Every so often, I have a bout of road rage. Not the physical sort. It’s exclusively the verbal kind. Another driver will have pulled out in front of me without indicating, or someone will have pressed their horn unthinkingly when I was not at fault, and then I will unleash a vicious spray of invective.
The windscreen will be splattered with my swear words; the radio drowned out by an imaginative array of four-letter phrases. The rage comes automatically. I can’t stop it. I will say some truly dreadful things about people I’ve never met. I’ll scream and spit and thump the steering wheel. And then, almost as quickly, the red mist dissipates. I feel calm. I feel centred. I feel – there’s no other way of putting this – just so much better.
If you met me, you would not describe me as a rage-filled person. On a daily basis, I appear relatively normal. I’m organised, efficient and I make an effort in conversation. I smile. I’m polite. Most of the time, I seem fairly placid. But the truth is, I have this well of anger deep down in the pit of my stomach. Most of the time, I forget it’s there. I don’t access it much. In fact, it’s only really in the car that I feel safe to let rip because I’m encased in a wheeled box of metal and glass and no one else can hear me. So I just explode, because it’s the one place I won’t be judged for being an “angry woman”.
The other place I feel safe exploring female anger is on the page. My new novel, The Party, has two narrators: one male, one female. Lucy, the female protagonist, spends her life trying to live up to her husband’s expectations of her. For much of the book, she doesn’t acknowledge she’s angry, but she is. When Lucy finally lets go of her pent-up rage, she becomes the strongest character in the novel. Her anger is the making of her.
This was a deliberate choice on my part. I’ve been thinking a lot about angry women lately. About the way we’re judged for it. If, like me, you grew up in the 1980s (or in any of the decades before that), you were probably raised to be pliant and pleasant. As girls, we were expected to be lovely and good and well-behaved. The sociological norm was for the female of the species to be nice and play with dolls, while boys got to be bold and adventurous and take their aggression out in war games with sticks. As girls, we were allowed to have emotions, but only certain ones. We were allowed to cry. We could be scared. We could be joyful. But anger never seemed permissible.
Men and women experience anger at a similar frequency, with similar intensity and for similar reasons. It’s just that men are more likely to display aggression
As an adult, these silent childhood messages stayed with me.
I became an inveterate people-pleaser. In relationships, I would do whatever I could to keep the other person happy. I would cook, I would book holidays, I would let them choose what film we saw at the cinema. At work, I was the one who said yes to everything, in the vague hope that my conscientious attitude would be recognised and rewarded. If I was every annoyed by something that happened, I never spoke it out loud. I pushed the anger down, and turned it inward, so that I ended up being more angry with myself than anyone else.
Everywhere I looked, my choices were tacitly validated. Popular culture portrayed angry women as mad, bad or dangerous to know. In the 1980s, there was Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction who boiled a bunny when spurned by a man. Later, there was Charlize Theron as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Theron had to put on weight and “ugly up” for the part, as if the only way an audience would believe in the portrayal of a murderous, angry woman was to make her so “other” that she could be detached from her femininity entirely.
Men, by contrast, always seemed righteous in their anger. They could be Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Liam Neeson in Taken and their fury served to empower their masculinity, rather than diminish it.
“There was a whole movie named 12 Angry Men and that was a good thing,” the activist and writer Gloria Steinem said in a 2016 interview. “When men are angry it’s usually assumed to be for a reason. When women are angry it’s been considered unfeminine, or a character defect.” In other words, when women showed their anger, it made them un-women.
According to a 2008 report by the Mental Health Foundation, men and women experience anger at a similar frequency, with similar intensity, and for similar reasons. It’s just that men are more likely to display aggression, and women are more likely to stifle it. The same report found that 61 per cent of women wouldn’t know where to seek help for an anger problem, compared with 54 per cent of men.
Race complicates the issue even further. The feminist author Roxane Gay put it this way in a piece she wrote for The New York Times last year: “I am an opinionated woman so I am often accused of being angry. This accusation is made because a woman, a black woman who is angry, is making trouble. She is daring to be dissatisfied with the status quo. She is daring to be heard.
“When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things or we are petty or shrill or strident or unbalanced or crazy or overly emotional.”
Things changed for me in my mid-thirties. The anger that had been slowly building over a lifetime decided to make itself known – a dormant volcano blazing into life. I’d had two rounds of unsuccessful IVF, a miscarriage at three months and then my marriage had ended. For a while, I was in shock, then I was sad and then, all of a sudden, I realised I was really fucking angry.
The fury descended like a swarm of bees as I was walking down the street one day. I was angry at everyone and no one. I was angry at the fertility specialists for making me feel a failure. I was angry at my ex for not being there. I was angry at all those friends of mine on Facebook who posted smudgy photos of their newborn babies as if there was nothing to it. I was angry at my work, for taking me for granted. And I was angry at the untruth of it all. The lie I’d been told from an early age, that motherhood would come naturally, that it would happen with ease and that all I had to do was sit tight and be good. It was, for want of a better term, bullshit.
Once I’d confronted my anger, I felt released. For so long, I’d been repressing it, lacing it tighter and tighter around my ribcage until finally it was so rigidly corseted in place I was barely able to breathe. Facing it was liberating. I’d been worried that anger belonged to my darker self; that by unleashing it, I’d become an unlikeable or unstable person. But that didn’t happen. If anything, acknowledging my anger made me more sane. I found a safe way to express it (therapy) and let it out (high-intensity physical exercise like boxing or spinning) and the result was that I felt unquestionably more myself.
For so long, I’d been repressing the anger, lacing it tighter and tighter around my ribcage until finally it was so rigidly corseted in place I was barely able to breathe
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my acceptance of my own anger came at a time when culture was also opening its eyes. In HBO’s Game Of Thrones, which first aired in 2011, female anger has been rebranded as sexy and potent. Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, is in control of literal fire-breathing creatures, while Cersei is so enraged by traitors she orders their heads to be put on spikes.
On Netflix, Jessica Jones’s superpower is frequently triggered by her anger – the first season showed her accepting both aspects of her dual character as being integral to who she is. Carrie Mathison in Homeland is unpredictable yet brilliant. Selina Meyers in Veep knows more swear words than almost anyone. And Suranne Jones’s depiction of a betrayed woman in the 2015 BBC drama Docter Foster was one of the most gripping portrayals of female anger I’ve ever seen.
It’s not just television. In the music video for Hold Up, Beyoncé is shown casually strolling down a street and smashing a baseball bat against car windows, fire hydrants and surveillance cameras. Books have played a part, too. The opening sentence of Claire Messud’s 2013 novel, The Woman Upstairs, is: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know.” Even the title is a reference to the “mad woman in the attic” subgenre of literature which Messud brilliantly subverts. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train had a female protagonist whose anger was at first dismissed as “crazy” but was later vindicated
All of this brought it home to me that female anger, for so long marginalised and mistrusted, can actually be a powerful creative stimulus. As an emotion, it can be just as inspiring as happiness and frequently more so. When I was at my angriest, I wrote my fourth novel. It’s the one I’m proudest of because it came from a place of untrammelled honesty. It came from a place of me.
As I wrote The Party, I read a quote from the author Zadie Smith and it suddenly made all kinds of sense.
“I felt like a hand was at my throat when I first started writing,” Smith told the Atlantic in 2005. “That if I was going to be a proper writer, I’d better be as polite as possible and as calm as possible and as un-angry as possible – and recently I’ve been thinking, you know, fuck that, basically.”
I used to think anger was unbecoming or unladylike. I used to think it was scary and that, by shouting about how I really felt, I would be losing a grip on myself. I used to think I couldn’t be angry and happy. But now I know that being myself also means being angry in the right places because we should be furious about certain things. We need to be OK with our anger – to know that it can be creative as well as destructive and to find ways of expressing it.
Because otherwise, we’re consigning ourselves to a life half-lived.
And, well, fuck that, basically.
The Party by Elizabeth Day is published by 4th Estate on July 13. It is available to pre-order on Amazon now