I’ve seen the clip a few times now. Anya Taylor-Joy is on a press tour, promoting her movie The Menu in a BBC interview. “I have a thing about feminine rage,” she says. She kicks the air playfully as she speaks. “This is no disrespect for any writer. I get a lot of men doing really terrible things and women sitting silently while one tear slowly falls.”
Taylor-Joy continues, “And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We get mad and angry. I remember pulling Mark [The Menu’s director] aside and saying, ‘I’m really sorry, but the only way to play this truthfully is for me to attack him.’”
The video has gained nearly three million likes on TikTok, as well as a flood of supportive comments. We’re sick of being so reserved to avoid being called crazy, one viewer writes. Honestly, the way the media portrays our emotions and our fights is too dainty, says another.
These viewers are not alone in their frustration. For as long as I can remember, my anger has been an inconvenience at best and shameful at worst. Before my first high school debate tournament, the team captain pulled me aside and said, “Boys are going to yell at you in-round. They’re allowed to yell. But if you act like them, the judges will think you’re a bitch.” She ended up being right. Male opponents would consistently raise their voices, talk over me, or cut me off when I asked a question, and my debate partner would make me take prep time to calm down. A few years later, when I shouted at a man for grabbing my ass, some members of my family chided me, saying that I should “just let it go.” My anger made them more uncomfortable than his sexual harassment.
This is why Anya Taylor-Joy’s interview caught my attention. It’s why the comments are full of women agreeing with her sentiment. It’s why the interview went viral in the first place. We have found ourselves in a feminine rage craze.
TikTok and YouTube are saturated with compilations of angry women characters: Carrie unleashing the “curse of blood” at prom; Megan Fox seducing, attacking, and eating men in Jennifer’s Body; Toni Colette arguing with her onscreen son in Hereditary. Over the past year, female anti-heroes have taken film and television by storm. Onscreen depictions of feminine rage like Yellowjackets, which the show’s creators have described as an all-female version of Lord of the Flies, work to show that women are just as capable of brutality as men. And by circulating clips of these women, often with kaleidoscopic filters and a girlboss Lizzo anthem in the background, the internet validates our love for feminine rage by making anger fashionable.
The most obvious reason we crave feminine rage is its subversion of gendered connotations of violence. Women are most often passive characters or, worse, victims. In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison interrogates the relationship between suffering and womanhood. There is something that draws people toward women in agony, from Miss Havisham burning alive in her wedding dress to Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven. “We can’t look away,” Jamison writes. “We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.” When our culture has spent so long infatuated with female suffering, we should not be surprised by the surging popularity of female rage. If a woman hurts someone on screen, women in the audience will at least be relieved that, for once, they are not the ones being hurt. This subversion of expectations is enough to feel like progress.
This is not to say that the trope of the angry woman is anything new. Femme fatales have always been popular. Take Medea from Euripides’s play of the same name, who takes revenge on Jason by killing his new wife and their two sons. Or take Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, who frames her husband for her murder after she learns he is having an affair. But feminine rage, just like sadness, is all too easy to fetishize; Medea and Amy Dunne are both examples of the way a woman’s anger has typically been, as Dr. Lisa Coulthard at the University of British Columbia puts it, a “hyper-personal revenge in response to rape or loss of a child.” Medea, for example, only embarks on her violent rampage after her husband leaves her for another woman. Dr. Coulthard points out that in Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s character is seeking revenge on the assassins who have destroyed her unborn child. These depictions of female rage support “stereotyped notions of female purity, emotionalism and ties to child rearing. [Characters'] violent vengeance is deemed appropriate or acceptable because of the level of violence that precipitated their actions,” Dr. Coulthard says.
I’ll be the first to admit that I love angry women. Whenever I talk about The Vegetarian by Han Kang, I tell people that I enjoyed it because I enjoy stories about women going insane. It’s the same reason I love Amy Dunne’s “Cool Girl” monologue from Gone Girl. There is something visceral about watching these fictional characters—women who harbor so much anger, sadness, and heartbreak that one day it boils over. I think about them. I think about every mean girl who made fun of me in middle school. I think about every perverted man who has catcalled me on the street. I think about my racist eighth-grade history teacher. I think about the condescending teenagers I debated in high school. And I imagine what would have happened if I had spoken up, or cussed them out, or screamed, or flipped the table, or punched someone, or at least allowed myself to look angry. I think about this, and I can live vicariously through these fictional women. It is cathartic, and it is freeing.
But it is that very catharsis that makes fictional depictions of feminine rage a cop-out. As video essayist Alice Cappelle explains, “In the context of female rage, cathartic movies serve to create a space for that anger to exist. But ultimately, that goal is for you to leave that anger behind and find peace. To go back to your life and live hand-in-hand with patriarchy again.”
In other words, these characters and their stories are like pillows to scream into. It is satisfying to release your anger, but there is a reason you scream into a pillow and not out loud. No one actually wants to confront the screaming. No one actually wants to acknowledge how angry you are. We can enjoy the fantasy of showing our emotions for a short time, but once the lights in the theater come up, we must return to a world in which we are expected to censor ourselves.
I’m not saying the world would be a better place if all women unleashed their internal rage and became violent. Even if I had the opportunity to attack every person who has ever made me angry, I would not—not because of the patriarchy but because it would be immature. But I do think that fans of the feminine rage trope should be aware that these films and television shows are just that: fiction. We can enjoy the catharsis, but we also cannot expect it to signal real social change.
I wish I could conclude by offering some solution, by saying how exactly we get to a world in which women are free to express their ugly emotions. But when I became captain of my high school debate team, I gave the freshman girls the exact same advice that my captain had given me before. When I saw the man who grabbed my ass again, I greeted him with a hug and acted as though nothing had happened. Being unashamed of my anger is easier said than done. So I will continue to watch the TikTok compilations, and I will read the “Cool Girl” monologue from Gone Girl, and I will watch Anya Taylor-Joy lunge at her onscreen boyfriend in The Menu, and I will hope that the catharsis is enough for now.