Early in my career, a male colleague, who was well-connected with the corporate ‘powers that be’, dropped by my office and casually mentioned that I would have a better chance for promotion if I curtailed my anger. As I mentally sifted through angry office incidents (mine as well at those of the men I worked with), I realized that the routine behaviour of my male peers, wasn’t considered appropriate for me. I was facing double standards without the benefit of a level playing field. It made me wonder why anger shown by men is not only accepted, it is believed to be an asset when accomplishing important tasks, yet when displayed by women, it seen as offensive and even repulsive. For men, anger was constructive but for me it was the deadly sin.
This intolerance and aversion to angry women was demonstrated in full force with the recent release of Hilary Clinton’s book, What Happened. Reviewers were offended with her overt frustration over the 2016 election and gave her their ultimate insult by labelling her angry. Clinton tells how she spent her entire career keeping her anger under wraps so as not to offend others. In fact, when the crowds at rallies would get worked up and start shouting, people assumed her male opponents would shout back at the crowd, but that she, as a woman, would remain cool and collected. Raising her voice could be perceived as anger and as a woman, that would be a political liability.
We are programmed to believe that women should be the support system, sitting prettily by as men use the full force of their personalities to achieve great things. Men are encouraged to become empowered by anger to find a solution but women are denied accessing this same incredible strength. Women are expected to smile and stifle their fury, even when they are the most maligned. To overcome this vexing inequity and give women the same opportunity to benefit from the ‘upside of anger’, there needs to be a shift toward becoming comfortable with women who rage.
Clinton’s book could help change attitudes by triggering important conversations about how anger is not only normal for women, suppressing it means they lose out on the power that comes with it. Another avenue to help change attitudes can be found in the world of film. Movies can help change our prejudice against women who rage by showing us more justifiably angry women protagonists on the silver screen. Watching them turn the power of anger into positive, constructive solutions will make it possible for everyday women to do it too, without reprisal.
One such film is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, which I attended recently at the Toronto International Film Festival. Francis McDormand plays a righteously angry mother (Mildred) who is seeking a culprit of her daughter’s brutal rape and death. After many months without an arrest, she focuses the attention of the local sheriff by asking ‘why’ on three billboards. As would be true in real life, people view Mildred’s anger as offensive and objectionable. She breaks the mold by constructively channeling her anger rather than sitting idly by, biting her tongue and churning internally.
The film was dark, yet as I looked around me in the theater, other audience members did not seem to rear back at Mildred’s anger, instead they were with her every step of the way. In fact, I could tell by their facial expressions that their admiration grew with each bold new move motivated by her increasing fury. Typically, a script would call for a man to experience an injustice, get angry and take a strong stand so we have come to believe that is how the world should be. One such character was Chris Vaughn in the movie Walking Tall. Vaughn after returning to his Tennessee hometown, gets angry over the crime and corruption that have taken hold, and decides to single-handedly clean up the town.
The unequal presence of women in movies hasn’t changed since the birth of the industry according to new data released by the British Film Institute. Women account for only 30 percent cast in British feature films whether in the silent era or modern day productions.
Furthermore, females are portrayed as the calm supporters of the angry men who channel their rage to accomplish great things. It is time to change that as Mildred proved that it doesn’t matter whether this role was played by a man or a woman. She was worthy of the challenge and used her anger as a way of communicating injustice and in the process found power and strength. Women need to be granted this permission and it will come when we accept that anger is acceptable for women as well as men. There is an upside to anger but until we give our female politicians and executives the freedom to express it they will continue to be disadvantaged. Let’s begin the transformative conversations to get us there.