Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Women's Anger Problem

There are dissertations devoted to the "angry young man" writer and his centrality to the culture. For artists, to be an "angry young man" is essential to becoming an important and respected trailblazer in the world of ideas. There is a value placed that sometimes borders on reverence for that anger as a forge for genius.

In men. Because it is mighty hard to imagine people standing around praising an "angry young woman" story about the injustices she experiences.  And the analogy is not quite right anyway.  Young men write their "angry" polemics because they are at the nadir of their social status and from there can see the unfairness, the small-mindedness, and the shallowness of the world (not to mention women) that gives them less respect than the older men with more experience and success get.  The young men may have the powers of mind and spirit equal to greatness, but the world can't see it and this makes them rightly angry.

Young women, on the other hand, find themselves at the apex of their social status and power. Their youth and beauty, their sexual desirability catapults them into a status equal to the older and more successful men.  They feel the status quo to be quite correct in valuing them.

An equivalent does exist, and could be called the "angry middle-aged woman." Through no fault of her own, a woman's status suddenly plummets.  But notice your own reaction to the idea of that woman venting in polemical terms.  Are you drawn to her rage or do you desire to distance yourself?  Even if you are yourself angry and middle-aged, as a woman you will probably shy from it, hoping to distance yourself from the rejection that follows expressions of female anger.

I have a theory.  It may not be patriarchy that makes us distance ourselves from female anger.  It may be biology that makes female anger problematic.  A mother's anger can threaten a baby's very survival. If that fear doesn't get processed in adults, then that anger will get rejected out of hand before it can trigger the infant fears.  Yet anger expressed is central to being a vital human.   If the culture through its narratives does not mediate this fear by presenting very adult female models allowed a full spectrum of feelings,  then the whole society will be weirdly skewed away from 3-dimensional depictions of women and leave men and women with deeply disfigured spirits.

Yet we crave stories that have some substance, some nutrition for our souls. In movies, scenes of female anger are often the cathartic apex of a chick flick.  From the bridal shower fight in Bridesmaids to the rooftop knockdown dragout in The Turning Point, there is something exultant about women finally letting it all out.  I think Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew survives not because Petrucchio "tames" Kate, but that their fights in the beginning are so much fun precisely because she doesn't give an inch and stands her ground.  Do you have a favorite fight scene between women or between a woman and man?

This is one of the areas where I think art needs to lead and not, as it does when it becomes part of the entertainment industry, pander to the existing narrative.  Profit is easier when the message is "you don't have to think, you don't have to change; all your current prejudices and unjust ideas are fine." Twinkies for the human spirit, not meat and potatoes. This is unfortunately all we are getting these days when our narrative arts have been handed over to the god of profit. If we can't find ways to re-invigorate the art of the narrative that strives for cultural healing and growth over corporate dividends, we will remain a people imprisoned by our infantile fears and desires, malnourished in our societal soul.

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