When TV Becomes a Window Into Women’s Rage

Over the last few years, TV has offered portraits of female rage that are striking within a culture that still prefers women to carry their anger calmly and silently.

In art, the image of the enraged woman often represents an ugly, almost talismanic evil: In Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s 1862 painting “Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” the women sneer, brandishing weapons at Orestes. In Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” Judith furrows her brow, half of her face cloaked in shadow, and clutches a fistful of Holofernes’s hair as she plunges a sword into his neck. And Caravaggio’s Medusa, a wronged woman transformed into a monster, is just a severed head, and yet her face is animated with fury, mouth open in a scream, brows creased.

Caravaggio’s painting on a shield depicts Medusa’s decapitated head topped by a nest of still writhing snakes in place of hair.

Over the last few years, TV has offered similar portraits of female rage — striking scenes within a culture that still mostly prefers women either to carry their anger calmly and silently or to express it within a misogynistic framing (the manic or hysterical woman).

It’s empowering to watch a woman rage indelicately, like the recent divorcée Rachel Fleishman, played by Claire Danes, in the FX series “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” During a therapy treatment in the penultimate episode, Rachel lets loose a sharp, achy howl that overtakes her whole body. It takes several attempts for her to fully release this deep-seated scream. The first few are abbreviated and strained but then she seems to unload everything, her mouth opened wide, her face contracting so hard it takes on an all around rosy hue. Who said rage couldn’t be beautiful?

In fact, it’s an asset to Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany), a.k.a. She-Hulk, who got her own slice-of-life action court drama on Disney+ last year. Her hero-training journey is truncated because she takes to being the hulk much easier than did her cousin Bruce Banner, the original Hulk.

“I’m great at controlling my anger; I do it all the time,” Jennifer tells Bruce in the first episode. “When I’m catcalled in the street, when incompetent men explain my own area of expertise to me. I do it pretty much every day because if I don’t, I will get called emotional or difficult or might just literally get murdered.”

The series isn’t about her tempering her rage but rather about living with a manifestation of the power her rage has given her: She-Hulk is strong and intelligent, a celebrity and a popular right-swipe on the dating apps.

The same is true for Retsuko, the star of the popular animated Netflix series “Aggretsuko,” about a 25-year-old red panda who hates her job, where she is taken advantage of and disrespected by many of her colleagues. She handles the stress and frustration by doing karaoke — death metal karaoke, specifically.

The show’s glossy 2D sticker-style artwork, full of heavy lines, loud graphics, straightforward color and bare-bones animation style, recalls other, explicitly kid-targeted brands from Sanrio, like Hello Kitty. Retsuko appears like a critical counterpoint to Hello Kitty, an icon of femininity and softness who famously has no mouth. She’s a blank slate, emotionless, while Retsuko comes alive through her anger, which physically transforms her, her claws bared, her facial fur changing into a Gene Simmons-esque death-metal mask pattern.

Feminine rage can be deliciously performative, as with Retsuko’s throaty growl in the karaoke room or with the rap delivered by Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), a hotel concierge in the Starz series “Blindspotting,” as she trashes a detestable couple’s room.

Women who show rage in domestic spaces, like Ali Wong’s character Amy in the hilarious and bruising Netflix series “Beef,” disrupt the stereotype of women who are permitted to rage only in relationship to their roles as caretakers. Amy’s anger, even when warranted, is destructive, and everything in her life crumbles because of it, including her relationship with her family.

Well-worn characters like the mother who does whatever it takes to save her children or the faithful wife who gets roped into crime to save or avenge her husband are more digestible, women granted the appearance of being multidimensional and emotionally complex when they are just following a formula.

But even when female characters are developed outside of these reductive tropes, often the writing eventually flattens and diminishes them again. Take, for example, the rich emotional complexity that the Disney+ series “WandaVision” uncovered within Wanda Maximoff, which was absent from her next Marvel assignment. In the series, Wanda is caught in a sitcom-style delusion spurred by her anger, sorrow and grief. But in the film “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” she is reduced to fury and nothing else, as fierce maternal protectiveness transforms her into a killing machine. Her personhood is no longer relevant because being an angry mother has become her whole character.

In other examples of women raging in a domestic space, there is sometimes comical collateral damage. In Season 1 of “Dead to Me,” Jen, a widowed mother with an attitude problem, takes out her rage about her mother-in-law by punching the cake she got for Jen’s late husband’s memorial. In “Mad Men,” Betty Draper, a 1960s housewife caught in a marriage of spite and deception, stands in her yard in her peach nightgown, holding a rifle pointed toward the sky. With every flex of a manicured pink-nail-polished finger, she shoots at birds as a horrified neighbor looks on, calling to her in horror; she keeps shooting as a cigarette dangles from her mouth.

A woman’s rage can be heroic — whether you’re a hulk or Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), bashing in walls at an anger management class. It can be a barometer of what’s gone horrendously wrong in a world that has taken women for granted. Think the irate faces of Elisabeth Moss as Offred in the misogynistic dystopia of “The Handmaid’s Tale”; or the rage of the ill-fated soccer players in “Yellowjackets”; or the magically endowed young women in “The Power,” who sometimes use their abilities for self-defense or revenge.

A woman can rage over privilege, as does Renata Klein (Laura Dern), the reputation- and money-obsessed mom in “Big Little Lies,” or over violent passion, as does Dre (Dominique Fishback), the killer stan of “Swarm.” In many cases, rage may be a last resort, a way for a woman to finally get what she desperately desires — catharsis, vengeance, justice, peace. Whether or not that satisfaction lasts, however, is a very different story.

These scenes and storylines are not about the anger itself but rather what has led a woman to speak, to act, to defend herself and others, to have the autonomy to express an unpalatable emotion. To be unattractive and merciless. Because sometimes, in order to change her world — for good or for bad — all a woman needs to do is open her mouth and let out a vicious, unbridled scream.

Image credits: “Fleishman Is in Trouble” (FX); “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” (Marvel Studios/Disney+); “Aggretsuko” (Netflix); “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu); “Yellowjackets” (Showtime); “Yellowjackets” (Showtime); “Medusa,” 1597 (Caravaggio, Ufizzi Gallery, Florence); “Yellowjackets” (Showtime); “Beef” (Netflix); “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Marvel Studios); “Jessica Jones” (Netflix); “Blindspotting” (Starz); “Dead to Me” (Netflix); “The Power” (Amazon Prime Video); “Swarm” (Amazon Prime Video); “Big Little Lies” (HBO); “Mad Men” (AMC).


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