First off, if you’re interested in feminist pop culture intersections, witty literary and pop culture commentary worthy of a Jane Austen-composed dialogue sequence, on fleek sweater sets, and just the very best link round-ups the internet has to offer, then you need to subscribe to the Two Bossy Dames newsletter. Seriously. It’s. The. Best.
With that in mind, their recent newsletter examined the issue of emotional expression in American women and how the spectrum of appropriate feminine feeling is restricted when the needle approaches anger and/or rage. Many women chimed in with their own experiences in response to their missive, noting how their repertoire for expressing anger was not as well developed as their capacity for masking their frustration, irritation, and angst.
And it was that observation of feminine fluency in masking our anger with positive affect that brought me back to a pivotal study from my own field of developmental psychology.
Before I get to that, though, I also want to point out that women certainly do not hold the lion’s share of emotional camouflage in our American culture. Men absolutely encounter similar biases and pressures for masking their emotions, although these trend more towards sadness and empathy than anger. So this is my nod that both genders encounter cultural emotional molding that can be restricting–today, though, I’m focusing one particular finding and considering what it means for women today.
One of the key components of human development is learning to regulate our emotions. It’s an essential skill for integrating into any group of human beings, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that breakdowns in emotional control hold predictive power for developmental issues, like mental health challenges and/or aggressive reactionary styles. This capacity for controlling our emotional expression interacts strongly with our cultural experiences and our reinforcement histories–meaning that different cultures are embedded with different emotion regulation ‘rules.’
Display Rules embody these cultural distinctions, and are defined as the formal and informal cultural rules for when, where, and how emotions should be expressed. In American culture, one deeply-ingrained and early-emerging display rule is the ability to mask disappointment when receiving a gift.
The Disappointment Task was designed specifically to test this display rule. This experiment involves three main components:
- Children as young as three are brought into a lab setting and rank a series of prizes from most to least preferred (and the prizes range from awesome, like cool stickers, to lame, such as a broken baby rattle or 1 baby sock).
- The experimenter has the child complete a number of ‘filler’ tasks, such as math problems or coloring.
- The child is then told that they earned the prize, but their LEAST preferred prize (i.e., the broken rattle) is awarded to them, rather than their MOST preferred prize. Their emotional reaction to the lame prize is then code for how well their disappointment is masked, including whether the child smiles and says thank you.*
*Just FYI that, after the disappointment masking is observed and coded, the child is told that a mistake was made and they leave with their MOST preferred toy. We’re not monsters!
The astonishing aspect of this experiment is how early children demonstrate their knowledge of this Display Rule and are able to effectively mask disappointment. Children as young as THREE YEARS OLD are able to smile and say thank you for an entirely awful prize.
More relevant to the observations of the Two Bossy Dames’ piece, GIRLS show earlier and stronger proficiency in masking their anger and disappointment than boys do.
This reveals that the ability to mask uncomfortable emotions, such as anger or frustration, emerges earlier and stronger for girls than boys, which naturally begs the question: Why?
There are many hypotheses explaining this phenomenon, and the most widely accepted argues that girls are more likely than boys to be culturally encouraged towards behavior that MAINTAINS RELATIONSHIPS–which is an explanation that resonates with my own experiences and with many of the women who responded with their own experiences of #NormalizeLadyRage.
American culture emphasizes the feminine ability to help secure human connection, intimate or otherwise, and the expression of feminine anger is still often seen as a vehicle for rupturing these relationships (case in point–Beyoncé’s angry lyrics were interpreted as a sure sign of an impending divorce, rather than as a method of communication that led to a resolution of relational difficulty).
Given this phenomenon, I feel one solution for women who feel encased by their inability to express their anger without being branded as crazy, menstruating, or a bitch is one that is simple, but will require a slow burn:
We need to start using anger to maintain relationships.
Let’s turn our role within culture on it’s head–Anger is a form of communication, and if used with intention and with the purpose of attaining a resolution, it can advance human connection. We just need to remind America of this basic emotional fact.
Anger can build connection as much, if not more so, than acquiescence. Anger is a keystone to sincere intimacy.
Anger, in other words, is a good thing and everyone (women included) deserves to include it in their emotional repertoire.
Thanks to Rebecca Solnit, Beyoncé, RiotGrrls, and Sleater Kinney (oh, and so, so many others) for starting this discussion again and again–now let’s get to work!