Research: Writing Female Rage, Before & After #MeToo
In September 2019, I returned to the University of Birmingham to study a PhD in English Literature, to be completed in 2022. My research focuses on female rage in literary modernism and contemporary women’s writing - seeking to both revisit modernist writers to reassess the ways in which they explore and present female anger in their works, and to contextualise contemporary female writers among their forebears of almost a century ago.
At this early stage in my research, my thesis is split into three distinct areas:
Writing while female. Virginia Woolf, in writing A Room of One’s Own, created one of the most lasting analyses of what it means to write as a woman. It’s a phrase echoed regularly in contemporary women’s writing, repurposed and reimagined in a variety of ways. And for good reason - the questions raised by Woolf, around the practicalities of being a working female writer are as relevant today as they were in 1929, when the essay was published. While the internet has allowed a huge range of voices and women’s stories to be shared - and has been instrumental in allowing women to voice their rage en masse in the wake of #MeToo - it has also raised new problems and questions around what it means to write as a woman, and how contemporary women’s writing is viewed. From the boom in first person “confessional essays” and the way women’s writing was, in the early days of the internet, valued on the lengths to which its author would go to expose her “worst” thoughts, to the differing online responses to women’s work in criticism and autofiction to that of their male counterparts, it is clear that much of Woolf’s essay still holds true for women writing today.
“I’m not angry, I’m sad.” In a 2018 essay for the New York Times Magazine, Leslie Jamison writes: “It has always been easier to shunt female sadness and female anger into the “watertight compartments” of opposing archetypes, rather than acknowledging the ways they run together in the cargo hold of every female psyche.” She is referring, here, to modernist writer, Jean Rhys - whose female heroines weep, openly, with what is, for many readers, an almost discomfiting disregard for how they “look” to others. And yet, as Jamison notes, there is anger in Rhys’ work, too - often missed, thanks to our reliance on this division between female sadness, and female rage. Women’s anger, in many ways, remains unseen simply because it is not expressed in the ways we expect it to be - through the performance of physical acts of aggression, or more traditionally “masculine” expressions of anger - which goes some way to explain the perceived shock on the part of some onlookers at the force and power of women’s rage, in the wake of #MeToo. There is a complexity to female anger that has been explored and subverted by writers following in Rhys’ footsteps - a rage that can be felt, almost as an “open secret,” unacknowledged and yet indisputably present on the page.
The comic mask. For women, laughter is complex. It is at once a coping mechanism; a vital tool for connection with others. But it’s also a dangerous thing. A misquoted Margaret Atwood saying is often rephrased as follows: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Contemporary women writers have engaged with each of these ideas, often all at once - and, particularly in online discourse, accepting that when one jokes about a perceived injustice in order to find solace with other women, there will, almost inevitably, be some form of harassment that follows. The language of women online has, almost, its own grim tone - a bleak satire, a grotesquerie which often bristles with frustration and rage. It’s a tone which may be familiar to modernist scholars in the writings of Djuna Barnes, whose novel Nightwood was written in blood “while it was still running,” and whose other works (Ladies Almanack, Ryder, The Antiphon) all use humour and laughter in one or more of these ways. The comic, for both Barnes and women writing today, functions as a kind of mask wilfully slipped - at once daring the reader to look at the rage that lies beneath it, while teasing them for their urge to look away.
I welcome contributions or suggestions - for instance, of contemporary (or historical) writers whose work explores female rage, or whose work shows a strong influence from modernist women writers - so please do feel free to email me if you have any recommendations. I will be maintaining a reading list here, which includes books I have read and drawn from (or intend to) in the course of my research.