Back in the 1980s, Winona Ryder didn’t so much burst onto the scene as rage onto it. Of the many characteristics that define her turn as Heathers’ disaffected protagonist Veronica Sawyer (sardonic, intelligent, empathetic, and judgmental), one of the most unusual is simply “angry.” Fictional women can be catty, shrewish, whiny, manipulative, or even—occasionally—outraged at a deep injustice, but everyday female anger is depicted with shocking rarity. It’s a trend Ryder has attempted to buck throughout her career, right up through this summer’s Stranger Things. And pop culture needs a lot more angry women like her.
For most of my childhood, I didn’t think women got angry. I knew that I got angry, but I thought it was a personality defect; some deep flaw I would have to struggle with, perhaps for my entire life. I now realize I’m far from the first young girl to feel this way. We as a society distrust female anger, so consciously and unconsciously, we teach young girls not to express it.
In her excellent article “Does Your Daughter Know It’s OK To Be Angry?” writer and activist Soraya Chemaly explains that while anger in boys is viewed as “natural,” girls are inundated with the message that it’s not okay to lose their tempers. As she explains:
Anger is diverted in women, who, as girls, lose even the awareness of their own anger as anger. Girls are taught, through politeness norms that suppress disruptive behavior, to use indirect methods of dealing with rage…. Adaptable girls find socially acceptable ways to internalize or channel their discomfort and ire, sometimes at great personal cost. Passive aggressive behavior, anxiety, and depression are common effects. Sarcasm, apathy, and meanness have all been linked to suppressed rage.
My own inability to understand my anger manifested in incredible amounts of guilt. It was a vicious cycle: I’d lose my temper and then beat myself up about it. I thought being a girl meant being able to keep my emotions in check at all times, like the women around me—both real and fictional—seemed to be able to do.
And then I met Jo March.
My life changed when I picked up a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Here was a woman who struggled with anger too. And, like me, she also felt incredibly guilty about it. “It’s my dreadful temper!” Jo cries to her mother Marmee. “It seems as if I could do anything when I’m in a passion; I get so savage, I could hurt anyone, and enjoy it. I’m afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me.”
I felt a weight lift from my chest the day I read Jo’s tearful confession. Writing 120 years before I was born, Alcott captured something I’d never seen reflected on television or in books before: Realistic, relatable female anger. If that exact passage didn’t make it into Ryder’s turn as Jo in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film adaptation, the thread of Jo as an imperfect young woman certainly did.
Unfortunately, when it comes to complex, three-dimensional angry women like Jo March, the examples are few and far between. The only consistent instances of angry female characters tend to adhere to negative stereotypes, from the nagging wife to the “fiery” Latina to the angry black woman. Or, just as bad, anger is pathologized as part of a “crazy woman” trope, as with Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn. These stereotypical depictions don’t explore the realities of female anger; they reduce it to a punchline.
Elsewhere, female-centric properties like Disney princess films, romantic comedies, and Jane Austen adaptations give their female characters relatable flaws, but anger is seldom one of them. Action movies—which have created quite a few male hotheads over the years, from Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry to Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon—often try to avoid accusations of sexism by depicting female heroes as uber-competent badasses, a.ka. the “strong female character.” So while Iron Man, the Hulk, and Neo grapple with anger, frustration, and self-doubt, Black Widow and Trinity take down baddies with a sexy smile and far less internal conflict. Stereotypical depictions don’t explore the realities of female anger; they reduce it to a punchline.
But if real-life women are taught to suppress anger, is pop culture simply reflecting reality? To some extent, yes. Movies, TV shows, and books have created fascinating female characters who grapple with anger indirectly, as many real woman do. Although they seldom outright lose their tempers, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Game Of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, and Orphan Black’s Alison Hendrix are all clearly shaped by their struggles to suppress their anger in socially acceptable ways. That makes them fascinating and relatable in their own right. But while these characters make for great television, not all real women deal with anger by internalizing it. So why can’t we create female characters who show that anger is an ordinary, hardly shameful emotion?
Just look at Inside Out, which earned massive acclaim for teaching young girls (and boys) that it’s okay to be sad. That’s an important lesson to be sure. But it’s also notable that the film’s anthropomorphized version of Anger is portrayed as a man (voiced by comedian Lewis Black, who’s turned male anger into a career). Though otherwise thoughtful about emotions, Inside Out subtly—and, I would argue, lazily—reinforces the idea that anger is a male trait.
Thankfully, there are exceptions to the rule. Star Trek: Voyager created a great angry female character in B’Elanna Torres, a brilliant half-Klingon, half-Latina engineer whose struggles to control her temper are just one facet of her complex personality. Hermione Granger is occasionally allowed to unleash a shockingly vindictive side in the Harry Potter books. The CW’s Supergirl and Netflix’s Jessica Jones are introducing a more nuanced look at female anger to the TV iteration of superhero franchises. And Beyond The Lights avoids stereotypes while still allowing its black female lead to grapple with anger as part of her journey of self-actualization. (It should be noted that the need for non-stereotypical portrayals of angry women of color is especially dire and a topic ripe for further discussion.)
And Ryder’s latest project, the Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things, is an interesting case study in female anger. As Genevieve Valentine points out for Vox, the show is rooted firmly in a male perspective even as it creates interesting female characters in Ryder’s desperate mom Joyce, “good girl” teen Nancy, and telekinetic Eleven. Though not inherently angry, all three women occasionally lose their tempers in response to stress. Entertainment remains one of the few places where women and young girls can learn that anger is a normal part of life. But it’s also notable that the show’s central group of Dungeons & Dragons-loving preteen boys grapple with anger in smaller, more casual ways, particularly in the context of their friendship. For the female characters of Stranger Things, anger is a response to an extreme situation; for the male characters, it’s just a part of life. Whether that’s an intentional commentary or an example of shortsightedness is up for debate.
When we talk about the need for greater representation in art, it’s not just about assembling more diverse casts. It’s about telling previously untold stories from a new perspective. Entertainment remains one of the few places where women—and more importantly, young girls—can learn that anger is a normal part of life. And that kind of representation can help women feel less alone in the world, as Louisa May Alcott showed over a century ago.
Though the limitations of her era meant Jo would ultimately be taught a lesson in repressing her anger rather than expressing it, Alcott still recognizes the power of representation. “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo,” Marmee reveals to her shocked daughter. “But I have learned not to show it.” And as Alcott wisely observes, “The knowledge that her mother had a fault like her, and tried to mend it, made [Jo’s] own easier to bear.”