Women are subject to behavioural expectations. If we don’t hold our anger, we’re viewed as “hysterical” or “out of control”, not worthy of what we seek. Serena Williams is merely the latest example of it.
Uma Thurman staring straight down the barrel of the camera and – through gritted teeth – refusing to talk about her treatment at the hands of directors and producers until she had overcome her fury. It took her from October 2017 to February 2018 to tell her story, so intense was her rage.
Hillary Clinton internally debating whether or not she should turn and confront a looming Donald Trump as he pulled a cartoonish alpha-male stunt and stalked her menacingly during a Presidential debate. As she later revealed in her book What Happened, she contemplated turning around and telling Trump to “Back off, you creep” but decided against it. She worried later that by ignoring his behaviour she had appeared weak, yet she also knew that any display of anger on her part – however legitimate – would be perceived as “shrill”, “strident” and out of control.
Clinton and Thurman disciplined themselves to repress their anger and stay as calm as they were able, at least outwardly. This is the most common reaction of women in the public eye. They know that their anger will not be judged as indulgently as that displayed by men.
Contrast that with Serena Williams throwing all caution to the wind in the women’s final of the US Open and letting her fury about what she saw as unfair and biased treatment rip at umpire Carlos Ramos. The worldwide reaction to her lack of restraint has brought a storm of judgement down on her head, including a racist and insulting cartoon, created, to our shame, in Australia.
— Slate (@Slate) September 12, 2018
So does this then prove that Clinton and Thurman were right to swallow their rage and maintain an iron control? Both have since expressed their feelings publicly, both in print and in person, but have managed to maintain a distance between their anger in the moment and how they express it now. This is ladylike, if you value such definitions, but has it been effective? After all, Clinton lost the election and the whole world is now forced to reckon with a tantrum-throwing buffoon with his unpredictable fingers on the nuclear button. And the #MeToo movement that first triggered Thurman’s icily controlled response has been effective precisely because it has been fuelled by long-repressed female anger.
The problem is that anger is a legitimate human emotion. Its purpose is to defend us against those who we perceive to be in some way a threat. Thurman was very directly threatened by her lack of power on film sets, despite her fame. Persuaded against her better judgment to perform a stunt in a car for the sake of a shot, she was almost killed. She had every right to feel furious in response yet she did not feel she had permission to express her fury until she had defused it. Clinton was existentially threatened by the bullying physicality of Trump. He wanted to viscerally demonstrate that she was literally not “big” enough to be president. She knew what he was doing but a lifetime of being trained not to respond in the moment kept her silent. He therefore proved his point.
Williams felt threatened by Umpire Ramos. He had the power to make her lose the match and miss out on equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams. But I suspect her fury was to do with more than that. Like Thurman and Clinton – and every woman alive on the planet – she has had a lifetime of being discouraged from expressing her anger. But, unlike Thurman and Clinton, Williams lives with an added degree of difficulty. She is a black woman and while we are censorious about all female anger, we are positively brutal in response to angry black women.
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It is to Williams’ credit that she ripped apart the thick and sticky veil that we insist on throwing over female responses to the different way they are judged and treated. Whether she was right or wrong for yelling at the umpire, protesting his decisions, destroying her racket or refusing to back down in terms of the rules of tennis is not, to me, the issue here. It is that she allowed herself to express what she felt the minute she felt it.
Because we will only have true freedom for women and true equality between the sexes when women have the same leeway to express their negative emotions and, yes, behave badly when in the grip of them, as men currently do. Until that time, we simply cannot judge a woman’s angry behaviour in the same way we do a man’s. She has had a lifetime of her experiences and emotions being dismissed and not being taken seriously.
Frankly, that’s enough to make anyone want to smash a million tennis rackets.