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Burn It Down
Women Writing about Anger
Edited by Lilly Dancyger
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Throughout history, angry women have been called harpies, bitches, witches, and whores. They’ve been labeled hysterical, crazy, dangerous, delusional, bitter, jealous, irrational, emotional, dramatic, vindictive, petty, hormonal; they’ve been shunned, ignored, drugged, locked up, and killed; kept in line with laws and threats and violence, and with insidious, far-reaching lies about the very nature of what it means to be a woman—that a woman should aspire to be a lady, and that ladies don’t get angry.
Millennia of conditioning is hard to unlearn.
Even when asked specifically to write about their anger, many of the women in this book described it at first from a safe distance, explaining coolly and calmly what they were angry about. They were so accustomed to having to rationally justify any emotion they might feel, while making sure not to actually display that emotion, that even in a book about anger, a big part of the editing process was me saying, “It’s okay, get angry,” and pushing writers to put their anger on the page.
The more that happened, the more I realized that was what I really wanted this book to be, I wanted this to be a place where our anger could live, a place for us to take up space after generations of being told to shrink, to rage after a lifetime of being told to behave. I wanted these pages to sizzle and smoke with women’s awesome rage, no longer tucked away or extinguished, but right here on the surface—so get ready or get out of the way.
That meant something a little different for each writer. Essays in this collection explore the borders where anger meets other emotions: Erin Khar on when anger turns into guilt, Megan Stielstra on when fear turns into anger, and Marissa Korbel on when anger masquerades as sadness through involuntary rage tears. Others delve into the ways that anger intersects with identity, and how some women’s anger is seen as more socially acceptable than others’: Shaheen Pasha on the complicated anger of being a Muslim woman in America, Keah Brown on surviving the anger she’s felt at herself and her disability, Samantha Riedel on experiencing anger differently before and after gender transition, and Monet Patrice Thomas on the ways that Black women, especially, are not allowed to express anger. And many describe the ways that women, brilliant alchemists that they are, have found to turn their anger into whatever they need it to be—strength, motivation, protection, healing. Some of the essays in this collection rage like wildfire, some smolder like embers, some glow like heated metal, but they all radiate the heat of women bringing their anger out of hiding and into the open air.
There has been so much discussion recently of the power of women’s anger, how it can be harnessed as a political engine, how it’s been repressed for too long and is now going to erupt like a volcano and change the landscape of society for the better. And I’m as swept up in the revolutionary catharsis of our communal outpouring as the next girl, as ready to take a stand, to say “no more,” to say “fuck you,” and to say “me too.”
But amid all of this talk about women’s anger, as an idea, a force, a tool, I wanted to also look at that anger on its own terms, to give writers an opportunity to express and explore their anger, not as a means to an end but for its own sake. Our anger doesn’t have to be useful to deserve a voice. Just as women who are so often reduced to sexual objects or babymakers, caregivers, mothers, virgins, and whores, deserve to be considered as whole individuals on their own terms and for their own sakes, I wanted to give their anger space to exist solely for itself, without being packaged and used for someone else’s gain. That’s what this anthology is for.
There is so much to be angry about. I’m angry that we’re destroying the planet and dooming ourselves to an unlivable future; angry that profits are prioritized over human lives; angry that racism is such a huge and deadly part of nearly every aspect of society, but still so many refuse to see it; angry that violence against women constricts the edges of our lives until we’re crouched down seeking safety that doesn’t exist; and angry that willful ignorance and misinformation have taken over political discourse so that it feels impossible to convince so many people that any of this is a problem.
Every woman I know is angry.
But this anthology is not about the things that make us angry; it’s about us, and all the many ways we feel and live with our anger. There have been times in my life when my anger has made me small and hard and brittle, and there have been times when it’s made me expansive and unstoppable, like fire. There have been times when my anger was frantic, sharp like splinters, shattering out in every direction—like when I was a teenager grieving the loss of my father by raging at the world, getting drunk and high first thing in the morning, getting into fistfights on the street, stealing, vandalizing, dropping out of high school, and transforming myself into a scantily clad, malnourished middle finger flying in the face of anyone who crossed my path. But lately, my anger is deep and wide and steady, not as immediately visible under the surface of my put-together life, but just as present. Lately, my anger is a place inside myself that I breathe into to make myself larger, taking up space and making space for others, by refusing to let my boundaries be ignored, by standing up for women in trouble, by stoking the fires of the incredible writers in this collection and bringing their work, and their anger, into the world as a salve for all the other angry women out there.
This anthology is an invitation. It is twenty-two writers saying to you what I said to them: “It’s okay, get angry.” Come rage with us. Our collective silence-breaking will make us larger, expansive, like fire, ready to burn it all down.
Lungs Full of Burning
For years, I described myself as someone who wasn’t prone to anger. “I don’t get angry,” I said. “I get sad.” I believed this inclination was mainly about my personality—that sadness was a more natural emotion for me than anger, that I was somehow built this way. It’s easy to misunderstand the self as private, when it’s rarely private at all: it’s always a public artifact, never fixed, perpetually sculpted by social forces. In truth, I was proud to describe myself in terms of sadness rather than anger. Why? Sadness seemed more refined and more selfless—as if you were holding the pain inside yourself rather than making someone else deal with its blunt-force trauma.
But a few years ago, I started to get a knot in my gut at the canned cadences of my own refrain: I don’t get angry. I get sad. At the shrillest moments of our own self-declarations—I am X, I am not Y—we often hear in that tinny register another truth, lurking expectantly, and begin to realize there are things about ourselves we don’t yet know. By which I mean that at a certain point, I started to suspect I was angrier than I thought.
Of course it wasn’t anger when I was four years old and took a pair of scissors to my parents’ couch—wanting so badly to destroy something, whatever I could. Of course it wasn’t anger when I was sixteen and my boyfriend broke up with me, and I cut up the inside of my own ankle—wanting so badly to destroy something, whatever I could. Of course it wasn’t anger when I was thirty-four and fighting with my husband, when I screamed into a pillow after he left the house so our daughter wouldn’t hear, then threw my cellphone across the room and spent the next ten minutes searching for it under the bed, and finally found it in a small pile of cat vomit. Of course it wasn’t anger when, during a faculty meeting early in my teaching days, I distributed statistics about how many female students in our department had reported instances of sexual harassment the year before: more than half of them.
A faculty member grew indignant and insisted that most of those claims probably didn’t have any basis. I clenched my fists. I struggled to speak. It wasn’t that I could say for sure what had happened in each of those cases—of course I couldn’t, they were just anonymous numbers on the page—but their sheer volume seemed horrifying. It demanded attention. I honestly hadn’t expected that anyone would resist these numbers or force me to account for why it was important to look at them. The scrutiny of the room made me struggle for words just when I needed them most. It made me dig my nails into my palm. What was that emotion? It was not sadness. It was rage.
The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself, the figure of the angry woman reframed as threat—not the one who has been harmed, but the one bent on harming. She conjures a lineage of threatening archetypes: the harpy and her talons, the witch and her spells, the medusa and her writhing locks. The notion that female anger is unnatural or destructive is learned young; children report perceiving displays of anger as more acceptable from boys than from girls. According to a review of studies of gender and anger written in 2000 by Ann M. Kring, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, men and women self-report “anger episodes” with comparable degrees of frequency, but women report experiencing more shame and embarrassment in their aftermath. People are more likely to use words like “bitchy” and “hostile” to describe female anger, while male anger is more likely to be described as “strong.” Kring reported that men are more likely to express their anger by physically assaulting objects or verbally attacking other people, while women are more likely to cry when they get angry, as if their bodies are forcibly returning them to the appearance of the emotion—sadness—with which they are most commonly associated.
A 2016 study found that it took longer for people to correctly identify the gender of female faces displaying an angry expression, as if the emotion had wandered out of its natural habitat by finding its way to their features. A 1990 study conducted by the psychologists Ulf Dimberg and L. O. Lundquist found that when female faces are recognized as angry, their expressions are rated as more hostile than comparable expressions on the faces of men—as if their violation of social expectations had already made their anger seem more extreme, increasing its volume beyond what could be tolerated.
In What Happened, her account of the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton describes the pressure not to come across as angry during the course of her entire political career—“a lot of people recoil from an angry woman,” she writes—as well as her own desire not to be consumed by anger after she lost the race, “so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.” The specter of Dickens’s ranting spinster—spurned and embittered in her crumbling wedding dress, plotting her elaborate revenge—casts a long shadow over every woman who dares to get mad.
If an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily. She often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant. Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It’s as if the prospect of a woman’s anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.
Consider the red-carpet clip of Uma Thurman that went viral in November 2017 during the initial swell of sexual harassment accusations. The clip doesn’t actually show Thurman’s getting angry. It shows her very conspicuously refusing to get angry. After commending the Hollywood women who had spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault, she said that she was “waiting to feel less angry” before she spoke herself. It was curious that Thurman’s public declarations were lauded as a triumphant vision of female anger, because the clip offered precisely the version of female anger that we’ve long been socialized to produce and accept: not the spectacle of female anger unleashed, but the spectacle of female anger restrained, sharpened to a photogenic point. By withholding the specific story of whatever made her angry, Thurman made her anger itself the story—and the raw force of her struggle not to get angry on that red carpet summoned the force of her anger even more powerfully than its full explosion would have, just as the monster in a movie is most frightening when it only appears offscreen.
This was a question I considered quite frequently as the slew of news stories accrued that fall: How much female anger has been lurking offscreen? How much anger has been biding its time and biting its tongue, wary of being pathologized as hysteria or dismissed as paranoia? And what of my own vexed feelings about all this female anger? Why were they even vexed? It seemed a failure of moral sentiment or a betrayal of feminism, as if I were somehow siding with the patriarchy, or had internalized it so thoroughly I couldn’t even spot the edges of its toxic residue. I intuitively embraced and supported other women’s anger but struggled to claim my own. Some of this had to do with the ways I’d been lucky—I had experienced all kinds of gendered aggression, but nothing equivalent to the horror stories so many other women have lived through. But it also had to do with an abiding aversion to anger that still festered like rot inside me. In what I had always understood as self-awareness—I don’t get angry. I get sad—I came to see my complicity in the logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence.
For a long time, I was drawn to “sad lady” icons: the scribes and bards of loneliness and melancholy. As a certain kind of slightly morbid, slightly depressive, slightly self-intoxicated, deeply predictable, preemptively apologetic literary fan-girl, I loved Sylvia Plath. I was obsessed with her obsession with her own blood (“What a thrill… that red plush”) and drawn to her suffering silhouette: a woman abandoned by her cheating husband and ensnared by the gendered double standards of domesticity. I attached myself to the mantra of her autobiographical avatar Esther Greenwood, who lies in a bathtub in The Bell Jar, bleeding during a rehearsal of a suicide attempt, and later stands at a funeral listening “to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” Her attachment to pain—her own and others’—was also a declaration of identity. I wanted to get it tattooed on my arm.
Whenever I listened to my favorite female singers, it was easier for me to sing along to their sad lyrics than their angry ones. It was easier to play Ani DiFranco on repeat, crooning about heartbreak—“Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating / when you stopped calling me?”—than it was to hear her fury and her irritation at the ones who stayed sad and quiet in her shadow: “Some chick says / Thank you for saying all the things I never do / I say, you know / The thanks I get is to take all the shit for you.”
I kept returning to the early novels of Jean Rhys, whose wounded heroines flopped around dingy rented rooms in various European capitals, seeking solace from their heartbreak, staining cheap comforters with their wine. Sasha, the heroine of Good Morning, Midnight—the most famous of these early picaresques of pain—resolves to drink herself to death and manages, mainly, to cry her way across Paris. She cries at cafés, at bars, in her lousy hotel room. She cries at work. She cries in a fitting room. She cries on the street. She cries near the Seine. The closing scene of the novel is a scene of terrifying passivity: she lets a wraithlike man into her bed because she can’t summon the energy to stop him, as if she has finally lost touch with her willpower entirely. In life, Rhys was infamous for her sadness, what one friend called “her gramophone-needle-stuck-in-a-groove thing of going over and over miseries of one sort and another.” Even her biographer called her one of the greatest self-pity artists in the history of English fiction.
It took me years to understand how deeply I had misunderstood these women. I’d missed the rage that fueled Plath’s poetry like a ferocious gasoline, lifting her speakers (sometimes literally) into flight: “Now she is flying / More terrible than she ever was, red / Scar in the sky, red comet / Over the engine that killed her—the mausoleum, the wax house.” The speaker becomes a scar—this irrefutable evidence of her own pain—but this scar, in turn, becomes a comet: terrible and determined, soaring triumphant over the instruments of her own supposed destruction. I’d always been preoccupied with the pained disintegration of Plath’s speakers, but once I started looking, I saw the comet trails of their angry resurrections everywhere, delivering their unapologetic fantasies of retribution: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”
I’d loved Rhys for nearly a decade before I read her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre whose whole plot leads inexorably toward an act of destructive anger: the mad first wife of Mr. Rochester burns down the English country manor where she has been imprisoned in the attic for years. In this late masterpiece, the heroines of Rhys’s early novels—heartbroken, drunk, caught in complicated choreographies of passivity—are replaced by an angry woman with a torch, ready to use the master’s tools to destroy his house.
It wasn’t that these authors were writing exclusively about female anger rather than female sorrow; their writing holds both states of feeling. Wide Sargasso Sea excavates the deep veins of sadness running beneath an otherwise opaque act of angry destruction, and Plath’s poems are invested in articulating the complicated affective braids of bitterness, irony, anger, pride, and sorrow that others often misread as monolithic sadness. “They explain people like that by saying that their minds are in watertight compartments, but it never seemed so to me,” Rhys herself once wrote. “It’s all washing about, like the bilge in the hold of a ship.”
It has always been easier to shunt female sadness and female anger into the “watertight compartments” of opposing archetypes rather than acknowledge the ways they run together in the cargo hold of every female psyche. Near the end of the biopic I, Tonya, Tonya Harding’s character explains: “America, they want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.” The timing of the film’s release, in late 2017, seemed cosmically apt. It resurrected a definitional prototype of female anger—at least for many women like me, who came of age during the 1990s—at the precise moment that so many women were starting to get publicly, explicitly, unapologetically angry.
Harding was an object of fascination not just because of the soap opera she dangled before the public gaze—supposedly conspiring with her ex-husband and an associate to plan an attack on her rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan—but also because she and Kerrigan provided a yin and yang of primal female archetypes. As a vision of anger—uncouth and unrestrained, the woman everyone loved to hate, exploding at the judges when they didn’t give her the scores she felt she deserved—Harding was the perfect foil for the elegant suffering of Kerrigan, sobbing in her lacy white leotard. Together they were a duo impossible to turn away from: the sad girl and the mad girl. Wounded and wicked. Their binary segregated one vision of femininity we adored (rule-abiding, delicate, hurting) from another we despised (trashy, whiny, angry). Harding was strong; she was poor; she was pissed off; and eventually, in the narrative embraced by the public, she turned those feelings into violence. But I, Tonya illuminates what so little press coverage at the time paid attention to: the perfect storm of violence that produced Harding’s anger in the first place—her mother’s abuse and her husband’s. Which is to say: no woman’s anger is an island.
When the Harding and Kerrigan controversy swept the media, I was ten years old. Their story was imprinted onto me as a series of reductive but indelible brushstrokes: one woman shouting at the media, another woman weeping just beyond the ice rink. But after watching I, Tonya and realizing how much these two women had existed to me as ideas, rather than as women, I did what any reasonable person would do: I Googled “Tonya and Nancy” obsessively. I Googled: “Did Tonya ever apologize to Nancy?” I Googled: “Tonya Harding boxing career?” and discovered that it effectively began with her 2002 “Celebrity Boxing” match against Paula Jones—two women paid to perform the absurd caricatures of vengeful femininity the public had projected onto them, the woman who cried harassment versus the woman who bashed kneecaps.
In the documentaries I watched, I found Harding difficult to like. She comes off as a self-deluded liar with a robust victim complex, focused on her own misfortune to the exclusion of anyone else’s. But what does the fact that I found Harding “difficult to like” say about the kind of women I’m comfortable liking? Did I want the plotline to be that the woman who has survived her own hard life—abusive mother, abusive husband, enduring poverty—also emerges with a “likable” personality: a plucky spirit, a determined work ethic, and a graceful, self-effacing relationship to her own suffering?
The vision of Harding in I, Tonya is something close to the opposite of self-effacing. The film even includes a fantastical reenactment of the crime, which became popularly known as the “whack heard round the world,” in which Harding stands over Kerrigan’s cowering body, baton raised high above her head, striking her bloody knee until Harding turns back toward the camera—her face defiant and splattered with Kerrigan’s blood. Even though the attack was actually carried out by a hired hit man, this imagined scene distills the version of the story that America became obsessed with, in which one woman’s anger leaves another woman traumatized.
But America’s obsession with these two women wasn’t that simple. Another story rose up in opposition. In this shadow story, Harding wasn’t a monster but a victim, an underdog unfairly vilified, and Kerrigan was a crybaby who made too much of her pain. In a 2014 Deadspin essay, “Confessions of a Tonya Harding Apologist,” Lucy Madison wrote: “She represented the fulfillment of an adolescent revenge fantasy—my adolescent revenge fantasy, the one where the girl who doesn’t quite fit in manages to soar over everyone’s bullshit without giving up a fraction of her prerogative—and I could not have loved her more.” When Kerrigan crouched sobbing on the floor near the training rink, right after the attack (Newsweek described it as “the sound of one dream breaking”), she famously cried out: “Why? Why? Why?” But when Newsweek ran the story on its cover, it printed the quote as: “Why Me?” The single added word turned her shock into keening self-pity.
These two seemingly contradictory versions of Harding and Kerrigan—raging bitch and innocent victim, or bad-girl hero and whiny crybaby—offered the same cutout dolls dressed in different costumes. The entitled weeper was the unacceptable version of a stoic victim; the scrappy underdog was the acceptable version of a raging bitch. At first glance, they seemed like opposite stories, betraying our conflicted collective relationship to female anger—that it’s either heroic or uncontrollably destructive—and our love-hate relationship with victimhood itself: we love a victim to hurt for but grow irritated by one who hurts too much. Both stories, however, insisted upon the same segregation: A woman couldn’t hurt and be hurt at once. She could be either angry or sad. It was easier to outsource those emotions to the bodies of separate women than it was to acknowledge that they reside together in the body of every woman.
Ten years ago in Nicaragua, a man punched me in the face on a dark street. As I sat on a curb afterward—covered in my own blood, holding a cold bottle of beer against my broken nose—a cop asked me for a physical description of the man who had just mugged me. Maybe twenty minutes later, a police vehicle pulled up: a pickup truck outfitted with a barred cage in the back. There was a man in the cage.
“Is this him?” the cop asked. I shook my head, horrified, acutely aware of my own power—realizing, in that moment, that simply saying I was hurt could take away a stranger’s liberty. I was a white woman, a foreigner volunteering at a local school, and I felt ashamed of my own familiar silhouette: a vulnerable white woman crying danger at anonymous men lurking in the shadows. I felt scared and embarrassed to be scared. I felt embarrassed that everyone was making such a fuss. One thing I did not feel was anger.
That night, my sense of guilt—my shame at being someone deemed worthy of protection, and at the ways that protection might endanger others—effectively blocked my awareness of my own anger. It was as if my privilege outweighed my vulnerability, and that meant I wasn’t entitled to any anger at all. But if I struggled to feel entitled to anger that night in Nicaragua, I have since come to realize that the real entitlement has never been anger; it has always been its absence. The aversion to anger I had understood in terms of temperament or intention was, in all honesty, also a luxury. When the Black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde described her anger as a lifelong response to systemic racism, she insisted upon it as a product of the larger social landscape rather than private emotional ecology: “I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger… for most of my life.”
- "Comprising essays from an amazing cast of contributors...this cathartic and incendiary anthology rages against the notion that women should temper their fury."—OprahMag.com
- "Practically hot to the touch."— BookPage (most anticipated fall nonfiction)
- "This book gives powerful voice to women's rage in all its glory."—Pacific Standard
- "Dancyger collects essays from 22 female writers contemplating (and unleashing) anger, continuing the #MeToo ethos of emotional transparency and righteous indignation, to bracing and powerful effect. The writers are a diverse group and cover a wide range of experiences.... [Burn It Down is] a cathartic and often inspiring reading experience."—Publishers Weekly
- "Powerful and provocative, this collection is an instructive read for anyone seeking to understand the many faces--and pains--of womanhood in 21st-century America."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Burn It Down is a potent literary offering--a revolution born within the collective rage--expressed, unleashed, sublimated, and capsuled to honor our feminist legacy. Scorched earth speaks through these brilliant women who teach us that vulnerability and ire writ large will save those who have been shamed and condemned. Glorious, punk as hell, and utterly necessary."—Sophia Shalmiyev, award-winning author of Mother Winter
"Burn It Down is deeply affirming for any woman who has struggled with anger in this difficult world. There is no judgment here; only alchemy."
—Kelly Sundberg, author of Goodbye, Sweet Girl
- "The twenty-two essays collected in Burn It Down are a gift of sanity and clear-eyed moral vision in an increasingly degraded moral world. This book galvanizes women's collective and individual rage, even as it redefines how we could and should understand that anger--and ourselves."—Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Reckonings and The Other Side
- "An extraordinary collection of talent."—NPR.org
- "If you've got a fired-up woman on your list (or a man who needs to hear about it) they'll find communion in this cathartic anthology of women writing about anger, how it drives us, how it consumes us, and how we can use it as fuel."—Good Housekeeping
- "Burn It Down is both educational and cathartic. It infuriates and simultaneously relieves."—Bust
- "More necessary than ever."—Bustle
- "It's the literary equivalent of screaming into a pillow, and reading it will make you feel so much less alone."—HelloGiggles
- "Burn It Down legit changed my brain. I found myself thinking about anger in general and women's anger in particular in a whole new way, and seeing how reigning in and policing our anger has been sustaining patriarchal structures for centuries. Read this beautiful book and feel your beautiful rage."—The Rumpus
- "Brutally honest and enlightening."—Washington Independent Review of Books
- On Sale
- Oct 8, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press