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Beyond Hysteria and Rainstorms:
Notes on Uncomplicating the Angry Woman
by Sanjana Chidambaram
“Pawnee is filled with a bunch of pee-pee heads,” Leslie Knope declares forcefully in the Parks and Recreation episode “London: Part 2.” My instinct was to laugh – I adore Leslie and she’s just so charming, even in her angriest state – but then I recoiled a bit. It had occurred to me that this series of events could be paramount in redefining Leslie’s character.
Leslie Knope, the main character of the Parks and Recreation sitcom, is one of my favorite characters on TV. I watched her in high school, and then again in college, and then again after graduating college. On my first watch of Parks and Recreation, I was fascinated with Leslie’s ability to work so tirelessly so thanklessly as a government bureaucrat, constantly trying her best despite being rewarded with town halls of angry residents. She manages to stay positive, bubbly, and impossibly kind to her friends and the people she serves even in the face of unfairness.
The context in the aforementioned scene is that Leslie is chosen for a Women in Government award for her work in her hometown. However, this award is granted to her just as she discovers that there is a nasty campaign in her hometown attempting to recall her spot on City Council. Rather than feeling celebratory, Leslie is overwhelmed and bitter at her hometown’s callousness towards her, especially in juxtaposition to the other women at the awards ceremony who are adored by their hometown. So Leslie bursts, saying she’s fed up with her hometown.
She thinks it is fine: her hometown is Pawnee, Indiana, which is miles and miles away from her current location in London; quickly, though, she realizes that her hometown was having a viewing party and heard her call them, quite ardently, “pee-pee heads.”
I couldn’t help but think that this scene was potential character assassination. How could Leslie possibly say something so (comedically) shocking and then resume her spot as City Councilor? What would her friends back home think? What about her future political career? Wouldn’t there have to be some, any, consequence to being so angry?
I grew up thinking that compassion could combat anything. Whatever negative emotion I felt towards another person, from slight vexation to incredible acrimony, could be extinguished with compassion for the other person.
Empathy was a habit pressed into my bones from when I was young. One of my earliest memories was my mom repeating, “It is important to always be nice.” (Little did she know this would lead to a lifetime of me being unable to eat food without sharing and that this habit could potentially bankrupt me.) My parents modeled the way empathy could look for me: one Thanksgiving, my dad’s friend was in the hospital, so my parents proceeded to cook an entire extra Thanksgiving meal, pack it up in Tupperware, and drop it off to him and his wife at the hospital. Another time, my mom’s friend was going through a nasty legal divorce and found herself unable to pay for her son’s school fees, so my mom, wholeheartedly, gave her friend the money for her son. These were the small liberties available to take to care for the surrounding community.
In college, I began frequently making my roommates and friends meals: pasta, stir fry, cookies, chai, butter chicken. I tried to ask more questions than I answered, noticing details and struggles and following up later, carefully crafting small, everyday kindnesses. I wanted to be a “nice girl”: a girl who was sweet, always making space for others, and the kind of perfectly soft-spoken feminist the world, in my opinion, needed. It’s not just that my perception mattered that much to me; I also saw the need for kindness as an issue of equity. Not everyone had someone to understand, to care. I would be kind because I had been treated with so much kindness, so much privilege, in my life. I had no right to be anything but relentlessly, obstinately caring.
So then, why, come the fall of my senior year of college, despite always choosing the path of empathy and kindness, was I constantly so goddamn angry?
In a study of almost 50 Indo-European languages, researchers discovered that anger and guilt were the first two emotions articulated in many major languages.
As the words started being used in stories, anger became taboo: strange, shamed, and a slippery slope to insanity. Homer’s “The Iliad” is littered with suggestions about anger that became repeated throughout narrative history. Achilles’ untamed anger leads not only to death, but excessive violence and harm as he debases the bodies of those he kills. The damage from his anger is not personal, but vile, societal, and colossal. Achilles’ anger has real, tangible ripple effects. Anger is not an emotion just in his head.
In later literature and stories of the traditional Western canon, anger continued to not only result in macabre tales, but also presented itself as a uniform emotion that had a few idiosyncratic outcomes. In my interpretation of these tales, I found that there weren’t layers or depth to anger. Someone would find themselves angry at a certain person; they would occasionally think before acting; ultimately, they would kill the apparent source of their anger.
The way literature represented anger seemed almost like a checklist to go down:
Feel anger towards a person or situation.
Attempt to repress the anger for a few moments (this was an optional step).
Let repressed anger burst like a broken bell jar, often in the form of a physical or verbal outburst.
Take Romeo from “Romeo and Juliet.” In the age-old tale, the young lover feels anger towards Tybalt for his friend’s death. Romeo hardly considers an alternative and turns his anger into action, murdering Tybalt. There is no soul-searching, no contemplation of the anger; just like Achilles’ anger, Romeo’s is quick, red-hot, and has a dire consequence.
Anger in history has also been manipulated into usefulness. In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu encourages anger to be transformed into motivation for battle, to use rage as a basis for a fruitful war. This allows anger to be wielded in order to kill under an organization, rather than killing for a personal vendetta, as is seen in previous examples.
Because of the way it can be honed, anger has also been a motivating force in history, particularly in social movements. Solidarity in overthrowing established structures is often driven by a common vehemence towards the status quo. In the 1965 strike against California’s grape growers, leader Cesar Chavez said his motivation “grew from anger and rage.” Chavez highlighted and offered an outlet for the indignation his fellow workers felt; it was not so much about the material outcome (higher wages), the workers started to see, but an issue of equity and morals. Other organizers had tried to gain momentum around the same issue, but it was only Chavez’s acknowledgment of rage that was able to galvanize workers into action.
The outcome of anger is portrayed in classic literature as some form of excessive outburst, an outburst perhaps not matching the initial seed of anger, perhaps indicating a lack of personal choice, perhaps represented a bit simplistically (is an outburst really the best and only way to deal with anger?). In history, anger has been used to motivate action; whether it has been used to motivate action for the right causes is anyone’s guess.
In the fall of 2019, anger came like a foreboding rain cloud, darkening my better days, hinting that I was on the precipice of a rainstorm.
A list of things I was mad about in the fall of 2019:
The boy who kept gossiping about other people in our friend group
When I got rejected from a job offer that I was 90% sure I would get, only to see the offer go to a basic sorority girl who had a very expensive-looking Instagram
My family’s immigration status
A passive-aggressive text I received from someone who seemed like a friend
The feeling that I constantly had to be busy, even though I was on school break
The very religious girl I knew who said that “Atheists don’t believe that the Holocaust was bad”
A dodgy family member who was constantly stirring up drama
That white men didn’t find women of color as attractive as white women
A much too clingy friend
A friend that didn’t reply to my texts
Just as any Gen Z-millennial-cusper would do, my first step after recognizing my anger was to Google “how to deal with anger.” The top answers were “take a deep breath,” “get some exercise,” or “laugh.” I breathed, worked out, and scrolled through memes on Twitter, but my anger still did not abate. (And even if it did temporarily, my anger would flare up again at a later time.) Another online suggestion was “empathize,” but this too proved to be a short-term solution when it didn’t cure me of my constant growls of anger. Dark skies prevailed. The storm would hardly be deterred.
My last Leslie-Knope-meltdown was a night with many nights leading up to it.
One of my college roommates, Nadia, and I were similar in all of our extremes: we were both loving, passionate, poetic, over-thinking, and perhaps not as intelligent as our third roommate, Mary. In terms of what we did day-to-day, however, there was a disconnect.
I had once described Nadia to my mother as the kind of person who wasn’t very confident but needed to appear confident by stating opinions she had heard without knowing why she was actually saying them. This was an analysis stemming from various interactions: she would say she had “read” a book and would provide Mary and I with an opinion after reading the first chapter; she would re-post long articles on Facebook and, when I would later ask her about them, she would reluctantly reveal that she wasn’t sure what she posted.
Compassion had always been my buttress when dealing with her. I had grown up with a father who always had the news on, so I was always well-informed and was confident enough to not show-off my intelligence; I hardly felt so insecure that I had to appear confident at all costs. I decided I had to have compassion to understand that I had grown up with immense intellectual privilege and, perhaps, Nadia had not received the same thing. I knew her parents were divorced and maybe that meant she didn’t get to watch the evening news with her dad.
For the most part, it was easy to ignore ignorance when it wasn’t directed at me, when the insecurity wasn’t personally attacking me (which, sometimes, it did). But still, even if I was a little bit annoyed, I grew into the habit of biting my tongue, quietly fuming, and then feeling extremely guilty for even feeling angry in the first place.
It wasn’t worth it for someone so insecure, I figured; let her say what she wants. I felt dirty for getting annoyed, for getting angry – didn’t I have so many better things to do? Didn’t nice girls refrain from such anger and bitterness? How awful of a person must I be to feel so much negative emotion? Why couldn’t I just be more compassionate? Everyone was carrying their own battles, I was sure. And why did I feel so righteous psychoanalyzing her? Wasn’t I just telling myself a narrative, crafting one that fit my beliefs, not hers? At the same time, I was aware that I had multiple deep friendships that didn’t deeply annoy me this way; it wasn’t that everything I believed was wrong and that I was misinterpreting every action; it couldn’t just be in my head. Right? So I would get angry and then over-correct for the anger in my head, often responding to it by making Nadia dinner or asking her how her day was. I would be kinder than necessary to combat the seemingly unnecessary anger in which I felt so uncomfortable dwelling.
But I am not always nice, and the nice-girl barrier I built to fend off any anger was permeable. On the particular evening of the outburst, four friends, Nadia, and I were playing Monopoly Deal in our maybe-1960s-built off-campus house. Our blue beanbag was tossed lazily to the side of our living room, one friend sat on the couch, one of my friends attempted to explain the rules of the game to the other, and the rest of us casually discussed our post-graduation lives.
Nadia mentioned as we played, “So, Olivia [her mentor] recommended that I looked into consulting.” I stopped in my tracks, remembering a comment from her a few weeks before.
Before the important incident, I had accepted a job in consulting for post-graduation and Nadia had insinuated some of her bitter opinions about the industry (something along the lines of “I would never take a career in consulting because it’s consulting”).When it happened a second time, I asked her, “Do you know what my job is?” to which she replied, “No, not really.”
Hers’ was an opinion I found hard to respect because of her lack of knowledge on the subject. Here I was after three months of recruiting: I had read every critical article there was to read on the subject, networked with a plethora of professionals in the field, and clearly had a more informed opinion on the industry than she did. Furthermore, I had a tendency to do deep research into everything and therefore recognized the limitations and ethical gray areas of her possible careers, yet did not voice my concern over them, even volunteering to edit her cover letters and resumes while she was recruiting.
But, when she revealed this new insight, my anger flared: how dare she criticize my choices and then look into the same job? Flustered, I brought up again, instinctually, and annoyed, the “Do you know what consulting is,” a comment that probably seemed like an overreaction to those in the room who didn’t know the weight of the conversation.
She replied “no, not really,” and then another friend made a comment; when it came back to Nadia, she said to me, “Well then, yeah, could you explain it to me?” (my heart leaped a bit here, thinking she was actually asking for my opinion, which she had never asked before, and I was excited to share it), until she followed up with, “Since I obviously don’t know anything about it.”
I replied, and I replied for about five minutes without stopping. Some points I made in the first minute:
I am sick of judgement with a lack of understanding. (truth)
You clearly said that you don’t want to do my job with absolutely no backing to your claim – who gave you that opinion if you don’t know what is it? (truth)
What I said two minutes in:
Of course, it isn’t your fault. This is not directed at you. (lie)
This is just an insecurity/how I feel. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of similar comments from other people. (lie)
What I wish I had said 30 minutes after the conversation ended:
This is how I feel. It is not an insecurity. I am not insecure. (truth?)
This is how you made me feel. (truth?)
When my mini, angry-turned-self-deprecating rant was over, Nadia replied with something like, “I’m sorry that you feel this way and that it’s such a touchy subject.”
Anger is connected to shame in a distinctly feminine way.
I previously discussed male anger and the ways it is represented in literature and history. However, through classic Greek literature to today, women’s anger has been represented as even more deeply wrong than men’s. While characters like The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, who cursed and meandered hopelessly in rage, were loved and coveted for their anger against the world, women were not given this benefit of complexity of character. (I would also add that angry men weren’t deemed all bad, either; men with anger in history and literature are portrayed as deliriously aggressive yet still powerful, like Sun Tzu’s warriors, who are known for their strength.) Instead, angry women were deemed mad or crazy, such as Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham, who is angry after being left at the altar and is constantly described as a crazy “witch.” (Doesn’t she have a right to be angry after she is jilted, though?) In the International Handbook of Anger, authors Michael Potegal and Raymond W. Novaco describe the role of female anger in traditional Greek thought:
Women are less likely to become physically aggressive, but more likely to cry and to express anger indirectly (through “relational” aggression). The Greek version of sex differences may have correctly identiﬁed these response elements, although their interpretation of these (and most other) social phenomena was relentlessly misogynistic. Whatever else it might be, women’s anger was always unacceptable. This tradition remains widespread.
And while some movements, like the one commanded by Cesar Chavez, were motivated by anger, I found myself wondering which movements have, perhaps, been restricted by anger and therefore undocumented. Were there angry and misrepresented women unable to fight for their emancipation in the Salem Witch Trials due to being thought of as “crazy”? How about the countless women angry about sexual assault and pushed away from reporting or testifying, only to have their stories tumble out during the #MeToo era? How have angry women been silenced for years? The women who could have wielded their societal anger to form an earlier movement were, I am guessing, forced to quiet their voices, too.
Anger in recent events has also been used to undermine. When Serena Williams shouted at a referee during a tennis match, both in 2009 and 2018, she incurred a whopping fine and criticism for her behavior. Rather than being entitled to her emotions, the narrative around Williams became one focused on anger and the racism and sexism associated with it as much as one around tennis. The media’s coverage of the incident emphasized that female anger is news, that anger is a story, that anger can shape someone’s public perception just as much, or even more so, than their achievements.
The trope of anger making women crazy and being character-defining is still somewhat relevant today. A study written by Ann. M Kring in 2000 revealed how female anger is more likely to be described as “bitchy” or “hostile” (while male anger is described as “strong”) and how women are more likely to experience shame after an episode of anger.
A conversation on anger cannot be had without a conversation on the associated emotion of shame. For women especially, shame is overwhelmingly both public and private. It is public in the sense that an external party has the power to humiliate, that there is a social wrong based on an individual action. At the same time, shame is private: it is something built off years of history but is something internalized and personally used to control actions.
While men may experience shame, women are the victims of shame. In history, public shame, or a societal bashing of those who have overstepped the boundaries of “normal,” is forced upon women for outbursts and strange happenings. In the Salem Witch Trials, public shame of women translated into their murder. Today, the popular term “slut-shaming” relates to a societal bashing of women who are too sexually open which can result in degradation of a woman’s character. While men may experience personal shame if they are too sexually open (perhaps due to familial or religious values), women are the ones who see the shame both externally and internally. In the slut-shaming example, it is not unreasonable to think that young women thought to be too promiscuous publicly may be shamed openly, perhaps online, and may themselves think that they are being too slutty.
If shame is tied to anger, how often is anger shamed out of women specifically? In the discourse following Serena Williams’ 2018 outburst, she publicly stated her opinions on sexism within the industry, especially in terms of how it is related to anger. I wonder if, in these moments, she felt any shame. The fine slapped on her indicated some kind of public wrongdoing. Did she feel she did anything wrong because of this? What did people say to her on the court and how did that affect how she thought about herself behind closed doors?
So I wonder: shouldn’t Leslie Knope’s anger have been a grave transgression? Imagine a woman publicly bashing her hometown in front of its people and how colossal the debris must be. Leslie does, eventually, get recalled from City Council, but the show suggests that it’s not just her anger at the awards ceremony that spurs the recall – instead, it’s her soda tax that angers residents and a local soda-maker. Later, in the series, Leslie goes onto become the governor of Indiana. Her anger at the awards ceremony does not follow her throughout the series the way her government policies do.
More importantly, the viewer’s mind isn’t changed about Leslie: she is portrayed as just as loveable as ever after that episode. (I wonder if the show’s use of anger as a comedic effect helps the viewer stay staunch in their liking of Leslie, but that is a question for another day.) She continues working hard, bringing her friends thoughtful gifts, and enthusiastically eating waffles at the local JJ’s diner. Throughout the series, Leslie is hardworking and quirky, intelligent and rough around the edges, and deeply caring for the people around her. Her outburst at the awards ceremony doesn’t change how we view her; it simply makes her more human, more accessible to the viewer who has probably felt similar rage. She is an angry woman. She is an angry woman with layers. She is a layered woman who happens to be angry, but still retains an excess of compassion, charm, and wit.
It’s important to note that Serena Williams exhibited female black anger. If white women’s anger is caricatured, black women’s anger is even more so. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine offers an analysis of the Serena Williams tennis incidents.
…if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body […] is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels regardless of context – randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out […] is to be called insane, crass, crazy.
Insane, crass, crazy. Serena Williams was, some might (ignorantly) argue, fulfilling the “angry black woman” trope. This trope stems from the Sapphire stereotype: in the 1928 white-writer-produced radio show Amos 'n' Andy, Sapphire is a black woman in the show who is angry, shrill, and always belittling her husband. After the show ended, the characterization of black women as overly-angry emerged again and again in situational comedies. Research at Ferris State University mentions that Aunt Esther from the 1972 comedy Sanford and Son and Pamela James from the 1992 comedy Martin were also popular, repeated examples of the Sapphire stereotype. Most of these black women were written by white male writers who played up these character tropes for comedic effect.
Today, white women have started to emerge onto the scene as angrier. The example I cited of Leslie Knope (don’t get me wrong – I adore her, but still) getting angry centers a white woman. In 2018, Associated Press published the headline, “Samantha Bee is back, both angry and apologetic,” outlining Bee’s outrage-tinted comments, which called out many officials in the Trump cabinet. Bee, a white late-night comedian, has often come under fire for her rather edgy political commentary, but the media seems here to recognize the righteousness of her anger. In 2015, Vanity Fair posted an article called “Women in Hollywood Were Mad as Hell in 2015: How female anger drove some of the year’s finest films.” The article describes six angry women, five of which are white or white-passing.
I imagine non-white women – Asian American women such as myself, other women of color, and especially black women – must all regulate ourselves slightly more than white women, which could contribute to the lack of angry women of color in the media, the lack of analysis on the subject. Because when the anger of women of color, particularly black women, peeks into the mainstream, it is not a fun, catchy headline. No, as Serena Williams discovered, female black anger, even today, is a statement.
In her essay, “I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore,” Leslie Jamison argues that the female protagonist gains much more sympathy as sad, rather than as angry.
If an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily. She often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant. Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It’s as if the prospect of a woman’s anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.
So it makes sense for women, even today, to channel their anger into sadness, rather than let it materialize in its original form. After the interaction with Nadia, even before the game night was over, I fled to my room and cried. I cried as though there was hardly any other outlet for this sheer rage, for this amalgamated sensation of disgust and fury, other than expressing it through the same outlet as sadness.
I was wary of being ostracized for my rage (even in a supposedly liberal college living room, biased notions of gender are still rampant); for weeks after the incident, I feared what the others in the room might think about my untamed outburst. The act of expelling my anger hadn’t, at all, made me feel better, relieved, or okay. I feared others’ judgement of me and my judgement of myself as a person with disturbing emotions. I feared that the private shame that I felt would eventually be forced upon me publicly.
It seemed that every ounce of compassion I characterized myself with had evaporated from my body after that moment. It seemed that my kindness and my rage were singular, idiosyncratic identities that could not coexist. I could not be this good and kind person while also being angry because I had never seen women who were completely wonderful in extremities while also having battles raging inside of them.
I had recognized the potential repercussions in the moment after my outburst and had back-tracked and turned my argument into one about my own insecurity (“You just hit a touchy point! These words stem from my own insecurity. Not you. My feelings may hardly be valid”). Fashioning my rage into insecurity and sadness, I felt, made me slightly more likeable, more accessible, and more valid. All the while, a small, bitter part of me recognized that if my male friend had said the exact same thing, he would not feel or be perceived the same way; he probably would not be as worried about the consequences of his emotion.
For this reason, I feel that the simple acknowledgement of rage is a feminist act. Perhaps acting on that rage is not entitled to anyone – perhaps encouraging the ripple effects of rage is a point to be contested – but I am eager to think that the acceptance of rage as a full, detailed, wide-spread sentiment is, in and of itself, necessary. Perhaps it’s necessary that we forgive ourselves for accidentally bursting because we know no better way to deal with anger.
Still, despite rationalizing the anger to myself, I didn’t feel better. I didn’t feel better bursting. I didn’t feel better not bursting, either: I didn’t feel better thinking about the alternative of biting my tongue, like I usually did. For days after the incident, my all-encompassing anger remained. The white-male-canon solution of allowing my anger to roam freely did not ease my worrying, thumping organ.
How do most college women deal with their anger? I polled my female friends via text message and Snapchat. Their answers (direct quotes):
I internalized a lot of anger I think; I’ve never wanted to rock the boat and always wanted to keep the peace in situations bc confrontation scares me
Go on a run or I’ll journal stream of consciousness
I don’t really feel anger; I just get sad
Honestly sometimes I’m mean because I am hurt
I asked a few of my male friends the same question. This is how they responded (direct quotes):
Trying to distract myself for a little bit and then hopefully come back and realize that the problem isn’t as serious as I thought or I can kinda work through it
Get stupid raving mad for like 15 min and then I move on and forget it ever happened
I’ve been playing tennis with my mom and it’s been great smashing those stupid yellow balls
It seemed to me that my female friends preferred, overall, internalizing their anger and dwelling on it. When one friend said that she journaled, I could imagine her fuming and upset, pouring over her notebook for hours at a time, meditating on her actions. My male friends got their aggression out by hitting those “stupid yellow balls” for a little bit (which must be a metaphor for something, but I’m not sure just what) and moved on.
It seems like traditional college feminism asks women to act like men. Sheryl-Sandberg-inspired ideologies would say that, if men ask another question after the Q&A is over, women should speak up, too. If men apply for jobs that they are underqualified for, women should too. Using this logic, if men can get angry and burst, unhinged, women should too.
But what if it is that men should be more like women in some senses? Perhaps men could learn to respect the boundaries of the Q&A. Or trust that the job application asks for certain qualities for a reason. (Bad track records of underqualified men include that of the man currently in the Oval Office.)
What if Tybalt didn’t have to die? What if Sun Tzu could have motivated people to use their anger to, say, build houses – or a movement – rather than go to war? (Why did it make so much sense that the red-hot feeling of anger could translate to battle, but not other avenues?) Does anger have to be translated into actions that are cruel and formidable? If the model for female anger is male anger, we are playing a game that no one is winning. Neither the male nor female standard is always useful.
Men can, maybe, learn to quiet their anger or use it in different ways. Not dismiss it, per say, not fashion it into sadness, but learn different ways to allow it to dissipate in the stuffy corporate board room, abate in the sunlight-flooded reception building, relax in the dusty college living room. Perhaps we can look for answers together.
How can we re-learn our anger? How can we see a model for anger that is outside of the standards of the socially-constructed gender binary? How can we use our creativity to imagine an outlet for anger that is perhaps kinder than the ones we’ve seen, perhaps more fruitful, perhaps more forgiving?
How do I feel better? This is a genuine question because I have not yet reached a conclusion.
With the incident with Nadia, letting my anger fly was hardly my path to progress. Expelling my anger, unleashing it on her, didn’t fix my anger; if anything, it accelerated it once I got over my initial shame. I continued being angry. I continued feeling shame. I trod the line between them like a tightrope, unstable and almost falling on each side.
I feel both more and less angry now than I did that night my senior year of college. I am still confused by my anger. Anger is sometimes useful in the societal sense if it is able to motivate or change someone’s mind. But often times, anger has no use. Sometimes, it just resides. I wonder if there is a way to acknowledge anger as not dirty and, instead, forgivable as an instinct that lives on.
Maybe our anger is not a gray cloud pregnant with a tantrum, but a source to illuminate. Maybe it is not darkening or hindering, but is a flashlight, a highlighter, a candle glowing and asking to be seen, but only if we leave it as a flicker. Maybe this is how anger was honed in political movements: to bring to light a gap in society. Maybe this is how anger can strengthen our personal relationships: by illuminating a flaw. Maybe anger is something we must hold inside of us but do not overcount for or let control us the way we think it must.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is forgive ourselves for our anger and recognize ourselves in a more comprehensive and loving way. If we can dissociate from the personal shame of anger, maybe then the public shame will follow suit and slip away. If we can treat our own anger as more elaborate, perhaps we can see others’ anger in the same way.
I hope we view our angry friends – especially our angry female friends – as still human and worthy of care. I hope we learn to acknowledge that anger is not to be ignored or shameful; I hope it is not mutually exclusive with kindness; I hope that a range of complex emotions is permissible in expression and in self-image.
Today, anger has a new turf.
I wrote the first draft of this essay in February of 2020. By May, college had come to gray and ambiguous stop.
As I got used to the coronavirus era, the anger I had been warding off for months found new and unprecedented forms. Anger became an emotion I was finding in abundance. I found it in grocery stores when people didn’t stay six feet apart from me, when my friend posted anti-mask propaganda on her Instagram story, when a boy I thought was cute wrecked all possibility of me liking him by not social distancing and insisting on hosting hangouts of 10-20 shirtless fraternity brothers to play beer pong during a spike in cases in our age group. Anger was dancing in the bright May morning of graduation day, twirling in the air, making its way into my graduation cap as I stared at the screen, angry at the televised ceremony. I was angry when the required quarantine was prolonged, angry at the ways in which the virus was avoidable had we not cut our national pandemic task force. I was angry with needless deaths that were indirectly caused by the arrogance of those who did not take the virus seriously.
Then Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were killed and now, the nation is angrier than ever. It feels like, today, anger is palpable in the air, and the anger is utterly righteous.
“If you’re not BLM, don’t talk to me,” one friend posted on his Snapchat story. My female friends are more strategic in their anger. One Asian American friend started an anti-racist book club at her workplace and a black friend patiently took a call with a conspiracy theorist saying that Black Lives Matter was funded by George Soros.
The unrest today in women, particularly black women, seems to be parallel what Audre Lorde was saying in her 1981 speech, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”:
Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.
All the anger has highlighted something that might be wrong today. It sparked something in numbers: anywhere between 15 and 26 million on the streets to protest, exceeding the attendance of any political movement in history; more than $90 million donated in bail funds; countless anti-racist reading lists posted. But more so, anger helped us question the basis of our society. The conversation surrounding the riots was not one of police reform, as moderates would call for; rather, it was one of police abolition. Information began circulating regarding the flawed foundation upon which policing was created (referring to its use as an economic force and slave control). It is more apparent now than ever that the underpinning itself was flawed, and for this reason, a temporary change to our method of discipline is not possible. The public, which is partially fueled by effective female anger, is now asking not just for a change in the existing system, but for a large, seismic change, a radical alteration to the lives that we value.
This, too, is illuminating.
The lease expired for the house with Nadia and Mary, so all three of us have moved out. I am still friends with the other people who were in the room the night of the incident and Nadia too. None of my friends there, with the exception of a friend I brought it up with, have mentioned the night since. It is ironic that we didn’t play Taboo during that game night because it seems like the topic is now. Either that, or people just forgot about it. I think it could realistically be either.
With the hope of illumination, I’ve decided to take my anger towards Nadia as a path to learn more about her, about our relationship. My anger towards her still flares up, but I try to think of how it can be used as something like an iPhone flashlight during a sleepover with all the switches off and the windows closed. My anger has shown my boundaries: it is easier to tolerate Nadia’s ignorance if I cut it off when it turns to my own life. So now, I talk to her about things rather than my own life and keep parts of myself more private. We discuss books (that she may not have read) and TV shows and her life and it is perfectly non-aggravating. I keep searching for what else my anger may have clarified: perhaps how to breech the surface of tougher conversations with my friends? Or how I value myself?
I am also trying to disassociate my anger from my morality, trying to relearn the way I understand my own shame. If anger is just an emotion – an emotion like grief or excitement – that doesn’t have such negative connotations attached to it, I find it is easier to accept that it will linger, it will be evocative, and then maybe it will go and come back in waves, and that is all. Anger is not in any way defining or indicative of the quality of my person. It cannot erase goodness. I will survive my extremities of kindness and anger. I think there is no sensible reason I cannot carry both.
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Sanjana Chidambaram is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University. This is her first publication.