Addressing Anger with Soraya Chemaly
As part of the Ladies Get Paid Book Tour, sponsored by Comcast NBC/Universal, Claire Wasserman, founder and author of Ladies Get Paid, in conversation with Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, discuss The Representation Project, free speech, and using anger as a tool for positive change.
Claire: A journalist said about your book that Rage Becomes Her that it’s, “ battle cry of a book, drawing on all corners of contemporary life from media to education and medicine. She takes the reader through a woman’s life from infancy to adulthood, highlighting the systemic ways female rage is suppressed, diverted, or minimized and she provides scientific evidence to back up her ideas. “If life as a modern woman is maddening, then rage is a sanity restorer.” Did you feel like your sanity was restored by writing this book?
Soraya: I felt that my emotional state was clarified by writing this book. Was my sanity restored? I’m gobsmacked every day. I don’t think it’s a matter of sanity. I don’t know how you can both be not surprised and shocked so consistently every day. That’s what I felt writing the book.
Claire: Can you define what rage is and isn’t?
Soraya: The name of the book is a play on the expression “Death becomes her.” It’s a play on the idea that we should be becoming, that we should always be attractive. It also refers to the ways that I describe in the book that our emotions, especially anger, become material in our bodies, the way it actually becomes the fabric of how we feel and how our bodies respond. Anger and rage, there’s so many synonyms. There’s so many variations of these emotions.
In my mind, rage is the violent dysfunctional form of anger. If you haven’t named it, if you haven’t been able to process it, if you have no uptake, if no one’s listening to you, if what you’re saying is just– you’re banging your head against a wall, often what’s left is rage because, in fact, in our society, we value violence. We reward violent expression. Rage is one of the outcomes of that for better or worse.
I’ve had conversations with long-time feminist thinkers and activists and ur conversations come back over and over again to why people don’t care.
Why is it that you can talk about injustice and intersectional gender inequality and people don’t care? It’s either that it’s too overwhelming to them or they have a psychological or cognitive reason to downplay it, to minimize it. In the end, anger is really an expression of need, right? It’s a warning. What’s wrong in the world? What is threatening me or challenging me or hurting me? That’s what it’s for. It’s a really important signal emotion. When we don’t get a response to that emotion even from ourselves, it builds up and it builds up and it builds up. It can become consuming and very destructive.
Claire: In your book, I read that rather than telling women to let go of their rage, you tell them to hold onto it.
Soraya: Girls are not socialized to think about their anger. They’re not socialized to name their anger. They’re not socialized to say words like, “This is what I really need today. This is really what I want today.” you’re really expected to put others first, to see yourself as functional to the people around you, to see yourself as a person who should be helpful and pleasing and pleasant before your own needs, before putting yourself first.
Claire: You talk about anger management versus anger competence. Elaborate on it for us.
Soraya: We don’t need more management of our anger. We are all managing our anger all the time super well. When you google anger management, basically, you get a lot of celebrity white guys in movies screaming at screens or breaking things or yelling at each other.
Our idea of anger management is very much calibrated to that powerful male destructive expression. The punching of the wall or the screaming at the other man or the breaking of the computer in so many of these images. That’s not all that’s going on, right? There’s the anger management that goes into sublimating and deflecting and this materialization in our bodies. That’s very unhealthy management.
By the time you’re talking about anger management, there’s so many steps along the way that haven’t happened like, thinking about what’s happening, what information is coming with this emotion, how do I acknowledge the emotion, what do I do with the emotion, what can I ask of people, and what can I realistically expect?
Because the hard part for so many, particularly women in heterosexual relationships, the hard part is learning that maybe the person who cares for you doesn’t care as much as you thought.That’s a super hard thing to come to terms with. In fact, one of the most eye-opening studies that I found from a professor at Berkeley was that in more traditional relationships between men and women, when women express anger, they’re worried they’re going to be penalized.
Claire: Do you have on how to assert yourself as firm without being labeled as stubborn and harsh?What suggestions do you have for how women can handle themselves in work situations where people are quick to accuse them of being aggressive and angry when, in reality, they are just trying to get our opinions heard?
Soraya: This is hard. I’ll also speak specifically to the fact of intersectionality because we know how much this matters. What you just described might be an experience that a white woman has in a room full of white men or it’s an experience that a Black woman has in a room full of white women, right? I think we need to be cognizant of our own biases and stereotypes and what might be operating in the room we’re in or in the corporation we’re in.
All of these things start in early childhood. For Black girls, the assumption that they are angry and disruptive and belligerent begins from day one. They’re much more likely to be disciplined in school, to be expelled from schools. Their simple assertiveness or just joy and glee and ways of expressing themselves that are seen in young boys as leadership potential end up being very harshly dealt with.
That goes through adulthood, right? We saw it and we’ve seen it for years in our politics and the way Black women politicians are portrayed and represented. A lot of the work we do at The Representation Project is to address that kind of stereotype and representation in the media. If you’re a white woman and people think you’re angry or they want to silence you by saying you’re angry, you’re usually more likely to be described as crazy.
There’s the angry Black woman stereotype and the crazy white woman stereotype. If you’re ethnically ambiguous like I am, you could be Mediterranean, Arab, Hispanic. You’re fiery. You’re hot. You’re like some tasty, delectable thing. It’s ridiculous, right? It’s all a way to say, “I’m not going to listen to your words.”
In the workplace, I think it’s very important to find allies, other people around you that you can talk to about this and that you can actually strategize with because it’s very often the case that you’re penalized for pointing all of this out. It is a genuine double bind. You lose if you try, you lose if you don’t.
Claire: What about women being mean to other women? When women join Ladies Get Paid, they often say that their worst bosses were women and not men.
Soraya: In the 1970s and ’80s, there was literally maybe one woman who had a visible profile on a major network for a short amount of time. She had to work very hard to get there. In fact, to get there, she had to renounce femininity. If you think of the clothing styles of the ’80s, so much of it was about women dressing like men.
There are a lot of feminist progressively-minded men who want to improve the situation and there are a lot of anti-feminist, much more conservative women who don’t care. None of us is born oriented in this way and that’s true of men and women. I think it would be nice if we had built-in solidarity among all people who aren’t men, but we don’t. T
Claire: Tell us about The Representation Project.
Soraya:The Representation Project started ten years ago by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
made a very groundbreaking film in 2011 called Miss Representation. It was about the way the media misrepresented representations of women, undermining our leadership, our safety, our ambitions. A lot about sexual objectification and misogyny. What does racialized misogyny look like in our media? She made the film, founded the organization because of a very positive response with the idea that there’s a model here for changing public attitudes and behavior.
If you can shed light on an issue with a film, engage in related social activism, you can, as demonstrably, change attitudes and behaviors. She followed up that film with The Mask You Live In, which is about masculinity, toxicity, and masculinity. his past October, we released the third film, The Great American Lie, which is about the mythologizing of the American dream. It really looks at inequality and the variations in inequality. It’s very timely right now.
Claire: How do we make sure that we are not perpetuating these gender stereotypes in the way that we raise our kids?
Soraya: It’s hard and it’s exhausting because, first of all, they’re the words we say and then there’s the behavior we engage in. I think a lot about what’s going on in homes right now, everyone is inside and millions of women have left work to be the primary caretakers of their families and children see that. There’s a lot of stress. There’s a lot of exhaustion. There’s a lot of anger. There’s escalating domestic violence.
This is all happening before any words are being said at all about emotions or about how people behave. One of the things I talk about in the book is this idea of emotional competence, which extends beyond anger, right? We never really have this meta-approach to our own emotions.I have three children. I’ve never seen it in their education either.
Claire: Just speaking personally, after you did all of this research do you find that your channeling of your own rage is different now?
Soraya: Oh, absolutely. I think I started writing because I didn’t know how angry I was.
Watch the entire conversation with Soraya Chemaly here.
A big thank you to Comcast/NBCUniversal for sponsoring this series.