Cause of ambivalence:
My emotions (or being dismissed as an emotional woman)
"Dear emotions, I love how you make me feel. I hate how you make me look. AY❤"
In a tissue box display at the pharmacy.
I often try to deny it, but I’m a crier. I feel my emotions so physically that it is virtually impossible for me to repress them. Intense feelings come out of me in ugly bursts of anger or wet blubbers of tears. My face is never a mask, it is a jumbotron of emotion. I hate to be written off as the emotional girl, so I have learned to experience my most extreme emotions privately, and by privately I usually mean in the nearest bathroom. Women’s restrooms are like a safe heaven for tears. There was a time in my life when I would try to learn from books like If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You, written by stone-faced fashion reality star Kelly Cutrone. While the book ended up being more of a memoir than a guide to being a badass, I bought it for the title because part of me wanted to be like Kelly Cutrone who (according to reality TV) shows no fear and takes no bullshit from anyone. It seemed like a better alternative to being the emotional girl.
Alas, real emotions are messy and hard to curate. When asked what themes she would be exploring in the Julie Ruin album, Run Fast (2013), Kathleen Hanna answered: “Anger. A lot of anger about things I haven't been able to express and how anger is usually just hiding sadness so after I write an angry song, I usually write a really sad song.” Hanna’s statement made me wonder why anger and sadness are so difficult to express, so linked, and so interchangeable? I often cry when I’m angry and I yell when I’m sad. The crying makes me look fragile when I want to appear strong; the yelling makes me seem irrational when I want to be taken seriously. This seemingly uncontrollable reversal in the expression of my emotions is frustrating for me and confusing for others. Yet, I wonder if emotional control and transparency is worth coveting or if something else is at stake here.
Human emotion is an affective state, a reaction to something or someone. Thus, controlled emotions imply some sort of performance, manipulation or repression of a reactive state. We spend our days watching emotions being performed on television, in advertisements, and even in our daily lives. Daily common courtesies, pleases and thank you’s, smiles to strangers, are all performances of happy states. No one questions the performances that are polite and mild, it is the loud outbursts that make us uncomfortable.
As I mentioned earlier, emotions are often misinterpreted, especially when they come out of a woman. Feminine emotions are dismissed as irrationality or hysterics. The unpredictability of the emotional woman makes her untrustworthy. When she tries to stand up for herself, a negotiation takes place that usually begins with sentences like “well you know how women are.”
Rebecca Solnit expressed this perfectly in her article Men Explain Things to Me: “I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.”
Honest emotion is seen as subjective, yet controlled emotion is seen as truth. Truth, it seems, should be expressed politely, calmly, and by men.
In the documentary The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna talks about the skepticism she faced from doctors when she would complain about debilitating physical pain, only to be told she had anxiety (another word for you’re just an emotional woman). It turns out she had lyme disease that went undiagnosed until someone actually decided to listen to her. As Hanna tells this and other stories of emotional skepticism, she states: “There is this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth, it's the truth. And when as a woman I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way i'll be perceived. Like I feel like there's always the suspicion around a woman's truth; the idea that you're exaggerating.”
So what is the solution? Should women try harder to be less emotional/ more “rational”/ more like men? Is that the only way we will be taken seriously and treated equally?
When I was in grad school, I almost had to repeat my third semester because of my aversion to public emotion. It was a difficult time for me personally and I felt emotionally overwhelmed. In other words, all I wanted to do that week was cry. Yet, it was an important time in my academic career and I really wanted to be taken seriously. The last thing I wanted was for my professors to see me in tears, so I repressed them the only way I knew how: I stopped talking. I shut myself off completely; I nodded quietly through my evaluations like a good little girl, only to be told days later, that the faculty felt I lacked confidence and direction. Meanwhile, I had never been surer of my work, but had failed to convey my own certainty by shutting myself up. I had tried so hard to control my emotions that I ended up being my own worst enemy. So I did the only thing I could to fix the mess I made: I had a complete and utter meltdown in front of the program co-chairs, and cried like I had never cried before, fighting for my work between every snotty sniffle. When my final exhibition opened the next semester, one of the co-chairs ran up to me and said: “You were right, you were ready to graduate!” I guess, sometimes, you just have to suck it up and let your inner crying girl take the lead.
Perhaps it is the undefined and unpredictable nature of emotions that make them so easy to dismiss. Perhaps it is the fact that emotions are so linked to femininity and frivolity that they are not taken seriously in our society. Human emotions are so mutable, changeable, unexplainable, but does that necessarily make them irrational and worthless? It will take a long time for our society’s gender norms to be equal enough to allow for emotional women to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Yet, we are not doing ourselves a favor by trying to act like the guys, who aren’t any happier in their repressed emotional states. There may be value in learning to appreciate the messiness of emotions without needing to control every single tear or outburst of rage. For me anyway, it was a better alternative to being the well-behaved silent girl who failed out of grad school.
After all, emotions are hard to curate but a terrible thing to waste.