SORAYA CHEMALY and SUNNY BERGMAN at B-Unlimited in The Hague

Soraya Chemaly is a long-time feminist and activist, who describes her most recent book, Rage Becomes Her as a direct response to Trump’s election and the era of misogynistic racism that it ushered in. The book focuses on how female anger, traditionally demonised, can in fact be used as a tool for change. The American writer and media critic  was in conversation with well-known Dutch feminist and filmmaker, Sunny Bergman, who has recently released, Man Made. A documentary focusing on how traditional concepts of masculinity cause men to feel trapped in their own right.

Chemaly’s message is clear – inequality between men and women continues to exist, even in countries like the United States. Part of the reason for this is the gendered ways in which men and women are socialised to absorb and express anger. Women have every right to feel anger at the daily inequalities many of us experience as a matter of course but few express this anger. Instead one is taught from a young age that ‘nice girls do not make scenes or shout’ and a smile and acquiescence are far more acceptable forms of behaviour. Chemaly admits that she herself was a product of such an upbringing. It was only in her early forty’s that she fully acknowledged her anger and rage for the first time, even to herself. Up until then, she describes herself as ‘in denial’.

‘Women are taught at a very young age, not to be angry.’

Nevertheless, she agrees that neither is explosive anger the answer. Chemaly highlights the need for children, both male and female, to be provided with better ways for thinking about and processing their feelings.  This includes anger, which she describes as a signal emotion. For this reason it is important as it normally signals fear, or vulnerability. However, thanks to what she terms, the gendering of emotions, anger in women is traditionally seen as far less acceptable than anger in men. The author points out that anger makes high demands on others. It is difficult to ignore. Women have traditionally been taught to prioritise others, thus their anger is often internalised with negative consequences for both the body and the psyche. Soraya Chemaly suggests that writing down one’s angry feelings or discussing them with someone whom you can trust, is a better way to make meaning of that anger. ‘I despise the term anger management’, the writer declares. ‘Rather focus on emotional consequences.’  

Rage Becomes Her, draws on a wide range of studies on issues ranging from self-objectification and surveillance to wage and caretaking inequalities and gendered violence.  Chemaly is a highly articulate speaker who has an apparently endless array of statistics and researched examples at her finger tips with which to defend her arguments. She highlights research that shows how gender expectations affect brain development, even in the womb. She also points to studies that have demonstrated how testosterone is in fact catalysed through acting out dominant, typically masculine behaviours. However this is the same for both men and women. Filmmaker, Bergman found a similar phenomenon during the filming Testosterone Rex in which they measured testosterone levels in those following traditionally masculine jobs (rugby player) and traditionally feminine jobs (e.g. nurse and ballet dancer) and found that testosterone was in fact highest in the ballet dancers.

Both Chemaly and Bergson agree that there is a lot of biological evidence for similarities rather than differences between men and women and yet people still cling to gender categories. Chemaly points out that for many, these categories provide comfort and clarity. She also suggests that many lack the imagination required to step out of the patriarchal society which is still so dominant and conceive of a whole new, non-gendered  world. The irony is, that our current system is detrimental to both men and women. As Chemaly puts it, ‘right now we have a lot of sick women and a lot of suicidal men’. Indeed Bergson mentions that the American Psychological Association released a health warning about traditional notions of masculinity and its strong relationship to violence. The response by some was outrage and accusations of a war on men. This echoes Bergman’s recent film, Man Made, which documents men of various ages and backgrounds talking about how they feel that they must defend themselves and their masculinity in this age of feminism. Clearly the idea of questioning traditional gender roles is frightening, for some men and women. Chemaly acknowledges that it’s not just a man vs women issue. ‘There are both men and women who buy into the current system and are interested in maintaining the status quo for both material and psychological reasons.’

Should we perhaps simply let go of concepts like masculine and feminine, Bergson and Chemaly wonder. Easier said than done. ‘How does one confront a system in which we don’t have the words to make the change?’ Chemaly asks. ‘Our language is too anaemic for such a task.’ Perhaps true but perhaps it begins with a reconceptualization of the now centuries old gender war in terms of those who are in favour of equality and those who are not. Such a step might encourage like-minded individuals (male, female or other) to work together toward the goal of a less gendered society rather than promulgate anger and resentment between the sexes. As Bergman so rightly put it, ‘It is not up to us to take on one another, it’s up to us to take on the system.’       Souwie Buis     9th May 2019