In the midst of male anger exploding all over the landscape—Devin Kelley’s shooting spree, countless male celebrities victimizing women, white nationalists marching through Charlottesville, the rise of the men’s rights movement—a solitary island of contained female fury has stood out. “I have learned that when I’ve spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself,” Uma Thurman recently told Access Hollywood, her response to the mounting Harvey Weinstein allegations in a clip that has since gone viral. “So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry.”
The video shows her seething beneath a porcelain surface, her anger palpable, barely controlled. It is this struggle that has made her soundbite a tidy hit, offering a timely symbol of the tension around female anger.
But we can’t forget who she is. Uma Thurman is a rich white celebrity—she can afford to get mad. Decades of research has shown that the intersectional status—that is, the gender, sexuality, race and class—of the person who expresses a particular emotion affects how we respond to it. This is particularly true for women of colour, even more so when it comes to anger… which is doubly infuriating considering they are more entitled to it than anyone. As Ellen Page wrote in a Facebook post about her experience with sexual abuse, “Let’s remember the epidemic of violence against women in our society disproportionately affects low income women, particularly women of color, trans and queer women and Indigenous women, who are silenced by their economic circumstances and profound mistrust of a justice system that acquits the guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence…”
*interesting* which kinds of women are praised for public anger. I’ve spent my whole career reassuring people this is just my face.
— stacy-marie ishmael (@s_m_i) November 8, 2017
As Trinidadian journalist Stacy-Marie Ishmael tweeted, the female expression of anger is a luxury in our culture. (Jane Fonda recently made a similar point about the public finally deciding to listen to Weinstein’s “famous and white” accusers.) Privileged women like Thurman are provided the space not only to express their anger without repercussion, but to have its nuances understood. But women who don’t fit the same criteria are dismissed for the very same behaviour.
For example, the trope of the Angry Black Woman, which has roots in a slavery-era stereotype, reduces the emotions of black women to caricature. Their fittingly rage-filled response to oppression was inverted by those in power, and presented instead as the cause of their circumstances. Popular culture was integral to this false narrative becoming further embedded in the public consciousness. The celebrated aggression of Sapphire, the character from American black-face sitcom Amos and Andy, which ran from the 1920s to the 1960s, helped legitimize a lasting, pre-emptive fear of black women—that they would unnecessarily explode at any moment—which continues to shape how black women’s individual emotions are registered.
We can connect across history Sapphire’s characterization and Maria Sharapova writing about tennis god Serena Williams’ “thick arms and legs” and “intimidating and strong” presence in her 2017 memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far. And congresswoman Maxine Waters, ESPN’s Jemele Hill and even Michelle Obama have all been similarly criticized for exercising strength and confronting oppression.
Our cultural perception of the outrage of sizzling! Spicy! Saucy! Latina women is not particularly positive either. Sofia Vergara, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Lopez have all been cast as variations on the hot-headed fireball. Again, broad caricatures of piquant temptresses in popular culture, such as Carmen Miranda, only confirmed the stereotype, eclipsing real Latinas’ collective experience. “When the gesticulating and raised voice and bright colors and verbal sprints into Spanish surface (in any incarnation),” wrote Sara Inés Calderón in Jezebel, “folks no longer have to preoccupy themselves with addressing your actual concerns, but simply have to ‘handle’ you until your ‘condition’ passes.”
Ditto the Dragon Lady, who is not so much handled as feared. This Asian stereotype, as foxy as she is evil, was created by cartoonist Milton Caniff in 1934 for his Terry and the Pirates strip. The original Dragon Lady was a cool calculating villainess who engaged in various criminal activities (and seduction) in order to secure her wealth. The character became even more indelible in the hands of actress Anna May Wong, and the moniker continues to be used to denigrate powerful Asian women—and overshadow the complex emotional experience of Asian women in general. “I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion,” Kill Bill star Lucy Lui said in 2013.
Of course, not all white women are as celebrated for their anger as Lui’s Kill Bill co-star. Low-income women of all races are often stereotyped as volatile, which means any instance of legitimate ire gets swept aside with the rest of the filth. Though the poor are rarely portrayed in the media, a study from 2001 notes that when they are it tends to be negative. Either they are lazy or stupid or careless or, as reality television would have us believe, aggressive. Yes, anger is more highly reported in low income communities, but there’s a reason for that, just as there is a reason for women of colour to be pissed (centuries of reasons, in fact).
All that to say, these women’s fury is twice as valid as that of a white celebrity worth several million dollars—not only are they subverting gender stereotypes, but stereotypes associated with their race and class as well. Praise them next time.
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