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If You're Angry and You Know It, Stomp Your Feet!

By Nerida Bullock, PhD Student

November 19, 2018

Book Review:  Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister
 

“The furious female is, we are told to this day in innumerable ways, both
subtle and stark, a perversion of both nature and our social norms.  She is
ugly, emotional, out of control, sick, unhappy, unpleasant to be around,
unpersuasive, irrational, crazy, infantile. Above all, she must not be heard.”

                                                -Traister (2018: 51)
 

There is a Malaysian restaurant (http://penangdelight.com) in Vancouver that my sister and I frequent that has the most amazing butter prawns. These special prawns are not on the menu, but for those in-the-know, you can request them at the Marpole location, and they are truly morsels of wonder & delight.  A few months back, my sister and I were catching up and ruminating about life and family over dinner.  I can’t recall exactly what we were talking about, but I do remember we were reflecting on our shared familial history—a narrative that includes being raised Mormon, a complicated physically and emotionally abusive father, five siblings that share a mutual affection yet live relatively siloed lives from each other, and our mutual yet divergent exits from our childhood faith.  With the taste of butter prawn in our mouths, and the oily residue from peeling prawns on our fingers, my sister said, “I don’t understand why you are so angry about the past.”  This was not the first time she had made mention of my anger, and it most certainly won’t be the last.  There was nothing extraordinary about the moment, and perhaps this is why it stands out as a critical point of inquiry to evaluate my own ambiguity, confusion, disassociation, and denial of anger. If I were to employ a cinematic special effect that slows down time to Nano seconds (think Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix) I can replay my internal dialogue as follows…

I don’t think I’m angry, I’m just honest.
Why does she think I’m angry?
Why the hell isn’t she angry?
I had it bad, but she had it worse.
What’s so wrong with being angry?
Who wouldn’t be angry?
If I am angry, I will be dismissed.
I’m not allowed to be angry.
I wasn’t angry before, but now I am.
What’s so wrong with being angry anyways?

I am absolutely sure my sister had no conscious intention of offense or hurt, but upon reflection the sting of dismissal that accompanied the accusations of anger was real.  To be angry, or more specifically to be a woman expressing anger, is to be considered nonsensical and incapable of seeing a situation in a rational light.  My sister’s statement encapsulates a pervasive cultural understanding that weaponizes women’s anger against the very women who have the audacity to express it.  By gender coding anger as irrational and hysterical, women who express anger through words or action make men and other women uncomfortable.  If a woman gets too close to the truth, shakes the foundation of someone else’s carefully constructed reality, or throws the lights on hypocrisy, someone will most assuredly accuse her of being angry (a.k.a. irrational and ugly.)

Grounding her work in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the momentum of the #metoo movement, Rebecca Traister’s latest manuscript Good and Mad, explores women’s anger as a facilitator of political and social change.  Traister contextualizes the current moment of women’s rage within a broader historic narrative that illustrates how women’s anger has been the catalyst in many revolutionary social movements— that noncompliant, insistent, furious women have long been responsible for igniting some of the most profound resistance to, and challenges of, oppressive power distribution.

Within this historical narrative, Traister weaves within her tapestry the ever-present subversion of women’s anger—how it has been cast as ugly, unappealing, dangerous, something to be shut down or disdained in order to circumvent its revolutionary power.  She argues that current American manifestations of women’s anger, namely #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and 3rd wave feminism, are enacted against a backdrop wherein angry resistance coming from less powerful (women) directed towards the powerful (men) “is automatically assumed to be disruptive, dangerous, electric” (197).  At the heart of Traister’s book is the ongoing struggle between women’s collective fury and a patriarchal political system that validates the liberty of the minority through the oppression of the majority.     

Taking on the subject of women’s anger is a monumental task not for the faint of heart, and Traister does not shy away from grappling with some of the most contentious elements of women’s anger, most notably the ongoing reckoning of women’s anger with each other. White women have benefited from systems of oppression that marginalize “other” women and the 2017 International Women’s March shed light on the ways in which black, Latina, Hispanic, trans, Indigenous and migrant women have not only produced some of the most intellectually salient contributions to anti-oppression theory, but have also comprised the backbone of embodied activism over the last twenty-five years.  In the planning stage of the Women’s March, these women publicly expressed anger and resentment at being pushed aside by white women whose recent brush with the sting of oppression had ignited unprecedented numbers to political activism.  Drawing upon the work of Audre Lorde, Traister explores the righteous anger of disempowered women within a framework that considers the possibility of redemptive remediation and the ideological benefits of “messy” feminism.  She also interrogates how real systemic change is strategically undermined through the weaponization of contentious dialogue between and amongst women.

Rebecca Traister is one of my favorite writers and I am always excited to read her work. She is an accomplished feminist essayist who writes for New York Magazine and is author of two additional books, Big Girls Don’t Cry (2010) and All The Single Ladies (2016).  She is one of many feminist voices uniquely capable of providing nuanced, accessible contextualization’s of the ways in which women’s anger is coded, and I was eager to read her latest manuscript.

Anger is such a BIG topic to take on.  From the personal to the political, the ways in which women’s anger has been gender-coded as inappropriate and destructive is a pervasive narrative worthy of critical interrogation.

For example, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most influential legal theorists of my generation has said that anger is self-defeating when trying to influence others. A position consistent with the patriarchal assumption that women’s anger is inherently destructive.

My therapist (whom I greatly respect) once told me that when a woman cries, anger is ALWAYS at the root of her tears. I was deeply troubled by his statement which I understood to be shorthand for ‘men get angry and women cry,’—a gendered notion I felt obliged to challenge at our next session.

Serena Williams became a lightening-rod for public discourse on the gendered and racial coding of anger after the 2018 U.S. Open Grand Slam.

At a campaign rally in 2008, Michelle Obama stated that for the first time in her adult lifetime, she was proud of her country.  Conservative political pundits weaponized her statement drawing upon the pejorative stereotype of the angry black woman.

Let’s not even get started on Hillary Clinton….

And then there is my sister.  My beautiful, wonderful, queer, awesome sister.  To be honest, I am unsure if I genuinely felt or expressed anger during our conversation over dinner.  I suppose anger would be entirely justified when considering the injustices of our childhoods, and my sister would most certainly be entitled to her anger as well.  However, rather than resisting the discomfort of anger, what would be thrilling would be to set aside “the messages that cause us to bottle it up, let it fester, keep it silent, feel shame and isolation for ever having felt it or rechannel it in inappropriate directions” (244).  Traister’s book explores that nagging itch to be curious about one’s own anger, and the anger of other women, and more importantly, to be keenly aware of who benefits when rage is denied, resisted, belittled, pathologized, and weaponized.

What I share with Traister is a suspicion of attempts to codify anger as unhealthy and a rebellious curiosity about “the system that penalizes [women] for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it” (245).  Although Traister’s book seems somewhat rushed (most likely the result of a release date meant to capitalize off the U.S. mid-term election) it plays a role in a broader exploration of anger, an exploration that began when black and lesbian feminists dared to express their rage about racism and homophobia embedded in the feminist movement.  As Audre Lorde stated in 1981 at the National Women’s Studies Conference, “every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional which brought that anger into being” (1997: 280) and “we cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor to seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty” (1997: 281).

So next time I am accused of being angry, I will savor the moment, for anger is an indicator of injustice— an internal barometer informing me that my personal ethics have been violated.  Instead of fighting anger or denying it, I will relish in its glory exploring its bitter sweet taste in my mouth.  I will Investigate where it resides within my body—do I feel it on my scalp?  In my stomach?  Does it make my fingers tingle?  I will pay attention to how it affects my thinking, whether my mind sharpens or slows down.  In the afterglow of anger do I sleep soundly, or am I disturbed by powerful dreams?

Of equal important to accepting my own anger as a transformative force, I will nurture my ability to hold space for other women’s anger without judgement or shame.  As Lorde states, “it is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (1997: 282).  There is much to be learned from anger, and I am appreciative of Traister’s efforts to shed light on its transformative potential.  

Lorde, Audre. 1997. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly. 25:1, 278-285.

Traister, Rebecca. 2018. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York: Simon and Schuster.