Author of Good Neighbours, Sarah Langan, has written an incredibly insightful and thoughtful account of how women's rage has been percieved in fiction; a must-read as it is a deep collection of thoughts from the mind of a brilliant female author.
My fiction has often been hard to sell to publishers because it doesn’t fit neatly into a specific genre. The label horror turns off many of the very readers whose attention I’m trying to pique. My work doesn’t have the same tone as typical thrillers, and it’s too specific and plotty for typical literary fiction. But what most everything I write has in common, is that it tends to voice an underlying sense of injustice.
Some months ago, during a conversation at the launch on my novel Good Neighbors, the actor Hilarie Burton told me she felt my work was an articulation of feminine rage. I liked that. It sounded right.
Feminine rage isn’t new. But its depiction in fiction hasn’t typically been freely expressed. Women, particularly mothers, are supposed to be self-sacrificing and romantic and when they’re not these things, they’re bad. We could make the argument that Stephen King’s brilliant Carrie is an exception, but in truth, the woman with the most rage in that story is the unequivocally monstrous Margaret White. For her transgressions as bad mother, we’re all very happy, when she’s punished in the end.
It’s not easy, voicing women’s rage in fiction. They’re not likable when they’re flawed moms, or when they’re crappy to husbands who don’t deserve it. All the notes from editors and readers explain that main characters MUST be likable. So, likable we are, even if our depictions aren’t true to life. We make our women, specifically our mothers, docile and pleasant, except when fighting against something that threatens their loved ones. Meanwhile, John Updike’s Rabbit gets to leave his family and also feel sorry for himself, for having left his family. Nabakov’s most famous character gets to groom Lolita and run away with her. It seems a little unbalanced, yes?
There are early intimations in fiction that all is not as well as it seems. There’s my hero, Mary Wollenstonecraft, who made the case, as politely as possible, that women ought to be educated, and that the injuries to women are not caused by inherent inferiority, but lack of access.
I suspect she was furious and exhausted, but in order to make her case palatable to the male powers, her tone is that of a supplicant. It’s not surprising, then, that her daughter wrote Frankenstein. Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park has our heroine forced between a loveless marriage and a life of servitude. She picks servitude, because there’s just something in her, that won’t budge. I’d argue that this is her sense of injustice.
Her polite, unvoiced rage. Moving forward, there’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper,” and her feminist novel Moving the Mountain, in which she tries to rewrite the role of mothers in society, if not in real life, at least in fiction. There’s also Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, where our hero Lily Bart likewise refuses a loveless marriage because there’s something inside her, that just won’t compromise. But the narrative has evolved, because Lily’s not rewarded. Her choice results in disaster, and Wharton implicitly asks the audience: is this fair?
Moving forward, we’ve got Flannery O’Connor, whose complicated women characters brimmed with fury. Remember Hulga’s cringing hookup in the barn, where her fake leg is stolen by a bible salesman in “Good Country People”? Here, Hulga’s too smart and too angry to make sense in this small town, but the joke is still, nonetheless, on her.
We’ve also got Clarice Lispector, and Sylvia Plath, who each voice their personal unhappiness, though in their cases, the rage is directed inward. In 1956, we get Grace Metalious’ beautiful Peyton Place, a criminally underrated forerunner to Elana Ferrante’s novels, about power and abuse in small town America, from the perspective of two powerless young women. It’s here, in this novel, that we
start to feel the anger against, not a person or a circumstance, but an entire system. One girl is being sexually abused, the other doesn’t understand what’s happening, but does know, with fury and alienation, that nothing in this town makes any sense. Metalious is clear: these women don’t deserve this shit.
In the 1970s, the gorgeous, artistic 70s, rage gets real. Toni Morrison punches the decade in the face with Bluest Eye, a screed about unfairness and inequality. In 1974, Grace Paley’s women decide that divorce isn’t so bad, after all. And maybe sometimes, when they’ve had enough of their dumb kids, they just want to climb up a tree. In 1978, we start punching the patriarchy, specifically, with Alice Munro’s “Beggar Maid.”
Here, we meet an unassuming young woman, married to a kind but traditional man. The marriage seems unpleasant, but not overtly. Not in a way the woman seems to recognize. But the marriage ultimately ends. Years later, the man meets his former wife by happenstance and smiles at her, his former Beggar Maid. In turn, she bares her teeth in furious hatred. It’s then, that we realize how much that marriage sucked for her.
In 1979, we get both Octavia Butler’s Kindred, in which our hero is a time traveler, living both as a modern woman, and in the antebellum south, where she meets her ancestors, and comes to understand the furious indignity of complicity. We also get Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber, in which a super mom saves her daughter from Bluebeard.
In 1987’s’s Beloved, we finally get some meat on rage’s bones, as the novel asks us to sympathize with a woman who murdered her children. Two years earlier, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale predicted a future in which women are enslaved by a corrupt theocracy. In its most memorable moment, the women take their frustrations out on a scapegoat man, literally tearing him apart.
I’m probably wrong about this, but I don’t see much by the way of feminine rage, manifested and articulated via main characters in the 1990s or early 2000s. It was the era of Bridget Jones and Fight Club (such a good book! But that’s not our rage.). The exception I found is Patrick McGrath’s wonderful Asylum, in which a mom has a breakdown, and watches with indifference as her son drowns. We’re not asked to sympathize with her. We’re just asked to acknowledge that she’s real, her feelings are real, and given her circumstances, those feelings make sense.
These examples, beautiful as they are, tend to involve women with reasons for their behavior. They’re not selfish. They’re not finding themselves. They’re suffering under extraordinary circumstances and they hold their rage in a quiet place. They’re trying to be good people, and especially good mothers, despite all.
Plenty of men write about women’s struggles under the yolk of patriarchy and I’d argue that these stories are both trenchant and vital. But it’s rare that these stories articulate feminine rage. These women fight against unfair circumstances. They’re heroic. Nothing inside them is broken and furious.
But rage has gotten really interesting over the last few years. Elana Ferrante popped up, and the girl friendships in her stories aren’t absolutely loving. The mothers, caged themselves, aren’t giving. They’re punishing. Gillian Flynn’s pissed-off and lashing out main women exist without apology. One could argue that it’s the bad mom who initiates a ripple effect of violence and pain through all the rest of the characters in Sharp Objects. But an equally cogent argument is that it’s the system at fault, for forcing them all to smile and play nice. That insists they dress pretty, while inside, they’re the screaming sows at the nearby slaughterhouse.
Megan Abbot runs with this tact. In her stories, everybody’s flawed, and the girls are out for blood. Rory Power’s girls are so mad that their rage has transformed their own bodies, a modern Cronenberg. Then we’ve got the truly unlikable main characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction. These chicks just hate everybody, and Moshfegh doesn’t apologize for it. She makes it funny. Raven Leilana’s main, rageful character Luster isn’t funny, but she’s self-aware, and so honest that it’s easy to identify with her, and easy to see why she’s imploding, and taking everyone with her that she can. They absolutely deserve it.
Then there’s Kim Jiyoung, born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo, in which our main character is so fed up with these jerks that she starts impersonating the voices of her mother and other women in her life, both dead and alive, who tell her husband, Enough is enough, You’re making my daughter sick. For writing this novel, Cho Nam-Joo got death threats.
Maybe it’s #metoo, or the backlash against the guy we elected in 2016, who made clear that he found women less important than men, but television has also started articulating feminine rage. Karen Kusama’s “Destroyer,” was remarkably ahead of its time. In it, a monster mom screws everything up, sees everything wrong, and is actively dangerous. It would do well, if released now. Or maybe not. Maybe we’re still not ready. There’s also Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” about women who seem like… actual women.
They hurt each other and other people. They’re lost, and maybe they won’t be found. They’re selfish and messy and working on it, like every real woman is working on it. Finally, we’ve got the brilliant “I May Destroy You.” It may be the most perfect limited series I’ve ever watched, ostensibly about a woman who got roofied and raped, but mostly about rage. About living within a system, and trying to change it without breaking yourself against it.
It’s a fun time to be writing women. I’d argue that bad mothers are the final frontier that still needs cracking. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” made some headway in that respect with the 40-something Paula, who’s unfulfilled and takes the role of wife and mom far less seriously than she takes her favorite television shows. I’d love to see and read more along those lines.
It sometimes feels like the world is falling apart. We’ve got so much going wrong, that it’s hard to remember what’s going right. But a lot really is going right. We’ve come to a place in our development as a culture that we can self-reflect in increasingly meaningful ways. We can change, not just through the generations, but within generations.We can amend.
What’s happened in the last ten years is pretty fantastic.
What Big Teeth is a gothic horror written by Rose Szabo, and is available from today (July 6th, 2020)!