The Power We're Denied
Robyn Frost is a Creative from London. With a design eye and a thing for words, she does both art and copy in a team – because she has more fun that way.
As a born and bred Brit, Robyn has strong opinions on everything. She’s a firm believer that you can effect change at any stage in your career – so her words are just as likely to be found in Campaign opinion pieces, Forbes and Buzzfeed as they are in ads. She’s spoken at various industry events such as the D&AD Festival, and was most recently recognized as one of Pitch Magazine’s 100 Superwomen.
SPEAKERS: Kat Gordon, Founder, 3% Conference - Soraya Chemaly, Author, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger
For every paragraph that appears in this piece, there are approximately three others that didn’t make the cut. Three I backspaced on – not because they’re not good, but because underneath every considered word, every crafted line, and every expression of tone, there’s a layer of truth which is ‘too much.’ Too much for the internet; for the workplace; for society. Is it ridiculous that I’m writing about rage and expression, yet I’m tempering my temper?
We’re going to talk about Soraya Chemaly and her book ‘Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger,’ which she and Kat Gordon discussed at this year’s 3% Conference. No matter how ‘progressive’ or ‘inclusive’ we perceive ourselves to be, Chemaly says that female anger, particularly at work, is still seen as ‘a negative force to be avoided.’
To describe the talk as ‘emotional’ would be an understatement, as for the first time – I imagine for many of us – I was sat in a space where the majority embraced female rage rather than shushed it.
From an early age, we condition girls into believing that anger is negative. Sugar and spice and all things nice, right? (Wrong. Savory and sass and everything crass are underrated, in my opinion.) We’re socialized to smile, to please as well as ‘say please’ – using our nice voice – all the while being grateful and thankful. Hearing this triggered a distinct memory (one I didn’t realize I had) of being told ‘Why do you always have to challenge my authority? Why not just answer ‘yes, of course, Dad – whatever you say’?’ This was perhaps my first feeling of rage.
At its most basic level, anger is a signal – an emotional trigger that helps us recognize when we’re under threat. So, Chemaly asks, ‘Why would you teach girls the emotion of anger was not theirs, but the moral and philosophical property of men?’
Chemaly stressed the stark contrast in treatment and discipline between children in school. She emphasized, ‘If you’re a black girl you’re considered belligerent from day one.’ The penalizing of Serena Williams at the US Open for challenging an umpire then breaking her racket is just one example of many, of how varied the rule book can be. Post-match, Williams demonstrated an exquisite awareness of the language applied to her and the actions taken around her, not only as a woman who showed rage but a woman of color who showed rage. Meanwhile, back at school, white boys who show anger are supposedly destined to be our passionate future leaders.
We grow up. That nice voice we’ve been honing since childhood likely becomes the tone we take to mask our ‘masculine’ anger and appear likeable because being confident and assertive is seen as aggressive. ‘Straying’ from the norm and claiming an emotion that’s been coded as masculine means deviating from what has been seen for centuries as ‘good womanhood.’
Chemaly highlights a study which showed parents initially believing crying babies to be male, communicating upset and anger. The quiet babies were perceived to be female, communicating happiness, sweetness and light. Explains why so many people are horrified when they hear us speak up, right? Adults also attributed sadness to a crying baby they think is a girl, and anger to a crying baby they believe to be a boy. As such, we’re conditioned to believe that anger is masculine territory not to be violated by women, and why crying at work is assumed to be an expression of deep sadness rather than frustration.
She continues, ‘Anger isn’t negative. Anger isn't the problem. Social constructs and regulations yield negative outcomes.’ Think how much more we could achieve if we’re not wasting our time figuring out when to smile or phrase something a certain way to alleviate someone else’s tension.
The Patriarchal Legacy of Language
Testes. Testify. Testimony. Words all rooted in male biology. We can’t discount the legacy of language when looking at the impact of #MeToo and #NotOk. These words offer a space for outpourings of trauma and signs of hope for many, yet there’s a gaping difference in engagement between women and men. This isn’t an online exclusive though – put yourself in your office for a moment. How many guys are really up for talking openly about it?
In the Kavanaugh case, 68% of women believed Christine Blasey Ford while fewer than 35% of men believed her. Let’s imagine Ford had cried or become angry a la Kavanaugh – she’d have been slapped with our favorite labels ‘hysterical’ and ‘emotional.’ She’d have violated that masculine space. Chemaly describes anger as ‘memory and rage,’ and it’s worth noting that Ford had all of the former and was denied the latter, purely because she’s a woman.
Anger, and the women who express it, are often pushed into center stage – as opposed to the instigator of the anger. Let’s look at #MeToo – many women’s accounts are often doubted and challenged rather than believed. They’re faced with contempt because the stories inherently challenge the perceived truths we’ve been raised on, systems which have shaped both identities and perceptions of how women should be treated by those in power. The notion that [insert bro name here] the ‘good guy’ is not so good after all – and maybe ‘destroyed’ if a woman speaks up about her experience – is therefore unfathomable. And it’s a similar story when male victims of sexual harassment at the hands of women speak up.
While we must remember that ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t mean ‘men,’ we must recognize the systems and spaces that were designed by men, and for men, that are still in place today. Women’s contributions in perpetuating outdated practices and exclusionary environments are right up there with the guys who have been sitting pretty for years. So when it comes to calling things out, something we’re being encouraged to do more and more, it’s far easier said than done. We know that our anger is power. Hell – it’s strength, passion, and competency. But, as Chemaly continues, ‘it’s an intention and a purpose, and a risk and a threat.’ When it comes to the workplace, it’s often a challenge of the people at the top, and the values they hold true.
But think about it: the idea that expressing our anger and using our voices makes us ‘radical’ or ‘outspoken’ is pretty funny considering both are natural, instinctive human functions. In my opinion, it’s the space in which anger and voice are allowed to live and breathe that should be dubbed radical. Of all the workplaces that brand themselves as ‘different,’ the ones that have redesigned the system really have license to own this word. We know that dismantling and rebuilding aren’t just beneficial to women but to everyone.
And get this: men’s traditional performance of masculinity is a rage-generator for women.
We’re only two sections into this piece and I can feel my blood boiling. Let’s keep going.
All the Rage
Many women are acutely aware that if we say literally anything with confidence or assertiveness, we’ll be seen as aggressive. There’s a seemingly limitless number of penalties to women who speak up – and those penalties vary depending on what you look like. As well as being told to ‘fix’ our facial expressions for the comfort of those around us, Kat points out that women are frequently medicated for their emotions as if they are something that requires a fix. It’s a ‘pathologizing of anger,’ Soraya adds. Picture a workplace where we could actually say ‘Is there a reason you looked at all the blokes in the meeting but didn’t look at me?’ without wondering whether we’ll be slapped with an ‘overreacting,’ ‘exaggerating,’ or ‘hysterical’ ticket.
So how do we deal? Well, we can recognize the physical signs of anger and examine how it manifests which will address the capacity issue many of us face. When there’s a build up of anger we haven’t addressed and the crap keeps coming, we’ll need to examine it at some point. ‘Suppressing the anger isn’t healthy for anyone. What happens to your body, happens to you,’ Kat said to a sea of nodding heads. The internal ‘should I/shouldn’t I’ debate on whether to speak up or suppress is bloody exhausting. ‘Women don't cry at work because we’re sad – it actually comes from deep frustration.’ What would our workplaces and social spaces look like if we ungendered anger? Instead of fearing emotional expression will do damage, what if we considered the value it would add?
(Polite yet firm request: let’s not question people’s emotional expression. Don’t cajole them out of their true experiences. Thank u, next.)
Chemaly has devoted a whole chapter of her book to ‘anger competence,’ a ten-part toolkit for managing our anger constructively. Some might say it’ll make the perfect gift for those in your life that use emotion as a form of gaslighting.
Kat continues: ‘Can you talk to us about anger competence in the workplace?’
Soraya: ‘Well, I think for a lot of us anger in the workplace starts the moment we show up.’
Anger is Creativity
‘If we make media, and media normalizes, what can we do as media makers to rebrand anger?’
We’re in a remarkable position where we can use our creativity to impact the widespread perception of something that’s ingrained in societal norms. Win.
‘Angry people are more creative,’ Chemaly states.
We’re more creative because we come up with better solutions to problems – and more of them – and we’re better in brainstorms. Creative people sit their emotions at the surface, and that should be allowed at work. Therefore, we make your business BETTER (once more in caps for the leaders in the back).
Picture the Women’s March and all those glorious protest signs – angry, frustrated, passionate expressions of hope and visions of freedom. ‘It brings out the wit and humor,’ Soraya says. She encourages us to look at art and community organizations – connective, joyful, and fueled by anger. Although something may be born from rage, it doesn’t necessarily grow into it – often it ignites compassion, empathy, and creates and strengthens communities. So let’s apply this to our workplaces: finding other angry women (we’re fucking EVERYWHERE. Try shouting ‘not all men’ – we’ll come running); identifying movements and collectives for women; listening to each other; strategizing to change environments and create new ones; and finding role models. By finding and creating these communities at work, we can create the space to bring our anger, support each other, and get shit done more creatively.
Chemaly also emphasizes that while we want role models for girls, we need them for boys, too – specifically female role models. They need to emulate women to some degree and understand that anger is logical to the oppression we face as women.
‘In Anger, Whether You Like It or Not, There is Truth.’
As women, we’re being told more and more to build our personal brands, to speak up, to be confident, and to find our voice if we want to get ahead. There’s truth in this, but being visible equates to risk. We’re encouraged to be ‘strong women', but whose definition of strength are we working to? Is there a limit to how strong we really can be before it’s deemed ‘too much?' We’re not down to meekly get on with the job.
We need more than encouragement to just ‘be confident’ – more importantly, our employers need to know that with confidence comes anger, and with great work comes great emotion. If ‘balanced’ and ‘level-headed’ are often cited as desirable traits in employees, that surely means anger has to sit somewhere to balance the scales.
I think it ultimately comes down to our agency structures, where leaders are largely seen as responsible for creating spaces that value our voices and welcome our anger. But we need to work with each other to design these. If they can’t or won’t, rest assured we will.