Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The Top Ten Explanations for an Angry Woman

September 29th, 2009 by Chris Bobel
USA Today reports Serena Williams deal with P&G

USA Today reports Serena Williams deal with P&G

10) She is upset and wants someone to know

9) Something about estrogen levels

8 ) She is about to start her period

7) Matter over mind…her body has taken over

6) I don’t know, but she will feel better in a week or less

5) Hormones

4) Women do that about every 28 days

3) Time for tampons

2)We gave up trying to figure that out a long time ago, but it will pass

1) PMS, of course.

I know I am not the only one exasperated with the easy dismissal of women’s anger as little more than PMS.

Sometimes (and I’d venture, MUCH of the time), an angry woman IS simply, well, an angry woman.

But WE (culturally-speaking), tend to immediately link women’s anger with PMS. This is lazy and effectively trivializes and silences women. While I don’t dispute that hormonal fluctuations can and often do explain the TIMING and/or SEVERITY of a woman’s emotional expression, I argue that is it important, no IMPERATIVE, that we resist the temptation to immediately attribute a woman’s rage to the biological.

On 12 September 2009, Serena Williams verbally abused a line judge during the US Open. In the following days, the blogosphere hosted a hungry feast on the event. Racists had their usual deplorable field day; biological determinists joined in for the fun. Bloggers (many of them devoted fans) breezily attributed Serena’s outburst (and sure, it WAS a doozy), to PMS. One blogger referred to the incident as “Serena’s PMS Moment.”

“It was a total PMS moment…. completely unexplainable…

Another blogger wrote,

“Serena has already told the world that she has very difficult periods, in particular, menstrual migraines. And where there are menstrual migraines, PMS poisoning can’t be too far away.”

One more sample:

“She had a bad day on court, but to me, it just sounds like classic PMS emotional roller-coastering.

Then on 21 September 2009, Procter & Gamble’s announced that Serena Williams will headline a series of their “Outsmart Mother Nature” ads (print and video). Williams, says, P&G, was chosen because she “represents the energy, independence and strength of women they want to celebrate.” (And P&G supports her apology for her outburst.)

See the ad here. (Great fodder for another post, another time.)

Even though this deal was in works months (longer?) before the US Open and thus, unrelated to Serena’s “PMS Moment,” the press, like USA Today, still implicitly makes the link.

Take a good look at this story.  Notice the juxtaposition of a very angry (and very powerful) Serena Williams underneath the brand name TAMPAX. No cognitive dissonance there, right? Even funny, as in, ‘that’s rich….now Ms PMS is the spokesperson for a MENSTRUAL product. Good one, Tampax!”

Yesterday, I entered PMS + Serena Williams + US Open into google and I got 45, 000 hits. The feast continues.

Maybe Serena was PMSing that fateful day. Maybe not. I am not in a position to evaluate what motivated her to come unhinged. But neither are the legions of others who think they’ve got it all figured out, or worse, code anger as PMS, reducing a woman’s emotional expression to a “PMS moment.”

I realize that often, people use PMS to (generously?) excuse a woman’s anger (as in ‘she didn’t mean it, she was just hormonal’). But that’s no better, really. Anger should be neither erased nor excused. Anger is powerful stuff. Anger is energy. Anger is information.

Again, let me be clear: I am not dismissing the reality of hormonally-enhanced emotional expression. Just yesterday, I had two mini meltdowns of my own (tellingly, days before my period will start). But I’ve learned to pay attention to WHAT I am upset about, even if the HOW and WHEN of my expression can be tied to a particular phase in my menstrual cycle. My anger isn’t merely the consequence of my body’s mysterious workings. My anger, at times, is the product of a complex interplay between the biological and the emotional. But in any case, my anger is real and it shouldn’t be explained away.

I agree with Christiane Northrup who asserts that in a culture that discourages women from productively expressing their anger, the big A goes underground and often gets expressed as manipulation. Thus, it is no surprise that women rage when they are premenstrual. The hormonal fluctuations, in a sense, may push us to express ourselves, literally, in spite of ourselves. If ‘nice ladies’ don’t act pissed, then the logic of “the devil (in the body) made me do it” lets us off the hook.  The problem with this thinking is when we get angry, we are not taken seriously.

I don’t want to be let off the hook. I want to be (and should be) accountable for my anger (just as Serena Williams should be accountable for hers). Wasn’t John McEnroe accountable for his ridiculous outbursts on the court during his heyday?

Accountability–I advocate for more of that, including  being more accountable to the women in our lives.

Psychologist Jane Ussher and author of Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body (Routledge, 2006) has found, though her in-depth interviews with British and Australian women, that women’s premenstrual anger is often connected to the normative expectations placed on women, namely to be selflessly nurturing of others (often at the expense of practicing self care). Many women are exhausted by responding to everyone’s needs but their own and often, they harbor a lot of repressed rage about this. When women eventually let loose, they are pathologized.  Women aren’t (really) mad in this formulation, they are sick.

Guess what follows? Treatment with psychotropic meds–that is, ‘scripts instead of getting to the root of what makes us mad.  Fix the faulty body (never mind the faulty social expectations).

When Serena Williams acted out, the search for explanations landed us, far too quickly, at the site of her body. Analysis done.

How long before the makers of Sarafem ( an antidepressant prescribed for women with severe PMS ) reach out to Serena as THEIR spokesperson? (I am being just a little facetious here). As long as we blame women’s bodies for their behavior–including and perhaps, especially their “bad” behavior, we aren’t listening to women. Rather, we are perpetuating the view of women as unstable beings ruled by their bodies and in desperate need of fixing.

We can do better than that.

4 responses to “The Top Ten Explanations for an Angry Woman”

  1. Laura Wershler says:

    Chris, Thanks for drawing attention to the issue of women’s anger and how it is too readily dismissed as irrelevant (like the menstrual cycle is irrelevant?), especially when it is expressed premenstrually. And thanks for mentioning Jane Ussher’s book and research. She notes that PMS is, for most women, a “relational issue”. How might women benefit from this awareness? U.K. author Miranda Gray offers a positive spin on how women express themselves in different ways as they progress through their cycles. Check out her book: The Optimized Woman: Using the menstrual cycle to achieve success and fulfillment. Here’s the link: Reframe, reframe, reframe.

  2. Marie Classon says:

    I think anger is anger. Some women just are simply angry women. It has happened to several friends of mine in their 40’s and 50’s. It’s sad. They have sour attitudes that have nothing to do with their body but hate men, or are perpetually frustrated, or see the world as owing them something or other.

  3. Katherine says:

    Marie, it is fortunate that you obviously do not suffer from post ovulation anger. Four days every month for the last 20 years I have locked myself away or not booked appointments (if I have to attend work) for fear that I will say or do something that I have no control over. On these days, it takes everything not to break a plate in anger or at worst committ suicide for feeling worthless. The remaining 24 days, I am a very calm, relaxed and patient person. On any day, even the angry ones, I am deeply in love with my husband and grateful for my family and positive about life and the world. You only really understand anger and emotion related to hormones if you have been through it, have learnt to deal with and every month continue to have a life affected by it. Even then, it is still sometimes hard to understand.

  4. […] of Chris’ most recent post, the video of Serena Williams’ new ad for Tampax just popped up in my RSS feed. You can check […]

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