I’m angry, again. It’s something that happens habitually – an old, familiar blanket I wrap myself up in, warming the chills life occasions in thesmug, intoxicating hedonism of beautiful, fiery ire. It often gets me into trouble, this anger, and then I throw off my blanket in a rush of flushed shame and guilt, hasty in my eagerness to disassociate myself from it, to thrust it off and away from every interpretation or connotation of me or who I am. Because I don’t want this other, this man, this society, to think that I am an angry person. I don’t want him to see me as this raging, thrashing, word-flinging hurricane – this storm of accusations and emotions and opinions that spark in their righteousness or vindication.
I don’t want to be the mad woman in the attic.
Ludicrously, vainly, valiantly I’m still trying to fit, to shrink myself into the adage and archetypes of old; I still want to be – for him – the angel in the living room.
Because, I’ve realised, incrementally, that that is what I’ve unconsciously believed I should be. To be attractive, or desirable, or loved, or liked – by all sects of society – I must be amenable. And yes, to every person (man) reading this, I know that being pleasant and agreeable are societal constraints inflicted upon us all, keeping us from the clutches of anarchy, mutiny, rebellion. But this goes beyond civic duty.
Wanting to be liked is part of the human condition. Feeling that to be anything other invalidates your existence, is part of being a woman.
Feeling tainted for the most natural of feelings, feeling guilt and shame as the master-orchestrator of this toxic, noxious thing you have summoned like some hysterical witch that somehow deserves the public outcry female anger always inspires, is an experience uniquely gendered.
Why do I automatically want to apologise for honesty expressed in anger?
Why do I feel being angry is overstepping the gendered line, that I am a cartoonish provocateur, testing boundaries that are not mine to test?
Why are angry women delegitimised instead of respected, ignored instead of championed, stifled instead of heard?
Why is my reason for being unreasonable?
Hello, oppression, my old friend.
As a young girl, I grew up believing I couldn’t be angry, that it wasn’t part of the qualities written on the box I came in when I was born ‘girl’. This wasn’t necessarily inherited from my parents. Rather, looking back, the idea came to me through the subterfuge of society and its refractions in every pink toy, every sequined skirt and Disney movie my young eyes devoured. Society raises us, sometimes more profoundly than the people we call mother and father.
For a girl, to be angry was to be immediately cast off into the ether as ‘Other’ – to be a certain kind of girl, one of those, that. To be marginalised in words like ‘fiery’, ‘difficult’, ‘sassy’, ‘high-maintenance’, ‘hysterical’, ‘rebellious’, ‘crazy’.
I love the idea of anger being construed as rebelliousness – as if embracing the most innate of our emotions in its purest form is an act of unnatural deviation, resistance.
Equally entertaining is the repositioning of ‘craziness’ as a construct of ‘femaleness’ – a construct usually catalysed by, funnily enough, anger. An angry woman is a crazy woman as embodied by Mrs Rochester, Miss Havisham, Marian McAlpin and now curated and perpetuated by the endless caricatures of “the crazy girlfriend” and Irish mammy rocking the Interweb today. The righteous wrath of all these women – unsurprisingly caused by men – is undermined by their “craziness”. The fact that these girlfriends have just cause to remonstrate with their significant others, that mothers are completely vindicated in giving out to lazy, inconsiderate children or indifferent husbands and Mrs Rochester was locked in an attic like an animal by a husband more concerned in seducing a young governess is irrelevant. Because society (men, for the most part) has dubbed them “crazy”, their opinion, their voice is invalid. And what is at the root of this craziness these women are accused of? Anger.
You see, I have learned, being a girl, a woman, with opinions, emotions – often volatile ones – and a tongue more than ready to express them, I must have an addendum. I cannot just be girl or woman or Holly. I am Sass Queen. I am loud, I am outspoken, fiery, hysterical; I am something that needs quantifying, qualifying by some adjective to express my otherness, to explain to society how I am deviant from the norm. Because being angry is not womanly, feminine. It is not part of the arpeggio of characteristics that make for amenable, desirable, marriable behaviour.
For some, or a lot, of you this argument might seem tangential and just another invention of injustice by the vindictive mind of a bored feminist. Except, think about it. Think of the women and sisters and friends and colleagues in your life. Think of the language you use to categorise the louder, more overtly passionate, outspoken, easily inflamed. Those unafraid of anger, those emboldened by confrontation. How are they qualified to and by you?
And now think of the men.
Does the same language apply, the same need for categorisation, explanation? Because I have yet to hear a man be described as difficult, feisty, sassy, fiery, hysterical. Are men just not angry creatures? Surely impossible when every statistic ever shows the devastating prevalence of male anger in society.
How is it one gender is permitted to express themselves freely, liberally, physically, without any need for justification and yet women are immediately delegitimised, depreciated and demeaned for failing to be anything other than the narrow constraints of perfect?
Why is an angry man just a man, expressing a justified emotion but an angry woman is crazy or uptight or any other of the thousand deprecations bandied about in various forms of condescension?
And, ridiculously, these terms are on the light, frivolous end of the spectrum, often anointed upon us as some patronising illusion of empowerment. In the polarising binaries of children’s movies, the dominating emotion of the villain, the evil and morally repugnant baddie, is anger. Hatred, revenge, jealousy, unrequited love – the themes of wickedness and evil from Hamlet to Tangled are grievances beginning and ending in anger. This might not seem particularly gendered, until we revisit the Disney archetypes. Most Disney villains are women – deformed, ugly hags who, interestingly, are all of a certain age and tormented by lost youth…a rant for another day. The common denominator amongst all of them – from Cinderella, to Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians et al – is that they are defined by the “wickedness” of their anger. Children are so incredibly adept at formulating associations, of breaking down complex narratives into logical formulas that the resounding implication of these characterisations of female anger is infuriatingly clear: anger is evil; anger is bad; anger is ugly. And girls cannot be ugly. It is simply that simple.
Arguments work better in comparisons and there’s one aspect I haven’t discussed yet – the opposite of anger. For every evil hag there is a princess, and for everything I learned I shouldn’t be, I similarly discovered a million things a girl ought to be.
Cruella resented the soft, lovely, compassionate Anita. The Evil Stepmother and Ugly Stepsisters raged with envy at Cinderella’s regal beauty and serene gentility. Yet another Evil Stepmother (and Queen, yas) hated the younger, sweeter Snow White. Maleficent hated just about everybody.
The point is, from a terrifyingly young age, I was shown two extremes of what femininity looked like and was told to pick one. Pick sides the way you pick out clothes except everything – from parents to societal pressures to advertising to movies to peers to art to literature to boys – is screaming at you in all manner of messed up subversions to choose one particular side. Actually, its exactly like picking out clothes.
Here is the choice:
Be sweet. Be kind and caring and lovely and serene – a beatific smile, an angel. What that really means is be passive. Be mediator, peace-maker, saint of boundless patience and virtue. Avoid confrontation at all costs, shrug off your dissatisfactions and grievances in an all-encompassing “I’m fine”, deny yourself your liberty and instead remain sanctimonious in sweet perfection. Be the good girl, the princess, the saint, the slave. Despite being locked in attics, forced into slave labour, almost murdered, robbed, nearly murdered again, homeless, anaesthetised for a hundred years, poisoned, do not ever display anything savouring of outrage at the flagrant injustice of your circumstances. You can be distressed, you can be sad, you can be scared, you can be shocked…but you are never enraged, you never give out, you never tell the world to fuck right off. BECAUSE YOU ARE A GOOD GIRL. And good girls win the hearts of princes and get to live happily ever after.
Be angry. Be old, haggard, ugly, evil, alone with nothing but a disease-infested crow or a Devil-possessed cat to keep you company in your wrath. Be the villain hated and ostracised by the people you seek to please. Be the one who ends up dead or…yep, no, dead seems to pretty much cover it.
…As an impressionable child, what side are you going to choose?
And whilst it might seem ridiculous that I’m using princesses and fairy godmothers and 1950s kids’ movies to justify my ‘adult’ reality, the same principles apply. As any woman knows from the mantras of growing up, we must be nice. We must behave – and behaving means ignoring the bad things and getting on with our duty to be ever-lovely. When we submit ourselves, when we sigh over a sacrifice we are always the ones to make or we are serene and sweet in the company of others, we are rewarded. Praise and validation are lavished upon us and we gobble it up like thieves because all any human wants is validation. We are told how good we are – and good means we can be loved. We are told how lovely we are – and lovely means worthy. We are told how sweet or cute we are and we smile our most angelic smile because we have succeeded in being Her: the right kind of girl. Our identity, our gender is wrapped up in these words and in these conditioning rituals that stretch back into the bleak days when women were property to be owned and stretch forward into the lives of my sisters and friends who are told they are equal when they are not.
And it has taken me an embarrassing length of time to realise this. And now that I’ve realised it, the anger blanket is never coming off. Not when I live in a world of blood-freezing chills and frigid fear.
You see, I like being angry. Of all the things I am and feel, my anger is the thing I am most secretly proud of. I cherish it like a guilty pleasure – burnishing it in embered night, sharpening it in the sun’s shards by day, rolling it out like hot treacle on my pillow in the moments before sleep.
The reason I embrace my anger blanket so much – the reason I find comfort and solace in it – is because it is the one emotion I feel is completely my own. It is made and defined by me, a secret wrapped around my values alone. It has grown against the grain of everything I’ve been shepherded to believe, cultivated against the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘musts’ that being a girl, a woman, a lady so often entails. It is the truest representation of the essence of who I am. The fizz of blood in pounding veins, dull oceans thudding in ears that hear nothing but the truth you carry in your bones: that is what grounds me to this life, and this fight of being a woman. Because anger is the proof of passion, of love and even, of hope. It eliminates the flippant and shows me what I care about the most, what is important to me and what I am going to do to protect it. Everything I have ever achieved that I hold to any kind of importance, has been borne out of anger. It is the beginning of possibility, the catalyst for action, the siren call for change.
This man, this society, they look at me and think I’m mad. Wild contortions of the tongue, tortured twist of hands in the air, a spit and sleuth of words avalanching from a mouth never closed in time. Corrosive is how I appear to them – black tarmacadam spreading like a stain on the white of their expectations. If only they could see me as I am: human.
…And fairly pissed off at the moment, let’s be honest.