Being a human being means living awash in hormones and all kinds of brain chemicals that affect how we feel — cortisol, dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline. We are highly successful, highly intelligent and highly emotional animals, and scientists have tied our success on a sometimes harsh planet to both our brains' abilities and our feelings.
In fact, those of us who are more emotionally intelligent are more successful. It's that emotional intelligence that allows us to work together so incredibly well in groups, which in turn enables us to use our smarts in collective ways that benefit many. Nobody, no matter how brilliant, could build a rocket ship to the moon or a democratic system of government on their own.
Emotions aren't just useful for understanding others and convincing others to work with us. They are integral to being human as they are the sometimes unacknowledged basis for all most important social movements, art, and sports triumphs. The reason we care about who wins or loses a game is all about how we feel about the team, after all. Emotions have motivated every war ever fought. You don't get thousands of people to fight "the other side" to the death without an emotional call to arms. "Give me liberty or give me death!" and "Never was so much owed by so many to so few," are meant to appeal to the heart.
But despite the universal humanity of emotions, and the fact that they motivate both our best efforts (curing diseases, exploring Mars) and our worst (war, torture, slavery), feelings are still considered the territory of only one sex — women.
And while a recent study via Microsoft Research found that both men and women express emotions almost equally, they express different ones. Men were more likely to show their anger and women were more likely to express happiness and sadness. But the 2,000-person study found that at least some emotional expression is culturally dictated; women in France and China didn't smile more than men did, but women in Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. did.
So maybe we can say that all people have emotions, but which ones we are allowed or expected to express is likely culturally dictated.
Knowing what's 'allowed'
This disparity in who should express what emotions becomes a problem when women break the rules of what they're "allowed" to show and are punished for showing emotions.
In stressful situations, of course both men and women can be reduced to tears — but it's only held against one of those groups. Think of Brett Kavanaugh, our newest Supreme Court Justice, who cried and yelled repeatedly during his recent testimony, and contrast that with his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who was the picture of composure and restraint. She knew — as most women know — that crying and showing intense feeling in a professional setting would be held against her, proving that women are "too emotional" while men who do the same are lauded for "expressing their feelings."
As the voiceover by Serena Williams points out in the video above, "If we show emotion, we're called 'dramatic.'"
Men are also socially sanctioned to express anger, yet for women it's verboten. As Michelle Obama recalled of the run-up to the 2008 election, she was torn apart in the press for speaking passionately, which is de rigueur in political speeches — for men. "I thought I was doing great, telling my story, sharing it honestly," says Obama, of a personal speech she delivered in support of her husband's run. "But ... this was the time I was called an angry black woman." She ended up adjusting her speaking style to be more friendly, according to her memoir, "Becoming."
Critiquing women for showing their feelings isn't just for public settings: "'Emotional' is a term used to label women whom you don't want to have a voice in a situation. When a couple is having an argument, even if a woman has a well-thought-out reason for being upset, a guy might say, 'You're just being emotional.' It's a way to discredit her instead of having to listen; the words 'you're acting crazy' really mean 'I don't have to pay attention to you,'" Matthew Zawadzki, Ph.D., a professor who studies perceptions of emotion, told Refinery29.
Calling women out for expressing feelings ultimately disempowers them, and delegitimizes whatever they're having those feelings about.
And when women get angry over being unfairly treated? "We're hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy," as Williams says in the video. It's a no-win situation.
This idea that women are "crazy" for expressing emotions in the same way that men do is clearly a double-standard. In the video above, examples of women heartily criticized for engaging in the exact same behavior that male athletes do are shown, clip-after-clip.
So let's stop calling women out for expressing human emotions that we all share. Women get to be angry, and upset enough to cry — and so do men.
Another solution might be for women to embrace some of these labels — so if some people call women "crazy" or "angry" or "too emotional" for acting as men do, then let's go with it, which might change the meaning of the word over time. There's certainly precedent in other groups taking back names that were once used to denigrate them.
Another would be, of course, to normalize the fact that we all feel things, and it's OK to express them, no matter who we are.