I'm not hysterical. I'm angry

12 Comments

 

I remember it clearly. I'm trying to talk to a male friend about why his actions were hurtful and offensive. He shushes and hugs me. When I tell him to let go, he just holds on tighter. 'Calm down,' he tells me. Unable to break free, I start to cry with frustration. Why isn't he just listening to me? All the while, he's laughing. This is one of my first memories of being tone policed.

Young woman screaming. FuzzMartin/GettyTone policing describes when someone from a minority group expresses thoughts on oppression, but a person dismisses the content of their opinion in favour of commenting on or policing how they said it. In essence, it's a way to divert conversations about topics that make people with privilege uncomfortable.

Anger in particular is tone policed. While men are encouraged to express their anger, albeit sometimes in unhealthy ways, women are socialised to feel like they can't be angry at all. Studies have shown we respond differently to men's anger than women's — women's anger is described as 'bitchy' or 'hostile' while men's anger is described as 'strong.'

The false dichotomy between emotion and logic often disadvantages women. Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her, says that 'the whole idea of feelings is disparaged, and it's often disparaged, frankly, because it's a feminine quality in our culture ... we're not supposed to express feelings because feelings are "illogical" but, in fact, they're really logical and rational.'

In public discourse, there is often the implicit accusation that angry women aren't rational. The history of 'hysteria' in women is long and ugly, and for women and femme people, the accusation of being 'hysterical' can shut them down.

You could see it happening in real time when in a 2016 QandA episode, Steve Price cut across Van Badham over and over again, and in response to her frustration said, 'I think you're just being a little hysterical.' As a diversionary tactic, it worked. Badham's very valid points were cut off and the news coverage the next day focused not on highlighting domestic violence, the topic being discussed, but the fact that Price called Badham hysterical.

This policing of anger is especially true for black women, who can also face this discrimination from other white feminists. For an example of the stereotype of the 'angry black woman' being used to belittle black women, you don't need to look much further than the reactions that Serena Williams received for her anger, in comparison to men who expressed similar anger without the same consequences or nearly as much public criticism.

 

"Anger is not the only tool to combat oppression, but it is a useful one."

 

But there's no winning with tone policing, because even when women don't display any anger when they speak, like Dr Christine Blasey Ford or Anita Hill in their respective senate hearings, they are still dismissed, attacked and ignored. Compare their testimony to the rage in Brett Kavanaugh's and it's clear that the more privilege you have, the more anger you are allowed to express.

Anger can be productive and a way to galvanise people into action. Feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote in her work 'Uses of Anger' that 'every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.' She points out that it is the hatred directed towards minority groups, not their justifiable anger in response, that is the destructive force.

It is anger at a status quo that rewards abusers and disempowers survivors that has driven the #MeToo movement. Anger at injustice that has been at the core of many different fights for civil rights. And when dealing with injustice, anger is often the rational response. We should be angry at the rates of domestic violence in Australia, the continued human rights abuses on Manus and Naru and the ongoing colonial violence in Australia. The women who point out these injustices shouldn't be the ones villifed.

Of course anger is not the only tool to combat oppression, but it is a useful one. When you tone police, you are dictating terms and diminishing a person's right to be heard. It's not engaging in a conversation, it's preventing it. So when women are told to calm down when they're angry and still ignored when they don't, then it maybe it's that you don't want to listen to women's voices at all.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

 

 

Main image: FuzzMartin/Getty

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, anger, Serena Williams, feminism, Van Badham, Steve Price

 

 

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Existing comments

Excellent article Neve and I can especially relate to the opening paragraph. When a woman is angry and then belittled because she is exhibiting 'inappropriate' behaviour it's very hurtful and humiliating. Anger is very appropriate in many situations, both for men and women. The different reactions to that anger are powerful reinforcers of feminine oppression. It is especially dangerous for women in domestic turmoil situations. Women must keep articulating their pain and, yes, anger in public settings.
Pam | 04 October 2018


Many thanks for opening-up this important matter, Neve. Hoping your article elicits the good swag of varied responses it merits. As you say: when one becomes angry or encounters anger in another person it's often a sign that personally-significant issues have not been allowed to be discussed or have been buried or papered-over. Some of my relatives have a fatalistic view that calm and open discussion - for as long as it takes to get to the truth or arrive at a better consensus - is a waste of time. Maybe they think the anger they feel inside is mutual and it's better buried, so as to prevent war breaking out! Then, there is the type of anger that arises in people who're sleep-deprived or utterly exhausted or deeply grieving; or, in those affected by drugs or alcohol. These different anger-triggers can operate in combination. One factor to consider with your male example: from childhood, men are often conditioned to greatly fear their Mum's anger, especially when full-blown! So, as adults they may try everything to mollify angry females? Matthew has Jesus disapproving of anger (5:22); James also (1:20). Wade Watts (see Wikipedia) showed the power of the non-angry way.
Dr Marty Rice | 04 October 2018


One plausible explanation for Justice Kavanaugh's greater expression of anger than that of Christine Blasey Ford and that of Anita Hill is this: that their cases were concocted, whereas his is genuine.
HH | 04 October 2018


“When dealing with injustice, anger is often the rational response.” Aristotle would agree: “We praise a man who feels anger on the right grounds” and indeed those who don’t get angry when they ought “are considered foolish.” But in 2018, it seems that if you are a male falsely accused by a woman of vile sexual depredations, as was Brett Kavanaugh, your righteous anger becomes “rage” resulting from “privilege”. Before his nomination, Kavanaugh was admired and commended for his intelligence, his judiciousness and his impartiality. So when attacks on his legal credentials failed, Democrats resorted to character assassination. They had succeeded in 1987 when Ted Kennedy defamed Robert Bork, but failed in 1991 with Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual impropriety against Clarence Thomas, which he described as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault as a 17-year-old, exposing himself at a party, and participating in drugging and gang-raping women, all uncorroborated allegations that would make any innocent man angry. And now that all these allegations have fallen over, whether he is “innocent or guilty” doesn’t matter (Democrat, Cory Booker), because he’s tainted. As Alfred Dreyfus said “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”
Ross Howard | 05 October 2018


Regarding The Kavanaugh affair, has the eighth commandment also been dropped?
Joe | 05 October 2018


In response to HH and Ross H, the same comments about uncorroborated allegations and concocted cases (really?) could have been said about allegations against Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby when the claims about those two entertainers first became public. That doesn't mean the judge is guilty of anything, but the fact that more people are coming forward with claims about him surely warrants a deeper investigation before such an important legal position on the Supreme Court is confirmed. Don't discredit the claims simply because your boy is another conservative. Remember, he could be there for the next three or four decades so it is important to get it right.
Brett | 05 October 2018


I think you've got the bull by the horns Neve. Serena got angry during her loss to Osaka because she expected to win but eventually lost 6:2 6:4. She vented her frustrations on the umpire rather than accepting defeat graciously to a younger, fitter, better opponent on the day. Her anger was misdirected and detracted from Osaka's well deserved victory and spoiled the win for her maiden grand slam victory. It turned into a spectacle that was just about Serena's wounded pride and was nor pretty to watch.
Frank Armstrong | 05 October 2018


Over the past 50 years of work experience and active involvement with community and volunteer groups, I've learned that if persons go looking for new problems to rage about, then they'll generally have no trouble finding plenty of issues to satisfy their skills in maintaining that rage. "Tone policing" would appear to be a prime example of these types of issues which are definitely 'off the Richter scale' of so called politically correct standards and behaviour.
Chris Begley | 05 October 2018


Interesting dichotomy of opinions, Ross Howard, who states that now "all these allegations have fallen over". Not from where I stand. I've been watching all of this Kavanaugh process in detail, and as far as I'm concerned, nothing has been settled, one way or another. That's why I haven't made up my mind (emotionally?) and am waiting on the FBI report to shed some more light (if it's allowed to). So I'm not quite sure you and HH got a whole lot out of this article.
PaulM | 05 October 2018


I watched the Q&A clip you provided. There was no way Van Badham was hysterical, and in labelling her just anger as hysteria Steve was using the tried and true method of dealing with women's anger. I think I became aware of this technique fifty years ago, when it was a favourite observation of old-style feminists like Germaine Greer. However, anger focussed and controlled, as Van's was, is not the same as very emotional and uncontrolled anger. Specifically, the former has a definite use in rational conversation. The latter's usefulness is not in public debate, but in personal expression and 'venting'. I once saw Greg Sheridan in debate on Q&A with a woman who suddenly leaped up and began screaming over the top of him, saying he had no right to speak, how dared he etc. Sheridan had no need to label her as anything. He'd won his point because she'd let restraint fly out of the window along with any respect for the normal rules of civil engagement. I don't know whether Sheridan really won the match, but he didn't need to - she lost it herself. (Sorry I can't find the clip to post).
Joan Seymour | 05 October 2018


"Don't discredit the claims simply because your boy is another conservative." True, Brett. But neither should the claims (so far uncorroborated) be credited simply because Kavanaugh be seen to be a threat to Roe. Despite his considerable acumen, he is not - and that's unfortunate given the risible standard of argument in Roe. The only reason I would vote for him is because other candidates are more likely not to reverse Roe. Amy Barrett excepted ... but what chance would she have anyway, given that at the age of two she might have fought over a toy shovel with a baby of colour in the kindergarten sandpit?
HH | 08 October 2018


HH, dare I say your Roe is a red herring? I don’t particularly like the Judge’s conservative reputation but that isn’t the issue. It is the pattern of the accusations that came out against him – you say unsubstantiated so far, but worth investigating regardless of whom they refer to. It’s not a left-right issue, nor should the claims be trivialized by comparing them to babies in a sand pit. It actually is a serious matter. If comparable claims were made against a US version of Justice Michael Kirby for instance, I would still say an investigation is necessary. Would you still say they were concocted and think the anger was unjustified? Maybe it’s too late now Judge Kavanaugh has been confirmed on the Supreme Court. And just on your view of Kavanaugh’s approach to Roe, thanks for your opinion that he’s okay because he’s probably the most reactionary of the bunch, but I won’t take that as a guide to the Judge’s future decisions.
Brett | 15 October 2018


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