In defence of 'murderous rage'


Alecia Simmonds

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Julia Gillard gives first public talk

While it was difficult to lose the ballot against Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard says she decided to give the party 'the gift of silence', in her first public interview at the Sydney Opera House.

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Which journalist decided that Gillard’s interview last week with Anne Summers should be reduced to the headline ‘Julia Gillard’s murderous rage’? Who, other than a dour blobfish, could possibly have walked away from that witty, insightful and cathartic discussion - which ranged from international diplomacy to gender discrimination to gay marriage - thinking that the most important thing said was those two words? 

In case you missed it, last week Gillard gave her first interview since being dismissed from the office of Prime Minister with journalist, author, in fact all-round-feminist-goddess, Anne Summers. When the discussion moved to the sexist treatment she endured in office Gillard responded with stoicism. She knew of the vulgar cartoons but chose not to focus on them. ‘But it must have been upsetting, surely,’ probed Summers. Gillard grinned: ‘I would have said more like murderous rage, really’. And the auditorium erupted in laughter, (which was weird because most of the people there were killjoy feminists who spend their days in a state of crushing seriousness broken only by the occasional screech of ‘that’s not funny’ when they see lovers standing on a bridge giggling at ducks).

It was a joke. It was very clearly a joke. And in case you didn’t get it Gillard explained a few seconds afterwards: "I think maybe we can drop the 'murderous' but we should feel a sense of rage about it because it's only through something that really spurs you on to action that it's going to change."

Anne Summers with former PM Julia Gillard  at the Opera House last week.

Anne Summers with former PM Julia Gillard at the Opera House last week.

Yet in spite of these eminently reasonable words, most major television and print news outlet decided to report on Julia Gillard’s murderous rage as though it was a serious confession; as though she muttered darkly of her plot to kill Kevin Rudd with a poisoned chalice and slay Larry Pickering with a sword. I almost expected the news report to end with: ‘and we can expect to see more of Gillard next week when she gallops across a draw bridge waving the heads of her political nemeses.’


But the press chose to focus on the words ‘murderous rage’ for a reason. Stories need to generate public interest and a woman, our first female prime minister no less, expressing anger breaks an enormous social taboo. Rather than asking how every member of the press could have been born without a funny bone, maybe we should be asking why women are not allowed to be angry? Why is Julia Gillard’s announcement that she was filled with a sense of rage when she was subject to gender vilification anything other than a profoundly normal reaction? I mean, who wouldn’t be angry?

To answer this I think we need to go back to what anger means. And who better to ask than Aristotle? Anger, he says, and I paraphrase, is a desire for revenge against an obvious insult that has been brought upon someone without reason. It stems from an attack on your honour. If we break this down what it means is that anger is a judgment, an evaluative feeling that causes you to act to restore justice (ie. A desire for revenge). Where sadness is directed inwards, anger is public, it’s directed towards others. Depression causes immobility, anger motivates action. As feminist philosophers have noted, feeling like you have the right to be angry and having your anger recognised by others is tied to social status. If you are angry at someone for attacking your honour it means that you feel like you have the right to be treated with respect; that you have self-respect. As writer Elizabeth Spelmen explains: ‘To be angry at him is to make myself, at least on this occasion, his judge – to have, and to express, a standard against which I assess his conduct. If he is in other ways regarded as my superior, when I get angry at him I, at least on that occasion, am regarding him as no more and no less than my equal.’

Of course anger is one of those emotions that aren’t looked kindly upon when expressed by either men or women. But for men there are abundant examples in cinema or literature of a kind of righteous anger that inspires social change. Even on an everyday level we accept that men might get into fights in the pub. We tolerate anger as a component of manhood. But women’s anger has always been prohibited. If a woman is angry it’s assumed that she’s crazy. Her public protest is usually turned against her as a sign of inner disorder. The political is reduced to the personal.

The reason women are prohibited from expressing anger is that anger is a powerful emotion with the potential to cause widescale revolt. Give me one successful social movement that has been inspired by people dissolving into tears rather than angrily taking to the streets. The suffragettes who fought for the vote were angry. The women in the 60s and 70s who fought for equal pay for equal value were enraged. They thought they deserved better, they dared to think they were equals, and because of this they brought about some of the most significant social change in history. 

When Gillard said that she felt murderous rage she was joking. When she said she felt a sense of rage she was not, and nor was she joking when she said we should all feel enraged.  If feeling angry means that you think you deserve to be treated with respect and equality then one would hope that every woman in Australia is a spit-flecked ball of fury.