Why Aren’t Women Allowed to be Angry?
Soraya Chemaly on the complex systems of social control that silence women’s rage
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The moment I became a true New Yorker was when I let my tears flow freely on the subway during rush hour. It was after 7 pm and I was commuting home to Brooklyn from my teaching job in the South Bronx over 14 hours after I left stepped foot out of my apartment that day. I was 23 years old and even though I was supposed to help kids and families involved in the foster care system process and overcome their trauma, I had few people to help me process my own trauma. I can’t remember what caused me to cry, but I remember taking off my glasses and pretending to rub sleep out of my eyes. I remember praying to the universe that I wouldn’t start crying and thinking about how much I hated to cry. And finally, I remember how the tears seemed like hot acid eating away at my face and how most people didn’t notice my tears or decided not to acknowledge me. One person handed me a pack of tissues.
From that moment forward, I was more open to the idea of crying in public and have done so more often than I can count. It wasn’t until I turned 30 and started writing poetry, that I started to think about these tears in a different way. Before, if you were to ask me why I was crying, I would probably tell you that I was sad or tired. It turns out, more often than not, I was tired and angry and specifically, tired of being angry. If I cry, people are more likely to respond to me with kindness, or at least, to respond at all. They are less likely to fire me, deny me a raise, ignore my police report, forget to write down my illness symptoms, or threaten me with physical violence. Even if I say “I am angry at you” in my calmest and softest voice, I am still likely to be met with fear, anger, and resentment. I am in the process of opening up to my own anger instead of going to extreme lengths to avoid or hold the anger of others. This work carries a lot of social and financial risks that have thankfully been outweighed by my ability to heal physical and emotional wounds.
In Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly distills years of award-winning work in writing and activism into a single profound volume on women’s rage and the complex systems of social control that silence the rage of women and weaponize the rage of men. She is the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, both of which aim to curb online abuse, increase media and tech diversity, and expand women’s freedom of expression. Chemaly is a prolific writer whose articles can be found in TIME, the Guardian, the Nation, Huffington Post and the Atlantic.
During a quick break from watching Aretha Franklin’s Homegoing service, Soraya and I chatted via phone about the erasure of our rage, building school communities that raise anger competent kids, and surviving online and offline systems that profit from our abuse.
Candace Williams: You’re very prolific now, and it seems like you might have had to go through a process to realize that you should be writing in this way. How did that process go and kind of how did you come to writing as your method of strategizing anger?
Soraya Chemaly: It wasn’t self-conscious at all. It was really in retrospect, that I realized I was sublimating. I think a lot of sublimation actually happens that way. For example, I made a Spotify playlist. I chose music that I was listening to and I was really conscious of picking music where women artists were focused on this idea of rage. It struck me that in the creation of music, which is one of the most expressive forms of women’s rage, the rage of women is unacknowledged. You can have a guy like Bono talk about how, kind of hilariously, there’s no place for young white boys’ rage in rock anymore. Nobody really thinks, “Oh my God, we haven’t really explored what it means for women to be expressing this feeling so powerfully and consistently in their music,” right? I’ll bet you a lot of those women didn’t set out to say, “I’m gonna do this.” They probably just started writing a song.
That’s more or less how I started writing. I had very strong feelings and thoughts, and was also working, and I had three children, and a family, and a husband, and I thought, “What can I do?” Mainly, my thought was, “Why aren’t people responding to these injustices?” We’re all busy. We’re all tired. We’re all, for the most part, regardless of what people may say or think, people trying to feed their families, or get to work, or do whatever it is we have to accomplish in a day with constrained circumstances. I thought, “Well, I can’t quit my job. So, what can I do? I can write. If I can write, then maybe that will help other people think about these problems in a different way.” That’s how I started. Pretty soon afterwards, I realized what was really resonating with people in my writing, was my unabashed anger. Many people said that to me. I wasn’t necessarily thinking my writing as really angry writing, it’s just that so much writing is still, I think, denuded of emotion, because you’re supposed to be objective, and you’re not supposed to have a perspective, which is bullshit of course, right?
CW: Totally. I’m thinking about your whole playlist idea and how that sparked your writing. The first time I saw a black woman in the arts get angry in public was when I saw Morgan Parker perform the poem “99 Problems” at a bookstore in my mid-20s. I didn’t start writing poetry and expressing anger that way until I turned 30. Her reading was the first time I had ever heard a black woman who also had to contend with suburban white culture growing up, really express a anger in her writing. I think that was a big turning point for me. I’d like to know, who are the artists on this Spotify playlist, and are there other artists, poets, fiction writers, and non-fiction writers that you turn to, when you want to hear more anger from this perspective.
SC: The music that I ended up compiling was mostly seeking for sense of joy. That’s what I was looking for because the acknowledgement of the anger that I felt, was incredibly validating and it allowed me to stop dissociating myself from myself and myself from problems in the world. The acknowledgment of my own anger and other women’s anger was a joyous thing.
You know, there’s this incredible freedom in saying certain things out loud, and then to say them out loud with the assertion that other people should listen and also do something about it, is remarkable for some of us. I mean, I don’t know about you, I grew up with none of this freedom, right? Like, none of it. It was mainly, “You’d be prettier if you smiled.” Right?
There’s this incredible freedom in saying certain things out loud, and then to say them out loud with the assertion that other people should listen and also do something about it, is remarkable.
CW: It’s interesting to think about. I think my mother is ahead of her time. She was born in Philly and she has always told me to speak my mind. When I was a child, she talked very openly with me about racism in the workplace. I do feel like how I expressed my anger was more muted than the men in my life because they are allowed to express their anger.
I really appreciated the idea that we should be looking to music, writing, and art to help us sort through issues of anger. I really appreciated the quotations that start each chapter of your book.
SC: Have you ever heard Martha Wainwright’s song to and about her father called “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole”?
CW: Wow. No. I’m adding it to a playlist now.
SC: The first time I heard it, I just sat here and laughed like that’s just not the kind of song they play in school.
CW: Yeah, I would get in trouble for playing that at school.
SC: Right? But, it’s interesting to think about because it’s not really considered a protest song, even though it’s squarely in the era of all of these male poet protest songs. From an analytical perspective, all those dudes were writing their protest poetry, and strumming their protest guitars, and here’s this woman, who said these things, and no one knows this song, or why she wrote it, or anything about it.
CW: Yeah, this reminds me of Janelle Monae, who you mentioned a few times in the book. I really feel like you were right when you said people are just starting to realize her brilliance, even though she’s been brilliant for about, you know, almost 10 years now.
SC: It took so long.
CW: She’s not a cis white man so people dismissed her message. People will listen to lesser songs and lesser artists, who are very misogynistic, and maybe confirm more of their ideas about the world.
SC: Right. Do you remember her first videos?
CW: Yes, I totally do.
SC: And, I totally do, right? And, I just remember loving ArchAndroid so much. At that point, my daughters were really young. I have three daughters who are 18, 18, and 21 now. I remember being so grateful, that they could see that.
CW: It’s interesting how, even if you express rage, as an artist, depending on your identity, and who is listening to you, it’s actually maybe seen and talked about in much different ways.
SC: You know, it’s interesting that you say that, because I cut 40,000 words out of this book. I wrote a lot about music and art and that all sort of came out of the final version. So, what was interesting to me about what you just said, was that at the same time, there was this whole genre of sad white girl music that became extremely popular like Lana Del Rey. I just can’t get past the fact that we’re not really talking about the anger, we’re talking about the sadness, which is often the way anger gets described and attributed to women, particularly white women.
It would be interesting to go back and look at that particular intersection of gender and race and why it is so important that these white women are called “sad,” and not “angry.” It plays into that vulnerability, and the need to be protected, and all of that dynamic gets fed into the, “Oh, she’s just sad.”
CW: Yeah. And, I’m thinking about Lemonade. You quote some of the poetry spoken in the video. It was interesting to hear how people processed Lemonade online. In real time we all watched it, and people were just shocked at the levels rage. Yes, there’s a baseball bat, but a lot of it is actually asking questions of power like “Do you see the same thing I’m seeing?” and “Why are you acting this way?” And, then, “How do I let you back into my life?”
That was just really amazing for me to see, and to realize that yes, even Beyoncé has rage. When I saw her rage, it made me think about the rest of her career a lot differently. It made me start to wonder about power, and how power operates in her life, even though she is the total queen right now, you know?
SC: Right, because it is operating in her life. Do you know of the artist Pipilotti Rist? Pipilotti Rist was one of the first video artists in the late 80s, early 90s. In the song, “Hold Up,” where Beyonce is swinging the bat, I think everybody is interpreting it as her personal anger. She’s breaking these cars. The “Hold Up” video is squarely in the legacy of a particular video that Pipilotti Rist did, in which she’s walking down the street with a beautiful, flowy dress, and she’s holding a giant flower. Then, she starts destroying the cars. It’s a really amazing video. When you see it in a museum, it’s two videos that wrap around a corner. So, it feels, literally, like she’s walking around the building and breaking cars. The interesting thing to me about Beyonce’s anger, and the way it’s interpreted in that video, is that it’s intensely personal and intimate feeling, because of all the speculation about her rage. Yet, Pipilotti Rist is seen differently. We have different assumptions about flowers, and then here are these cars, the prototypical masculine machine. She uses this feminine thing to destroy this industry.
SC: How old are your students?
CW: I teach 6th graders, so they are 11, turning 12 in middle school. Before, I taught Kindergarten — 5th grade at a school for kids in foster care. We had an approach that centered social-emotional learning and there was a lot of anger and trauma in that space. We talked a lot about race, trauma, and poverty. As I read your book and thought back to those days, I realized we also talked to the kids about gender quite a bit. The kids always asked me my gender, because I’m genderqueer and wore ties back then, and I was just like “ Well, what do you think my gender is and why do you think that?” and we would chat with the idea that the kids and adults had make space for everybody and their gender. All of this was going on but I never really addressed the gender dimensions of anger. Those dimensions were operating all the time.
I really liked the moments in your book where you talking about schooling. You talk about your daughter’s preschool. When you imagine a school or a classroom community that is actually doing the work of building anger competence, what do you imagine happening?
SC: This may sound backwards but I actually imagine a space where boys could be encouraged to be emotive. Before we engage girls in talking about a single negative emotion, or the shame that comes with it when they’re older, we absolutely have to focus on allowing boys more freedom and flexibility. Ideally, I think that would all come together, and I think that good teachers that are trying hard at that very young age if they’re aware of these things at the same time. Good teachers are allowing boys to talk about feeling sad, for example, or express their love in a way that respects other people’s boundaries.
I genuinely think that even the simple things with little children, like saying “use your words”, has a lot of power and I just think that it requires training to dismantle stereotypes and bias and to really understand it. We are a deeply religious country, and that kind of infuses our ideas about gender, but also it’s hard to look at someone who’s saying “Well, I just try to teach little kids how to be real ladies and gentleman“, because they don’t necessarily understand what’s wrong with that framework. How would they? No one’s taught or talked to them about that. They don’t understand how racialized that idea is and a lot of adults have no experience with inclusion or diversity in their personal lives. They walk into a classroom, look at a room full of kids, and say “Well, I don’t see race, I’m gonna be the same with everyone.” Which of course is bullshit.
When I talk to high schoolers, I’m like “listen, all these adults around are going to talk about mentoring and having to find someone but you have have to do the work of mentoring backwards. You are having experiences and you are having much more difficult conversation than a lot of your parents or the adults who coach you have.” Don’t you think so?
CW: Oh, I agree with that. I teach at a school that has Kindergarten — 12th grade. When I go the high school, and I see what the feminism and toxic masculinity clubs have done, or even in the middle school, what our Gender-Sexuality Alliance, our Black Student Union, and our Asian-Pacific Islander group have done, it’s groundbreaking. If these kids were to do the same assemblies and conversations at a college or a grad school it would still be groundbreaking, even though this is kid-directed stuff.
K-12 students are innovative and interesting. They are still young and willing to have feelings about things. They aren’t so much about their ego all the time. When I bring them poems that are written by people who are alive right now and even poems from the middle ages, we have the best conversations about poems. It’s so much better than talking to adults.
They’re integrating and processing all of this information and what parents might say to me, at all schools I taught, a parent might say “Oh, Candace you can’t talk about XYZ, they don’t even think about that yet, or they don’t even worry about that yet. ” And I say, “Well, if you pull out the last five things they watched on Netflix, or the video games that they play, those pieces of media are actually addressing these issues already, so they’re already thinking about it.”
SC: Yes. They’re sophisticated in their thinking. One of the only things that makes me hopeful, is seeing some of these kids who are willing to engage in very difficult conversations and to do it in such a conscious manner, not to let the conversation just happen to them.
There are so many schools that are unlike the one you just described. It’s just painful. I speak at schools. Generally speaking, a high school that asks me to speak is doing it because they’re already in a place where they’re like “Yeah, this person would resonate with our students.” I think it’s a lot harder to do that in a place where they’re worried about boards or parents that are just too deeply entrenched in conservative thinking. It’s very hard for these kids.
I’ve been working with two different school networks to create symposia. What we’ve done now is have one day or two day sessions where you invite neighboring schools to send an administrator, a coach, a counselor, and three students. And then you spend the whole day talking about issues like these. Many schools are interested in talking about race, or maybe gender, but they are not ready to put the two together yet but the students are. The students are like, “No, we have to do this. We have to talk about it this way.” And so that’s also pretty helpful. But what we were trying to do, we were trying to create a replicable model, so that schools like the one just described would kinda have a viral effect in the broader community, because you can say “We want to invite these ten schools within the 20 mile radius, we want to show them what we’re doing, and we want to be about to talk to them about what they might be able to do”. But after three years, what we’ve kinda concluded is that we need to do the exact same thing, and invite parents, because the parents are the ones who end up being the biggest obstacles.
The acknowledgement of the anger that I felt was incredibly validating and it allowed me to stop dissociating myself from myself and myself from problems in the world.
CW: That’s just really tough. You definitely have to have a community of people, which actually it makes me think about, I think I read all throughout, especially the last chapter or so, we have to trust other women, especially our mothers and our sisters and aunts. After reading this in your book, I’ve thinking about how I can trust more women in my life. I think the hardest thing for me is actually that I experience a lot of racism at the hands of white women white women in many areas of my life. Also, I have privilege in a lot of areas. So, there might be times where I engage in behavior that actually hurts women with less privilege than I have. With this complicated layering of intersectional identities and privileges, what are the steps that you recommend to building communities with other women? Have you seen cases where women with different levels of privilege have been able to heal and work together?
SC: So, they’re are a couple of things that really come to mind. I know some women who are in their 80’s and 90’s now, and they have been doing this work, like when I feel tired, I stop and I think about the women that are literally twice my age and how they continue. I watch a lot of the criticism of the racial justice and social justice in feminist movements of the 60‘s and 70’s, because it’s easy to criticize. There were many flaws and horrible white supremacist tendencies in feminism for sure. There are women in that cohort that have been life long friends and allies. They quietly get the work done and they are tied at the hip. They are best friends for life. I think about how we don’t ever hear about this.
I’m brown. My family is Arab and Bahamian. Sometimes I look South American because who’s gonna say I look like a “Haitian Bahamian American Lebanese gal”? Nobody. People with good intentions (I guess), ask me “Are you a woman of color?”, and I’m like well, “Do you need me to be a woman of color today? Can we talk about why that’s important to you today?” I am the shade I am, and that confuses people sometimes but let’s talk about why that’s confusing. Typically, it is because white people need me on their panels. That’s the conversation. I guess I’m not really answering your question. I think I have seen some fantastic examples of women who have managed to have incredibly difficult conversations and continue working together with real awareness of what that means. I will say, unfortunately, I still feel that that’s an exception rather than the rule.
CW: I’m thinking about Combahee River Collective, and people like Pat Parker and Audre Lorde. In examples I can think of, they tend to share some core identities. Pat Parker and Audre Lorde were both black queer socialists trying to survive cancer. They actually mention white women in their letters to each other. The women white women they mention are often queer and not talking about microaggressions or structural problems. For me, I think about my rage, and trying to figure out who I want to work with and who I wanna rebuild trust with, privilege is so tricky. I wish I could trust more people but then I think about the history and the present and it definitely becomes a very tricky question.
SC: I think it’s really tricky. I have hesitated to collaborate. I think it’s just in my own nature. I don’t like institutions. I just don’t. I’m probably too impatient. But I have in the last six years, understood that to accomplish a particular goal, I need to engage with institutions and I need to work with people in institutions. And in doing that, I’ve encountered exactly what you just said. It’s difficult to feel that you can trust people and if you take the risk there is a pretty good chance that you will get hurt taking that risk.
CW: Or fired. Or not promoted.
SC: Right. And so, I think that, maybe it’s menopause and I’m just really gleefully liberated by whatever happens, but I feel pretty strongly that one of the things that people who work with me appreciate is that I can be brutally honest without being hurtful. I think that being able to talk to people about really difficult subjects takes a lot of energy and time that we don’t necessarily have.
Before, you asked about women and artists I admire. I keep going back to Adrienne Rich. It gives me a particular joy to think of people who managed to transcend the ugliness and be creative and powerful with their words. And she to me is one of those people, as well as Claudia Rankine. She’s Jamaican and I am always looking for people with ties to the islands.
I think I probably spent a good 15 years just studying, socially paying attention to what was happening because it was very different from where I grew up. It was sharply different in terms of race. I come from a black majority country where independence had just happened. My classrooms were incredibly diverse places. When I came to the United States, I just couldn’t get over how segregated people were. If you live on an island it’s all just right here in your face. There’s a horrible racism, there’s terrible colonial hierarchy, but no one’s pretending that it’s not there. You have to deal with it in a different way. The number one thing people do, is to acknowledge it. And here, I got here and no one’s acknowledging any of it. No one talks about any of it.
So that’s totally thrown me for a loop. People are really segregated and it’s as though we’re just supposed to pretend that that’s not happening.
CW: I think the silence lends itself to more rage. There’s doublespeak. You can talk to girls about how they’re in these oppressive environments all the time, but if they say anything about it, they get in trouble and are subjected to violence. I think that’s why it’s infuriating to live here and have to deal with things. Most of the conversations are just about even acknowledging that we have race. Saying “I am black, and somebody else is white, and that that actually influences how people experience the world” is controversial and groundbreaking. We have far to go.
SC: There is far to go. I met someone recently who has just read the book and they were really so focused on what I think of as the “lean in model” which is saying “If I can just be better. If I can change, things will get better.” It’s neoliberal clap chat. She was really tied to this idea that it was all on her. It was almost as though acknowledging that the social construction of emotion was as important or more important than her behavior was overwhelming to her. So when I said to her, “Well, you and your brother, for example, might have the exact same response to a problem and if you display the exact same anger, the people in the room are highly unlikely to respond to you in the same way. If everyone’s more or less of the same ethnicity in your family, then maybe that reaction can be distilled to gender. The minute you go into school, or the minute you go into work, or the minute you go into a political environment, that becomes immensely complex. You just have to be able to acknowledge the double standard and the degree to which the double standard is a mechanism for public control. People cling to the idea of meritocracy and people have got to get over it.
CW: Yes, that’s a dangerous idea. I’m wondering how this applies to online spaces. I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Since tech companies are monetizing behaviors that are actually are dangerous for a lot of women, how do you think tech companies can move forward, and do you think they actually will change their models at all?
SC: I’m kind of disgusted. I had 18 months of being harassed and then talking to other women and writers and then really understanding what was going on. I openly confronted these companies in a series of campaigns over the course of four years. I have worked closely with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and various think tank groups about this issue. I think there are two things they need to do structurally. One, is they need to stop with the pipeline argument because it’s bullshit. They need to diversify at every stage and every point of the chain of decision making, product development, and support. They need to be overt about their decisions and they also need to dissect the industry. Right now, the model is that a bunch of guys build products with poor risk assessment, bad stuff happens, and then there’s all of the clean up and care work that has to happen in the security, privacy, legal, community management, customer support realms. The model itself is seriously gendered. You have all the hyper-masculine engineering and STEM spaces and then you have all the care, clean up, emotional labor spaces. That that super-structure is deeply damaging our ability to change the way products are built and used. This is the only institutional response that is going to make sense.
It’s really that the entire business model is fueled by the capitalization of this abuse. The extremist content. The hateful content. Twitter makes money either way. They’re content neutral. It doesn’t matter. I remember when Ghostbusters came out and Leslie Jones was being harassed. I remember thinking about how they’ve got high levels of engagement around this incredibly abusive hashtag. It would have been really easy for them to turn her harassment into a moment and for that moment might be called ‘Twitter responds to racist harassment” but all of a sudden the harassment becomes a product that can be sponsored.
CW: Definitely. It’s hard because you also talk about how women, especially young girls, need to use social media to find other feminists who they would have no way of seeing or even knowing they exist.
SC: Yeah. I think, what I keep telling young girls who ask me “Should I just not do this?” I say, “No. You’re doing this already offline.” It’s just become second nature if you are a girl aware of the world around you, that you learn to assess your environment, and you do that no matter what. If you understand the environment, then you can cultivate your own resilience. Resilience doesn’t just happen. People actually need to develop it through their upbringing or work on themselves. Like your mom, it sounds like your mom enabled you to develop resilience, right?
SC: My mom enabled me to develop resilience. That’s a gift, honestly. A lot of people don’t have it. But it is possible to develop it. So if I talk to girls, I talk to them about that because the most important thing you can do is understand how to use network effects in your favor. Network effects are potentially going to be used against women and you need to understand that. But you do have the ability to think about how they work in your favor.