Soraya Chemaly: Who's Allowed To Get Angry?

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 1:56 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reframing Anger.

About Soraya Chemaly's TED Talk

Women are often discouraged from expressing anger — and if they do, they're penalized. Writer Soraya Chemaly explains the ways women are socialized to suppress anger.

About Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly is a writer and director of the Women's Media Center Speech Project, an initiative dedicated to expanding women's civic and political participation.

Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, The Guardian, and TIME. Soraya is the author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger. She writes and speaks regularly about gender, media, tech, education, women's rights, sexual violence and free speech.

She currently serves on the national boards of the Women's Media Center and Women, Action and the Media, as well as on the advisory councils of the Center for Democracy and Technology, VIDA, and Common Sense Media.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - ideas about anger, what it means, why we have it and where it comes from. But there's one important question here. Who actually gets to be angry?

SORAYA CHEMALY: Who gets to be angry with power? Who gets to be angry with recognition? Who gets to be angry with accolades?

RAZ: This is Soraya Chemaly.

CHEMALY: I mean, look at our last election, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

CHEMALY: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could be really enraged, and they could tap into populist anger, and they could look unruffled and red in the face and pounding podiums. That's an immense advantage in the political world. For women to do that is fundamentally, still, uncomfortable for people.

RAZ: Soraya is a writer and the director of the Women's Media Center Speech Project.

CHEMALY: So a woman like Hillary Clinton who tried to remain unruffled and calm and didn't show that kind of intense anger was then inauthentic and unlikable. And, you know, it's just this very narrow path of expression. So we're - we are, as women, told that we have all of this emotionality, and then that emotionality is weaponized against us if we seek power or have ambition or exercise authority.

RAZ: Which Soraya says starts happening at a really early age. For her, it was in elementary school.

CHEMALY: I remember one year, the thing I heard the most from adults was lower your voice. Like, you're being just too loud in general. And then the next year, which I think was maybe fifth grade, I won the school prize for courtesy. And in retrospect, it really does make me laugh because I think, here I am. I'm being told, you're too loud. You're too boisterous. You're making too much noise. You're getting too much attention. And I was like, well, apparently, this is bad.

It wasn't really until I was in my 40s that I kind of came to and thought, what is going on here? Because the way I'm feeling is not X. It's not Y. It's not healthy for sure. So what is it? And it took me a long time to say, oh, you know what that is? I forgot what that was. I remember it as a very young child, but it's really anger. And in my experience, a lot of us are taught to do what I did, which is to set it aside.


RAZ: Soraya Chemaly picks up her idea from the TED stage.


CHEMALY: Think about my mother for a minute. When I was 15, I came home from school one day, and she was standing on a long veranda outside of our kitchen holding a giant stack of plates. Imagine how dumbfounded I was when she started to throw them like Frisbees...


CHEMALY: ...Into the hot humid air. When every single plate had shattered into thousands of pieces on the hill below, she walked back in and she said to me, cheerfully, how was your day?


CHEMALY: Now you can see - you can see how a child would look at an incident like this and think that anger is silent and isolating, destructive and even frightening, especially, though, when the person who's angry is a girl or a woman. The question is why?


CHEMALY: You know, my mom was not a person who could express anger at all because she thought that defied her sense of being a good person and a lady. And I've heard this from other people over and over and over again - that it's so incompatible, the feeling of anger, with the sense of femininity. So when girls, even when they show anger, people have a tendency to say they're sad. And sadness and anger are very different as attributes, as behaviors.

RAZ: You know, it's interesting because anger is a human emotion.


RAZ: We all - it's like we're all born. We all die. We all - most of us have the ability to experience sadness and happiness and anger. It is a universal human emotion. Essentially, what you're saying is that it's also a privilege. It's...


RAZ: It's an emotion that is a privilege.

CHEMALY: It's an entitlement, you know? And we do all have this emotion, and it's a very important one. It's a signal emotion, right? I mean, as humans, if we didn't have anger, what would we do in the face of threat or indignity, injustice? You know, anger is the emotional response to those circumstances, and we are asking it - we're asking entire swaths of people to pretend they don't have anger or to not show anger.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, we just heard from Ryan Martin about how anger is there to alert us to things, right? How, you know, it's really important to feel it and to find healthy ways to express it. But actually, it's not that simple, right? Like, that privilege doesn't apply to most people.

CHEMALY: No. I don't think it applies to most people, and I think this idea of anger as a moment in time that is more likely to be rage-filled is really unhelpful to most people because, in fact, anger, for a lot of people, is this simmering quality that they don't name, and it becomes manifest in their bodies, right?


CHEMALY: So it will come as absolutely no surprise, probably, to the people in this room that women report being angrier in more sustained ways and with more intensity than men do. But we also have to find socially palatable ways to express the intensity of emotion that we have. So we do several things. We use minimizing language. We're frustrated; no, really, it's OK. We self-objectify and lose the ability to even recognize the physiological changes that indicate anger. Mainly, though, we get sick.

Anger has now been implicated in a whole array of illnesses that are casually dismissed as women's illnesses - higher rates of chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, disordered eating, mental distress, anxiety, self-harm, depression. Anger affects our immune systems, our cardiovascular systems. Some studies even indicate that it affects mortality rates, particularly in black women with cancer.

I am sick and tired of the women I know being sick and tired. Our anger brings great discomfort. But we have an enormous power in this. Because feelings are the purview of our authority and people are uncomfortable with our anger, we should be making people comfortable with the discomfort they feel when women say no unapologetically. We can take emotions and think in terms of competence and not gender.


RAZ: How do we even start to change that dynamic?

CHEMALY: So it requires - really requires a social commitment, a societal commitment to rethinking the way we socialize our children, starting at the earliest ages - right? - because we have a society that is remarkably gendered. Our labor is gendered. Our language is gendered. Our expectations of people's roles and responsibilities are gendered.

They're also racialized. But even within demographic groups, different ethnic groups, we still see the imposition of patriarchal gender norms. And we still expect boys to be boys and girls to be girls. And these differentials really matter. They begin so early. And so I would say, yes, we need to start as early as possible. It's thinking through what all of that means.

RAZ: I mean, we're in this kind of moment - right? - where there is actually an opportunity for women leaders to express anger and for that not to be judged maybe in the way that it was in previous years, right? Like, anger is just the rational response, right?

CHEMALY: Mmm hmm.

RAZ: So, I mean, anger could be a force that could bring about much needed change, right?

CHEMALY: Well, I mean, I think that's undeniable that resistance to the Trump administration has been led by angry women. I think that, you know, whether you're talking about the science strike or teacher strikes or, you know, the various marches that have been held - some, the most populated in history, as far as some recordings are - you know, you see the power of anger. And you see the power of peaceful anger, you know?

It never ceases to amaze me. I just had to do this again for a presentation. If you Google anger or angry, the first images you get are of white men yelling or breaking things. If you Google anger management, which is a whole other topic of conversation, you also get pictures of white men breaking things. And, you know, first of all, most of us are not white men breaking things. We don't experience anger that way. And in order for us to understand the power of anger as a social force, we need to recognize all of the ways it manifests itself, not just this one narrowcast image of this kind of person unhinged because that's unhelpful to all of us.


RAZ: That's Soraya Chemaly. She's the writer of the book "Rage Becomes Her: The Power Of Women's Anger." You can see her full talk at

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