Girls, taught to ignore their anger, become disassociated from themselves.
Anger is a recurring theme of the current presidential election. Every male presidential candidate has directly and overtly tapped into the very evident rage that the American public feels. They thump podiums, raise their voices, curse, and shout without being called divas, shrill, unhinged, ugly, or unlikeable. More power to them, literally.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a narrower path to tread when expressing or even responding to righteous anger. After decades in the public eye, Clinton, knows that she has to carefully manage overt displays of any strong feeling at all.
Most girls and women understand the risks they take when they become angry. No matter how justified, appearing angry won’t do her any favors and will actually undermine people’s perception of her competence and likeability. Studies show that when men are angry, people tend to lose their own confidence and defer to men’s opinions. When women are angry, the opposite happens. Studies also reveal that people will opt to work for angry-sounding aggressive men, but not with angry-sounding aggressive women.
The problem with studies that confirm what most women already know is that they may contribute to women policing themselves even more, and to parents teaching girls that being nice is better all the way around. That’s why seeing overtly and justifiably angry women who do not care that they may not be likeable to some people is so important.
According to the American Psychological Association, while both men and women feel anger, and shame related to anger, they show what they feel in different ways. For men, anger reinforces traditional gender expectations, for women it confounds them. That conflict by itself is a source of anxiety.
Girls are more likely to learn that their feelings of anger, no matter the reason they have them, are “wrong” and out of sync with their identities as girls. They are also more likely to intuit that to show anger puts their relationships at risk. Even worse, they associate anger with being unattractive in a social milieu where few things are portrayed as worse for a girl.
These messages start immediately. Ideas about anger in children are quickly infused with parental implicit biases and gender expectations. In one study, newborns were dressed in gender-neutral clothing and researchers misled adults about their sex. Parents were far more likely to describe the babies they thought were boys as upset or angry than the girls, who they categorized instead as nice and happy.
In general, starting when they are toddlers, boys in the United States are given more leeway in terms of being “out of control.” Parents and teachers expect girls to be able to control themselves more and hold them to higher standards, and so girls exhibit better self-regulation. Many parents not only think that boys can’t control themselves, but they unconsciously expect boys to be angry and girls to be sociable. When kids don’t adhere to these stereotypes, parents often respond, usually subconsciously, in ways that develop these traits accordingly. For girls, that means a whole lot of sublimation.
Anger is diverted in women, who, as girls, lose even the awareness of their own anger as anger. Girls are taught, through politeness norms that suppress disruptive behavior, to use indirect methods of dealing with rage. For example, it’s “unladylike” to be loud, or “vulgar” to curse, yell, or seem unattractive. Adaptable girls find socially acceptable ways to internalize or channel their discomfort and ire, sometimes at great personal cost. Passive aggressive behavior, anxiety, and depression are common effects. Sarcasm, apathy, and meanness have all been linked to suppressed rage. Troublesome behaviors, such as lying, skipping school, bullying other people, even being socially awkward are often signs that a teenager is dealing with anger that they are unable to name as anger.
Girls, taught to ignore their anger, become disassociated from themselves.
Anger is so successfully sublimated that girls lose the ability to understand what it feels and looks like. Is her heart racing? Does she feel flushed or shaky? Does she clench her jaws at night? Is she breaking out in hives? Does she cry for no reason? Laugh inappropriately during difficult conversations? Fly off the handle over something that seems inconsequential? You can see where I’m going here…those crazy girl hormones, right? Better to just think of it as a phase.
For too many women, however, the phase never ends. It’s lives spent never expressing anger at all and believing that they don’t have the right or ability to do so without great risk.
Interestingly, the reasons men and women tend to get angry differ. A 15-year study of girls and women found that there are three primary causes of anger that are not the same in men: feelings of powerlessness, injustice, and other people’s irresponsibility.
By the time they are teenagers, many girls’ feelings of anger have been shunted into contorted shapes that no longer fit the standard (read male) ways that we think of and understand anger.
When most people think about anger management they think in terms of what can be seen: frustrated, foot-stomping people, most frequently portrayed as men, throwing things, maybe screaming or punching something. In 2004, researchers looking into gender and anger concluded that women’s complex management of anger “may not be accounted for by existing anger models.” In other words, using a male standard for understanding the problem meant, for many girls and women, simply not understanding the problem. Bottling up anger is as harmful, if not more so, than anger exhibited in violent outbursts. “Anger management” should also mean considering what can’t be seen, the kind of anger that women are more likely to experience. How we think of “anger management” should more broadly include teaching girls that it is OK to feel angry.
Few parents are considering these long-term effects when they unconsciously model or teach children lessons about politeness and how to be sociable. As they age, girls are effectively taught to put others needs first and are, indeed, rewarded for doing so, well into adulthood. The result, for many girls and women, long into old age, is a host of physical, psychological, and emotional damages. Anger impairs people’s immune systems, contributes to high blood pressure, heart damage, migraines, skin ailments, and chronic fatigue. Unresolved anger contributes to stress, tension, anxiety, depression, and excessive nervousness. It is now estimated that 30% of all teen girls have anxiety disorders.
Between the ages of 12 and 15, the number of girls who have depression triples, a rate three times that of same-age boys. Feelings of powerlessness and anger are also integral to the development of eating disorders. Suicide rates for girls between 10 and 14 tripled over the past 15 years.
Before puberty, boys and girls typically experience depression at the same frequency. “Social pressures” appear to be greater for girls and we’ve all been schooled on the impact of “hormones and emotions.” But girls aren’t just depressed when they are teens. They grow up to be more depressed in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.
Depression is complicated—part genetic, part hormonal, part environmental, part economic. Women who make less than their male peers, for example, are four times more likely to suffer from anxiety and 2.5 times more likely to suffer from depression. Imagine what would happen if they could get angry instead?
Clinicians believe that a large component of depression is anger and a specific type of anger caused by a perceived or actual loss or rejection. There are many reasons why girls might feel rejected, powerless, and angry.
First, they begin to see the effects of gender–based double standards that fly in the face of everything they’ve learned so far about their abilities, equality, and potential. Teenage girls feel the very real disparate impact of limitations on their physical freedom and behavior. Everyone seems to have policing opinions about their clothing and appearance, their movement and bodies.
Second, they become aware of physical vulnerability. Street and sexual harassment are common occurrences, including at school. They learn about sexual assault, if they have not already been assaulted (43% of assaults happen before the age of 18). They adapt to having to restrict themselves.
Third, they begin to encounter the cultural erasure of women, people who look like them and whom they are meant to emulate, as authoritative. The older girls get, the fewer women they see in positions of power and leadership. Boys and girls move from childhood realms where women are their primary caretakers, teachers, babysitters, neighborhood, and family adults to institutions where they are marginally represented as leaders. Role models are comparatively few and far between for girls who grow up gender code-switching in ways boys aren’t expected or, for the most part, allowed to. At the same time, the opposite is happening to boys whose confidence during the same period grows.
Fourth, they are navigating the stressful tension between managing their own sexuality and the crush of women’s pervasive sexual objectification. Adults around them often unhelpfully elide the two. School dress codes, for example, are the perfect example of how attempts to stop girls from “sexualizing themselves” handily do the trick for them.
While anger in girls and women is overwhelmingly portrayed as irrational, it is, in fact, completely rational. Girls learn to filter their existences through messages of powerlessness and cultural worthlessness. Girls might be more inclined to depression because coming to terms with your own cultural marginalization and irrelevance is depressing. Why isn’t this making you angry?
Girls need to know—and should be told explicitly—that it’s alright to feel anger. That it’s a healthy emotion that, as humans, they have the right to feel and express. It might not make them any friends, but that’s another topic entirely. It also doesn’t mean giving children, girls or boys, a pass for violent, disruptive, or entitled behavior. Understanding and managing anger can be part of larger childhood lessons about resilience, empathy, and compassion.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.