Why Literature Needs More Angry Women
As anyone I dated between 2006 and 2008 can attest to, as a late teen living in Chicago, I was prone to episodes of petty vandalism. I say this with neither pride nor shame — it was simply a brief but explosive period in my life, wherein I would do things like smash lipstick into the mailbox keyholes of my apartment building, graffiti parked cars with cake frosting, and cover my boyfriends’ (and once, a girlfriend I was feuding with) front doors with condiments. Once, in the frantic and silent wee hours of a Sunday morning, I took all the patio furniture of a local restaurant and swapped it with all the patio furniture from the restaurant next door. Another time, I moved tray after tray of potted plants from the garden section of a 24-hour grocery store into the cereal aisle.
These acts weren't exactly violent, and hardly revolutionary; not making a statement, barely enough to ruin someone’s property or life, but certainly enough to completely derail their day. Or, at least, their morning. It was the kind of adolescent, reactionary behavior that was both the result of privilege, and privilege enacted — something a white, Catholic school college student could get away with, with little-to-no consequences. It's critical to note that, in contrast, “black women in our society aren’t allowed to be angry,” as writes Char Adams, in a personal essay written for Bustle last year:
"This socialization — my inclination to push back against the idea of the "angry, Black woman" — is so embedded in my psyche that it has taken me nearly 23 years to realize it was there at all. Society holds that when a person is angry, they are not rational, and thus should not be taken seriously. But when this line of thinking is applied to Black women, it's even more hurtful — because it is part of a network of stereotypes, including the false claims that we are inherently “masculine,” hyper-sexual and angry. These racist images have been used to demean and control Black women for centuries. This dismissal of so many of our feelings as just "anger" is a way to invalidate our emotions and, in turn, our humanity."
My own behavior was completely out of character for the person I most often tried to present myself to be — a bookish, Rory Gilmore-inspired, sometimes-cool girl who won scholarships for volunteer work and studied abroad a lot. (Usually when I was trying to get out of a vandalism-inciting relationship I was too non-confrontational to end myself.) When who I really was — as evidenced by these occasional, late night acts of destruction — was a young woman who had no idea where her inner rage was coming from, or what to do with it.
We have few models for healthy, constructive female anger in our culture. (Just consider one of the most-recognizable examples of female rage in fiction — Stephen King’s Carrie — whose fury was repressed for so long that when she finally unleashes it, she kills nearly everyone she knows before dying herself. Carrie’s rage isn’t one of empowerment; it’s a cautionary tale for angry young women.) We have even fewer models of permissible female anger; and even fewer specific to women of color.
Angry women — in books, in film, across media, in the world — are “shrill”, or “crazy.” We’re depressed, or alienating, or hysterical, or unlikable. Sometimes we are “over-thinking it”. Sometimes our vaginas are at fault. If you're an angry black woman — as Michele Obama often noted — you’re “acting out”, dangerous, or someone to be feared; someone whose life is inherently at risk by the mere experience of anger. Never is that which incites the rage worthy of the degree of female scorn that follows. We live in a culture that greets women’s anger with disdain. Female rage is an inconvenience or a burden at best, amusing or disregarded entirely at worst. It de-legitimizes and undermines us.
These assertions are not mine alone. In a 2015 study recently cited by ELLE magazine, as part of their post-2016 election Fired Up series, writer Mattie Kahn notes: “When a man gets mad, the report found, his behavior is validated and rewarded. When a woman does, she is not just deemed less credible; she’s made irrelevant.”
Fictional women are subject to the same double standard, the same scrutiny. From undergraduate writing workshops to the Publishers Weekly Q-and-A heard ‘round the world (or, at least, heard ‘round the writing world) the question of likability is almost universally directed at female characters. Writing likable — or, at least, ultimately redeemable — women seems to be a prerequisite for writing women at all. Readers are far more likely to reject a story on the unlikability of a female character than the unlikability of male one. If you do happen to write an unlikable female character, you’re just being dismissably subversive. It’s a gimmick, unworthy of serious consideration.
Which, in part, is why we need more angry women in literature — and those women need not just be angry, they need to be angry and have a diverse set of experiences.
If the call for more angry women in literature seems vague, that’s because it is. The diversity of female rage is, perhaps, one of the reasons writing it, defining it, and receiving it is so hard. The ways we talk and write about the anger of white women versus the anger of women of color is worthy of its own article entirely. “Collective expressions of rage are only effective if every member of a specific group is angered in the same way. To speak of oppression is powerful, but women writ large are no harmonious collective, and they perceive their powerlessness in different ways and from different directions,” wrote Stassa Edwards, in a VICE magazine essay exploring the history of female anger.
The danger of being an angry woman, in a world where women are almost universally acted upon, rather than being actors themselves, adds another layer of complexity. There’s that quote, most often attributed to Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them [or, dare I say, shout at them]. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” There are liberties men are able to take with their anger that, if exhibited by women, can become life threatening. Simply writing angry women into fiction won’t change this.
And yet, we need them. All us angry girls out there looking for a model — or, at least, a relatable outlet — for our rage need these stories.
One of the best, recent examples of this is Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 novel, The Book of Joan. A retelling of the Joan of Arc story, in a post-apocalyptic space station-future, The Book of Joan is filled with female rage. Her protagonist, Christine Pizan, channels her rage by burning a story of rebellion directly onto her skin — and then leading that rebellion against dictator, Jean de Men. Christine’s inspiration is the equally-angry Joan of Dirt — a woman thought to be martyred, but who is still living (and raging) beneath Earth’s radioactive surface. But then, there’s Jean de Men as well — a (first presumed to be male) gender-fluid dictator obsessed with bioengineering female sex organs, who, in the rage-fueled climax to the novel, physically rips her own failed ovaries out of her body. It’s brutal. It’s active. It’s symbolic of every woman who has ever had to repress her own fury in a world where only male anger is welcome.
There’s also Claire Messud’s much-referenced 2013 novel, The Woman Upstairs — the story of single, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge, who begins her story with the words: "How angry am I? You don't want to know." While Nora’s anger is far less physical than Christine’s or Jean de Men’s, it is no less visceral. Nora is constrained and repressed, bitter and resentful — she was supposed to be a "great artist." Instead, she is languishing in a classroom, hyper-aware of the fact that no amount of being pissed off can compensate for her inability to relentlessly pursue her art.
14-year-old Evie Boyd, from Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel, The Girls, is angry in a different kind of way. Eager to be older and more experienced than she is, she’s drawn into a Manson Family-like cult, led by the fairly-underwhelming Russell Hadrick. The novel is narrated by a middle-aged Evie, looking back on her coming-of-age years in California and surrounded by the girls on Hadrick’s ranch. She begins to hate her life away from the ranch as well as her mother, who she starts to steal from as she becomes more entwined in life on the ranch. But Evie’s obsession isn’t with Hadrick himself. What keeps her drawn to the ranch is, rather, the 19-year-old Suzanne — a reckless, angry, and ultimately murderous young woman. When that infamous moment of murder does come (Cline’s recreation of the Tate-LaBianca murders) Evie is left out. Instead of looking back on that time in her life as a disaster thankfully dodged, our middle-aged Evie seems filled with resentment and regret: her rage, as heinous as it surely would have been, was never fully-realized.
There are others: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which subverts traditional male/female power dynamics but also gives women the physical strength to back it up; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, who acts out in small but relatable ways; the rough-and-tumble women of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, whose anger helps fuel their survival; even Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, whose narrator’s anger/obsession manifests itself through seductive (and unwelcome) love letters to a relative stranger.
While these fictional women are all angry, they’re all angry in different ways: their anger manifests physically, emotionally, psychologically, politically. It is turned inward and outward. It is constructive, destructive, and instructive. It is ugly, and unlikable, and at times disturbingly relatable. But most importantly, it is. And we need more of it.