“I just think you could have handled it differently,” said my friend. We were having tête-à-tête after a disagreement. I felt a boundary had been crossed and in a rare moment of ‘act now and think later’, I had reacted. And yes, I know, I have read all the ‘respond don’t react’ articles, all the ‘be assertive not aggressive’ articles, and still here I was reacting. In my mind it felt justified, a line had been crossed and I felt, very strongly at the time that I had to say something.
The force of that saying something is what shocked my friend. You see this particular friend is what I’d call (to quote Charlie Murphy), a habitual line stepper, the person who says and does things without really taking into account how these actions may affect others. I, on the other hand was being impassive, because, I reasoned, if I called this person out, it would hurt their feelings…yes, I know, habitual people pleaser. And so it went on, her crossing the line and me biting my tongue until one fateful afternoon when sharp teeth were bared. If this were the 80s, I probably would have gone all Mariama Ba and written So Long a letter rather than meet, but given that it was 2015 and Whatsapp messages are very often misconstrued, I knew it was better to put on my grown woman panties and have a conversation.
Handling it differently in her case, meant dealing with the problem with sweet ladylike politeness, preferably dressed in pink ribbons to mask the bubbling irritation that swirled inside. It did not matter that I didn’t push curse or yell, the fact I voiced my disagreement emphatically, took away from the point I was trying to get across. ‘No, you will not cross my boundary’ was replaced with ‘Why are you being like this?’
So here we are. Me as the aggressor and she the victim. After much back and forth, we finally get down to the matter and feelings are exposed, apologies exchanged and a shaky but promising truce is made. Had I spoken up earlier, I am sure we would not have ended up at that café swilling lukewarm coffee and pretending to pore over menus. The incident left me keenly aware that the very thing I was avoiding had still happened and in future, it pays to express displeasure and put what you feel out there rather than revert to the learned behaviour of holding it in. Fast forward to this year, I am sitting in my Media Studies class discussing Lemonade with a classmate, she expresses her misgivings about Beyoncés’ hot and saucy rage in the single Hold Up. “I think women should be more…,” She searches for a word and I furnish her with: “Nicer?”
There seems to be an unspoken rule when it comes to dealing with women’s anger, one that silences women and shames them from acknowledging it. One that admires a woman who represses it and admonishes the one who expresses it. In her article, The Feminine Mistake, celebrated author Chimamanda Adichie examines this phenomenon through the prism of childhood memory. Her Aunt Chinwe is that woman, the one who never gets angry and always masks her emotions with a smiling face, slowly erasing who she really is so as to live up to the ideal of perfect wife.
A 2015 study conducted by Arizona State University showed that female anger, when expressed is not taken as seriously as male anger.The researchers pointed out that it revealed how society views anger in both men and women. Speaking to TIME magazine, the lead researcher, Jessica Salerno attributed this to the tendency of people viewing male anger as situational – they have a good reason to be angry and women’s anger as internal- they are seen as being emotional and thus irrational…oh and what’s that gas lighting word, crazy. This is a study done in 2015 not 1950 and just goes to show how far we have to go when it comes to understanding or even allowing women to express anger.
This repression actually has negative repercussions for women. Repression of anger, something that begins from childhood, has been linked to depression, eating disorders, anxiety, hypertension among other things — this is what should actually scare us. Not expressing that anger does not make it go away, it just moves inward and turns up as something else. However, this does not mean we should walk around carrying Hot Sauce in our bags and smashing car windows, as liberating as it looks, angry outbursts are just as unhealthy and can equally lead heart problems, insomnia, depression and social isolation.
So where does that leave us? Is there a way women can safely express anger without being labelled crazy? Who came up with the idea of what ladylike is anyway and how does it even apply to the modern African woman navigating a society steeped in patriarchy? Why is female anger so often misunderstood?
Share your two cents below…