Beware the Emotion Police...
There’s a great viral video doing the rounds at the moment: Cynthia Nixon, all punk attitude, describing the many ways women are told to be or not to be in culture – too loud, too quiet, too sexy, too bookish, trying too hard, not trying enough… It gracefully makes its point about the controlling impact of the male gaze (still) implicit in most communications about women, a simmering fury running through its stylish veins.
Perhaps this video spoke to me right now because I have been getting to know my own rage rather better. Like many people (women in particular), I come from a background where anger was not often voiced and niceness was prized. I am English and a vicar’s daughter - what hope did I have? But anger is an important feeling: it tells us that all is not well, and when we need to pay attention.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that as an adult I started a small business which involved trading on street markets in south London, environments where assertiveness and standing up for yourself are vital. While most of the markets I’ve worked on have been cooperative and respectful, every now and then you’ll have someone attempt something silly, as happened to me one Sunday evening not long ago. I’d worked both days that weekend, outside for many hours in cold weather, continually on my feet, and I was feeling it. When another trader tried to force his way through a gap between pitches in his van and bashed up one of our tables, it was the final straw and I snapped. I shouted at him, he shouted back, it was all very messy, but boy did it feel good. And actually, in the end he did apologise, and offered to pay for the table.
In a very tangible way, at that market, someone was encroaching on my territory, even damaging my possessions - legitimate cause for anger. And yet afterwards I felt emotions that will probably be familiar to many people after an unexpected outburst: self-doubt, guilt, and overwhelming shame. It is this powerful triumvirate that for many years has stopped me even feeling anger. My inner police woman was so effective that the anger I should feel would remain repressed somewhere deep within me, making for flimsy boundaries and a compromised sense of my own needs.
Anger sits alongside other complicated feelings that we women don’t often show - our envy, competitiveness, ambition. Whereas competitive men may be celebrated in businesses, stock markets, and on the sports field, competitive women are often seen as bitchy, mean – frightening. Culture and society require women to keep quiet or be deemed ‘too loud’ or an ‘angry female.’
Little wonder then that our feelings are driven underground into repression or we struggle to own them. They are projected outwardly onto those around us, or worse, turned inwards, where they eat away at us through depression and anxiety.
The thing is, anger always comes out somewhere. We all know people who never voice the resentment that simmers away just beneath the surface, palpable in their passive-aggressive responses and moans about people they know.
I am now aware that listening to and owning my anger is vital. Hearing what it might be trying to tell me is important. And yes, sometimes owning my anger may also mean voicing it publicly.
Perhaps I started working on street markets because that was a space which somehow felt more open to me, where emotions tend to be freer, words rather looser. Whether that results in more honest expression, I’m not so sure. But certainly compared to many of our offices and ‘indoor’ workplaces the rules are different. Direct talk is more permitted; where vans and physical pitches are involved, sometimes it’s necessary.
In an office there are usually different rules. They will probably be unspoken, unacknowledged alongside formal schemes to help women progress, promises of numbers in leadership positions or on the board. They will be subtle, defined by women’s experiences of speaking up in meetings and being spoken over, ignored, or feeling that a room full of men who maybe socialise together will always club together in unconscious ways.
How can you speak up against that? When you get a vague feeling that this is going on, that the space owed to you is not being allowed, how do you name it? And if you’re angry, how do you express that in a working environment?
The fact is that not all feelings are treated equally, and whereas studies show that women are more likely to feel anger – more persistently and more deeply – than men, our ability to voice it is policed, whether in silent ways - shame and guilt – or by more actively by others through comments, looks or jokes.
In the middle of writing this piece a close friend messaged me, sending me a funny video placing Sex in the City in A Handmaid’s Tale. It was pretty funny, but its point was so apposite, and we started talking about female rage, and the depths of it for us both, in different situations in our lives.
We can open up this conversation, admit our rage to each other. And we can see its slow but steady shift in wider culture. But there is always more fight to be fought, and we each have our own battlefields.