Ladies Get Mad - Shows Exploring Feminine Anger
CW: This post deals with stories of grief and trauma.
Here in 2019, the US is going through what feels like the puberty of our social development - one long awkward phase of gender, racial, and sexual understanding. We’ve matured in so many ways and yet still suffer from metaphorical bad skin and gangling limbs.
For example, look at both the #MeToo movement and the response it’s gotten from certain quarters. Started by activist Tarana Burke back in 2006 to promote “empowerment through empathy” for women of color who’d been sexually abused, in 2017 it was co-opted (if we’re being honest) as a phrase that women of all backgrounds used to share their experiences with sexual harassment of all kinds.That broadening of the message made it go viral - and led to the downfall of several, prominent, abusive men.
In its wake, though, a fairly predictable thing happened - many men, (as well as some women), are wringing their hands and worrying that “good” men will be taken down with the “bad” ones. How can we even to talk to women any more, they ask, lest we be accused of harassment? I find this a deeply boring and irritating view, because the answer is easy. If you think any of your behavior might be suspect, STOP DOING IT. Be better. It can’t be that hard because all of the men I know personally - husband, family, friends, coworkers - seem to have figured it out. But that response is the awkward phase - signs we still have growing up to do.
In more promising evidence of our growth, however, is that I’ve noticed a lot of art lately that deal with aftermath of all of this for the women who experienced it. Many of us are still coming to terms with how deeply angry - not sad, or confused, or hurt - ANGRY - we are about these situations. Yes, those feelings also exist. But usually in traditional Western storytelling, women who are angry are portrayed as bitchy or crazy - see The Bride in Kill Bill as a good example. There’s vengeance taken, and it’s over the top. Recently, I’ve noticed a few shows that portray a somewhat more realistic view of women’s anger.
The first is Christina Applegate’s wonderful, tough, surprising show Dead To Me. If you haven’t watched it, the premise is that Applegate’s character, Jen Harding, has just lost her husband to a hit and run driver. She goes to a grief support group and meets Judy Hale, played by Linda Cardellini, who is going through her own loss. They become close friends, quickly, and try to work through their grief and guilt together.
What I noticed immediately about Jen is that she largely expresses her grief through intense anger. She’s determined to catch her husband’s killer, and roams the neighborhood blasting black metal, looking for dents in cars, and occasionally causing a few. She gets in fights with her mother in law, her real estate partner, her sons. This spoke to me deeply because in my own moments of grief, I’ve felt that rage - the inability to face the senseless thing that happened and why it happened to someone you love.
However, as the series progresses, you start to understand that Jen’s rage pre-dates her husband’s death, and in a small way may have even precipitated the incident that caused it. Jen is a woman who is constantly on the brink of being consumed by her own rage. However, the show also portrays her as having a successful business, a beautiful home, and at least on the surface, a wonderful family. What, you might ask, does she have to be so angry about? It turns out quite a lot, mostly in the way everyone treats her - she’s expected to be the competent provider while her husband, who was a stay-at-home dad and musician, pursued his art and followed his dreams.
It’s a great gender reversal from what you’d typically see on tv, and tracks what I suspect is true to life for many women. Jen’s anger comes out in what are typically coded as masculine behaviors - fast driving, punching people, loud music. It’s refreshing to see her allowed these behaviors, even as they damage her life and relationships, just because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman act that way on American tv before.
The other show I saw exploring feminine anger takes a much more traditional approach, but helps its characters resolve it in unique and exciting ways - Lisa Hanawalt’s late, great Tuca and Bertie. Despite being a story about two bird women set in an nonsense world of animals, plants, and general mayhem, the show is one of the most honest and satisfying depictions of two women coming to terms with their own trauma that I’ve ever seen.
For Tuca, played by Tiffany Haddish, it’s the trauma of losing her mother. It resulted in serious arrested development - at 30, Tuca has no regular job, an aversion to commitment and responsibility, and an alcohol addiction. However, when we meet her she’s already become sober and throughout the season starts to address the other issues, to explore why she’s so afraid to be serious and to figure out how to preserve her free spirit while growing up a little.
In the case of Bertie, played by Allie Wong, there’s a deeper underlying issue with men and power. It’s seen from the very first episode, as she moves in with her extremely sweet and understanding boyfriend, Speckle - and is unable to cede any space or control of their home to him. Throughout the season we see more clues to what the issue might be - her interactions with her jerk of a co-worker, Dirk, and her weird fascination/repulsion with her baking mentor, Pastry Pete. It all comes to a head in the penultimate episode, The Jelly Lakes, where Bertie finally confronts her childhood trauma head on.
For a story with some very silly characters and cartoonish action, it’s an extremely sensitive portrayal of trauma and the damage it can do, and how many women sublimate their anger, burying it deep until it comes out in self-destructive ways. There’s a scene where Bertie is sexually harassed by Dirk where her breast literally walks out in frustration. Weird? For sure. But it shows the deeper truth of these feelings and the damage they wreak.
I’m excited by what both of these shows are doing - helping normalize and provide catharsis for the many women who feel angry but aren’t quite sure how to navigate those feelings. As more news continues to come out about women who’ve been misused by powerful men, it can be hard to not to feel hopeless and angry. My hope is that eventually we’ll emerge into society fully adult and mature, but in the meantime, just like actual teenagers, art helps. If you’d like to explore some of your own anger through art, here’s a playlist to get started.