The Gendered Privileges of Emotions

Anger is the emotion of the privileged.

There. I said it.

meme-privilegeIf you’re not familiar with the politics of privilege, it’s basically the idea that with certain categories of humanness come certain privileges, or gifts. For example, being white in the USA means never feeling like people with a skin color comparable to yours are not well represented on television. Too abstract? How about this, being a cis-man in the US means you have the privilege of using a bathroom designated for men without fear someone will be violent with you because you chose to use that restroom. Ok, ok, here’s an easy one, being rich in America means you have the privilege of going to the doctor when you’re sick.

This entry isn’t about privilege in general though. Much has been written about white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, white heterosexual male privilege, and even how to talk about privilege. In the US, generally speaking, white, Christian, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle-to-upper class, cis-men hold the most privilege, and anyone falling into any of those categories holds some. If you really want to get into it read the article up there on the politics of privilege. Hell, just google any identifier + privilege and marvel at the results. What I want to focus on here is the ways in which expressing specific emotions in American society are privileged according to gender.

In dominant American culture masculinity and femininity (as if there is only one of each) are opposites and thus the people who are “supposed to” embody these characteristics are also opposites, i.e. men vs. women. Name some characteristic emotions of women or femininity. Go ahead, I won’t be offended.

Ok, maybe I will be, but that’s not your fault, it’s society’s, so if you’re helping to change socially constructed gender roles, don’t worry about it, lots of things offend me. Moving on.

What emotions would you prescribe for this baby?

What emotions would you prescribe for this baby?

Emotions normally associated with women: sadness, fear, love.

Happiness seems to be the only gender-neutral emotion, which is awesome, since happiness is what everyone deserves.

Emotions normally associated with men: anger. Full stop.

I know you’re thinking, “Men are allowed and even expected to love too.” Yes, but not as much as women. Men are expected to tell a crying son to keep his chin up, and never to tell their male friends they love them. (Just think about how much crap a guy in high school gets for writing a love poem for his girlfriend!) Men who are loving are often subject to ridicule and emasculated because obviously the worst thing you can call a man is a woman. Some of the world’s most influential men–John Lennon, Gandhi, MLK Jr. and JFK–were all assassinated for telling people to love one another. How much nicer would the world be if everyone could and would express all the love they really feel?!

Newton PoliceNow, when it comes to negative emotions like sadness, women hold nearly all the cards. Women are stereotyped as overly emotional and thus are expected, or at least allowed, to cry, scream and become “hysterical” from sadness. Men are not allowed to cry because they are sad or scream because they are scared. Again, much of the time either reaction (no matter how primal) will result in being ridiculed for expressing something “feminine.” Obviously there are exceptions to every rule like this heartbreaking photo of police officers embracing after clearing the scene at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. But exceptions do not make the rule.

Sentencing differencesWomen, on the other hand, are not allowed to express anger. According to some prominent politicians, anger is not ladylike. Indeed even police officers, judges and the legal system as a whole are much more comfortable seeing women in the victim role rather than as aggressors, as evidenced by the generally ridiculous sentences many women receive when they kill an abuser in self-defense. Sometimes the sentences are the result of a lack of knowledge that domestic violence is not always physical, but even in a high profile murder case the victim’s reality is often overshadowed. In some states even sentencing for first-time non-violent offenders is absurd. Women’s incarceration rates have grown over 600% since 1980, a direct result of the War on Drugs and punitive Three Strikes laws, while abuse of women in prisons is rampant across the nation.

Obviously a considerably higher percentage of prison inmates are men. While it does seem that statistically men just commit more crimes than women, this is directly due to the thinking that says that masculinity must be expressed through overt displays of power and domination and often the kind of anger and aggression that lead to violence. Men are allowed to be angry, yell, beat their chests, use threatening language, and even commit overt acts of violence. In any situation though it is the person or people in power who have the privilege of getting angry: marginalized voices are not allowed to yell. Indeed when women do express anger they are chastised and labeled man-hating feminist lesbians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, (well, except for the hating part, that gets us nowhere) but dividing marginalized groups is the easiest way for dominant groups to retain their power.

Despite the fact that the public is generally more comfortable seeing men as violent and women as victims, even when women are frequently sexually assaulted they receive little to no help, are put on trial for their sexual histories and rarely get justice. There are lots of us working to end domestic violence and sexual assault, and you can do your part too, by demanding the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. As we leave behind the wonder and horror of 2012 I wish you all a happy, equal 2013. Have a safe New Year’s celebration and do your damnedest to break out of the cage!

Regardless where any of us sits in this picture, we are all inside the cage.

Regardless where any of us sits in this picture, we are all inside the cage.


About feministactivist

Many words describe me but none more so than activist. I am dedicated to equality of all people and have a special focus on gender issues including reproductive justice, sexual violence, and strategic nonviolent action. View all posts by feministactivist

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