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On Female Rage: Does the Wallpaper Look Yellow to Anyone Else?

Women continue to see their emotions invalidated and undermined in modern society.
Women continue to see their emotions invalidated and undermined in modern society. By Angel Zhang
By Angelina X. Ng, Crimson Staff Writer

In the middle of singing “All-American Bitch” on the Guts World Tour in Dallas, Texas, Olivia Rodrigo pauses.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” she says. “When the lights go off, you have to think about something, or someone, that really pisses you off, and you’re going to scream your heart out about it.” The audience cheers as she sings, “I scream inside to deal with it, like,” the lights are cut, and the arena is filled with the incoherent screeching of her mostly female audience.

It’s a cathartic moment, one fit for a song about the stifling — and often contradictory — expectations of being a woman. Rodrigo is just one singer in a new wave of female artists who have fully embraced the rise of female rage, a trend that can also be traced to the recent resurgence of female-fronted pop punk that was popular in the 2000s — perhaps most tellingly in the fact that Paramore and Avril Lavigne, pioneers who helped shape the sound, have both released pop-punk albums in the past two years to critical acclaim.

Female rage is freeing: The ugly feelings that women experience are more readily accepted and embraced. One could, if they were so inclined, read into the different ways in which the likes of “Misery Business” and “Better than Revenge” were received — with both Paramore and Taylor Swift respectively being slammed for being anti-feminist — in contrast to Reneé Rapp’s recent hit “Poison Poison,” with the lyric “I hate you and your guts / I think you should shut the fuck up and die” going viral on social media. Female rage, it seems, is here to stay, and it points to a larger trend at hand — that of women expressing themselves, unafraid of being vulnerable and emotional.

It would be impossible to properly account for the phenomenon of female rage without looking into the history of emotions. Women have historically been perceived as more emotionally volatile than men, a perspective cemented by the coding of hysteria as a feminine disease since the 18th century. In other words, a woman acting erratically — that is to say, showing any form of extreme emotion — was seen as hysterical and out of control.

In “The Psychiatric Persuasion: Knowledge, Gender and Power in Modern America,” Elizabeth Lunbeck writes, “The ‘aristocrat’ of functional disorders, it was, until the war, almost entirely associated with women — patently unreliable women whom many accused of lying and simulating.”

The discrediting of women’s feelings is further corroborated in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 19th-century short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which lays out, in moving and horrific detail, the appalling ways in which apparently “hysterical” women were treated. The female narrator is diagnosed as having a “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency,” prompting her husband to confine her to a room with no contact with the external world until she is deemed healthy, calm, and rational.

Though hysteria was officially declassified as a disorder in 1980, women continue to see their emotions invalidated and undermined in modern society. Studies have shown, again and again, how women who express anger or excessive emotion in the workplace are castigated as abrasive or difficult, even as men are rewarded and praised as leaders for the very same behavior.

In the literary world, “Women’s Fiction” is its own genre in many bookstores, consisting of books that are promoted solely to women. The shelves of “Women’s Fiction” are filled with books characterized as frivolous or sappy — in other words, books that are deemed unserious. In the meantime, men are presented with the de facto category of Literary Fiction: novels that are generally perceived as serious, thoughtful, and all in all, of more literary merit than the emotional baggage which “Women’s Fiction” carries.

Women just can’t seem to win. Their emotions are, paradoxically, exaggerated or trivialized, often at the same time. The fetishization of female suffering in Hollywood is a conversation that has gained new momentum after the release of the 2022 biopic “Blonde,” where Marilyn Monroe’s life is fictionalized and sensationalized in service of entertainment: Critic Justin Chang slammed the movie for treating Monroe as “an avatar of suffering.” “Sad girl indie” is arguably the aestheticization of female suffering and melancholia, an excavation into the confessions of the female psyche and a modern-day take on the age-old archetype of the tortured artist. Even as society dismisses women’s emotions as trivial and frivolous, there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in gazing at the turmoil and trauma that women go through. Picasso once told his lover that “women are machines for suffering,” and indeed, he was part of a long artistic tradition of romanticizing the woman in pain.

Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist writer and activist, suggests that female hysteria, pain, and rage are all intertwined.

“That dynamic,” she writes in an article for The Guardian, “that we accept that women’s suffering as an immutable fact – like the weather – that we cannot control but can only predict, is the very thing that makes women seem hysterical and overreacting when we speak up about it.”

Because female suffering is normalized, any complaints of feeling anything other than contentment are seen as overreactions.

Female rage, then, is about women validating the experience of their pain and feelings. Now, women are harnessing and reclaiming the label of the hysterical female. Yes, the modern woman says, we are in pain, we have big feelings, we are angry, and we’re going to be loud about it. In today’s era, women can be hysterical, and it’s completely understandable — have you seen everything the modern woman has to endure?

Female rage is not just about the absurd injustices that women are subjected to: It’s also palpable as women portray the agonies of simply existing in a female body. Social media has led to the viral popularity of books and media centered around imperfect female protagonists navigating modern life with a fair bit of anger and bitterness, from Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” to Mona Awad’s “Bunny,” among countless others.

Madeline Miller’s “Circe,” another BookTok darling, is part of a larger trend of feminist retellings of classical heroines (and even villainesses) in contemporary art. Take, for instance, Harvard Classical Club’s recent production of “Medea: The Musical,” which recenters Medea, the murderous sorceress whom Jason must overcome, as a sympathetic and rightfully enraged character. And in real life, too, women are speaking up about the ways which they’ve been exploited and made to feel lesser than. From movements like #MeToo and #FreeBritney, to memoirs such as Constance Wu’s “Making a Scene” and Emily Ratajkowski’s “My Body,” women are making their voices heard.

Ultimately, all of this points to a simple fact: Women have feelings, and expressing these feelings is completely okay. It’s a shockingly uncomplicated notion, but an earthshaking one in the context of societies that have policed and trivialized the feelings of women. Female rage, with the palpable angst and anger of women in music, literature, and theater, is part of this equation — but it’s also important not to overlook the joy that is intrinsic in being a woman.

Many have termed 2023 “The Year of the Girl,” with phrases like “girl math” and “girl dinner” proliferating online, and women breaking records in the box office and on tour — and that was just the beginning. Women are reclaiming what it is to be a woman and celebrating the female experience, with all the ugly and beautiful facets that being a woman entails. And it’s about time.

—Staff writer Angelina X. Ng can be reached at angelina.ng@thecrimson.com.

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