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.
What lesson do you wish you had learned earlier in life? Do any fembloggers out there want to take a swing at more Lessons for Girls? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll post links here to your contributions to our little feminist vade mecum. (If you don’t have a blog, I’m willing to consider guest posts–so e-mail me and let me know.)
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.