Why it’s important to be an angry girl

“We’re Bikini Kill, and we want revolution, girl-style, NOW!” I was ten years old, tagging along with my brothers and their friends on a car ride, and the driver had put on a cassette that was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was unabashedly angry: brash guitar and furious drums, and above it all, someone singing — or yelling, really. I knew lots of songs by angry men, but this was the voice of an angry girl.

“You’re playing Bikini Kill?” I heard someone laugh. “You’re going to warp Mara’s mind.”

It was too late. Years too late.

“You were such a sweet little girl,” grown-ups always told me. Sweet, and sensitive: I cried at the evening news and worried about anyone less fortunate. But when I was eight, my mother died, and that lit the fire. I was perpetually angry, raging when I was sad or scared, at every injustice, big or small. Adults seemed shocked at this sea change, boys at school called me “crazy,” and the other girls had no idea what to do with me.

None of the girls I knew yelled at teachers or ripped up a rude classmate’s homework paper or fought with boys on the playground. None of them had the fire, or if they did, they didn’t show it. They could be sad, or they could be mean, but I only ever saw boys getting angry the way I did. Which is perhaps why I saved my greatest anger for myself, furious with myself for being furious. Anger might have felt easy, but it didn’t feel good. It was lonely.

At least, that’s what I thought. As soon as I heard Kathleen Hanna yell that she wanted revolution, girl-style, now, I felt relieved. Far from warping my mind, it brought me comfort. She wasn’t just saying I could be angry — she was daring me to be. Her message was clear: You’re a girl, and you’re angry? You’re not alone.

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From middle school until college, not a week passed in which someone didn’t call me “bitch.” If I was lucky, it came from a friend: “Oh my God,” they’d tell me, “I thought you were such a bitch until I got to know you.” A backhanded compliment, but one I felt I deserved. What else were people supposed to think of an angry girl?

College seemed as good a time as any to change my reputation. I wanted to reinvent myself — become a gentler, less irritable, impulsive person. A few months in, I asked my friend if he had thought I was “such a bitch, until he got to know me.”

“No,” he said, immediately. “I thought you were an insecure girl pretending to be a bitch.”

I didn’t know what to say. Someone had seen through me. I wasn’t proud of my anger, but I wasn’t proud of what it was hiding, either.

The next day, I stood in front of my acting class and performed a monologue I’d written the night before. I’d never written about my own anger anywhere other than my diary. Everyone could see it, but nobody, I thought, could ever understand it. But when I finished performing, I looked at my classmates, and they were looking at me like no one ever had when I was angry. Their expressions were open, understanding. They were nodding, and some even smiling. I felt lighter, and for the first time in many years, proud of myself.

“Every time I see you in the hall, you look furious,” my directing teacher told me a few months later. “But every time you bring in a play to work on, it’s always something sweet and sensitive. I wonder what would happen if you brought some of that fury into your work, and some of that gentleness into your daily life.”

So I did. I wrote plays about fighting and fury, and I spent weekends and holidays volunteering and going to rallies for civil rights. For so long I’d seen my anger as something at odds with who I was: the sweet girl, forever lost. But I was starting to see it differently: Perhaps I had the fire not in spite of my sensitivity, but because of it. It gave me an inner barometer for injustice and hypocrisy, something I was quickly learning I would need as a woman. It also gave me inspiration.

I started seeking out other angry women’s work. Why had no one told me that The Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was originally a Nina Simone song? Why didn’t I know that Lesley Gore, singer of the proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me,” was an LGBTQ activist? Why did people think Bikini Kill would warp my mind?

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Maybe the rest of the world didn’t know what to do with angry women, either. We were “crazy,” we were “bitches,” or we were just ignored. No one had ever told us how to be angry in the right ways, because no one had expected us to be angry.

The night Trump won the election, I kicked a brick wall. It was the first time I’d hit something in years. All week I’d had a sinking feeling that it was going to happen, but it didn’t make it any easier to accept. A self-admitted sexual assaulter and friend to white supremacists was now the leader of the country, and we had been plunged into dark times. I was overwhelmed with fury.

But when my fury died down, in its place came something else: a feeling of clarity. The fire was keeping me going. I’d been politically active in the past, but this felt different. It was as if my anger finally had a purpose. I didn’t welcome this, I certainly didn’t want it, but somehow, I felt ready for it. It had not only given me creative inspiration, but the inspiration to fight for a better world.

All my life I’d wondered where the other angry girls were. Suddenly, they were everywhere. They were at friends’ houses making posters, using bullhorns at rallies, writing about what the world was now and what it could become. Sometimes we didn’t even need to say anything: I could look in their eyes and I saw their passion, their resolve. Maybe some of them had been angry in secret. Some of them had come it recently, feeling it for the first time. We had our different ways of showing it, but we all had it.

I spent so many years trying to fight my anger, to hide it, and that never worked. I don’t think it’s possible to ignore anger, and I don’t think it can be fought. But it can be controlled, transformed, used. It can be a tool. Anger can inspire art, and anger fuels activism. What if we knew girls could be angry? What if we showed them how to use it? What if we let them know that they weren’t alone?

These are dark times — and in dark times, our inner fire glows brightest.


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