felt so desired and coveted. (478)
The physical interaction is painful but she doesn’t care because “he needs” her, a point which, despite the pain makes her feel “desired and coveted”. One could dismiss this as being an exception and a fantasy if it were not for the millions of women swooning over this relationship in its fictional form as well as attempting to find their “own Christian Grey”. As one example, adult stores now even feature “50 Shades of Bondage” start-up sections where all the accessories are available to have violence- consensual or not- acted out upon women. And, men’s mainstream mags are endorsing the shift of consumer anger as well. An article at Men’s Health suggests “light bondage” would be an accessible pastime with most (74% is the number the article provides) women if the men could simply learn to be more firm in the way they requested it.
Bondage aside, women romanticize rage in ways not currently conventionally accepted. When suspected Colorado killer James Holmes was shown in court, a small (but vocal) firestorm of women and girls pronouncing him “cute” or “sexay” or their intentions to “fuck him all night long” were publically announced via various social media sites. These assertions are shocking not only because they conflict with value judgments set for women by society, but because these females are publically reclaiming their sexuality. Yet, the space they are reclaiming by trumpeting themselves as sexual beings in charge of their own pleasure and choices is novel; it is overall anachronistic. To tie one’s desire to another’s anger is reverting to the caretaker trope as well as sexualizing feelings of powerlessness and fear.
Ultimately, the link between the power inherent in sexuality and that enmeshed with physical expressions of anger needs to be broken. Simply because anger can, on occasion, indicate high levels of conviction and passion does not mean that it, in its entirety, connotes sexuality and, even less often, sensuality. The power most women hunger for is not found in nurturing a potentially violent person back to loving or to having sex with those who are infamously violent but in finding acceptable public vocalizations for their own frustrations and discontentments. When girls stop apologizing for their anger and are no longer shamed into silence or smiling, the discourse about the management of the energy of anger can finally evolve.
*The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition is set to be published in May of 2013.
**A book I have not read and have no plans to read.
Amanda N. Sposato is a mental health clinician working in Massachusetts where she runs treatment groups in anger management, among other topics. Her work has been featured on Feministing.com and she was the editor of the now-defunct blog Something.of Substance. She is also a proud alum of Mount Holyoke College. Currently she is working on an anger management book and relaunching a blog. To receive updates about her work, follow her on Facebook.