Unapologetically Angry

Serena Williams angrily argues with the referee during the women’s final of the U.S. Open Tournament. 
Photo courtesy of: AP News

Serena Williams angrily argues with the referee during the women’s final of the U.S. Open Tournament. Photo courtesy of: AP News

Avery Ngo

Beginning with a fiery, thundering opening, his sheer volume communicated credibility and character, eliciting applause and capturing the attention of the entire room. When I attempted to match that tone, to raise my voice and gain that same recognition the boy ahead of me had received, I obtained a plethora of jibes poorly disguised as constructive feedback, commenting on my “aggressiveness,” “loudness,” and overall “disrespect” for the activity that was speech and debate.

I was eight years old when I first understood the difference between how males and females are perceived.

The Harvard Kennedy School published a study that demonstrated the continuous patriarchal mindset within systems of power, despite today’s sensationalized political environment that has placed a spotlight on gender inequality. Women in a professional context who expressed emotions were accorded lower wages and status, while the opposite was true for men. It is a form of systematic bias — a result of gendered societal rules — which associates anger with masculinity. Psychologist Sandra Thomas, PhD, agrees that anger in men is often viewed as masculine, but “for girls, acting out in that way is not encouraged.”  Those who attempt to adopt masculine traits or expressions are ostracized, called difficult or dramatic, and rejected socially and in the workplace.

Take the recent controversy surrounding Serena Williams and her fraught US Open loss. She faced retaliation on social media and by other players for her verbal abuse of umpire Carlos Ramo. In stark comparison, male tennis players like John McEnroe, who has been guilty of calling referees much worse, are generally accepted by the public. To explain this, the New York Times references Joan C. Williams, a professor at Hastings College of the Law: “as a woman, [Serena Williams] was met with backlash because she abandoned traditionally feminine behavior: ‘modest, self-effacing and nice.’” In her display of anger at the referee for penalizing her for what she believed to be an unjust reason, Williams reacted in a way that was not considered feminine.

Many of the same people who criticize Williams are also the ones who doubt that such gendered expectations exist in the first place, citing the implementation of policies such as the launch of better-than-average maternity and parental leave acts, and mentorship programs targeting high-potential women by corporations. But, it must be understood that while these policies are a step forward, they do little to improve the culture of the workplace- the attitudes of their employers and coworkers remain unchanged. The need to rethink this patriarchal mindset will always be a prerequisite to any need for interventionist policies. For those who have already adopted mental frameworks that constrain women in a particular way, corporate programs aiming to reduce sexism will only reinforce what these kind of people believe to be unfair allowances for women.

This idea might be difficult to understand. Take another example: a professional woman who displays a fit of emotion is even less likely to receive a promotion if she takes advantage of new maternity leave act.

Yet, we need these outbursts more than ever. Serena Williams provoked a national discourse that has specifically challenged the ontological foundation of the way we process and judge female emotion and anger. More people are beginning to question the way women and men are treated when they chose to act outside of norms.

It is difficult, extraordinarily so, to change beliefs that have been embedded in our culture for decades, but acknowledging that such judgments exist – especially to the younger, more impressionable populations – will discourage such assumptions from taking place in the future. The more females get angry, the more likely it is to become socially accepted.

So, displaying that emotion during that debate round may have cost me an accolade, but it is a step forward towards a future where there will be no consequence to any woman who chooses to be unapologetically angry.