American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law
Deborah Cantrell, Re-Problematizing Anger in Domestic Violence Advocacy, 21 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol’y & L. 837 (2013), available at https://scholar.law.colorado.edu/faculty-articles/172.
Feminist advocacy commits wholeheartedly to a woman’s autonomous choices about how to respond to domestic violence, prioritizing a woman’s own lived experiences and her own assessments of her needs and goals over other supposedly “objective” assessments. Feminists robustly privilege individual choices of women in part as a way of revealing anti-woman bias in the dominant, patriarchal legal system as well to reject male constructions of feminine behavior. In feminist domestic violence advocacy, scholars and advocates have argued that a woman’s autonomous choices include capacious choices about the kinds of emotions that a woman might express about being subjected to abuse. In particular, feminist scholars and advocates have crafted a discourse that has been particularly clear that anger is an emotion that the patriarchal system inappropriately does not tolerate from a woman, but which a feminist, woman-centric system both would and must tolerate.
Feminist domestic violence discourse is beneficially intended to empower a woman subjected to abuse to consider her own unique circumstances when making decisions. However, that discourse has an unintended and unhelpful consequence of describing anger only positively. This Article pragmatically scrutinizes angry choices in the context of domestic violence and argues that such choices often are problematic and result in negative, but avoidable, consequences. The Article re-problematizes anger by separating the fact that anger can arise as an emotional response from actual conduct and actions out of anger. The Article argues that disentangling the experience of an emotion from conduct generated by the emotion creates a “disruptive moment.” The disruptive moment allows a woman subjected to abuse to recognize and acknowledge emotions like anger, while creating space and time for reflection and perspective-taking, thus allowing a woman to consider multiple options about how she might act. The Article posits at least two discursive frames that might be introduced into the disruptive moment, each of which validates a woman’s actual experience of anger as an emotional response while also creating conditions for positive decisionmaking. One frame is a “healing” frame, in which a woman would consider how the experience of anger might (or might not) help her feel better, and then consider separately how actions out of anger might (or might not) help her feel better. The second frame is a “cognitive processing” frame. With that frame, a woman would describe herself as trying to make the best decisions for her or her family. The frame separates out “fast brain” responses like “flight or fright” from “slow brain” responses that call forward perspective taking and reflection. Both frames acknowledge and support a woman’s actual, lived experiences, including emotions like anger, while disentangling unhelpful choices to act out of an emotion like anger.
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