BY Megan Nolan in Opinion | 02 FEB 23
Featured in
Issue 232

The Functions of Female Rage

On the 50th anniversary of the Roe v Wade ruling, Megan Nolan analyses how women's anger has been fetishized in film and literature

BY Megan Nolan in Opinion | 02 FEB 23

For much of my childhood, I was acutely aware of the work that my mother had done in Ireland as a campaigner for women’s abortion and divorce rights. It exhausts me to speak about how women in Ireland were – and still are – not seen as people. In 2018, when the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution (banning abortion) was won by a landslide, she and I both felt a slackening, a wonderful release. My mother, who had spent most of her adult life being angry, deserved the reprieve. I thought that we were able to let go of that need for anger in 2018, but the last few years have disproven that notion. My best friend, who works with survivors of domestic violence, has told me about the ways in which the COVID-19 lockdowns forced women back into situations they were trying to leave. This January marks the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: the US Supreme Court ruling that constitutionalized abortion access. Seeing the vile regression in America with the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, my thoughts return to anger.

In the days before I began this essay, a journalist at Stylist magazine sent me a message asking for a comment to use in a piece she was working on about female rage. I explained that I had a conflict of interest, having already accepted a commission to write on the same topic, and we wished one another well. Later that week, my senses perhaps heightened to a zeitgeist of furious women I had thus far failed to notice, I saw a woman in my local bakery wearing a t-shirt that said: ‘Rude bitches change the world.’ She was buying a loaf of rye sourdough and an oat milk latte, and her manner was notably pleasant. Around the same time as these signs appeared in my life, the model and writer Emily Ratajkowski declared on TikTok the beginning of her ‘bitch era’. It’s easy for the pain of women to be fetishized, she argued, but what’s less easy is to fetishize our anger.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Hate like us), 1994, photographic silkscreen on plexi­glas, 1.4 × 1.4 m.

Courtesy: the artist and The Broad Art Foundation

Was this true, I wondered. Was female anger beyond fetish? For some reason, Ratajkowski’s proposed dichotomy of fetishizable pain and un-fetishizable anger brought to mind the James Mangold film Girl, Interrupted (1999). Despite finding it crass in almost all ways, I have watched Girl, Interrupted more than 20 times – initially as a green teenager, who earnestly found its story about a young woman’s time in a psychiatric hospital moving and affirming of my own depression, then repeatedly over the past ten years when in a particular mood. During one of the COVID-19 lockdowns, I watched it six times in the space of three months, always after drinking three or more glasses of wine and becoming irritated by the free-floating directionlessness of my negative feelings.

Stuck on my own, there was no person or situation to focus myself on as I usually would. Instead, I watched Susanna (Winona Ryder)’s eyes widen repeatedly and felt lulled by the picturesque but definitive sadness being performed – and the serious sadness ratified by institutions and medications that the film portrays. Lisa (Angelina Jolie) is the seething flipside to Susanna’s plaintive misery: a freewheeling, fuming mess whose chaotic bitchiness is life-affirming but also ugly and destructive. (Lisa’s casually barked barbs compel Daisy, played by Brittany Murphy, to commit suicide.) But Lisa’s anger is not unsexy. Oh, God: she is sexy, with her blunt fringe and her foul mouth! She is only rendered totally pathetic and abject when her anger has been robbed from her, and she is left with nothing but despair.

I don’t think female anger is any harder to fetishize and commodify than our sadness. I remember finding the launch of the SuicideGirls website in 2001 – devoted to pin-up photographs of models who looked like the hottest imaginable versions of goth girls from school, heavily tattooed with arched eyebrows – a curiously depressing phenomenon when I was a teenager and aesthetic gestures toward rebellion still held some meaning. At that point, still obsessed with conveying softness and vulnerability, I could not imagine even such limited forms of dissent as tattoos, unorthodox piercings, harshly coloured hair and makeup. When I saw women out in the world who looked a certain assertive way, I felt excited, curious and hopeful. (Even my mother’s comparatively moderate peroxide pixie cut inspired me.) When these women became flattened and part of a soft porn business empire like SuicideGirls, it was unsettling. How bad could these bad girls be if they were pleasing so many men? One of the iconic depictions of female rage this decade, Beyoncé smashing car windows in the vengeful music video for ‘Hold Up’ (2016), is also flawlessly beautiful, easy and fun to watch, which is neither surprising nor, particularly, a criticism, but does indicate that anger, when performed by a beautiful woman, is just as fetishizable as docility or sadness. The artist Pipilotti Rist, whose work Ever Is Over All (1997) bears a similarity to ‘Hold Up’, told the Los Angeles Times in 2021: ‘I only did the side windows because I couldn’t afford to replace the front windows.’

It has become a common thesis – one I have repeated or supported in my own writing – that female self-destruction is anger which doesn’t know how to express itself as such. Warped and forced back inwards, it implodes as an eating disorder, cutting, addiction, devastation. Certainly, cutting specifically was, for me, a way of easing some version of that same free-floating and agitated pain whose lack of surface was so maddening. It’s also true that expressing anger is, for a woman, to risk attracting actual material violence. Many of us assume well-practiced expressions of impassivity when being harassed, because shouting back, or even rolling our eyes, invites the possibility of physical escalation. It’s difficult to feel safe expressing anger, but it’s also unpleasant – not only for others to experience, but for the person feeling it. 

Beyoncé, ‘Hold Up’, 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd.

Few choose to be angry. The question is whether that choice is actual or notional. Having experienced the totality of a devastating breakup, for instance, I have learned to refuse to succumb to emotion. When breakups happen now, I distract myself manically, the pain disseminating through me and through time, unseen and unfelt. Likewise with anger, which seems to act as a confirmation that things are as terrible as they appear, and which must therefore be suppressed vigorously.

The fact that I have a choice at all, that sidestepping anger is possible for me, is obviously a signifier of the many advantages I was born into or have cultivated. That I am white, for one thing, and therefore don’t automatically have anger projected onto me for voicing disagreement or unhappiness. That I am physically unimposing. That I now have enough material resources to resolve most of the problems which arise in my life without having to rely on others. This last point is relevant because the time in my life when I felt the purest distilled anger was when I was forced to ask others for help and absolutely did not want to share my circumstances with them: when I needed an abortion.

I was both a sadder and angrier person then. The things that made me angry were mostly childish, like romantic rejection, and occasionally based in misogyny, the deprivation of my personhood or ownership of my body: sexual aggression, the denial of the abortion, criticism of my appearance intended to shame me for existing in public. There is something visceral about the anger around abortion rights which, for me, had to do with being forced to expose something so literally interior, to have to beg and wrangle with so many more people than I wished to discuss it with: one – a doctor who could perform an abortion. At that time in my life, I repeatedly watched Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), about a bullied teenage girl who develops supernatural powers. I was fixated on the horror Carrie (Sissy Spacek) feels when her menstrual blood – a mystery to her because she has never been told what it is – flows out from within the deepest part of herself for everyone to see, to judge, to scream at. I loved to watch the denouement, when she is humiliated at her prom then turns her power outward to destroy the school, her grotesque but beatific fury. Being forcibly exposed myself, when I had to involuntarily share the details of my pregnancy to obtain an abortion, was humiliating in a way which soured into real rage. But it was painful to feel that anger because it meant acknowledging that the world didn’t see me as a person who belonged to themselves. I didn’t want the anger because feeling it confirmed how valueless I was in the world. I set it aside.

Brian De Palma, Carrie, 1976, film still. Courtesy: MGM Med Licensing

I did this, too, with my anger at misogynist men. Somewhere along the line, as I got older, it began to feel laughable and absurd that men could consider me as inherently worse, more stupid, less worthy than them. I knew, still, that some of them felt that way but it seemed so ridiculous that I began to assume that men voicing misogyny, the ones in my sphere anyway, must be enacting some nifty irony or linguistic hyperbole for a purpose unclear to me, or were making fun of themselves. It was pleasant to assume this because it meant I no longer needed to feel angry or scared when I heard things which offended me. It’s a foolish mistake, I’ve learned, to presuppose a baseline of shared politics, even if the person is wearing an outfit that looks like yours or reads the same literary magazines as you do or sleeps with the same woman as you do.

There is a scene in David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart (1990) which captivated me when I saw it as a kid. Lula (a luminous Laura Dern), has been separated from her lover, Sailor (Nicolas Cage), by the interference of her possessive mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). We know that part of Marietta’s extreme hatred for Sailor, and rage at him for taking her daughter away, is that she made her own sexual advance toward him and was rebuffed. Having had her womanhood belittled, she can’t stand to lose its other iteration: her daughter. Lula is the most precious thing in the world to Marietta because, having lost some of her own sexual magnetism through age, she sees it in Lula still alive and active, and must keep it confined for herself.

In the scene which stuck with me, Marietta panics, entering a moment of psychosis where she compulsively draws red lipstick onto her face and body. Initially, the image seems to be moving in a familiar direction – we can imagine the same scene playing out of a woman applying her lipstick with a hand quivering with restrained emotion. But here she is fully grotesque and fully furious, first digging the lipstick into her wrists to mimic cutting them and then smearing it to totally cover her face so that she is simultaneously almost comical to look at and not – a disquieting image even in its absurdity. Underpinning the extremity of the anger at her loss of control over what she needs to control, are jarring girlish aesthetic flourishes, such as a pretty nightgown and a ribbon in her hair.

One reason I love rewatching Ladd in Wild at Heart is that her performance transcends the neat confines of the marketable angry women. It’s not an honourable anger. Contrary to Ratajkowski’s thesis, the past five years have been a boom time for selling the angry woman back to angry women, following the rise of the MeToo movement in 2017 and debates about women’s rights globally. A 2018 Bustle article by E. Ce Miller reads: ‘But now women are angry, and activated, and out in the open, and as intersectional as we’ve ever been – and we’re not apologizing. Not in the streets. Not at the polls. Not in our homes.’ A piece by Katie Lowe in The Guardian from the following year begins: ‘There’s a quiet rage, simmering and unspoken, among women – an anger that’s been encoded in our private conversations, the words we choose and looks we exchange; a language that only we know how to use.’ There is a sense now that female anger is something to strive toward – that its ostensible root in reacting to injustice makes it inherently noble.

Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman, 2020, film still. Courtesy: FilmNation 2022

The imposition of nobility on female anger doesn’t ring true to me. This is not to say that anger isn’t a political necessity, or useful. Audre Lorde’s brilliant, electrifying presentation on that subject, ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’ (1981), is testament to its political urgency. She introduced a way to consider women’s anger as something other than an ugly perversion, by describing its use for women who are Black or concerned with racial justice and solidarity as not only valid but a pressing need.

But anger isn’t and needn’t always be political or constructive or a tool. In his novel Fuccboi (2021), Sean Thor Conroe reflects on contemporary neoliberal feminism, which is characterized as reactionary and vacuous in its aggressive focus on careerism and power-grabbing: ‘Like, OK, yes – dudes have been shitty for all time; but so, what, now the move was to … out-shitty them? I don’t know, bro. Didn’t know whether that was the move. Whether that would provide long-term satisfaction, once that hit of reactionary “clapback” power wore off.’

I liked Fuccboi, and I’m interested in Conroe’s perspective on this, but why shouldn’t our anger be as unfocused and immoral as all of history has allowed men to have it? Maybe it’s not so schooled, maybe it’s not ‘good’. Maybe female rage isn’t something we can celebrate or think well of.

Making female rage into something easily consumable – as in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020), where the most the protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan) can hope for in seeking to avenge the rape of her best friend is agonizing death at the hands of a misogynist followed by the possibility of carceral justice – doesn’t sit right with me. There’s something about being told your anger is good because you’re being of use that seems to circle back to the original problem of women not being afforded the space to live without constant justification. I don’t want to have to be of use to be allowed to exist. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 232 with the headline ‘The Function of Anger’

Main image: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Busy...busy...busy), 1995, 2.3 × 3.7 m, photographic screen silk/vinyl. Courtesy: the artist and The Broad Art Foundation

Megan Nolan is an Irish author. Her essays, fiction and reviews have been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, The White Review and The Village Voice. Her debut novel, Acts of Desperation, was published in 2021 and a second novel, Ordinary Human Failings, will be published in June 2023.