The other day I was leafing through an old notebook and came across a doodled ‘conversation’ that I’d had at a conference. It was a hot June afternoon in a stuffy lecture theatre, the previous chair had let everyone overrun by ten minutes, and the room twitched with restlessness and passive-aggression. The current chair however, wasn’t having any of this, and boldly raised herself up to her full five feet two inches when the speaker had ten seconds to spare. The speaker rambled on even as the chair was swiftly advancing before the pulpit. In arts academia, this is the closest you get to physical conflict- and it shook me out of my stupor. ‘Catfight!’ I scribbled, and slid over my notebook. Trying not to laugh, my friend and I exchanged cartoons of the chair and the speaker bashing it out- punches, karate-chops and insults that were more Real Housewives than Shakespeare. What actually happened, was in a way more awkward- the speaker insistently scrambled through her final paragraph, and the chair immediately cut to questions without thanking her. Still, our doodles channelled something of the repressed discomfort of a room full of thinkers who had been made to stew and fester in other people’s ideas for too long.
If you think that an anger is an odd response to have towards someone who is trying to enlighten you for just that bit longer than they promised, (how generous of them), you clearly have never been to a conference. I’m even convinced that some people go to these things with the intention of being offended. At the last one I attended, a notable speaker provoked ire and scorn for simply pointing out that her institution cracked onto a good idea before a rival. Tim Hart territory this was not, but it’s not a gathering of great minds if it doesn’t leave you seething through your pasted-on smile. Unsurprisingly, passive aggression predominates in thinking or creative disciplines, which churn out mottos such as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ or the Photoshopped smile more winning than the genuine grimace, etc. We’re of course enormously lucky to not work in places of actual physical violence; though I’m not sure this underlying frustration and ill-will is much healthier. But how else do we channel anger, that inconvenient, heterogeneous emotion that arises from feelings of powerlessness, frustration and the desire to make your mark? And anger is as real in cerebral workplaces as it is everywhere else. It comes in the form of unspoken resentment towards the colleague who stole your idea and ran with it, the manager who misguides and neglects you, or the finance people who have delayed your payment yet again. When exploding publicly is verboten, and words and reason only get us so far, our anger, which must take some form, becomes a fantasy…
Just as it’s often the most sexually repressed who are into the seediest erotica, those of us who forcibly subdue our anger imaginatively concoct potent revenge scenarios. Some of them are basically violent- I remember one acquaintance who talked about wanting to bang his dopey colleagues’ ‘fucking heads together,’ and another who worried that if she were left too long alone with her malevolent sister, she would have to strangle her. But disturbing as these are, they’re in a way less interesting than another common fantasy- the showdown. Showdown fantasies are often triggered by the drive to show-up a well-respected but useless individual. A mild-mannered and eloquent friend who works in publishing, has laboured for years under a boss who though essentially kind-hearted, is disorganised and unempathetic. When my friend’s job is rendered unbearable by her boss’s neglect, she fantasises about confronting her in a more aggressive manner than the gentle but persistent entreaties she is accustomed to: the words ‘bitch’ in bright red lipstick scrawled all over her office door.
There’s nothing high-brow about my intellectual friend’s ‘damage to property’ reverie- it could be pulled straight from a Taylor Swift video or a daytime television soap-opera. But this is fantasy, not art- and her only wish is to make an impact far bigger and more spectacular than any she could in real life. Let’s face it, Taylor or Rihanna or Nikki with their bolshy expletives, red paint, and golf-club-to-sports-car-window melodramas make an ado of their anger as no pedestrian woman legitimately can, either at work or in her personal life.
Because women aren’t supposed to show anger, not really. And do the feminine, softly-spoken ones even generate it? I recall this Disney spoof Enchanted, where saccharine princess Giselle is accidentally thrust into gritty New York City life, stumbles upon an unfamiliar feeling of frustration and heat, before finally entertaining the possibility that she is actually angry. Weirdly enough, this fairytale scene resonates with me. I sometimes find it hard to know if it’s anger I’m feeling, something that isn’t helped by others repeatedly telling me I’m ‘sad’, ‘hurt’, or even ‘tired’ ‘instead. ‘You’re not an angry person, though… this is too trivial a matter to be angry about, ‘ I keep hearing. It’s as as though there’s this patronising universal agreement that anger is too martial and dangerous for the likes of women like me. No, it’s more palatable for me to be sad and weep large tears into my lavender-scented hankie…
But when my brother broke my already ailing laptop on Christmas day, and the advent of my PhD hand-in, to watch the crap version of Sherlock Holmes and I belted out an eleven-letter term of endearment at him, no-one could mistake what I was really feeling. My mother ordered me to behave in a more ladylike manner, and to this day consoles herself with the thought that I was a different person that night. I knew it was anger though, because I was back to my ‘sweet’ self the very next day, while I sat for three hours laughing and joking with my brother as he drove us to get the laptop fixed by my cousin, the computer programmer. Yes, I was a different person, but becoming that fury even for a short while, allowed me to return to a more familiar version of myself, unmarred by dogged resentment. Sometimes anger is nothing more frightening than a tempest that blows through you, and then eases once it’s done its job. So why are we still so afraid of it?
* Choler is an archaic word for anger. Medieval folk believed that a choleric temperament was caused by an excess of yellow bile from the liver.