29 May Rage
First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 31.5.21
This month, I have been conducting a social experiment – inviting women to come along to a show and get on stage to express their rage.
It is a wild idea that started a couple of years at the capital city’s literary festival, Verb Wellington, and has become one of my favourite things to do. Turns out that being angry is tremendously good for the soul.
This isn’t something I might have expected. Of all the emotions, anger is the one I’ve been least good at. I feel it, for sure, but I have been terrible at expressing it. But I’m getting better. Look.
Injustice, rudeness, threats, insults – any kind of attack up close to me or mine – and my “fight” mode will engage. But instantly (and quite annoyingly for someone who is designed to fight with words, not fists) my throat constricts so my voice sounds like a strangled kitten, and the fury that wants to present itself as a bold and dramatic volcanic eruption is squeezed out through my eyes, drop by tiny drop, as sad widdle tears. Which is, in and of itself, enraging.
I know that I am not alone in this. Women and girls are often discouraged from expressing anger, lest we be seen as hysterical, stroppy, feisty, or – horror of horrors – “unladylike”. Our other emotions are acceptable in polite company – joy, obviously, and a fair level of excitement, though also melancholy, bewilderment, loneliness, a touch of envy – there is a full palate available with which to paint expressions of our feelings. But anger, we’ve learned, is to be avoided. Look like you are heading in that direction and it is likely someone will suggest you settle down.
This has fascinated me ever since I interviewed UK writer and comedian, Robert Webb, about his 2017 memoir, “How Not To Be A Boy” in which he posits that men and boys are socialised to express all their emotions as anger. Sad, lonely, hurt, confused, jealous – no matter what they feel – the only acceptable way to show it is by shouting or punching a wall, or worse. Even congratulations or camaraderie is a slap on the back or a whack on the arm. So men, he argued, are only allowed anger. And women don’t get that one, but can help themselves to the rest.
Yet anger is a useful tool for change. It lets people know where our lines are drawn, and stops the progress of things that will harm us. A self-defence instructor told me to take fear and turn it into anger – fear is passive, anger is active, and that’s what you need to dive into and harness, to fight back with power.
Often, women are encouraged to distract ourselves from our rage by soothing ourselves with a bit of self-care. Exhausted by, and mad about, the lack of pay equity or accessible childcare? Maybe what you need is a massage or long bath! And yes, massages and long baths are awesome. But it’s not going to change the world, just your mood. Kate Shepherd and Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia didn’t win us the right to vote in 1893 by popping out for a pedicure – they got angry and organised and did a fair bit of shouting.
So what does it look and sound like when a room full of women take their rage for a romp? People of a range of ages (from their twenties to their sixties) talked about what makes them angry – being dismissed, put in boxes, harassed, harmed, belittled – and about anger itself.
We had poems, and songs, and angry rants, and some things that sounded like comedy but had a hard edge and a twist in the tail. There were cheers of recognition, moments when you could hear a pin drop, the occasional gulp and – because we can’t help ourselves – belly laughs and thunderous applause.
And it was like that time with the self-defence instructor and you could feel the moment where anger feels like power that you will use for something good. Living constantly in that state would be exhausting, but so is endlessly trying to ignore and bury it. One of the kind things we can do is allow each other to safely share our emotions – all of them. Think how good it would feel if you said, “I am angry” and the response was, “I hear you”.
Possibly what impressed me most was how creative it all was. I mean, I’ve always known that a thing that ticks me off is often a good thing to write about – those irritations that, in an oyster, produce a pearl. But I’m still buzzing to think that asking someone to bring out their fury makes a great show. Also, I barely cried at all. I am making progress.