It took me until the age of twenty-three to understand what anger felt like.
My whole life I assumed I wasn’t someone who got angry – I could feel sad of course, I could be frustrated and hurt, but rage wasn’t something I could feel. Any time I got into an argument, any time I felt I had been betrayed, I stood there, fists balled up, and tears welling in my eyes. It wasn’t anger, it couldn’t be – angry girls don’t cry.
My tears made me feel weak. I reprimanded myself after every confrontation gone wrong, during which my carefully worded arguments were totally undermined by the tears leaking down my cheeks. I could never properly articulate what I wanted to say, because I was so busy fighting the urge to burst into tears. I was furious at myself for letting my emotions get the better of me – you should be angry! Not upset! I’ve never been good at confrontation, and these tears just proved to me that assertiveness was not my strong point. Resentments and hurt feelings were put to one side, as I tried to find other ways of dealing with them.
Last year I found myself watching Stranger Things. I hungrily devoured every episode, and like so many others I was spellbound by the character of Eleven. What struck me about Eleven was her fury – the trauma she had undergone her whole life had festered inside her, manifesting in the powers of telekinesis that she fought so hard to understand and control. These powers take a physical toll on her, like the iconic blood nose she so casually wiped away. But what I noticed more and more is that Eleven had to use her anger to access those powers, and to give her the strength she needed to use them – and when she was angry, she cried. When attacking the Demogorgen at the end of the first season, or closing the gate to The Upside Down at the end of the second, she was left physically exhausted and with tears streaming down her face. They were tears of fear, adrenaline and hurt, but they were also tears of rage, rage against the atrocities she had faced and the people who had put her through them.
Thinking about the times I have seen the portrayal of angry tears led me to another iconic onscreen moment – Kat Stratford’s speech at the end of 10 Things I Hate About You. We can all probably remember the first time we saw Kat stand in front of the class, reading her poem while her voice began to shake and the tears fell down her face. Here is a character who has been seen as the angry feminist prototype for much of the film – she is cool, smart and sarcastic, and basically everything I ever wanted to be. During that scene, we as an audience see her go through a myriad of emotions, and those tears are intermingled with humiliation, vulnerability, anger at Patrick and herself as well as sadness. Actress Julia Stiles improvised crying during filming, and its enduring power speaks as a testament to how relatable young women have found that moment in the decades since the film was released.
As I considered what these portrayals of angry female tears meant to me, I realised they were holding up a mirror to the feelings I had been experiencing my whole life. I had always explained away my tears by saying I mustn’t have been angry, but feeling some other emotion like hurt, sadness or fear. But as I saw these women crying onscreen I realised that my anger had been there all along, it just manifested in a way that I hadn’t recognised. I had been taught that anger looked like yelling, like smashing chairs, like slammed doors. My anger looked different – it looked like a shaking voice, a vision blurred through tears.
Speaking to one of my best friends about it, I realised that I was not alone in this fundamental misunderstanding of my own feelings. She too had taken years to realise that her rage was quieter, but no less furious, and that she didn’t need to see her own hot angry tears as anything less than another manifestation of her fury. How many of us have confused our anger for something else, or felt betrayed by the mechanics of our own bodies? In realising the power of this shared experience, I also need to acknowledge that my white privilege gives me opportunities to explore my feelings in ways that aren’t afforded to people of colour. It’s no coincidence that both Eleven and Kat were white women, making it so much easier for me to see myself reflected in them. Furthermore, Eleven’s friend Kali is a person of colour, whose anger the writers dismiss as being too destructive. I have to remember that as a white woman, my anger is viewed differently and though it is often diminished, my rage is forgiven more easily than it is for people of colour. If I am to reclaim my rage through my tears, I need to remember other people, those more marginalised and whose bodies transgress our white supremacist patriarchy in more dangerous ways than my own. I need to speak up when I see another woman written off as an “angry black woman”, and hold others accountable when they dismiss queer politics as “going too far”. And through this I will learn to give voice to my rage.
All my life, when I was written off as being “too emotional” I had accepted it and backed down. But no more. Now I know what my anger looks like. Now I know what my anger feels like. I am learning how to use my anger in a way that allows me to express my rage without allowing others to dismiss it. It’s hard to remember, and I do not succeed every time, but I will persevere. I remind myself every day that my tears are not my weakness, but an expression of something powerful that lives inside me. I will speak through my cracking voice and keep my gaze level. My tears will be an ocean that will not be swept away.
Eliza Quinn is a performer, writer and general maker-of-things from Melbourne. She is a sub-editor at Girls Will Be Girls and you can find more of her work over at her blog. She has a passion for velvet dresses, cookie dough and feminism.