In 1929, Edward Bernays persuaded a group of women to break the taboo on female smoking by arranging for them all to light up during that year’s Easter Parade in New York City. Though cynically motivated – Bernays was acting on behalf of the American Tobacco Association – this capitalistic appropriation of the suffragette movement was wildly successful: rebranded as “torches of freedom,” cigarettes became both a touchstone for gender equality and a visible accessory of female defiance. The fact that smoking is an addictive, unhealthy and potentially lethal habit doesn’t change the fact that women were being denied access to it purely on the grounds of gender, and yet most people, on learning this particular historical tidbit, will probably feel uncomfortable – not just because Bernays was effectively manipulating the women’s rights movement in order to sell more cigarettes, but because he still had a valid point. No matter the many adverse effects of tobacco – none of which were known at the time – freedom of choice is a basic human right, and denying it to women on the grounds that smoking was a masculine pastime is fundamentally sexist, regardless of our views on cigarettes as a concept.
Similarly, I always feel uneasy whenever I see news outlets fretting about the apparent increase in violent crimes committed by women, and particularly young women. While social commentators are quick to blame the phenomenon on any number of causes – binge drinking, mimicry of “kickass” role models, a seemingly historical predisposition towards initiating domestic confrontations, family breakdown and ladette culture, a change in the definition of assault – their unifying fascination with the issues seems to hinge on the idea of women being corrupted by men; as though female violence is somehow the dark side of feminism. Well, yes, in the sense that violent crime is deplorable regardless of who’s committing it; but that’s a far cry from the view – seldom stated outright, but overwhelmingly implied – that such offences are somehow fundamentally worse when committed by women, not only in a moral sense, but as a perceived symptom of social malaise; as though violent crime as a whole must therefore have reached such epic proportions that even pure, sweet, innocent ladies are being infected by it.
Underneath such scaremongering lies a toxic view of gender essentialism: that because men tend to be physically stronger than women, violence – whether criminal or constructive – must therefore be an innately male characteristic; or at the very least, something which should be viewed with greater acceptance and sympathy when expressed by men. The idea that a certain amount of physical strength is a necessary prerequisite to possession of violent urges, or that maleness somehow excuses poor emotional control, is part of a sexist social logic that serves to validate male expressions of anger and aggression as being both natural and powerful while demonising women who behave likewise as unnatural and weak. On some level, the cultural derision of female anger as hysteria seemingly stems from a belief in female physical impotence: if verbal disagreements are seen as either analogues for or precursors to physical altercations, then our tacit assumption of female weakness serves to characterise female anger as being somehow disembodied; as though our implied inability to (if necessary) take things outside means that our anger can never be physically felt, and is therefore inadequate when contrasted with proper, red-blooded, bodily male anger.
Hence my suspicion that at least part of the disgust and confusion leveled at aggressive women stems from the fear that this logic no longer applies: that where before we could trust in angry women to neither hit first nor hit back and therefore discount them appropriately, now we might actually have to treat them with the same deference – or at least, the same concern – as angry men.
To be clear: violent crime is not synonymous with anger; nor is anger only, or even most commonly, expressed through physical acts of aggression. And I’m hardly coming out in support of female violent crime as some bizarre species of empowerment. What I am saying, though, is that our culture has spent so many years defending, downplaying or otherwise handwaving aggression, vice and violence as being integral to proper masculinity – or at least, the inevitable side-effects of same – that we’re now extremely uncomfortable with the idea of women entering those arenas, too. In the case of physically confrontational sports, for instance, like boxing and martial arts, one of the oldest and most universal defenses of their social utility has been as necessary outlets for male (and particularly young male) aggression. But let women into the ring – demonstrate that they can be just as skilled, combative, determined, aggressive – and suddenly that assumption comes under all sorts of scrutiny; because if the desire to punch someone can’t be solely attributed to possession of a Y-chromosome, then maybe – just maybe – all our boys-will-be-boys excuses have been less a rational defense of biology and more an irrational defense of culture. And that’s a truly frightening thought for many, because all of a sudden, centuries of excuses about why men can’t be expected to exhibit self control in any number of situations – why it’s always women who have to dress modestly, avoid conflict and not start fights; why territorial violence, or violence as response to supposed disrespect, is overwhelmingly justified – start to look like… well, excuses.
In a recent article, writer Jen Dziura contended that, contrary to the logic of gender stereotyping, men are just as emotional as women; it’s just that specific types of emotion more commonly associated with men – such as shouting, aggression and violence – are culturally viewed as positive attributes (or at least excusable ones) , whereas emotional displays that are viewed as feminine, like crying and getting upset, are interpreted as weakness. To quote:
I wish to dispel the notion that women are “more emotional.” I don’t think we are. I think that the emotions women stereotypically express are what men call “emotions,” and the emotions that men typically express are somehow considered by men to be something else.
This is incorrect. Anger? EMOTION. Hate? EMOTION. Resorting to violence? EMOTIONAL OUTBURST. An irrational need to be correct when all the evidence is against you? Pretty sure that’s an emotion. Resorting to shouting really loudly when you don’t like the other person’s point of view? That’s called “being too emotional to engage in a rational discussion.”
Not only do I think men are at least as emotional as women, I think that these stereotypically male emotions are more damaging to rational dialogue than are stereotypically female emotions. A hurt, crying person can still listen, think, and speak. A shouting, angry person? That person is crapping all over meaningful discourse.
Note, please, that Dziura describes these particular emotions, not as being intrinsically male or female, but only stereotypically so. This is a crucial distinction to make, because without it, we miss the existence of yet another double standard: the fact that, on those rare occasions when women do manage to overcome their own socialisation and publicly express anger, rage or violence, they are still derided for being emotional. Once again, the creeping toxicity of our assumptions about who is entitled to anger – viz: anyone we think is capable of supporting their verbal aggression physically – causes us to conclude that, as women lack this ability – and particularly when ranged against male opponents – their anger must therefore be disembodied and hysterical rather than bodily and genuine. An angry man is a growling Alsatian: we listen because his bite could well be worse than his bark. But an angry woman is a yapping chihuahua: visible rage only serves to magnify her physical inability to express it seriously, and in the meantime, we laugh at how cute she looks when she’s pissed.
And then, of course, the issue is further compounded by both conscious and subconscious racism: white male anger, for instance, is viewed as restrained, civilised and righteous, whereas black male anger is viewed as savage, bestial, wild. In this metaphor, the violence of white men as expressed through verbal aggression is viewed as a holstered gun: we’re obscenely comforted to know that, if the argument came to blows, they’d be capable of defending themselves, but otherwise, we don’t worry that violent words are likely to translate to violent actions. The violence of black men, however, is taken to be overt, like a constantly brandished sword – even when their words are milder, we’re conditioned to worry that at any moment, they’ll forgo dialogue in favour of physical action, and to fear and mistrust them appropriately. That’s just one example; the stereotyping is endless. But for any intersectional group and their associated stereotypes, you can be sure that society has an opinion on how entitled they are to anger and violence, how frequently (or not) it’s perceived to be expressed by that group, how threatening this behaviour is to the privileged, and whether such expressions should be generally met with condescension, fear or outright hostility.
As a culture, we need to get past the idea that anger is sole and rightful purview of those with both the potential for physical violence and enough social privilege that their usage of it is always assumed to be justified; that aggression is distinct from emotion, and therefore a legitimate species of argument when employed by men; and that the aggression of anyone who lacks the protections of privilege or the semblance of physical strength mustn’t be legitimate anger, but either thoughtless thuggery or baseless hysteria instead. Like it or not, the right to anger is a cultural resource, and one the most privileged have been keen to reserve for themselves. Not only must we reclaim it, but – as Dziura says – we must also stop mistaking it for the only valid form of discourse; or rather, stop fooling ourselves that we haven’t embedded an unhealthy tolerance for aggression, and specifically white male aggression, in the heart of our definition of reasoned, rational debate. Anger in discourse can be justified, but we should always recognise it for what it is – an emotion – instead of only classing it as one when someone of lesser privilege is using it. That way, we can start to build a system where everyone is heard, and where legitimate expressions of outrage aren’t buried beneath a sneering weight of gendered, racist contempt.