At a pool in Ashland, Oregon, a little girl, no older than 10 years old, is crying — feet dangling in the water, pink and blue tankini crinkled over her hunched chest, which extends with long inhales that prepare for choked sobs. Her father holds her knees, treading water:
“Calm down, calm down, take a deep breath.”
Her brother, giggling on an orange chaise lounge, had held her under the water by her shoulders: Her legs splayed, unable to extend or push off the bottom of the pool, kicked while her arms flailed. The boy laughed as bubbles flew from her open mouth, goggles filled with tears, his sister and enemy and only source of entertainment.
Now she was out of the pool, chlorinated bile ejected to allow air in to her suppressed lungs. He grins, as his mother, lounged on the steps with legs submerged, says “Jason, that wasn’t very nice.”
Jason isn’t focused on his mother. He’s watching his other family members interact: her expanding chest, his firm and soothing words:
“Shh, calm down, calm down.”
Women have always been told to calm down. By fathers, by teachers, by boyfriends, by the Department of Health and Human Services, by any authority figure who has no idea how to deal with an emotional outburst. If you’re a female politician, in all likelihood you’ve heard it from your peers.
As long as we have encountered unruly women, we’ve accepted “hysteria” as its explanation: the generic, catch-all diagnosis for the woman who could not be subdued. In ancient Egypt, women who were diagnosed hysterical often had “the sense of suffocation or imminent death,” as described in Tasca’s history of hysteria in its relation to women (which, of course, is one in the same — hysteria is a diagnosis that is inherently female, a medicalized misogyny accepted as fact for centuries). As someone with an anxiety disorder and a therapist for a parent, the sense of suffocation or imminent death sounds quite a bit like a panic attack. To treat this, of course, “doctors” placed foul-smelling crap near patients’ mouths or vaginas, depending on the position of the uterus.
The Egyptians were the outliers, however: Throughout history, we’ve considered the healthy remedy for feminine hysteria a good dick. From Melampus’s coining of the term in Greek mythology (named for the women who were crazy enough to bail from the Dionysian phallus-frenzy that was ancient Greece)to the doctors prescribing vibrators to housewives of the 1950s, doctors treated this patriarchal, bullshit illness under the assumption that the patients were lonely, sexless and dejected. To calm them down, women were prescribed artificial men, supplemental support in the form of sexual reward. Even when Freud could acknowledge that female discomfort/rage/anxiety could be treated using psychoanalysis, the method was informed by his inherently male-centric, sexist schema. (Freudian psychotherapy was also just kind of ineffective and stupid.) All treatments of female emotional “instability” rely on the male figure, in phallus or in confidant, because an accurate reaction is always defined and policed by men.
It’s not as if this ex was an Mens Rights Advocate — he’s extraordinarily conscious of the social justice cause-of-the-week; he checked his privilege with his coat at restaurants; he spent Saturday mornings in bed with his think pieces; he openly identified as feminist, but not in the unfashionable, mansplain-y way. It was as close to dating Ta-Nehisi Coates as I will ever get. And yet, he joined the hoards of other men who thought the best way out of a woman’s rancor was through condescension. When I t0ld him how much I hated the phrase “calm down,” he countered, perplexed but combative:
“Really? I always find ‘calm down’ soothing.”
Context, here, is key. Both “calm down” and “take a deep breath” are commands. They’re both used in scenarios where emotions take hold of the physical form (in anxiety or panic attacks, in shock, in fits of rage). To be calm is to be logical, because emotions, at least in excess, negate objectivity or logic.
This thought process is a gendered 0ne. Women are socialized to value intuitiveness, emotional intelligence and empathy. Paradoxically, men coach women on staying calm and rational, because we classify stoicism as male.
Pathos in pink; logos in blue.
Women pass down ears tuned to frequencies that pick up resentment, rage, despair, especially within. And static roars, because the male figure, father or boyfriend, is there to turn the dial.
And yet, calmness is an overrated virtue, at least for those with interest in success. In a piece for Forbes, Peggy Drexler referenced a study that suggested exuberance, or at least the thought of exuberance, offered better results than serenity:
In one situation, 63 men and 77 women were asked to deliver a talk to an audience, and told their speeches would be videotaped and judged. Those who repeated to themselves, “I am excited,” before giving the speech gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent, and relaxed than those who were instructed to tell themselves, “I am calm.” This happened again and again. The takeaway, say researchers, is that the way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel.
And so, then, why does the male ego find comfort in the demand for stability, for quiet?
To be honest, it could be blatant hypocrisy. Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Male Mind, writes that men get “physically aggressive 20 times more often than women do.” According to Bizendine, this response has something to do with the size of septum, which controls emotions like anger and fear. Men have smaller septums, and in with collaboration with strong social conditioning, biology can cement anger control mechanisms in early teen-hood. So essentially, men are getting angry far more often than women — they just have a better PR campaign for their own hissy fits.
You cannot ignore the context of a patriarchal world, where white male is default, where our reality, in terms of the discourse we use and the culture we consume, is written by men. Emotions always feel rational when we’re feeling them — anyone with a mental illness can tell you they lie, but they also alert us to dangers in our daily lives. Dangers and stressors in the daily lives of women, or any oppressed group (who are also often told to calm down as well, or are written off as angry and hysterical), are often the result of patriarchal society/men: Rape, sexual harassment, street harassment, dismissal, a more difficult job market, a more strenuous living earned from that job market, whatever “leaning in” is and violence. There’s a reason to be angry, or upset, or afraid. Sometimes, you have to react loudly to be heard.
As the little girl at the hotel pool learned that day, people can’t hear you scream underwater. And when they can hear you, they’ll tell you to pipe down. To be honest, the boys are writing the story, and in that story, the woman reacting was being irrational.
To give very little credit to the male subconscious, men tell women to calm down because reaction is a form of protest. It is an attack on the comfortable, guilt-free life of unbridled privilege. And when someone sees a person they value in pain, it is easier to feel stable and safe by making the image of the pain go away. Calming someone down makes those guilt cues go away while also feeding the Savior complex.
I am not a person who protests composure and tranquility at all costs. Helping someone relax, detach from anxiety or discomfort, is absolutely valuable and healthy. But emotions need to be tended to, weeded — you don’t pull out the whole garden because there’s a thistle in one bed.
I wonder about what my ex said — why does it feel better for him to be told to calm down? Why do certain men like to hear it? It could have something to do with the ways women are socialized: The male emotional outburst is written off as a sign of emotional complexity, and thus the delivery of the command is often softer. Also, when women are raised to be nurses, they learn how to sound like mothers instead of drill sergeants.
Faux-resilience is a Panopticon; stoicism is the erasure of committed empathy. Those who make utilitarian stability the main goal often allow injustices to stand. It’s not necessarily because those who aim to stabilize intend to silence — I think of the father at the pool, holding his daughter’s knees, ignoring his son, not bothering to punish him. It wasn’t because he wanted his daughter to suffer. He just wanted it to all be alright. He wanted to stop watching her cry or choke. He wanted her out of the pool, underwater or otherwise. He slapped her calves, coaxing her attention away from her burning throat toward her legs, toward him.
The water in the pool kept lapping against the sides. She sniffled, stood up and sat on a chaise lounge. She smiled and watched the water. She was pretty and quiet and calm.
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is a food writer, columnist & feminist ranter.