Anger is typically defined as a strong feeling of displeasure, hostility or aggression. Mainly, we think of it in terms of individual feelings, and we associate those feelings with isolating behaviours that cause discomfort or fear in ourselves or in others.
Anger is, however, also a critically useful and positive emotion – one that is, contrary to being isolating, deeply social and socially constructed. Anger warns us, as humans, that something is wrong and needs to change. Anger is the human response to being threatened with indignity, physical harm, humiliation and unfairness. Anger drives us to demand accountability, a powerful force for political good. As such, it is often what drives us to form creative, joyous and politically vibrant communities.
So, which one is it? The answer depends, like most things, on context and on who you are in relation to the people around you. How we feel about feelings and respond to them in others depends on the way that our culture distributes emotion, often in relation to status and identity.
At the earliest stages of childhood socialisation, anger becomes firmly associated with masculinity and manhood. Studies show that by the time most children are toddlers they already associate angry expressions with male faces. “Softer” emotions, such as empathy, fear and sadness, are less emphasised and sometimes actively discouraged in boys. These are seen, by many, as feminising weaknesses, whereas anger is considered a marker of masculinity.
Girls and women, on the other hand, are subtly encouraged to put anger and other “negative” emotions aside, as unfeminine. Studies show that girls are frequently discouraged from even recognising their own anger, from talking about negative feelings, or being demanding in ways that focus on their own needs.
Girls are encouraged to smile more, use their “nice” voices and sublimate how they themselves may feel in deference to the comfort of others. Suppressed, repressed, diverted and ignored anger is now understood as a factor in many “women’s illnesses”, including various forms of disordered eating, autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue and pain.
As we move from the intimacy and privacy of the home into institutions, this emotional gender divide compounds and is compounded by other forms of bias. In schools, for example, girls are expected to exert greater self-control, to be more polite, and not to use strong or obscene language. All of these also limit the expression and display of anger. Educators and psychologists studying these dynamics note that in girls, assertiveness, aggression and anger are often conflated so that girls who defend themselves, hold strong opinions and are competitive and verbally self-assured are frequently pegged by adults as rude, belligerent, confrontational and uncooperative. However, in boys, the same behaviours are often seen as signs of leadership, confidence and creative disruption.
Social and biased regulation of emotional expression also results in black and minority ethnic children being held to different and higher standards of behaviour. Black students are seen by adults as less innocent and in need of patience or care. Starting in pre-school, black boys are three times as likely to be disciplined as white boys. Black girls, however, held to both racial and gender expectations, are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended or expelled, disciplining that serves as the beginning, in the US, of a well-documented school-to-prison pipeline.
However, within peer groups, by adulthood, anger is most commonly associated with power for and by men and with powerlessness for and by women. This is because anger in men confirms gender role beliefs and expectations, but anger in women confounds them. Anger in women is still considered a sign of mental or hormonal imbalance, whereas in men it is perceived as “normal” and associated with masculine control, leadership, authority and competence. The difference isn’t truly one of gender, but of status. Black and minority ethnic men are often subject to the same biases as girls and women broadly, and black and minority women experience both indivisibly.
Men who display anger at work, studies find, gain influence, whereas their female peers lose influence. A typical study, conducted in 2018 by the Center for WorkLife Law, asked lawyers if they were free to use anger at work when a case merits it and if they felt they were punished for displaying aggression. White men felt much freer to express anger at work than any other group, including minority men. While 40% of minority women and 44% of white women said they were free to express anger, 56% percent of white men said the same. An even higher percentage of white men, 62%, said they were not penalised for anger or aggression, compared with fewer than half of all women, with scant racial differences. Disparities like these affect women and minority men in professional and political life. In the law and elsewhere, emotional expression can be an essential factor of success.
In politics, the bind is treacherous. The double standard became a running joke during Barack Obama’s presidency after Comedy Central’s Key & Peele featured a character named Luther who stood behind an Obama doppelganger translating calm and measured Obama statements into outbursts of unbridled rage. The routine was comedic gold, but, in fact, the issue is a profoundly serious one. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could express and display anger as political conviction, leveraging populist rage in a way that minority and women candidates cannot. The need women feel to appear reasonable, calm and competent often leaves them open to criticism that they are “inauthentic”, “not charismatic”, and amorphously “less likable”.
These regulations of anger are a powerful way to enforce inequality and buttress status quo hierarchies. White masculinity has been tied, often through the freer use of anger, to notions of citizenship and the responsibilities of adult manhood: providing, protecting and holding power. Anger’s entanglement with masculinity, to asset power or control, is a patriarchal entitlement routinely denied to subaltern men who, on the basis of race, ethnicity or class, are effectively “feminised” as a way to oppress them. Sometimes that feminisation comes from limiting opportunities to work, to vote, to protect or to lead. Other times, it comes from punishing anger as a means of seeking dignity, fairness or self-defence.
Several recent public incidents provide striking illustrations of these dynamics.
Aggrieved and entitled anger is now practically synonymous with the US supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Kavanaugh’s overwrought and viscerally angry performance during his confirmation hearing is now the stuff of legend. His indignation at having to answer to Christine Blasey Ford’s assertion that he had sexually assaulted her as a teenager left him red-faced and sputtering, in marked contrast to Blasey Ford’s studied, calm and almost deferential mien. Kavanaugh’s anger was not weaponised against him, but rather, despite his behaviour clearly contradicting the notion of judicial equanimity, was understood by his supporters as righteous masculine self-defence in the face of insult and threat.
Public acceptance for men’s angry behaviours and, conversely, penalty for women’s, even tilts into material compensation. Only weeks before the Kavanaugh hearings, the tennis superstar Serena Williams angrily confronted the chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open final. Williams was angry but was also, in fact, self-aware and measured in her critique of the umpire, who failed to de-escalate the exchange.
As many commentators made clear, male players, who happen to be almost all white, have been glorified as charismatic, passionate “bad boys”, rewarded with magazine covers, corporate sponsorships and highly paid media roles. For her efforts, Williams was given the highest ever fine for “verbal abuse” in the history of the US Open. She was penalised for language far less profane than male champions have ever used.
Sport often puts these double standards regarding the uses and abuses of anger and aggression into sharp relief. The American football star Colin Kaepernick famously encouraged NFL players to “take a knee” during the national anthem in protest against police brutality. His action, peaceful, measured and respectful, catalysed rage-filled screeds against him, Black Lives Matter and the movement to end police brutality. He continues to be reviled as unpatriotic and castigated for“ruining” the sport by “politicising it”, as though it is not already a radically politicised cultural phenomenon.
After Kaepernick opted out of one NFL contract in search of another, he was left unsigned, undoubtedly a direct result of being blackballed. While open public anger was one outcome of Kaepernick’s activism it was not, despite how he himself may have felt about the brutalisation of black bodies, how he chose to, or could most effectively, express himself in a fight involving overlapping white male fraternities – the NFL, the Fraternal Order of Police, the US president and the criminal justice system – all of which have historically held powerful monopolies on people’s bodies, the law, regulated violence, material resources … and righteous rage.
“Black men expressing rage in public has the potential of getting them shot and killed by police,” explained the journalist Joshua Adams in a 2018 post-Kavanaugh-tantrum article on Medium. Black men, he continued, “can’t afford any illusions about how the world views black masculinity. Knowing how angry society sees you, forcing yourself into the proper comportment is a calculation many black men have all too much experience with.”
Again, context, relationships and status matter, however. Identity, like emotion, is complex and complicating. Consider, as an example, the R&B singer R Kelly’s explosive behaviour during an interview in March with the journalist Gayle King. The interview was the first since Kelly was officially charged with the sexual abuse of four women, three of whom were between the ages of 13 and 17 when their alleged attacks took place. During the interview, King sat calmly and almost completely still as Kelly stood, paced, ranted, yelled into a camera, and even pounded his chest. A viral photo of their exchange, which took place in a studio decorated like a living room, looked like a searing portrait of intimate violence. Kelly’s behaviour could not be separated from the fact that King, a woman, was his interviewer. In 2015, he stood over and shouted at the journalist Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, as she questioned him about the same allegations. It is almost inconceivable he would have acted in this way if his interviewers had been men.
Gender is a defining element, but it is also a dimension of the complex fabric of context, status, and social understanding. During the past several years – marked by widespread technological, social and political disruption and tumult – rage has been a defining aspect of our culture. Women have been more openly and actively expressing anger, an allowance that typically coincides with social unrest and then, typically, subsides with stability.
Today, we see girls and women at the forefront of movements fighting for climate change and resisting authoritarianism. They are demanding an end to institutional tolerance of corruption, sexual violence and discrimination. They are, significantly, taking the risks that come with the open, public and political claim to anger.
Whether or not their anger and activism will be publicly and politically respected and rewarded has yet to be determined.
• Soraya Chemaly is the author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99