In popular culture, as in life, race, class, and gender play an inextricable role in the way people express rage—and how society values it.
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In addition to the reckoning that has to come for our inept healthcare system, broken education system and disastrous political leaders, the coronavirus pandemic has also shined a light on problems boiling closer to home: women’s’ long-simmering anger and rage—and which of us are entitled to it.
There’s the increased scrutiny of mom rage. And endless stories about workplace inequality and minimal childcare options. Our collective frustrations have been a talking point for The New York Times’ The Daily podcast. Taylor Swift even has a song on her new album, Folklore, entitled, ‘Mad Woman,” and Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is the artist’s reckoning with the pain, judgment, and abuse she’s faced her entire life.
Not all of this ire is warranted or wanted. There are also the women whose anger is so unjustifiable and ridiculous that it’s like they’re asking to be viral sensations. The so-called “Karens,” like Amy Cooper in Central Park, who falsified a 911 call against bird-watcher Christian Cooper. Or the woman who waited patiently in line to get into Trader Joe’s only to throw a carefully orchestrated tantrum over having to wear a face mask once inside. They yell expletives and spit or cough at the store employees who put their lives on the line so that these shoppers can have coffee and toilet paper. One woman in Australia allegedly smashed a police officer’s head into the sidewalk when told she had to wear a mask.
There have been arguments that laughing at these tantrum throwers is counterproductive and sexist; that women mocking other women’s’ frustrations only makes it easier for men to belittle all of us. But it’s noteworthy that most of the people who star in the videos that go viral are white women.
But where did they learn how to get these kinds of reactions? In Hollywood, where issues of equality and racial representation are still far from resolved, we see a reflection of who gets the privilege to rage out, and how race and gender play a role in how that rage is expressed. Ragey women are a constant of Peak TV thanks to shows like Netflix’s Jessica Jones and Dead To Me, AMC’s Dietland, and HBO’s Sharp Objects. All of these examples are on prestige streaming or cable channels — programming often thought to be catering to the liberal, educated, and elite — and happen to be spearheaded by women; the last two of which specifically by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Marti Noxon. And they have resulted in more trend stories s than we have space to link to here.
Most of the time, perhaps because they’re based on pre-existing material or simply due to the lack of diversity in Hollywood, these characters who get to embody rage, are played by white actresses. It’s so rare to see a deviation from the norm that it’s no wonder that they elicit a string of personal essays when they are released (see this one from the writer Elisabeth Sherman on the Mindy Kaling-co-created teen dramedy Never Have I Ever and how it allows “angry Asian girls [to] find a voice”).
So I began to wonder: What have we been taught to believe women’s rage looks like? And are there dividing lines along race, class, and identity?
Kristen Warner, an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences and a critical race theorist who studies representation in Hollywood, points out that, traditionally, Black women specifically are “not allowed the same rage” on TV as their white co-stars.
Warner, who is Black, says that there are labels forced onto all women where we “can be either hysterical or read as masculine or overly reasonable” and that “there are still binaries, even with white women.” However, white women are “still allowed a bit more room than Black women. Because the minute that we hit a cylinder of voice that is higher than a normal talking voice, it is assumed that we are angry. Something triggers, and we are not allowed to be read in our body.”
She looks at characters from shows under mega-producer Shonda Rhimes’ umbrella. Although Kerry Washington’s lead Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal was based loosely on the life of crisis management expert Judy Smith, Warner argues that “in order to be sellable to a mainstream audience on a primetime show … she needs to sort of be like a white girl dipped in chocolate.” And yet, despite this, “her rage is always stymied” and “she’s never allowed to punch up” when audiences watched, episode after episode, as Olivia bit her tongue when she was berated by her frequent romantic adversary, Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant.
Conversely, Warner looks at Viola Davis’ cunning law professor Annalise Keating on the network’s How to Get Away with Murder. Davis has said that her character “was not written for an African-American specifically” and that executives went out to white actresses like Diane Lane and Jennifer Connelly before asking Davis to do a screen test.
“Viola took the part and did what I think is this really interesting, reverse colorblind casting [because] she made a character who was written for a white woman into a Black woman very strategically over the course of a number of seasons,” Warner says. “But even with that, it took Viola having to figure out … how the Blackness of the character could emerge … but also sort of figure out that middle space between what is an acceptable portrayal of rage from this badass lawyer person who I imagine myself to be and what then hits too much on the distortion of Black women’s rage.”
This isn’t something that’s only on the minds of actors.
“I don’t get to see a lot of expressions of anger when it comes to women, in general,” says playwright and TV creator Katori Hall, whose new Starz series P-Valley is set amongst the strip clubs in the Mississippi Delta and has a predominately Black cast. However, “when it comes to Black women, [there is a] stereotype that we are always walking around, rolling our necks, rolling our eyes, and yelling all the time.”
Hall, whose TV series has shown Black women taking out aggression on each other, says that “as a Black content creator, you sometimes feel it’s your responsibility not to perpetuate that common stereotype about Black women. But, I’m the type of writer who writes from the place of truth.”
“If a character is going on a journey, and there needs to be an extreme expression of anger and rage, then I try not to think about the stereotype,” she continues. Instead, “I try to make sure that there’s a good reason why this person has to articulate their anger in a way that is akin to rage.”
Unfortunately, Hall says that “I do think that oftentimes women’s’ rage is played like a joke” in that “it can be used as a way to punctuate a scene but not really get to who she is as a character or to allow you to understand and create empathy for that particular character.” Conversely, she says, “the system allows men to get away with vengeful acts.”
While there are outliers such as USA’s recent Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, which is based on a true story of a divorcee who shot and killed her ex and his new wife, male TV characters are usually the ones whose anger results in busted knuckles or some extreme act of homicide. Female TV characters’ vengeance is traditionally enacted upon things.
CBS All Access’ The Good Fight – a show that happens to be one of the best documentations of modern, educated women’s frustrations — has one of the most cathartic opening credit sequences of our time. It showcases imploding or smashed designer handbags, flat-screen TVs, a grand piano, and other symbols of wealth and prosperity. It’s meant to symbolize the destruction of the life Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart had planned for herself as the catalyst to the series, but it also suggests the ways that she and other characters disrupt the patriarchy. Shows like Hulu’s Shrill and Little Fires Everywhere and Apple TV+’s Dickinson have shown middle to upper-class (white) women destroying property during episodes.
For Little Fires, creator Liz Tigelaar says the goal of her miniseries was to differentiate between the lives of her two leads: Reese Witherspoon’s upper crust domestic goddess, Elena Richardson, and Mia Warren, a working-class single mom played by Scandal’s Washington. In a flashback episode, Elena – who is here played by AnnaSophia Robb – is frustrated by the pressures of raising four young kids and takes it out on her dinnerware.
“The breaking of the dishes was wanting to destroy these things that were all part of this prison Elena’s living in,” Tigelaar says. “And as the series continues, we see these symbolic things get destroyed – the family Christmas card gets sliced, and the bedrooms that Elena has carefully curated for each child burned. And, in the end, the whole house does.”
Throughout the limited series, which aired earlier this year, Tigelaar says you’d see Witherspoon’s Elena get “put into the hysterical woman category” as she increasingly grows to distrust Washington’s Mia.
This is in contrast to her nemesis.
“Mia may have had secrets, but unlike Elena, she was honest about her emotions,” Tigelaar says. “If she didn’t want to do something, she said so. If she thought something, she said it. Her life wasn’t in service of making others – especially white people – feel comfortable.”
Tigelaar says she and the other writers discussed that “Mia could be misperceived and even stereotyped as ‘angry,’ when, really, she was just setting a boundary and saying the truth.”
“I think there’s a discomfort with a woman who’s not making it okay,” Tigelaar says. “But why should she? It wasn’t okay.”
Still, Gloria Calderon Kellett, the co-showrunner for Pop’s One Day at a Time — a comedy series about a multi-generational Cuban American family — argues that this all might be a move in the right direction. Although she makes a point of having her lead, Justina Machado’s nurse, Penelope, dressed in scrubs not to hide her body as much as to make a point of “purposefully, and with great intention, subvert the stereotype” of the “over-sexualized Latina on TV,” she also says that because of the natural white supremacy and patriarchy of the country, I think we are just in a moment where women got allowed to speak.”
Things like dish-throwing and vandalizing property? “It’s white women first,” she laughs.
“I feel like we’re in a moment where, finally, there are white women on television that are allowed to be not perfect because for … most of TV, it was men who got to behave badly and the women were the perfect wives and the perfect mothers,” Calderon Kellett says. “We’re finally getting a moment where women are allowed to be that on television and, hopefully, network TV will get with it.”
University of Alabama’s Warner says it’s also important to look at the way reality TV has impacted the stereotype of the angry Black woman; performers she says who are “immediately dismissed” as “bad representations” because “we look like all we do is fight” so “we must castigate” them. When asked her thoughts on daytime tabloid shows like Jerry Springer or Maury, Hall reminds us that on these sensational shows, “rage was inextricably linked to class.”
“Unfortunately they just perpetuated this stereotype of poor people,” she says. “Whether you were Black or white or Asian or whatever, you happen to use your fists to acquire justice.” In reality, Hall says, most lower-class people are not starting fights with each other “because they’re too busy surviving or they’re too busy working.”
And Calderon Kellett says that, while she cannot speak for every woman of color — especially since she describes herself as a “white-passing Latina” — “I certainly feel like women of color are are always in some state of rage because of the extra labor that they have to do” and that “to walk around constantly angry at that level is exhausting.”
“I’m curious to see if, on the other side of this moment, we will have the same sort of keyboard courage and courage of speaking out that we do right now,” Calderon Kellett says. “I think it is moving the needle, in terms of allowing other people to finally get an insight into the experiences that people of color — specifically the Black community — has been having for hundreds of years in this country. And, to a lesser extent, other minorities that are trying very hard to be seen.”
We are definitely in a time where we all have the right to be angry. But it’s also a time to remember that some of the people who have the most reason to scream aren’t the ones we see doing it.
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