This is Role Monsters, a series on monstrous female archetypes by Jess Zimmerman.
Myth and folklore teem with frightening women: man-seducers and baby-stealers, menacing witches and avenging spirits, rapacious bird-women and all-devouring forces of nature. In our stories and our culture, we underline the idea that women who step out of bounds—who are angry or greedy or ambitious, who are overtly sexual or insufficiently sexy—aren’t just outside the norm: They’re monstrous. Women often try to tamp down those qualities that we’re told violate “natural” femininity. But what if we embraced our inner monsters?
The Furies are also called the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, but nobody thinks they’re kind. It’s a smokescreen and a blandishment: Call them other than what they are and perhaps you’ll escape their notice; call them kind and perhaps they won’t hurt you. Their real names are Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera: Avenger of Murder, Unceasing Anger, and Jealousy. Kindness is clearly not on the menu.
But the title Eumenides holds a deeper truth: Their vengeance is a mercy, a deserved and necessary cleansing fire. They hunt down the wicked and punish them, both in life and after death, but the wrath of the Furies is not capricious. It’s directed at matricides and fratricides, perjurers, oathbreakers, and those who offend the gods. It is targeted and implacable, the striking hand of a finely tuned clockwork structure of morals and values.
The Furies’ anger doesn’t only scourge the world. It saves it.
Before I went to a women’s college, most of my friends were boys. My favorite and most steadfast friends, from contexts that mattered more than high school, were women, which is why I was willing to apply and then to accept—but I almost didn’t. There were so many girls who made me feel discomfited and ashamed. Boys were easy: their humor unsubtle, their expectations low. If you were funny and crude and unpretty, you wouldn’t exactly be a girl to them, but you could at least be a person. In fact, being not exactly female could be a selling point.
Personally, I prided myself on being different from other girls. “Different” meant “not as angry.” Girlfriends had expectations, got jealous, got their feelings hurt. Girls who boys wanted to be their girlfriends, but who weren’t, were even worse: They took everything amiss, from teasing to compliments, refusing to be impressed. But girls like me were chill. We could hang. We never objected to casual misogyny; it was the coin of the realm, and we paid our dues. We laughed it off, let it go, joined in, one-upped. If a joke is made at your expense, and it doesn’t bother you, was it really at your expense at all? And if you can go one step further—well, who’s laughing now?
At college, there was a new kind of angry woman: the kind who was angry not at a specific offense, but at the structure of society. To me, it seemed obvious that the proper, proportional response was the same: Laugh it off, let go, join in. At the very least, look elsewhere.
I wasn’t one of those tiresome young women who latches onto antifeminism to impress the boys; I believed in body positivity (for other people), in abortion, in enthusiastic consent. But I also believed it was safer and more comfortable to make yourself soft and porous, to absorb the affronts of the world. I could take a joke, and if that meant taking an insult, well, didn’t that mean insults were jokes? If I wasn’t angry, then maybe nothing was wrong.
The word “fury,” as we use it today, implies chaotic, unfocused frenzy, but the Furies themselves embodied justified anger, stemming from an adamantine moral code. In Homer, they are curses made flesh, released upon those who commit a crime or threaten the natural order. Seneca the Younger calls them “they who with awful brows investigate men’s crimes and sift out ancient wrongs.” In Ovid, they are the chthonic guards of souls judged too wicked for paradise.
They are fearsome-looking creatures, unsmiling, uncrying (except, Ovid tells us, when Orpheus plays). They bristle with snakes—in their hair, wreathing their limbs, fastening their garments, held in their hands like whips. They dress in black or blood-red. Sometimes they breathe poison. This grotesque image might seem to be at odds with a righteous heart. But for anyone who might not be blameless, anger with reason and purpose and a will of iron is even more frightening than tumultuous, flailing rage.
Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides, in which the titular goddesses doggedly pursue Agamemnon’s son Orestes from Argos to Delphi and all the way to Athens, makes clear the deeply principled nature of their wrath. The Furies’ quest is not for cruelty but for retribution: Orestes must be punished for murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, who in turn murdered his father. But the majority of the play is taken up with a court case arguing whether Orestes should be held responsible for Clytemnestra’s death. The Furies agree to abide by the outcome. Their goal, after all, is not merely blood. It is justice.
I didn’t really mean to find anger. I stumbled into it ridiculously late for a women’s college graduate, not until my mid-twenties—a time when I was hauling around a lot of pain and confusion, awkwardly, like a person trying to carry groceries without a cart. Feminism was the bag that fit my baggage; it showed me how experiences that had hurt and bewildered me were actually part of a vast, lofty structure of wrongs, much larger than my tiny griefs.
I still tried to dismiss it at first: The anger seemed so loud, so needy, compared to my typical habits of laughing and blaming myself. But once I’d seen the structure that connected my experience with others’, I couldn’t dismiss the possibilities: I can help fix this. I can protect someone else. I just have to say it’s wrong. I built anger like a bicep: little by little, complaining all the while.
Fifteen years ago, my mother passed out from altitude sickness, hit her head, and temporarily lost her sense of smell. The problem wasn’t damage to her nose, or to her brain. It was to the connections between them: the nerves that transmitted olfactory signals, that turned air molecules into smells and smells into memories. To get it back, she had to retrain those connections, to take a great whiff of what felt like nothing and say to herself: This is gasoline. This is rotten meat. This is a rose .
Learning to be fluent in anger was similar. I knew how to experience the emotion, and I opposed injustice on principle, but I’d trained myself out of connecting the two; I had to rebuild the pathway between grief and grievance. That meant learning to recognize the smell of mistreatment, to see it and name it and recognize it as a cause for anger and not for deprecation or self-blame. I listened when other people told me their outrages, and took second looks at things I’d laughed away. I took great whiffs of what sometimes felt like nothing: This is misogyny. This is rape culture. This is abuse.
Finding anger was like building a sense, but not the sense of smell—more like a sixth sense. Telepathy, or maybe even telekinesis: a sense of how to move, with my mind, with my words, what had formerly seemed solid. A superpower.
And one of the first things I was able to perceive, with this new sense, was how much it frightened men. Their reactions varied—matching anger, mockery, calls for calm—but the message was clear: Stand down. All the self-protective laughter, all the excuses, all the making myself a concave bowl to hold an insult where it would not hurt: Had those been to protect someone else all along?
Justice is not actually served in The Eumenides. The trial is a nightmare, really: First Orestes and Apollo argue that mothers aren’t really the parents of their children, just receptacles for a father’s seed. Then Athena, casting the deciding vote to tip a hung jury, says flat-out that she only really cares about men, which means she considers Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon a worse offense than Orestes killing Clytemnestra. Orestes is acquitted purely on the strength of disdain for women.
This is a familiar twisted form of rectitude, twisted in a way we’re still living with today. Women are still treated as carrying containers for sperm, not as people. We are still punished more for hurting men, even in self-defense, than they are for hurting us. It may have looked like justice to Aeschylus, putting words in the mouths of gods and goddesses that tell him he’s superior, then reading them over as proof that his superiority comes from the gods. (Men like that persist today, too.) But the real Furies, if there were real Furies, would not let it stand.
It hurts to be angry about all these inequities, because I don’t know how to fix them; I would rather be spongy and yielding, muffling the impact of the blow by caving in. Anger, like all power, is vertiginous. But I know now that it’s more comfortable for me to swallow injustice because it’s more comfortable for the people who benefit, who don’t care to have oppression pointed out or redressed. They want me to want to back down. Our anger exists to scourge the world, and to save it. Not everyone wants it saved.
The Furies were called the “Kindly Ones” as a euphemism, a way to avoid their notice and their wrath. But in Aeschylus’s play it’s a condescension, a role patronizingly bestowed by Athena to dull the sting of justice miscarried. The change in title carries new responsibilities: They are now tasked to bestow good fortune on the deserving, not just to punish crimes. The Furies enter the courtroom as avenging goddesses with their quarry in sight; they leave as declawed do-gooders, he as King of Mycenae.
What if men tell us to smile not only because they feel entitled to our docility, but because they fear our rage? “That’s better,” they say. “Now you look pretty.” Call us kind and perhaps we won’t hurt you. Call us kind to invoke our softness, to placate our anger, to distract from our sense of justice, to unsave the world.