Erika Weiberg is an assistant professor of Greek language and literature at Florida State University. She is writing a book about women in Greek tragedy.
Erika Weiberg: There are two related questions being raised now by feminist thinkers about anger. How are women treated differently than men when they express anger? And how can women use anger to achieve their goals, specifically of equity? In other words, acknowledging how anger is often used against women, how can they flip the script and use it instead as a tool against inequity?
Andrea Applebee: As a tool, it could be used for or against these feminist goals?
EW: Yes. Anger is often used by those with power to consolidate that power, but it has also been used very effectively to protest the abuse of power.
AA: We think of anger now as a reaction ranging from annoyance to hostility. In Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly talks about anger as a signal—warning us of threat, insult, indignity, or harm. How might it have been thought of in ancient Greece?
EW: Aristotle defined anger in the context of rhetoric. For him, anger is an emotion that has a lot to do with status—you can express anger, which he defines as a painful desire for revenge, if you are injured or wronged, including being treated below your perceived social status. By this definition, women could express anger rarely, because their status was very low. Aristotle’s real interest is with men and rhetoric.
AA: I agree that anger and status are related—in that you need status to express it. According to Aristotle, how and where was it supposed to be used?
EW: Anger was something that men used in courts of law. It was considered an important emotion for civic life. Who gets to be angry in ancient Athens had entirely to do with who had power in the city. Anger was stirred up in competitions for honor, property fights. It also had to do with perceived injustice—if someone does you ‘wrong’. For example, if one man steals someone else’s young lover, they would fight over it. But if anger enters the home, it would be considered destructive—ruining family relationships.
AA: What are some examples of this concern about the destructive force of domestic anger?
EW: The best evidence for the anxieties around anger entering the home comes from tragedy. Clytemnestra’s rage at the loss of her daughter in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, or Medea’s anger at Jason’s betrayal in Euripides’ Medea.
AA: What about anger and the gods?
EW: The gods have similar quibbles over who is being honored or wronged that citizen men have. But anger doesn’t work along the same gendered lines for them. Goddesses don’t fit into the gender roles that human women are expected to maintain, and they aren’t punished for expressing their anger. There are a lot of stories about gods and goddesses being angry and lashing out. For example, Hera terrorizes the women whom Zeus assaults. Gods also use anger to defend their status, punishing humans for thinking they can do something better than they can. Athena punishes Arachne and turns her into a spider for claiming to be a better weaver.
AA: Could any of these myths offer a helpful model of anger for women?
EW: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is a good playbook for women protesting injustice. Demeter is the goddess of fertility and agriculture, and her daughter Persephone is raped—taken to the underworld by Hades. Her capture was planned by Hades and her father Zeus (without consulting her mother, Demeter, as would have been normal for human marriages of the time). Demeter is so upset that she withdraws completely from the company of the other gods. At first she tries an approach that doesn’t work—a situation that might be familiar to anyone involved with protest movements.
Her withdrawal from the gods is followed by her choice to live with humans and nurture a boy. But it doesn’t work out—she doesn’t get her child back. So she wields her anger in a new way, using her special power of fertility, and she stops crops from growing. Humans could not prosper without her help, and in turn couldn’t make sacrifices to the gods. Only when the other gods are deprived of something do they pay attention—she gets her daughter back for part of the year.
Demeter’s protest was motivated by her anger at what had happened to her and her daughter—being exchanged like property. She leverages her specific power in protest, prevails, and returns to the company of the gods.
AA: What about cautionary tales? Angry women who are dangerous?
EW: Clytemestra and Medea are famous examples. Their anger is motivated by something real—and the outcomes are exaggerated and terrible. The fact that this kernel of truth about what prompts their anger is expressed at all is interesting.
Both have been reread and rewritten by feminists because they have real and rational complaints. Clytemestra’s husband sacrifices their daughter, and Medea is abandoned in a foreign land.
Of course killing your husband or your own children are not models of protest that women want to follow. These characters were intended as warnings—if anger exists in the home and is allowed there, it would destroy everything.
Medea is partway between mortal and immortal (related to Helios, the god of the sun), and that may be why she doesn’t suffer consequences for her murderous anger. In the end, she rides away to Athens in a chariot drawn by dragons.
AA: What else can we learn from re-reading these women?
EW: It is striking how much female characters speak in Greek tragedy, so even if their complaints about injustice are dismissed or ignored, they are still expressed and heard. Medea, for instance, gives a speech listing ways that women were oppressed. She mentions having to buy a husband as master of her body, without knowing whether he will be good to her or bad. She can’t refuse being married, as Persephone’s example also shows. She has to navigate a new home situation after marriage and divine how to deal with her husband and his family. She relies on this one person, whereas men have large networks of support. Not to mention how dangerous childbirth was.
AA: She covers a lot.
EW: Yes, it reminds me of how the women’s march has been criticized as not having a single story or mission. These critics say the women’s movement is too scattered. Instead of saying ‘I’m angry about all inequity,’ the move of people in power is to say ‘you can change only one thing at a time.’ But why does anger have to be focused on one thing when there are so many injustices to be mad about?
After Medea’s speech, the chorus goes on to say that one of the injustices is that women don’t get to tell their stories. The only stories that are told about women are told by men, and they rely on misogynistic tropes.
AA: Is there a link between anger and storytelling?
EW: The oldest Greek story, the Iliad, is one of rage—not women’s—but there is a deep connection, I think, between anger and storytelling. Anger is a motivating emotion. It can motivate all kinds of things, including storytelling, protest, political action, revolutions...
AA: Are there models for anger in ancient Greek comedy?
EW: There is a lot of anger in old comedy, including anger expressed by women. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a great example. Women across the Greek world go on a sex strike because they are angry about the war. And they get results. But they advocate not for equal treatment, but for a conservative return to the way things used to be.
Also, in Women at the Assembly, Aristophanes imagines women taking over the government. They dress up like men and vote to give women power in the city, power to do whatever they want. They establish a kind of pseudo-communist state in which no one can own private property and everyone, including the old and ugly, must have equal access to sex. This results in a different kind of hierarchy, but a hierarchy nonetheless, with old women at the top, the precise opposite of the status quo. These comedies play out the possibility of women protesting the status quo, but with this specter of anxiety about what would happen if they actually succeeded.
With the exception of Demeter, and maybe Lysistrata, you don’t see women exercising constructive anger in Greek mythology. In most cases it is a destructive act when women express anger. Some of these characters have been re-read in a way that focuses on the constructive aspects of their anger. Martha Graham played Clytemestra in a dance performance based on the play. She thought of Clytemestra as a “career woman” trying to make it in a man’s world and constantly being shut down for doing so.
AA: What can we notice with relation to how women’s anger is judged differently than men’s?
EW: We can read several of the female characters that we’ve talked about in a way that addresses how women’s anger is policed and contained in the political and public sphere. Rebecca Traister in Good and Mad discusses a double bind for women in politics that I think also applies here. If women express something forcefully on the political stage they are condemned as too angry, hysterical. If they express something without force, they are attacked for not caring, for not being angry enough.
Anger raises such important questions. Who do you care about? Who is angry on your behalf? Who is with or against you? Because of this double bind, women have not been able to express anger effectively on the political stage—it makes them seem marginal. And that is very frustrating.
AA: One of the more subtle ways anger is policed is this idea that anger is bad for you if you are a woman. It is unpleasant, unhealthy.
EW: But what is actually bad is not expressing your anger. Chemaly writes in Rage Becomes Her about how anger is like water—you can force it to go a certain way but it has to, and will, flow out eventually.
AA: What consequences did women in ancient Greek myth face for expressing their anger?
EW: For one thing, these representations reinforced the misogynistic idea that women couldn’t control their anger. That they are dangerous. That is why they can’t have political power. Clytemestra is deposed and killed by her son. In Euripides’ Hecuba, the former queen of Troy has lost everyone and has been enslaved. She had sent her youngest son to Thrace to be taken care of with some money. The king of Thrace murdered him and took the money. She’s utterly desperate and possessed by rage and revenge. She invites the king of Thrace to meet and she kills his two sons. But even that act of revenge is not enough – she’s turned into a dog, a revenge-dog.
The association between angry women and dogs is a recurrent theme in Greek myth. Actually, the status of women in ancient Athens was not unlike that of dogs.
AA: Yes...’bitches’. What about now?
EW: The Women’s March and #MeToo have changed how women are expressing their anger, both in public and in private. Some of these ancient models show how women’s anger was used against them, to keep them from expressing anger at injury. Now we are beginning to rewrite these models, to use anger to right these ancient wrongs.