Angry women

When was the last time you were angry … and you showed it?

Most likely, women need to think a bit harder about that one than men. Although both men and women get angry about as much as the other, women tend to bottle it up a lot more than men do. That is because we are taught differently about emotions when growing up. “Boys learn to disguise their hurt and vulnerability as anger — girls, all too often, learn the opposite,” says Laurie Penny, a feminist journalist and activist from the UK.

Kids grow up learning that showing certain emotions is not ‘manly’ or ‘feminine’ enough. Emotions are gendered and we can see that when little boys for example are castigated for crying. They are told to ‘man up’ which usually means to show no weakness. In a New York Times article, the journalist Andrew Reiner describes a video that was shown in his course on masculinity. The video shows a young baby boy getting his first vaccination and while he is crying, his dad tells him to say ‘I’m a man’. ‘Don’t cry’ he says to him. Because weakness is reserved for girls. When girls on the other hand show that they are dissatisfied with something, adults either do not take them seriously or tell them to calm down, to be more quiet.

What this essentially means is to be less visible, to take up less space. While men learn to always be tough and strong and loud, women grow up to learn how to ask for help, how to be dependent and how to cry. Ilse, a 49 years old flight attendant, says that she thinks that this is just how it is and always has been. However, studies show that parents comfort their girls more when they are crying whereas they show less understanding for their little boys when they are sad. Boys on the other hand are allowed and even encouraged to be wild, to be over the line even. “Boys will be boys” is a phrase everyone probably has encountered at some point in their lives and has led to playing down sexual violence for example. Peter, a 70 year old dutch man, says that men did not emancipate and because of that they are less expressive and think less about the consequences of their actions than women.

Is there a difference between men and women expressing their anger?

But even if parents want boys to be more expressive, they are talking to them differently than to girls, says Harriet Tenenbaum, a developmental psychologist at the University of Surrey, England. She says that parents talk to their girls more about emotions with a wider range of words whereas with boys, they most often only talk about anger and negative feelings, if at all.

It is a cycle really when anger is associated with men. Anger is tightly linked with power, whereas sadness, the negative emotion usually expected of women when expressing unhappiness with a situation, is seen as dismissive. When men are asserting that power and showing their anger, they are seen as stronger and in charge. We can observe this in the professional world when looking at the gender gap in education and high-ranking jobs. Although boys score lower in high school and college, they make up significantly more percent of high-ranking jobs later in life. But while this system in the end works out for a lot of men, women have learned to comply to it, to work with it and to function in it. Both of these situations are problems one could get mad about.

Can you recall the last time someone was angry with you?

We have a right to be angry, no matter what gender we identify with.

But yet another study shows that even if women were to show anger our angry faces might not be recognised as such. Multiple experiments have revealed that “an angry woman’s face is one of the most difficult for people to parse” whereas an androgynous face looking angry was read as a man’s face by most of the participants of the studies, writes Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her, a book that looks at the intersection of anger and gender in depth. 

It is no wonder though that we are not trained in recognising an angry woman’s face. Up until recently, there was barely any footage of women being angry in movies. Lorraine Ali writes in the LA Times that “For years, television shied away from any depiction of female anger that wasn’t victim’s rage or simple hysteria.” Women in movies and tv-shows were simply not portrayed as being angry and justifiably so. We influence culture and culture influences us and when we are not used to seeing what angry women look like, we will likely not recognise it when they actually are.

It is important that we start taking a good look at angry women when we get a chance to. To look anger in the face. We have a right to be angry, no matter what gender we identify with. For anger is not only a normal emotion part of human life but also can contribute to a happier life.

This is what angry women look like.

It is scientifically proven that people living out a wider range of emotions are happier. This range is called ‘emotional diversity’ or ‘emodiversity’ and has emerged in recent scientific circles in order to investigate and understand the role of emotions on our health.

Emodiversity is a theory that compares the body to an ecosystem. It draws inspiration from biodiversity and its benefits and detects that though there are differences regarding certain markers of humans, overall we stay balanced the more emotions we feel in a day – just like in an ecosystem where every species has its own role and together they create for a more balanced system, says Jordi Quoidback, a psychology professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona who was the lead author of the study with more than 37,000 participants from all ranges of backgrounds.

However, it has not yet been investigated what causes what, merely that there exists a correlation. Future investigations, Quoidbach et al. in their article note, have to look at the long-term effects of living out a wide range of emotions. What they are sure of though is that emodiversity causes for better mental and physical health. In these studies, it did not matter whether the felt emotions are positive, negative or both.

Is it better to release the anger or to keep it in?

Anger is a feeling. Hatred is an action.

Laurie Penny

Oftentimes, anger is related to violence and violent actions. When I ask Flora, a 21 years old German student, whether she thinks anger should be expressed she immediately links anger to knocking over trash cans and boxing against walls. She says she tries to distract herself from her anger which resonated with what Ilse expressed as well, doing meditation or other activities that let her forget her anger. In their opinion, anger is not a useful emotion.

This binary system deeming negative emotions like sadness, fear or anger as inherently ‘bad’ and positive emotions like joy or gratitude as inherently ‘good’ is “overdue for retirement,” writes Jane Gruber, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado. She writes that “negative emotions” are essential in our mental health and gives three different examples of why that is. Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, she states that “negative emotions” help us recognise dangerous situations ranging from an accident to an unhealthy relationship. Second, she writes that “negative emotions” help sharpen our focus by facilitating critical thinking and memory.  The third example of good impacts of so-called “negative emotions” is that the suppression of them does not make us happier. On the contrary, it leads to more distress and can result in substance abuse or overeating for example. Moreover, the suppression does not make the anger dissolve.

Anger can be useful. It can keep you moving and working when you want to give up.

Laurie Penny

Lior, one of the girls that are part of the photography project, uses her anger to create spoken word poetry. In one poem where she describes why she identifies as a feminist, she writes

Because I have had to learn
In excruciating ways
that we were handed different tools
must obey different rules
that boys will be boys
that you were given a choice
while we are constantly deprived of ours

Gruber also gives examples of “positive emotions” not causing greater happiness but the contrary. She writes that only feeling “positive emotions” and trying to maximise them constantly can lead to more self-focused behaviour which can relate to greater stereotyping of out-group members for example. Moreover, she writes that studies show that “positive emotions” can be associated with greater risk-taking behaviour and higher mortality rates. With this, she gives room to reconsider the duality of emotions existing these days and writes that “there is no intrinsic goodness or badness of an emotion”. Instead, we might try feeling all the emotions and letting them exist by for example voicing them. 

How do you cope with your anger?

One way to voice that specific emotion is swearing. Profanity is an emotional language and tightly linked to anger. We swear when bumping a toe on the table leg or missing a train. But while usually dismissed and enjoying a bad reputation, a study recently found that swearing might in fact make you stronger. Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University, UK, showed that participants swearing while holding their hand in an ice bucket could hold out longer. He thinks swearing might be a means of pain management and even empowerment. And even though swearing is tightly linked with anger, there have yet to be found significant differences between genders when swearing. 

This might be a good way to start accepting our emotions and giving them space instead of pushing them down. And even though swearing has a bad reputation among some, it liberates your feelings, especially anger and frustration. Did you ever feel released when swearing after something annoying or bad happened? That liberating feeling of release is what lets your heart rate stay sane.


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