Female furious: Why women’s anger is demonised

Pragya Agarwal’s Hysterical explores how social conditioning, not biology, shapes how we express ourselves, and why women pay the price for anger.

Published : Mar 21, 2024 14:39 IST - 4 MINS READ

The tennis player Serena Williams talks to referee Brian Earley during the women’s final of the US Open on September 8, 2018.

The tennis player Serena Williams talks to referee Brian Earley during the women’s final of the US Open on September 8, 2018. | Photo Credit: Adam Hunger

Why is male anger valued but female anger derided? Can emotional women get ahead? Is expression universal or culturally specific? 

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions
By Pragya Agarwal
Pages: 464
Price: Rs.750

Hysterical: Exploding The Myth of Gendered Emotions by Pragya Agarwal poses these and other questions in a sweeping exploration of “the gendered social and cultural constructs of emotions.” Agarwal, a behaviour and data scientist and visiting professor at Loughborough University in the UK, has previously written on motherhood, race, and unconscious bias. Her latest work is another attempt to engage with our preconceived notions about the world. 

The title is a nod to the pejorative term used throughout history for women: hysteria. Agarwal writes: “‘Hysteria’ itself derives from the word ‘hysterikos’ or ‘from the womb’.” The Ancient Greeks believed that the womb was the source of intense female feeling. This early discrediting of women’s minds and bodies continued through the Roman Age all the way down to the Middle Ages. Hysteria was variously a malady, a malfunction, and a nuisance. Over time, it came to be masked in medical language, and carried the legitimacy of a scientific diagnosis. Agarwal writes: “The long and dark history of hysteria is also a history of men in authority and power using women’s emotions to diminish their own sense of autonomy by labelling them unruly, wild and unpredictable.”

Price of emotions

Women are penalised for both being too much and still not enough. Women pay the price for expressing certain kinds of emotions (anger), but men do not. Women are assumed to be caring and nurturing, whereas men who show these traits are praised and valued. 

Expectations of women’s expression have historically run along gendered lines and Agarwal argues this is not because women are empirically more emotional or hardwired differently in the brain. Biology is not destiny, social conditioning is. 

Agarwal notes that the stereotyping of women’s behaviours has historically hampered them. Whether it comes to labelling women as witches, or dismissing female politicians or ignoring women’s pain, society is uncomfortable with female expression and is quick to extract penalties from those who appear to cross socially sanctioned boundaries. 

Women are equally implicated in demonising their own gender. Whether it was white women voters who abandoned Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election or a handful of early female physicians who bought into the tropes about hysterical women. 

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Agarwal marshals a range of evidence through history and geography to home in on her central thesis. We are taken through the Stoic tradition (“in Seneca’s view, women were more prone to grief than men”), the culture of “conduct books” in 1700s England (“a backlash aimed at keeping women from becoming too independent, and destabilising the social structures”) and the New England witch trials (“they were a warning to women of what would happen if they acted in any way counter to their roles as dutiful wives and mothers, widows and pious virgins”). She also parses literature and politics to present her case. 

Biology as a factor

Agarwal almost totally dismisses biology as a factor to explain gendered behaviours, although there is substantial work that indicates that men and women’s brains on average, tend to differ. However, in her reckoning, society and culture are the fundamental arbiters of how and why we behave the way we do. 

The most compelling chapter is the final one: “Such a Doll (Emotional Technologies)”, where Agarwal surveys how technology is absorbing and replicating human biases. This is because in spaces like the sex-tech industry, 70 per cent of sex-product companies are run by men, who serve about a 90 per cent male clientele. Which is how we end up with fembots that are docile, caring, and sexually available. “People rate robots more positively if they show stereotypical gender attributes and personalities,” Agarwal writes. “People also assign gender-typical roles and emotions to robots.” The future then, looks a lot like the past. 

Do gendered constraints determine the way we think, act and feel? According to this analysis, the answer is a resounding yes. Hysterical is ambitious and comprehensive, drawing from a range of disciplines, locations and studies across the decades. But that is perhaps its weakness, too. At 360 pages it feels bloated, even repetitive, packed with too many findings in service of the same points. In contemporary discourse we have become so accustomed to feminist analyses—terms like “emotional labour”, “difficult women”, and “toxic masculinity” that the conclusions itself, though worth repeating, do not feel path-breaking. 

Bhavya Dore is a freelance journalist who writes for various Indian and international publications.

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