They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but I argue that hell hath no fury like a woman being forced to fulfil outdated societal roles. At least, that’s what the latest internet trend is alluding to. Auguste Toulmouche’s 1866 painting “The Hesitant Fiancée” is making the rounds on TikTok FYPs around the globe, inviting women of all ages to not only marvel at and meme-ify the bride’s pissed off scowl, but see themselves in it, too.
Women’s rage, although stifled, has been portrayed in art for centuries. There are classic paintings, such as Elisabetta Sirani’s 1659 depiction of a woman, Timoclea, throwing her rapist down a well and Artemisia Gentileschi’s 17th century painting of Judith beheading Holofernes, and more modern depictions such as Megan Fox devouring men in Jennifer’s Body and Beyoncé smashing a car window in the music video for “Hold Up.” Although anger is often a catalyst to create art, to be a woman — especially to be a woman of colour — is to be forced to suppress that anger, to stay quiet and calm in the face of injustice. These works give us permission to acknowledge and express our rage.
But “The Hesitant Fiancée” is a different kind of art with a different kind of message that’s resonating on TikTok. It’s not depicting the revenge for a heinous crime or gruesome violence, but rather the irritation that comes with the expectation of filling these often involuntary roles that women know all too well — the caregiver, the maid, the nurturer, the bride. “She’s theoretically getting something she should want, and yet she’s just looking irritated,” Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power Of Women’s Anger, tells Refinery29. “She actively looks exasperated with everything around her. I think that resonates with people, especially women, who are so often socialised not to say that feeling … but they feel it in their bones and in their posture and in their expressions.” It’s not a murderous anger, but one where the exasperation cuts so deep all you can really do is, well, give that look. “If the title had been, ‘The Unhappy Dress Buyer,’ I just don’t think it would strike a chord the same way,” says Chemaly.
Women — again, especially women of colour — have been forced to carry their anger with grace throughout history, in both personal and public situations. An angry woman is no more than a hysteric, a shrew, a person to be punished. But the reluctant bride does not mask her anger — instead, she sits in it and refuses to put on a happy face just to appease everyone who flocks around her. In recent years, there have been an insurmountable number of circumstances to be angry about, from the 2016 US election to the #MeToo movement to the pandemic. According to the BBC’s analysis of data from Gallup World Poll, the “gender rage gap” is widening, and women are the ones getting angrier. While that may be true, we’ve also arguably become more comfortable expressing that anger. These hardships have compounded on one another, meaning that the rage depicted in “The Hesitant Fiancée” hits even closer to home — and may just be the tip of the iceberg. She is defiant, she is livid, she is tired. She is all of us.
“I think her face is the perfect embodiment of female rage and exasperation, which is why so many people identify with it,” Hazel, 29, who didn’t want us to use her last name, tells Refinery29. “It’s the face you make when a cis man has been talking down to you at the office or at the bar, and you’re so over it. The face you make when your friend’s boyfriend is being the worst and you know she deserves better. I’ve made this face, I’ve seen my friends and sisters make this face. It’s universal.”
The beauty of anger is that it doesn’t have to be that deep. We can sit in our wrath when the barista gets our coffee order wrong or when we get cut off by an incompetent driver. But when it is that deep, we can create real, meaningful change. “Anger is not the kind of energy that destroys,” Lydia Kelow-Bennett, PhD, assistant professor in the department of Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan, previously told Refinery29. “It’s the kind of energy that clarifies.” And when it comes from women, it’s all the more powerful.
Whether life imitates art or art imitates life, I’m not sure — but what I, and probably many other people, think is that art is a mirror in which our triumphs, tribulations, and innermost thoughts are spit back out at us to make sense of and find meaning in. What we do with that information, though, is entirely up to us. Will we use “The Hesitant Fiancée” to process our own compliance with outdated societal gender roles? Will we put our anger into action? Or will we simply participate in a trend and move on?
From a Beyoncé music video to a meme to a painting that’s hundreds of years old, we’re all capable of seeing ourselves and our emotions reflected back to us. We all deserve to show and process our anger — even if it happens to come in the form of a TikTok.
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