Natalie Portman is right, girls need permission to show anger

Natalie Portman was right about how we process the anger of girls and women. But it can change.
Natalie Portman was right about how we process the anger of girls and women. But it can change.  Photo: AP

If you’ve ever become tearful or upset in the face of a personal injustice then perhaps you have been socialised to suppress anger. You’re far from alone. In fact, you’re in good company.

In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Natalie Portman spoke frankly about her own anger and the way she was taught to interpret it. “Women are taught not to be angry, that to be angry is to be shrill, to be hysterical, to be ugly,” she said.

“We’ve [women] been socialised to believe that we’re not feeling angry – we’re feeling sad, we’re feeling upset.”

Portman continued: “There was this sudden shift in my mind, and I thought, ‘oh my god, all those times where I would burst into tears, I was actually angry!’ I just didn’t know how to express it!”

Portman is right when she says that girls are socialised to suppress their anger.

It’s something that writer and activist Soraya Chemaly examines in her 2018 book Rage Becomes Her.

Chemaly says there are countless examples of how implicit beliefs and biases' about gender impact the way parents respond to and talk to their children.

“Girls are much more likely to be encouraged to use nice voices, to smile more, to not interrupt or be disruptive. Boys, on the other hand, get the message that emotions like empathy or sadness are feminine but that anger is acceptable,” she explains.

“Aggression becomes a marker of masculinity. It takes constant and explicit effort on the part of adults not to reinforce these messages at home and in schools.”


This implicit bias can be so subtle that we don’t think twice about it. But it’s happening. “Parents are more likely to see an angry girl and say that she’s sad. Or conversely a sad boy and say that he’s angry and disagreeable. That does all children a disservice,” says Chemaly.

As a mum of girls I’ve seen this in action; I’ve probably even contributed. I’ve told my kids to "calm down" and asked them to let some things go for the sake of keeping the peace. Now I am determined to do better.

So how do we break the cycle? Chemaly tells me that one of the best things parents and other adults can do, is to teach children to recognise the feelings they’re having. “Emotional competence is a valuable lifelong skill that children are capable of developing,” she says.

In practice this means allowing our children to experience their feelings and labelling those feelings accurately.

Psychologist Marny Lishman echoes this when she says that teaching kids big feelings are "better out than in," will help them regulate their emotions. “Teaching kids the range of emotions, and getting them to have self awareness of how they are feeling, and what can be making them feel that way is important,” she says.

When it comes to anger, Lishman suggests telling girls that it’s “okay to feel angry”. But then what? How can we support girls to deal with their anger? Lishman’s advice is to give them options such as running around the block, screaming into a pillow or putting some music on and singing as loud as they can.

Crucially though, Lishman says that we need to support girls to own their anger and be assertive about how they are feeling.

Giuliett Morgan, founder of Empowering Parents, takes this a step further. She says that as well as fostering emotional intelligence by correctly labelling emotions, we should encourage problem solving.

“Help children to identify effective solutions to navigate, manage and resolve their feelings - rather than internalising them and letting them bottle up,” she says.

“If a child is angry about the way they have been treated, encourage them to stand up for themselves, effectively communicate how they are feeling and work through ways to resolve the issue.”

Teaching our girls about anger will help them develop their own emotional intelligence and empower a generation of women who aren’t afraid of being labelled "shrill" or "hysterical". I can’t wait to see the impact this will have on the world.