Our writer Georgia Poplett talks to scientist and author Dr Pragya Agarwal about what led her to write her latest book, Hysterical, the damaging history of gendered emotions, representation in data, subverting the classics and why the (feminist) future is bright – and furious!
CW: Please note that this feature includes references to suicide.
‘All Melancholy, Hysterical and Hypecondriack Distempers […] or any other Disorders caus’d by Vapours are successfully Cured (with God’s Blessing) by a Physician well experience’d therein, and of more than 20 Years Practice in those deplorable Cases […] which he informs on sight of their Water. Living next Door to Shadwell Coffee-house in Upper Shadwell, near London.’
So ran an 18th-century back-page advert in the Old Bailey Proceedings, which transcribed trials for popular consumption until the early 1910s, making them lucrative advertising channels. While bulletins ran the gamut from religious catechisms to quack remedies, our friend Dr Shadwell’s is striking for its insight into the historic pathologisation of emotionality: which feelings are acceptable to display, and which need curing, suppressing, or expunging.
This emotional pathology takes centre stage in Dr Pragya Agarwal’s most recent book, Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions (Canongate), which debunks millennia of emotional misogyny, from Hippocrates to medieval witch-hunts and 21st-century sex robots. Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist by trade, a two-time TEDx speaker and United Nations consultant who is currently Visiting Professor of Social Inequities and Injustice at Loughborough University. She is also the founder of The 50 Percent Project, a research think-tank dedicated to global racial and gender inequities, and the award-winning author of three previous books for adults: Wish We Knew What To Say: Talking With Children about Race (Dialogue Books), Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (Bloomsbury) and (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman (Canongate).
Published in August last year, Hysterical is the latest yield of Agarwal’s extraordinary career to date. The sheer quantity of scholarship which she has distilled into the book is staggering. It traverses a sweeping landscape of emotive inequity across time and culture, freckled with wonderful details without ever being a laborious read. In particular, Agarwal’s Medea analysis – part of her broader discussion of the emotional blueprint the Western world has inherited from Classical mythology – is eerily resonant today: ‘When discussions about equality and rights of women are pushed off the table, then sometimes women do not have a choice but to act radically.’
It is a phrase which gestures towards not only the power, but the urgency of this particular text, which was originally conceived pre-pandemic. ‘The idea came to me at the end of 2019,’ Agarwal tells me over Zoom. ‘I had finished writing Sway and I was thinking about what I was going to work on next. I’d been doing this kind of research for a while, but it crystallised in that moment.’ Specifically, Agarwal was struck by a pattern she recognised from her work in data analysis and a corresponding paucity of accessible discussion around emotionality: ‘what kind of emotions we’re suppressing, and what we’re allowed to show, and how it’s linked to the social and cultural pressures that we have in history.’ In many ways, it was an untapped market of possibility; in others, a daunting blank space.
‘It was a very overwhelming task at times,’ Agarwal admits. ‘Every time I write a book, I always think: Why did I do this? Why do I put myself through it? Never again. I’m never going to do it ever again.‘ She laughs, acknowledging the added challenges of her own writing process. ‘I work in that way where there are lots of loose threads of different colours tangled up on the floor, and I have to slowly tease them out and pick them up and find the ends, but also find the connections.’ The process of finding those connections, she explains, can look a lot like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Pepe Silvia wall. ‘I have lots of Post-Its and lots of sheets printed out all over my walls. I print them out, read them, cut them out, try and find connections. I have millions of documents. Until the very end, it doesn’t really make sense.’
The image of a cluttered corkboard á la Operation Mincemeat is fitting, given how resistance against the status quo runs throughout Agarwal’s work – and perhaps especially so in Hysterical, which emerged at a pivotal moment in history. It went off on submission to editors just before the pandemic and, in the subsequent conversations around anti-racism and reproductive justice, acquired a singular importance.
‘It’s a long time coming,’ Agarwal says. ‘There was something bubbling under the surface for a long time, but we didn’t have the space to voice it, or we didn’t have the energy or the time or it wasn’t the right moment to articulate it.’ Now, she says, things have changed. ‘There’s something that has shifted – politically, socially and culturally – but also in the way all these conversations have become more open. Especially in women but also in minority communities, in people who have been traditionally oppressed.’
It is important to Agarwal to emphasise the underrepresentation of these individuals across the spectrum of her research, which she identifies as one of the most affecting insights she came across in the process of writing the book. ‘A lot of the data is so Western-centric,’ she explains. ‘It was quite surprising and enlightening for me about how very few studies there are based in the global south, or in other communities. It just surprised me because in 2021 or 2020, when I was writing this book, we still don’t document women’s lives and women’s bodies and women’s experience. But even less so than that, we don’t have any data about nonbinary, intersex individuals, about trans people. They are not represented in studies and I find that quite sad and terrifying that decisions are being made for other people without them being represented in these studies, without us having evidence for it, without their voices being heard.’
For Agarwal, working in this kind of intersectional modality is imperative. ‘All my books stemmed from personal experience and from my own position. So it’s very important for my work to be intersectional. Through my work, I want to open up the platform for other voices. But I try my very best not to speak for them. I don’t want to marginalise them even further by taking away that space.’ After she published her last book, the intimate hybrid memoir (M)otherhood, Agarwal made the conscious choice to strip back the personal from Hysterical. What factors fed into that choice? ‘There are quite a few reasons. First of all, when women write serious nonfiction books, they’re not taken as seriously as men, and there is a huge amount of data and evidence and contemporary research to show that men can write smart thinking books and women are not taken seriously until they write a memoir, or until they talk about their personal experience,’ Agarwal explains. ‘So I really wanted to approach this in a way that allowed me to resist those kind of constraints that are placed on women writers.’
Statistics have shown that women (and largely cis, white women) dominate both fiction charts and fiction readership; particularly popular is the recent boom in feminist retellings, driven by such literary giants as Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes, whose critically-acclaimed novels excavate the women’s narratives encased by Classical misogyny. This is a genre doing important imaginative work. But Agarwal picks up a nuanced line of argument when she asks whether these models of fiction are quite as empowering as we might think at first glance.
‘I always feel like it’s shown as a warning when a woman is taking control, like Medusa. Whoever is taking control of their anger and allowed to show anger, there is a negative aspect to it. I do think that moving away from these masculine gazes is wonderful, because for so long we’ve looked at things from a particular gaze, from people that have had power and privilege and we can subvert it, we can turn it around, we can take control of that narrative and we can talk about ourselves and others who have been oppressed, traditionally oppressed, as having power, as showing power in this way.’ How exactly these kinds of literary depictions are working, however, needs careful navigation. ‘Are men reading feminist retellings? Are boys reading it? Is it just women? By subverting the narrative, how are we actually creating a new way of telling stories? Are we telling them in a different way or are we are still stuck in those constraints of masculinity and femininity?’
A key pillar of Hysterical’s argument emphasises how emotions have long been binaried, with certain categories of feeling assigned as masculine or feminine. This praxis benefits no-one along the gender spectrum. ‘Historically, kindness and empathy have not been valued in men,’ Agarwal writes. In the UK, men are significantly more likely than women to die by suicide. Recent campaigns have urged men to check in on each other, to seek support from partners, families and friends, trying to undo generations of messaging about what emotions are acceptable not only to express but to feel as a man. Agarwal adds, ‘If we really want to tackle gender inequality, we have to really move away from the notion that there is certain femininity and certain aspects of masculinity.’
Motherhood is one such elaboration of the cultural contrast between ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ emotions. ‘We internalise all these expectations and norms from society about what a perfect mother should look like,’ Agarwal tells me. ‘You’re told that girls don’t get angry or as a mother you’re not supposed to show anger or frustration. You’re supposed to be passive and self-sacrificing and you have to put other people’s happiness first. And yes, all well and good, we need to learn about how to regulate our emotions, but suppressing emotions isn’t regulating emotions in a healthy manner.’
The rise of ‘MotherTok’ – that subsection of the internet which ostensibly broadcasts the lived experience of motherhood – further cements questions about digital emotional performance. Agarwal signposts some of the overt privileges that underpin platforms like these, pointing to the tensions at the interface of who exactly has the freedom to be totally transparent online. ‘I do think it’s white middle-class women mostly who are doing this, and if you were a brown or Black person, you’re judged more for your parenting, for your motherhood, for your messy homes, for your messy lives.’ She also cautions the gender skew in this representation, wondering whether young women today feel an increased pressure to ‘mine their trauma’ publicly online in exchange for views and followers. Has today’s social media constructed a model for cultural currency at the expense of emotional health? Or is this part of a longer history, one in which women have always operated within certain theatres of emotional performance?
In Chapter 9, Agarwal writes powerfully that ‘we give messages to our young people that some of what they are feeling is not important, nor valid to express in front of people.’ This and her emphasis on ‘emotional-display norms’, amongst other notions of being ‘on display’ and the inequities present on this performativity, resonate with the way I’ve noticed Gen Z operationalising a new social media lexicon. The up-and-coming generation appears to interact with social media through a more self-conscious awareness of its potential as a political and cultural tool; the cryptic Facebook statuses of my childhood – ‘just made cherry cake’, ‘do we have a biology test tomorrow???’, ‘Lily Allen <3’ – are internet relics. Moreover, in many ways the accessibility of certain apps, like TikTok, actively promote the vocalisation (perhaps even overinflation) of one’s feelings and emotions – because reactions are content, and content is monetiseable.
COVID-19 may have also played a role. As Agarwal highlights, the pandemic routinely showcased people’s private lives in public, with all the paraphernalia of the personal visible in the background of a Zoom call. ‘In a lot of families, in heterosexual families, women still have to carry that emotional and mental load. Even the most gender equitable households. The conversation has moved on a little bit but I do wonder if we’re living in a bubble, and this conversation has only moved on for some of us who are living on social media or who are living in the Westernised world, where we have the power and the privilege to exercise some of those kinds of emotionalities that are not allowed for other women.’
Agarwal hopes, however, that some of these conversations are shifting the discourse around certain emotions for groups which were previously off the table – especially fury. The discussion of rage, and particularly the suppression of rage, is one of the book’s most striking investigations. ‘Because there was this notion that women’s bodies were very fragile, they couldn’t handle some of the powerful emotions, and there’s a lot of power associated with rage and anger. So only men were ascribed or allowed this emotion.’ It occurs to me, too, that the twin possibilities and opportunities of a world of unsuppressed feminine fury have been sidestepped across generations of gendering rage. What doors could this open?
Anger can be a powerful agent for change, as Agarwal pinpointed on The Story of Woman podcast last year; on the flip side, it can also be a powerfully destructive force. In Hysterical, she sifts painfully through study after study demonstrating the dismal effects of rage suppression on mental and physical health, indicating the disadvantages of gendered emotional modulation – because it is primarily women across cultures who are conditioned to hide their anger, due to its coding as a ‘masculine’ emotion. In one study, which manufactured rage responses in twenty-four women, those who had been coached not to express their anger experienced increased feelings of fury as compared to those who were able to freely vocalise their emotions, with implications for cardiovascular longevity due to the accompanying hike in stress hormones. In addition, women who deviate from the gendered emotional norm by expressing ‘non-feminine’ emotions experience knock-on repercussions in their personal and professional lives, known as ‘the cognitive cost’. Opportunities get missed, relationships suffer, and for women in the public eye, public judgement can quickly set in.
We see a documented seepage of fallacies like this into legal and even medical frameworks throughout various archives. Attempting to break up a fistfight between their husbands one October night in 1722, neighbours Mary Bolton and Clementia Thornton found themselves in a quarrel of their own. The spat culminated in tragedy: Mrs. Bolton pushed Mrs. Thornton to the ground, where she died on impact. The jury heard evidence that the deceased had taunted Mrs. Bolton, calling her ‘poor beggarly Bitch, nasty draggle tail’d toad, ugly Puss, and stinking Punk’. The coroner, however, found that ‘it seem’d possible [Mrs. Thornton] might be strangled purely by the violent Emotion of the Wind in Scolding’. Mrs. Bolton was acquitted. When women’s deaths are attributed to their inherent biological or emotional fragility, it sets a dangerous precedent, and one which endures in many arenas today.
In 1961, the psychologist Albert Bandura created the famous Bobo Doll Experiment to support his seminal social learning theory, whose findings suggested that children copied adults’ interactions with the eponymous doll. Boys were seen to repeat physically aggressive actions towards Bobo after watching an adult kick or punch it; girls were seen to be more verbally aggressive. It strikes me that words are conditioned to be important for girls and women as a vehicle for sociocultural expression, and may offer a window into vivid inner lives which are often absent from the archives.
Recalling Agarwal’s earlier comments about what kinds of texts women are pigeonholed into writing now, I’m curious to know what she thinks about the unique position that the epistolary has occupied as regards women’s emotions throughout history. Chapter 5 briefly charts the rich and fascinating history of women’s letter-writing that can be gleaned from archives, tracing how ‘women were often limited to exercising their agency and emotional freedom in the form of letters’ throughout history. Thinking through this terrain – of who has the access and ability to share their emotions in this way – led to one of Agarwal’s most moving archival discoveries: a collection of women’s letters dating from the Middle Ages. Certainly, these letters were produced through a prism of privilege – only certain women during the period would have been literate, or had the freedom to exercise their literacy – but they were, nevertheless, stirring examples of women’s writing to a writing woman herself. ‘That was really beautiful to come across,’ Agarwal agrees. ‘Reading those letters – or finding snippets of them – was quite emotional because it was an insight or a window into somebody who was expressing their emotions in this particular way in a private letter to somebody. I think that’s why perhaps, while we say that women write more personal experiences or more personal essays or memoirs, it is a way of taking power and control as well. It’s about saying, My story matters.’
However, as other scholars such as Saidiya Hartman and Olivette Otele have explored, it’s important to look for the absences as well as presences. ‘Who had access to education, who had access to that writing is very important to consider because we don’t really have letters from women of different socioeconomic backgrounds,’ Agarwal adds. Working recently with Aboriginal Australian archives, she experienced this archival discrimination first-hand: ‘There is an inherent power dynamic in what has been lost more than whatever we kept. Storytelling is a basic instinct that all humans have, but women in particular have passed on stories from generation to generation through oral traditions, before they had access to writing.’
Undeniably, our emotional discourse operates within certain structures of power, and often it takes texts like Hysterical to draw these out into visibility. Agarwal’s epilogue makes the persuasive case for an updated emotional lexicon, one which lets go of preconceived gendered notions and promotes emotive eloquence which will foster empathic connections between others. This proposal put me in mind of John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a faux-compendium of feelings which evade definition, perhaps most famously ‘sonder’: the realisation that others are living equally as complex inner lives as you. It’s a project in dialogue with Agarwal’s vision for Hysterical, too. ‘What I was trying to do in the book was talk about languages as well as our emotions, as we can only express or talk about emotions in the way that the language permits us to.’ She adds, ‘A book that I recently read and found after moving to Ireland was Manchán Magan’s 32 Words for Field and it’s all about oppression, what it does, and how knowledge is contained in language.’
Her other recommendation is Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder, a thrillingly tautly-plotted novel about a new mother who seems to experience a canine transformation. ‘It captures a lot of what my books or writing has done about maternal rage, about the feelings you feel as a mother and this desire to step outside of that role, and to kind of break free and say this is who I am and be wild.’ I ask whether Nightbitch is one vision for a world of unsuppressed feminine fury. Agarwal laughs and agrees. ‘Absolutely! We can all be Nightbitches. Actually, I can be one when I’m woken up at three in the morning by my child.’
I wonder whether the chaotic inner worlds of young children and their middle-of-the-night questions – from necromancy to the Tooth Fairy economy – make them doubly susceptible to the power of subliminal cultural messaging. What kind of emotional landscapes will they navigate in their lifetimes? It’s a prospect which preoccupies Agarwal, too. ‘When I started researching the notion of how emotional AI is being developed or especially the notion of sex robots, some of the forums that I had to trawl through was a really terrifying scary prospect for me,’ she shares, recalling ‘quite a few times I had to just sit in silence in my office thinking, where is the future?’ The depressing outcome of AI avatars like TAY, who was forcibly shut down after imbibing racist, misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric within 24 hours of going live, offer glimpses of a dystopian emotional future. But all is not lost, says Agarwal. She has ‘huge hopes and optimism’ for the younger generation. ‘I do think they’re really open-minded. A lot of them are really politically, socially and culturally aware about the language that they’re using. In some ways this conversation started before they came onto the scene, but they have really taken it on board.’
Hysteria may no longer form part of today’s diagnostic patchwork, but its spectral traces linger across the fabric of many women’s lived experiences and emotional lives. Hysterical, and a genre of important texts like it, do vital work in honouring these fragmented dialogues, making space for missing voices, and correcting archival absences. So rejoice, all ye melancholy, hysterical, and hypecondriack – the future is bright. And, even better: it’s furious.
Pragya Agarwal’s Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions is published by Canongate and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Lucy Writers would like to express their deepest thanks to Dr Pragya Agarwal and Georgia Poplett for their time, expertise, insight and eloquence in this interview.