Image: From the TV show My Crazy ex Girlfriend. Image Source.
You’ve heard it a thousand times before and you’ll hear it a thousand times again: women are crazy. We’re an unhinged gender, brimming with contradictions: either too emotionally intense or disconcertingly aloof, painfully shrill and outspoken or pitifully lacking strength, our moods swing too wildly or perhaps not enough but above all else – we are entirely incomprehensible to men. We are crazy, they are the stable ones.
I remember at seventeen my first long-term boyfriend once sagely informing me that “Men make decisions with facts, women make decisions with emotions”, to which I replied, “Of course you never seem to have made a decision under the influence of anger”, directing towards the hole that he had punched in his cupboard door two days earlier. And yet, we seem so frequently to internalise this narrative between the heterosexual male and us, their female counterparts, we acknowledge this insanity that we all allegedly carry as though it’s a tangible burden. When one of my friends tells us about a new partner she has, it’s not unusual for us to ask if and when he’ll be exposed to the “crazy”, “Have you kept it under wraps so far?”, “Does he know it yet?”, “Will you give it to him for Christmas?” Of course we’re joking but these jokes still represent an indiscriminate acceptance of the myth as truth: women are fucking crazy.
This thoroughly “relatable” characteristic has saturated popular cultures depictions of women, particularly in comedy, and one really needn’t look any further than literally every episode of How I Met Your Mother to get a sense for this. How I Met Your Mother’s “Hot-Crazy” scale or the girlfriend with “crazy eyes” are jokes that try to tap into this stereotype for cheap laughs at the expense of women.
This narrative has also been wholly embraced by meme culture in recent years; 50s illustrations of women are captioned “Being bitchy and unstable is part of my mystique!” and written over the face of the widely disseminated Overly Attached Girlfriend, Laina Morris with white Impact font are captions such as, “It’s been over ten minutes since you last said you love me, are you breaking up with me?” These are all concepts that play with the idea of feminine instability and betray the sentiment of that old line, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (by the by, that saying should absolutely be modernised to “Hell hath no fury like a man scorned by a woman in direct messaging on Instagram”). These demeaning and condescending jokes try to instil a sense of playful male-deprecation by suggesting that women have an intrinsic emotional power over men – but only because we’re so darn volatile. Hey, it’s probably what makes us such bad drivers!
We have also become overly apologetic for these emotional elements of ourselves because they are so unfailingly construed as inconveniences to the men who surround us. Our periods and the moods we happen to experience whilst we’re bleeding make us a laughing stock, our frustrations (no matter how intellectual) are dismissed as hyper-emotionality, and our angers are infantilised as juvenile tantrums. And later, after our intimate relationships with these men come to an end, we are denigrated amongst friends as irrational and deranged (a la Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation).
And yet, there’s something far more complex at play here than the mere mood fluctuations of an entire gender, our menstrual cycles, or even those common and totally inexplicable tit aches; belittling women as crazy is a tendency with a deeply-entrenched history in medicine and culture that stretches back for thousands of years. When we come to see how this narrative was first drafted, perhaps we’ll learn to reject it more readily.
The diagnosis of hysteria infiltrated medicine in Western Europe for hundreds of years but its origins are in Ancient Greece, with Plato’s comparison of the human womb to a living creature that exists restlessly inside of us. Our wandering wombs were thought to block passages, obstruct breathing, and cause disease and thus, hysteria was born and – unless satiated by pregnancy – our empty uteri became our affliction. Much like every form of scientific insanity, hysteria (or neurasthenia) really had its hey-day in the 19th Century and was allegedly triggered by a number of deviant behaviours such as homosexuality, bisexuality, masturbation, and females reading fiction. Treatments such as ‘genital massage’ (read: medicalised masturbation), marriage and intercourse were common – less so were newly-devised and grisly procedures such as hysterectomies, overiectomies, and cauterisation of the clitoris.
Terri Kapsalis of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago notes that it is no coincidence that the popularisation of this diagnosis coincides with a period in which we’re fighting for access to professions and formal education, “A decrease in marriages and falling birth rates coincided with this medical diagnosis criticizing the New Woman and her focus on intellectual, artistic, or activist pursuits instead of motherhood”. This was a reactionist approach aimed at subjugating women at a time when their demands threatened the institutional authority of men. And perhaps that’s why the term “hysterical” still stings so much today – it’s a word that completely dehumanises the female to something that’s essentially just a babbling foetus host without a baby to anchor it (recall Steve Price being actively hissed by the audience for dismissing Van Badham on Q & A with the term last year).
This relationship between women and perceptions of mental instability have been highly evident at various points in history but arguably, no other period illustrates this cultural entanglement more vividly than post-war America. Following World War II, women who had become gainfully employed members of society in the absence of men, were displaced from their new-found economic freedom and sent packing back to the household to act like good mothers and birthing cows. Whilst a whole host of factors contributed to the Miltown phenomenon (the pressures instituted by Freudian psychoanalysis and that whole imminent-nuclear-war thing) the fact is, American women’s astounding reliance on tranquilisers was due to depression and anxieties placed on them by – who else? – men. With financial independence at their fingertips, they were torn away from the workplace, punted back into the suburbs and told never to interfere in men’s work again. By 1963, around 21% of American women were reliant on tranquilisers (more pointedly referred to as “mother’s little helper”) to get them through the day and this case stunningly demonstrates what we should know to be fact: women aren’t intrinsically “crazy”, they’re “crazy” because patriarchal society makes them that way.
Labelling women as deranged and capricious creatures has, historically speaking, always been far simpler and less threatening than accepting the responsibility of crushing, institutionalised misogyny. Of course, it rather seems to have escaped the logic of these relationship dynamics that perhaps consistently labelling women “crazy”, intellectually undermining them, and suggesting that they have defective emotional tendencies is literally going to send women a bit fucking mad. This is a cynicism I have always reserved whenever a man I know is complaining about a “crazy ex” or perhaps a girlfriend currently going off the rails – “Have you ever considered that your own emotional ineptitudes are causing this behaviour?” And when there is a coherent pattern of a man claiming that he has a history of accidentally dating “crazy” women, I’m always drawn to recalling that crude but effective line, “If you smell dog shit everywhere you go, you might want to check your own shoes”. Perhaps more worryingly, this disregard of women as insane also acts to undermine genuine mental illnesses that they may be suffering; with the same hand that they dismiss all volatile behaviour as the ‘whims of our gender’, they also manage to ignore women who are actually suffering.
Perhaps the most infuriating element of this dynamic between the genders is the concept that, yet again, men are the default, whilst women’s emotional lives are a mere malfunction. Simone de Beauvoir summarised this sentiment perfectly by saying, “Man is defined as a human being and women as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male”. In our emotional lives with men, we so often attempt to attain the status of the “cool girl”, the one who doesn’t exhibit the same “crazy” and dramatic tendencies as other girls, the one who behaves logically and with an unswervingly cool head; but maybe that’s a proclivity that we should actively try to reject.
Maybe it’s okay to be a woman and to operate emotionally and intellectually outside the bounds of male criteria and it doesn’t make us “crazy”. Maybe it makes us conscious and intelligent creatures because maybe – just maybe – we’re reacting to a set of pressures and inequalities that men don’t tangibly experience. It is entirely possible that unequal pay and employment opportunities, fear of aggression and sexual violence, consistent verbal degradation and dismissal, grating relationship expectations, harassment, and shaming can set women up for an altogether different emotional experience to men. To dismiss us so unerringly as “crazy” is to reject this reality and makes for one thoroughly unprogressive dialogue.
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