Lessons for Girls, number one: Anger

Howdy, friends–I’m still in self-imposed blogland exile until I finish up some overdue work, but I thought I’d republish this post, which is one of my all-time favorites (and one of your all-time favorites too, if my sitemeter is to be trusted).  As some of you longtime readers may remember, “Anger” was the first contribution to what became a fun series a few years ago, Lessons for Girls.  I’m not just posting this today because I’m a lazy lazy-a$$ed lazypants lady who can’t get her work done on time (although it’s true)–some recent e-mail correspondance with a friend has suggested that it might be time for us to review our thoughts on and experiences with anger.  (Note to friend:  see especially the part about how “it’s okay to make other people angry.”

Don't be a dip$hit!

If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it’s this:  it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to make other people angry, and anger can work for you.  (Well, that might be three lessons, but I find it hard to disentangle them, so bear with me.)

It’s okay to be angry.  Girls are subjected to an impressive load of anti-anger propaganda.  Snow White and Cinderella, at least in the mid-century modern Disneyfield versions we’re stuck with today in U.S. popular culture, are both specifically praised for remaining sweet and good-natured in spite of the fact that they’re turned into indentured servants by their stepmothers.  (There’s also a not-so-subtle implication that it’s their sweet natures that preserve their beauty–because anger is so aging, my dears!)  What kind of a lesson is that for girls?  If a child of mine were enslaved by an evil stepmother, I’d sure as hell want her to get pi$$ed off and fight back.  But, anger is punished in girls from the beginning.  An undergraduate student of mine recently complained that she’s not permitted to express anger.  When she does, first she’s patronized and told that she really doesn’t mean what she’s saying, and when she insists that no, she really is angry, the reaction she gets from other people isn’t apology or rational discussion, it’s anger at her anger.  (For more on this see below, “It’s okay to make other people angry.”)

I’ve got another version of Snow White’s story I like to tell:  Instead of a smiling, simpering dip$hit who simply loves scrubbing the stairs, Snow White sneaks away one day to raise an army.  (She makes sure break that tattletale Magic Mirror first, so that he can’t rat her out.)  Snow White delivers a stirring speech in a clandestine meeting at the local cathedral, where the women and men of the kingdom agree to enlist in her cause against the usurper queen.  She returns to the castle in gleaming armour, and while her army overwhelms the queen’s guards, she chops off the queen’s head with her broadsword, and displays it on a pike from the castle’s highest tower.  And of course, the kingdom becomes a republic with a constitution and an elaborate system of shared governance; Snow White stays on as a cabinet secretary.  Without anger, that course of action is simply impossible.  Without anger, you’re at the mercy of forest animals, dwarves, and handsome princes, all of whom have their own agendas should they choose to help you out.

It’s okay to make other people angry.  It happens to us all–if you are a sentient being with needs and opinions, you will pi$$ someone off.  Most of the time it won’t have been your intention at all, but you will make others angry.  Sometimes you’ll be in a position to make a decision that will make people angry.  Suck it up–it’s a privilege of rank to make decisions, and those people are entitled to their anger, too.  Sometimes, you’ll pi$$ off others because they treated you badly and you protested their treatment because you are, after all, a sentient being who refuses to be treated badly.  But, be warned:  people who treat you badly get really, really angry when you refuse to accept bad treatment.  Don’t get upset because people who treated you badly are angry.  Always remember:  no matter what they say, they don’t have your best interests at heart, because they treated you badly!

Sometimes people will get angry and treat you badly because you’ve expressed an opinion they don’t like.  Whatever the reason, please get over any compulsion you may have to apologize to them or to anyone else for their anger or for their inappropriate displays of their anger.  This will be very hard if they insult your intelligence or misprepresent your point of view.  It will be even harder if they scream at you in public and make wild accusations about your motives for expressing your opinions.  Understand that these people are behaving childishly, and the way to deal with angry children is to send them to their rooms and ignore the tantrum.  Their anger is their responsibility.

Anger can work for you.  There are people who will disagree with me on this, but I have found anger to be a remarkably clarifying and cleansing emotion.  Men’s liberationist movements are all about anger:  Anger was at the heart of what made the American and French Revolutions happen, and anger motivated generations of black and white abolitionists to fight against slavery.  Anger is the only rational and healthy reaction to exploitation and injustice.  In my own life, anger has worked:  Once upon a time, anger motivated me to get out of an exploitative romantic relationship.  Early in the present decade, anger motivated me to get another, better job when I was being bullied at work.  I agree that anger that doesn’t lead to productive change is a problem that probably requires therapy.  (And you have to use anger judiciously–don’t get angry at traffic, and don’t get angry about petty everyday frustrations.  That’s anger that doesn’t go anywhere but straight to your cardiovascular system.)  Too many girls and women are told that it’s bad simply to feel anger–let alone to express it or act on it, and I think that’s because denying anger is enfeebling.  (Denying anger takes its toll on your cardiovascular system, too–beware, my pretties.)

Not being angry is a large part of what makes us girls and women–we agree to be the not-angries who are somehow nevertheless responsible for placating everyone else’s anger:  our employers’ and co-workers’ anger, our parents’ anger, our partners’/abusers’ anger, and even our children’s anger (when applicable).  That’s a division of emotional labor and emotional privilege that has awesome (and awesomely unequal) economic,  political, and social consequences for everyone. 

This post is dedicated to Clio Bluestocking, who was recently lectured about her inappropriate “tone” when her opinions were solicited by a fellowship program she’s participating in and she actually shared them with the other fellows.  She was informed that no one else in the program liked or respected her, so she should try to moderate her language and “tone” because it would be so good for her personal growth.  Clio’s description of her experiences made me very angry on her behalf, but they helped me clarify some thoughts that have been knocking around for a while about women and anger. 

13 thoughts on “Lessons for Girls, number one: Anger

  1. Thanks for re-posting! I missed it the first time, and I have now enjoyed reading the post and all the comments. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Like many of your readers I’ve had a hard time expressing anger, especially productively, and I see the same thing in my students and other faculty. I recently came across two circumstances, one with a student and one with another faculty member (both women), who yelled at me (in person and in email) for things far beyond my control. I saw their behavior as completely uncalled for, and of course I was not inclined to help them- although I understood their frustrations. I took away the lesson that when angry, it is best to be objective, well-prepared, and goal-oriented, so that the problem can get solved.

    Now I found that I’m angry with a former college neighbor (who was never very nice to start with) whose political leanings are invading my field. He takes issue with the way history is taught, and has subsequently designed history lessons for kids (cartoons with a political stance) that are blatantly inaccurate (although claiming they are unbiased and accurate). How do I transfer my anger into something productive? I honestly don’t know.


  2. I like this post, but I wish it was a bit more nuanced, esp. when it came to race. I think this post is more appropriate for the typical white woman who is socialized to be pleasant. For black women, unfortunately, I think we are considered “angry” as a default position, so our positions are overlooked as emotional and we are truly frightening when we actually get mad, lol. How do you suggest navigating that minefield? I think the usual response is a forced coolness, even when provoked (see, e.g., Obama) but it’s not good for the cardiovascular system.


  3. You’re right, BigBossLady–I don’t deal with race in this post at all, which means that it’s pretty much reflective of a middle-class white woman’s experience. I’ve thought about African American men and anger somewhat, because for them expressions of anger can be potentially deadly (in encounters with the police, etc.) The link you provide above to Racialicious is a good explanation of the bind that African American women are in, but it doesn’t really offer a remedy. (As if there is one?)

    I should say that I think that open, over-the-top expressions of anger are rarely helpful to anyone of any race or sex or class background, but in my experience the only shouting/screaming matches I’ve witnessed at work have been all white men. I think most of us understand that there are different consequences for this kind of expression of anger, and white men have more leeway to express themselves this way without being called “irrational” or “emotional” (the way women of all ethnic backgrounds might be) or without scaring people (the way that an angry African American or Latino man might be.) Anger is definitely a privilege of rank in the workplace, too. I’ve personally never seen an untenured person fly off the handle, although I’ve heard stories in other departments. . .

    I think we can be angry and use anger productively without seeming like screaming idiots (as in Ms.McD’s experience with angry colleagues.) For me, thinking about and clarifying boundaries is a really helpful technique, both inside my head and also in relationships with others. You can tell other people what kind of behavior or comments you will and won’t accept if they’re expecting some action or some work from you. This is difficult, especially because creating and enforcing boundaries is also a privilege of rank, but the alternative is never enforcing boundaries, and that seems like an even more miserable way to live.


  4. A resounding yes to this: “Anger is the only rational and healthy reaction to exploitation and injustice.”

    Anger made me quit my adjunct gig a few months ago instead of sticking around and “holding out” for something better. I’m still angry, but at least now I’m getting paid enough to support myself.

    At the same time, I don’t feel like I can express my anger — either at academe or at the many frustrations of a different kind that arise at my new position — without it being turned against me anywhere except on my blog. I’m so tired of people telling me I should be “grateful” now that I have a “decent” job as a secretary…after devoting a decade to the goal of becoming a professor? Granted the realities of the market today, but can you imagine anyone saying that to a recent Ph.D. who was male?

    Thanks for reposting. I missed it the first time around, too.


  5. Granted the realities of the market today, but can you imagine anyone saying that to a recent Ph.D. who was male?

    No–I can’t imagine it at all. Although of course I’m a good historian and a good feminist who resists generalizations, but one transhistorical, transcultural reality of women throughout recorded history is that women are expected either to volunteer their labor or sell it at a dramatic discount relative to men’s wages.

    It sounds like you have good reason to be angry, but quitting your adjunct job for (relatively) better wages might be a helpful start. You will figure out a way of using your talents and your degree outside of academia.


  6. Good post of course and good idea to repost, and I am more horrified than ever at that experience of Clio Bluestocking’s.

    Recent PhD, remember, you are admirable!


  7. Excellent post! One thing to add is that in order for anger to be a useful means of exerting power, it needs to be expressed in a controlled and measured fashion. The expression of uncontrollable rage *decreases* social power.


  8. You guys grew up in the American culture where anger is improper; be cool. Look at Obama, the Republicans spit in his face; he remains cool. They dis him; he is cool. You can continue.

    Emigrants like me came, in most cases, from cultures where anger, frustration, despise are legitimate everyday regular reactions.

    Remember when Howard Dean “screamed?” Most of the country went berserk. Dean was frustrate and angry, but optimistic. Others thought it’s not cool. We all got Kerry (and then Obama). Thanks, I am quite angry.


  9. One of my favorite posts and I’m glad to see it again. Recent Ph.D., you are absolutely right. Ditto you, Historiann: Women still get forced to work for free or at a discount. And because they do, their cooperation becomes proof that nothing’s wrong with the world. Talk about patriarchal equilibrium.


  10. koshem Bos–I think you’re probably right that there’s a national as well as a gender angle to this anger. I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s the Disneyfied/Americanized version of fairy tales that make anger so verboten. Many of the original Grimm Brothers fairy tales have shockingly violent conclusions and/or bad ends for the bad actors, which I found so much more satisfying as a child. (Although they were creepier and scarier, but I probably liked that too.)

    I never understood why the “Dean Scream” was such a dealbreaker, other than the Washington pundit class never liked Dean and leaped on it to make him look like a freak.


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