On Anger and Internalized Sexism

I don’t want to think female readers of YA are uncomfortable with strong emotions like rage in stories about teenage girls. I don’t want to think that women are afraid of women with problems. I’d like to think that it’s because it’s easy to forget how hard it can be to be a teenage girl who’s suffering and who shows it.

I’d like to think that, but I’m not sure it’s true.

-Elizabeth Scott in this brilliant essay here on Stacked

I started reading a book last night which is very good and for the most part, I’m enjoying the read. Except for the anger. 

Necessary disclaimer: I’ve previously stated and often say that I am not someone who is comfortable with anger personally. 

The character is so angry. Like, burn up the pages of the book angry. SO ANGRY. And she has every right to be angry. It took a few chapters for me understand why, because we don’t learn the reason until a few chapters of stewing in this character’s mind that’s like rubbing salt in the wood, but once I did, I got it. I accepted her anger. I was able to let go of my hesitation about her anger and move on.

But my visceral, “I can’t read this, I can’t handle it, she’s too angry” reaction plus a short twitter discussion with one of my CPs today really turned the gears in my head. On top of that, I read the article quoted above when it was published and liked it, shared it, and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Okay, why does it bother me so much? Why is anger so hard for some of us? Why is it easier for us to label a character a selfish bitch than understand her anger? Why was my reaction so intense?

My next statement is going to be potentially controversial. If you’d rather think of me as someone who colors inside the lines, step away now.

I think we react this way to angry female characters because of internalized sexism.

We’re conditioned–and the we here is encompassing both sexes and all genders–to understand and know that girls aren’t supposed to be angry. Girls and anger is something that’s still foreign and strange for us. It’s uncomfortable because it breaks societal expectations for girls. It’s uncomfortable because regardless of whether it’s externalized anger (Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly’s Andi lashes OUT with her anger) or internalized anger (Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson’s Lia goes in with her anger), we have access to it as the reader

Every female person you encounter has experienced anger. “Irrational” or “rational” anger isn’t the point. It’s that we all experience anger. And we all cope with it differently. But socially, it’s less okay for a woman to externalize her anger. When we as readers experience anger along with the character, then it’s externalized by nature of point of view and reader experience. 

So the next time you think that a female character’s anger is irrational or over the top or WHATEVER, think about it for a minute. Think about whether you’d have the same reaction if the character was male. Probably not.

I checked myself with the book above and the truth was, no, I wouldn’t have been as put off by the anger if the character was male. I carried into the story my own judgments and internalized misogyny. We should all check in with ourselves. Internalized misogyny is real, and it’s present in most if not all of us. Acknowledging it is the first step toward correcting how we carry it as readers. 

For me, this is particularly relevant as I finished the outline for Five of Hearts and moved forward with beginning to write a character who is extroverted, female, angry, volatile, and selfish. She’s hard to sit with sometimes, but I think her story is important. She’s not likable all the time and I’m sure that people will think her anger’s overblown, but that’s okay. It’s legit. She’s not okay and it’s okay for her to not be okay.

Related links I think you should check out:

The Unlikable Female Protagonist on Stacked
I Love Unlikable, I Write Unlikable on Stacked

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2 thoughts on “On Anger and Internalized Sexism

  1. BlackPlague says:

    Something to consider.

    The culture that I am teaching within has no problem with women expressing anger. In fact, women are quicker to express their anger here then men. For them, it’s not only socially accepted, but expected, that women get angry.

    • Katie L says:

      I’m probably not the person to unpack that but I think there’s a strong STRONG racial component to expectations regarding gender and anger. It goes the other way too: internalized anger in black communities resulting in mental health issues is almost never talked about. There’s also scientific evidence that stress is inherited so there’s a collective aspect to anger as a concept in marginalized communities.

      How we address that in literature is hard for me to say, given the painful lack of representation.

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