One rainy evening in January, ‘Simmer’ crackled and hissed into life through the radio in my kitchen. The opening line: ‘Rage is a quiet thing.’ I put down the saucepan I was drying and stood there for the song’s entire duration, staring at the radio as if it were speaking directly to me.
I couldn’t get those words out of my head. There was something so compelling about the song. The strangeness of it. There were no heavy guitar riffs, no thundering double bass drum fills, no screams or growls. This wasn’t the same kind of anger that fuelled the hardcore and metal that soundtracked my youth – this was something far more potent. It was quiet. Something lurking in the darkness, threatening to claw its way to the surface. Something slow-burning. The sun gradually rising; a ball of fire that could destroy you.
When I was younger, I was drawn to rock music because of the anger it expressed. It felt freeing to me. I’m not sure if I’ve always been an organised, disciplined person, or if it was just the very ordered nature of my young life. I went to all girls’ schools that had particular rules about everything, from permitted hair tie colours to how you were supposed to format the date on your homework. I slicked my hair back with gel and went to ballet after school. I ironed shirts at the weekend and trimmed the ends off the French beans for dinner. Listening to rock music was a release of everything. It was a window into a loud world of chaos that was as far removed from my own as possible.
It’s only now that I realise, as a young teenager, I hardly listened to any female rock artists. The expressions of anger I was listening to were almost exclusively male. Not only were these songs written and performed by men, they were also about a type of anger that was emphatically male. ‘Simmer’ was the first time I’d heard an expression of anger that felt distinctly female. The fact that it was a woman singing about her own rage was one thing, but the type of rage it described was another. How quiet it was. How threatening and dangerous. I felt the shouty songs of my youth in my head – in my chest sometimes if the lads were really going for it. But ‘Simmer’ was something I felt in my entire body.
I’m not an angry person. I’m a woman who feels anger, living in a world where women’s rage is deemed as unacceptable. Something to be quashed before it’s even begun to take shape. In a previous job a few years ago, I was in a meeting with my (female) manager, her (male) manager, and a few other (male) colleagues of varying levels of seniority. One particular colleague had been repeatedly interrupting her and speaking down to both of us throughout the meeting. He had several months of experience in the particular business area of discussion, while my manager had over three years. When she eventually managed to get a word in, she was justifiably annoyed. She spoke assertively and louder than usual, in order to avoid being interrupted once again. The meeting ended politely, but without smiles. Her (male) manager swiftly took her aside and spoke to her sternly about her conduct. Apparently, she needed to work on controlling her emotions. When she returned to her desk, she put her headphones in and worked in silence for the rest of the afternoon.
When men speak assertively, raise their voices and get animated – aggressive even – it’s seen as passion, dedication, creative disruption. I’ve never once been in a meeting where a man’s been told to calm down, but I’ve seen it happen countless times to women. (And I’ve worked in the music industry, so I’ve been in meetings with some pretty outspoken men. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? Have you ever noticed that it’s only women who are described as ‘outspoken’ and never men? Men are just, well, men). Female anger is never viewed positively. It’s not something to be engaged with. Growing up in a male-dominated household, I can recall many a conversation where I ventured an opinion which was immediately and forcefully stamped out by louder voices. My follow-up points were taken as argumentative and aggressive. Whatever issue I was angry about in the first place, I was now even angrier about the fact that I couldn’t even express it.
Our society does not take women’s anger seriously. More than that, it seeks to eradicate it completely. How many times on screen have we seen a woman’s anger about her dirtbag cheating husband portrayed as something laughable, something entirely ridiculous? How many times have we heard tall tales about psycho ex-girlfriends? Women are angry. Women are angry about a lot of different things, but it is shared knowledge that being perceived as an angry woman would not cast us in a good light. It is even more pronounced for women of minority groups. For Black women and girls, the perpetuation of the angry black woman stereotype makes the consequences of being openly angry far greater than they are for white women.
As women we understand that our anger must be repressed, pushed aside or turned into something else. Whether I realised it or not, I’ve always released my anger by doing something physical: drumming, dancing, boxing or fast running. While those activities in and of themselves are a healthy use of my time, none of them are actually working through my anger. I haven’t explained to anyone what I’m angry about and why. I’ve experienced my anger alone. The thing is, if women are free to express the full extent of their rage, if we interrogate it rather than dismiss it, the world will change. Nobody hates change more than the patriarchy.
And so, rage simmers away. A big pot of stew cooking quietly on the hob, filled with all the anger that’s been dispersed and ignored. It’s always there, always hot. Sometimes it bubbles and spits. I don’t know when that might happen. I’m sick of having to control it. I’m angry that my default setting is to keep it all in, keep it together. Smile through it and make small talk. Explain my point of view nicely and patiently. No, I’m not ranting, I’m just speaking. No, I’m not going to watch my language. No, I’m not going to settle down. No, I don’t want five minutes. No, I don’t want a cup of tea. Listen.
Rage is a quiet thing. It’s a powerful thing. So potent is a woman’s rage that the world fears it unlike anything else. But it’s getting harder to silence us. We’re talking, we’re writing, we’re creating. I feel the rage rising; I feel the shift coming.