Reckoning with Female Rage

Thankful for this one from Sarah Gates. One of my favorite podcasts is “Call Your […]

Guest Contributor / 10.8.18

Thankful for this one from Sarah Gates.

One of my favorite podcasts is “Call Your Girlfriend,” self-described as “a podcast for long-distance besties everywhere,” co-hosted by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. I listen to it nearly every Friday for a number of reasons, including the no-holds-barred attitudes of the hosts, their passionate feminism, and their kind support for each other. But mostly I listen to it because I consider it an important part of my media diet to hear women really not caring about how they’re being perceived in a world where women carefully calibrate their words and tones in order to strike a balance between being assertive, but not shrill; calm, but not passive.

While I know what to expect in the podcast’s tone, I was thrown by my reaction toward a recent episode. In the episode, “Alive with Rage,” Ann and Amina start off by chastising some listeners for criticizing their ad choices. As the hosts argue, “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” They go on to justify their ad choices, explaining that there are many unethical sponsors they turn down, and deconstructing their listeners’ own unethical choices, while at the same time bemoaning the fact that small, female-owned businesses don’t have time to deal with these kinds of hair-splitting criticisms. Amina asks, “To the people who complain to us, also, I’m very curious: Where else do you complain? Do you complain to MSNBC when you’re watching, like, oil company ads on their shows? When you’re watching the nightly news? Is that a thing that you do?”

My initial reaction to all of this being, “This level of self-righteousness is not a good look. Y’all sound like a bunch of Pharisees.”

But after any amount of self-reflection, I know that the preachiness they reflected is something that characterizes some of my most basic interactions with the world. I have found myself in spiraling conversations with my partner that, having started with an offhand piece of advice, devolve into one-sided lectures on women’s histories of pain and being unheard. I become the same Pharisaic caricature.

After one particular argument, I wondered whether I was wrong or right to be so large and self-justified. I did the mental gymnastics; I reverse-walked the maze back to the scene of the crime. I still don’t really know the answer to that, but I do think that yelling at probably the wrong person in probably the wrong way is what happens when you try to fit a shipwreck of generational and gender-based anger into a remotely socially appropriate bottle; the bottle breaks when you’re speaking to someone who loves you.

In other words, self-righteousness might be one way that women can disguise their anger. Yet disguising anger only seems to make it mutate into something worse.

Leslie Jamison situates her own coming to terms with anger and sadness, and the conflation of anger with sadness, in the larger context of female rage, in a beautiful New York Times article from earlier this year. She describes all the reasons why women stifle anger, outlining the stereotypes that associate female anger with destructiveness, hysteria, and paranoia: “the harpy and her talons, the witch and her spells, the medusa and her writhing locks.” She sketches the complexity of women’s rage, drawing on Audre Lorde’s lovely description of her anger like an iceberg; Lorde writes: “I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger … for most of my life.”

I’m reminded of moments of rage from my childhood and adolescent years—this one iconic time when I threw a coffee pot on the kitchen floor—I honestly can’t remember the circumstances, I just know that my dad was not listening to me, and that feeling always made me hurt more than any other thing. I recall telling an older male friend what had happened, and he said something like, “Yeah, that sounds … a little over the top.” I felt then, and now, that he clearly had not understood the story.

Jamison’s essay ends by asking and answering the proverbial question: what good is anger? But she doesn’t have to tell me; I know it can be good—Rebecca Traister’s new book on the organizing power of female rage highlights how it can be, at the very least, productive—because I’ve seen it sour and become bad. I’ve known enough deeply passive and simultaneously deeply angry women to be able to tell you what happens when women ignore their anger. It becomes worse than a bad look; it becomes harmful, to them, and to people they love.

I can recall times during high school when I became so angry that I thought I might black out. If this concerns you, it’s okay—it concerned me too. I remember some of the feelings; I remember feeling thoroughly heartbroken and trapped, almost all of the time. I was in an on-again, off-again relationship at the time with an older and emotionally abusive person. My relationship with my dad was at an all-time low; he swung frequently from sullen and terrifying to distant and cold and occasionally the warm person I’d known as a child. Looking back on it now, I’m sure a lot of unaddressed mental health issues were at play, but I had no vocabulary or map to understand any of it at the time. And although I can barely recall the circumstances, on multiple occasions I remember screaming at my brother so severely that I thought I would break; I also remember his total terror.

And I’m sure I did break because it hurt so deeply.

I’d like to say I’ve become a calmer person since those days, thanks to therapy and exercise and no longer being a teenager. But there are moments when I am aware that my rage iceberg isn’t as controlled or controllable as I’d like it to be. The triggers are almost always the same.

All of this leaves me searching for a Biblical example of how to be mad in the “right way,” or maybe the righteous way, but when Paul offers, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin,” I have lots of questions—chief among them being, “Paul, have you tried this at home?” Or more honestly, “Pauline, have you tried this at home?”

I think about Jesus, overturning the tables in the temple, which honestly sounds loads better than trying to figure out what truth is and how to speak it to my neighbors and how to be angry without sinning. Can I overturn tables instead? I’m sure this is not how it works.

My frustration is not new. I often feel fairly empty-handed when I try to square away the very broken world we live in with most of what Christ came to say and do. I know that this is probably the point, and that the Bible is supposed to read not like an advice column, but rather like a painful vision of what it might look like to wait for the coming kingdom.

I fear I’m no good at praying—my best efforts usually consist of “Hey, God, thank you,” or “Dear Jesus, help,” and occasionally something remotely specific and not concerning my fear of air travel. But one thing that no one ever had to tell me to do was to imagine Christ in a very real way, beside me, feeling my pain. Knowing that Christ not only suffered, but also was angry, and will love us no matter how foolishly or righteously angry we become, makes me feel like I can continue to tolerate, and sometimes love, this very broken world.

And I’m reminded of this time when, on the way to preschool, my toddler rage exploded—“I hate you, Dad!”—and he laughed at me and said, “Okay, Sarah, okay.”