Female Rage and its Media Portrayal

“I have a thing about feminine rage… This is no disrespect for any writer, I get a lot of men doing really terrible things and women sitting silently while one tear slowly falls. And, I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no no. We get mad and angry.’ I remember pulling Mark (The Menu director) aside and saying, ‘I’m really sorry. But, the only way to play this truthfully is for me to attack him.” – Anya Taylor Joy on feminine rage for BBC Radio.

For years, Hollywood avoided portraying angry women accurately. If shown on the screen, it was often an attribute of crazy villainesses or badass bombshells in skintight suits fighting evil. As an ordinary woman, with no combat skills or malicious plan, it’s not an emotion we can easily show.

However, in recent years, there has been a rise in the portrayal of “female rage.” More and more female characters are taking the autonomy of their rage and displaying authentic anger. And we love seeing that.

So, who is the angry woman?

To understand the impact of the new powerful image of an angry woman, let us look at how and why female rage has been suppressed throughout history.

Anger is an intense emotion one experiences when feels wronged. Anger is gendered. When it comes to male anger, society is more likely to accept and even condone its expression. Men’s anger is powerful, bold, and righteous. Women’s anger is not described in the same way. It is often labeled as unreasonable, unnecessary, and even scary. It is seen as an “unwomanly” emotion. Therefore, women have been told to remain quiet and docile rather than express their anger. Sadness turned into an act; a woman must perform to deal with anger. And the film industry only contributed to the shame of anger.

(Halloween| IMDB)

When anger is applied to women in films, there are two predominantly used prototypes: “the final girl” and “the wrong kind of woman.”

The final girl trope is a classic trope in the horror genre where the sole survivor is a young girl. One of “original final girls”, Laurie Strode from Halloween 1978, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. A socially awkward, smart highschooler, a competent babysitter, in modest dresses, and aversion to dating; overall, a “nice girl”.  It’s true that the final girl is often portrayed as the “good girl.” She survives because of her virtuousness. She is nice, polite, and virginal; untainted by the horrible world. This narrative is a reflection of the societal expectations placed on women. It’s a way to punish those who don’t fit into the mold of what a “good girl” is. The final girl is allowed to be angry and rageful for the split minutes before she kills the evil. And we root for her and excuse her rage because she deserves to survive. This narrative has a harmful message that to escape death and evil, a woman must be innocent and good.

Otherwise, anger is an attribute of “wrong women.” They are villains, crazy ex-girlfriends, spinsters, mean girls, and girlbosses. It seems like society deems it acceptable for certain types of women to express their anger while others are expected to suppress it in order to maintain their “nice” reputation. If a woman is already spoiled, rageful, and bratty, then when she’s angry, it’s only natural. Anger suits women like that. When women are represented with a fury powerful enough to alter the narrative, they are almost immediately seen as wicked in people’s eyes. The character of Miranda Priestly, portrayed by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, is a well-known “girlboss”. She holds the position of editor-in-chief at the prestigious fashion magazine Runway, and is renowned for her exceptional skill, unwavering perfectionism, and exacting nature. Despite her impressive business acumen, Miranda is often referred to as “the devil” due to her demanding and uncompromising approach to work.

The old media’s portrayal of female rage contributes to harmful societal perceptions of women and their emotions, perpetuating the idea that women are irrational or unstable. This is especially evident when it comes to characters being portrayed as villainous or aggressive, with the word “bitch” being used as a shorthand for these traits. Doing this reduces the complexity of female characters and can have long-term impacts on how viewers perceive women in real life. In study “Leading with their hearts? How gender stereotypes of emotion lead to biased evaluations of female leaders” by Brescoll and Uhlmann for The Leadership Quarterly magazine, examine the relationship between anger, gender and eligibility for high social status. Individuals who possess feminine attributes may perceive women who do not conform to societal expectations of femininity as psychologically unstable or unfavorable. “Expressions of anger by men in a professional context are seen as appropriate conduct in a higher status role, whereas women’s expressions of anger are viewed as inconsistent with high social status and accordingly, women who express anger in a professional context are regarded as less competent.”

(Pearl| IMDB)

In recent years, we have seen the de-romanticization of cinematic storytelling. Movies in different genres became more realistic and rawer. The same applies to onscreen emotions. Showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge, known for the TV series Fleabag and Killing Eve, tells Vogue: “It feels like, recently, a lot of female anger has been unleashed. Articulated anger. Which is exciting for me because I’ve always found female rage very appealing.

The proper portrayal of female rage helps us to express women’s anger. Women are often pressured to hold their discontent “graciously” and lash it outside public eyes. This lack of imagery of real and layered anger makes women feel uncomfortable and clueless about how to express their anger. We have no language to articulate this anger and disappointment. Soraya Chemaly, in her book, Rage Becomes Her, “Anger remains the emotion that is least acceptable for girls and women because it is the first line of defense against injustice… By effectively severing anger from “good womanhood.”

With the more frequent portrayal of female rage, we are destigmatizing such notion as “angry woman.” The new media is an outlet to turn anger from something extraordinary to something natural.

(Promising Young Woman| IMDB)

The boom of “angry women” on screens is not just a trend but a reflection of the societal shift towards gender equality and the recognition of women’s voices. These characters are opening new tropes and redefining old ones, such as “good for her” movies. Female-led revenge movies like “Promising Young Woman” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” have become increasingly popular, as they showcase women taking revenge on their oppressors. These movies not only provide catharsis for female audiences but also challenge societal expectations of women.

With fresh depictions, we are not endorsing the stereotype of a “good girl” who is innocent and pure. We do not perceive women as monsters or villains either; she’s neither an angel nor devil – just someone hurting like you and me. The rage she feels is just as valid as her feelings of sorrow. It’s her right to feel angry, which these new movies seek to normalize. Anger is not a trait of a strong woman; it’s a trait of every woman.

(Ready or not| IMDB)

While we’ve seen progress in the representation of female anger in media, there’s still a long way to go. For now, we are seeing the anger of white women being respected; however, it’s important to ensure that the portrayal of female anger is diverse and intersectional. Women of color and LGBTQ+ women face unique challenges and experiences that need to be represented in media. Deviating from the stereotype of an Angry Black Woman or Quiet Asian Woman will take a lot of work, but it needs to see a more healthy and truthful portrayal. By amplifying diverse voices, we can create a more inclusive and representative society.

It’s time for filmmakers to move beyond these cliches and embrace more nuanced and authentic portrayals of female anger and empowerment.

Movie suggestions:

  • Promising young woman
  • Mad max: road of fury
  • Do Revenge
  • Birds of pray
  • Ready or not
  • Happy death day
  • US
  • I, Tonya

By Aini Yesko