Illustration of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot giving a clinical lecture on the symptoms of female hysteria (Version of: 'A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetreire' by Pierre Andre Brouillet, via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Calm down, dear

The grim history of portraying women as mentally unstable

Women’s mental health is perpetually under scrutiny. In a world where women’s flesh is available and — to a certain extent — owned by the public, the intellectual organ belonging to a woman is a tantalisingly mysterious object. 

In the noughties rom-com What Women Want, Mel Gibson acquires the ability to hear what women are thinking: insider knowledge of the female psyche. Although it will never be elevated into the cinematic canon, the film is interesting because it embodies society’s preoccupation with the female mind; a mind which is viewed by some to be a labyrinth of hysterical, sensitive and inscrutable corridors consumed by emotion.

Women are deemed crazy, delusional, or purely incapable of making rational decisions if they behave in a way that disturbs preconceived notions of femininity — but this fetishism for the female emotional state pathologizes women and works as one of the more insidious forms of subordination.

The myth of female instability has historically been a tool of coercion and punishment

This is not a new phenomenon. Since at least the nineteenth century, women have been subjugated through the guise of psychiatry. Records show that asylums during this period were full of women who had “snapped” as a result of their unjust societal treatment. Whether they were the victims of sexual violence or general oppression, their acts of rage against systemic cruelty often met a drastic outcome. In reality, institutions were predominantly prisons for female disrupters and an enabling centre for male ego. Recently published letters reveal that even Charles Dickens attempted to have his wife committed to an asylum for having an extramarital affair. The document includes evidence of which he claimed that his wife’s “excitability” was clear confirmation of her “moral insanity”.

While such asylums no longer exist in their archaic form, the hangover of psychiatric gender imbalance is ongoing. According to the World Health Organisation, women predominate mental health conditions and are twice as likely to suffer from “unipolar depression”. Alongside these findings, the all-encompassing term “mental health” has become an invisible straightjacket for women in the 21st century. Moreover, psychiatry could even be inappropriately diagnosing women with conditions of which they do not possess and almost certainly do not require medication for.

The etymology of the word “hysteria” and the way in which it is linked to the womb allows the myth of female instability to be used as a tool of coercion and punishment. Helen King, author of Hysteria Beyond Freud, dates gender-specific assumptions of “craziness” to the ancient Greek belief that the uterus was the “origin of all disease”. Plato believed that the womb instructed every aspect of a woman’s condition and would thereby upset their “delicate constitution”. Thus, when a woman acts in an unpredictable way, she is merely responding to her biological urges. 

This assumption filters into every aspect of a woman’s life. Perpetually accusing women of having some sort of innate mental-health condition at a higher rate than men has formed a narrative which has been enforced by our media and even, at times, our legal framework.

During Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’s divorce in 2006, Mills stated: “I’ve had worse press than a paedophile or a murderer and I’ve done nothing but charity for 20 years.” The press had a field day painting Heather as a manic and manipulative agitator who wanted nothing more than to take down a national hero. The judge remarked how McCartney had “expressed himself moderately, though at times with justifiable irritation, if not anger”. This is despite a judgment which reported that McCartney had allegedly “dictated what she could or could not do” during the relationship. Naturally, McCartney wasn’t attempting to have his wife committed to a psychiatric ward, but the subject of hysteria permeated the courtroom and subsequent public discussion.

Misguided focus on the female mind enables the subjugation of women

There are many women throughout history that are known not only for their work but for their supposed “craziness”. In recent weeks, the world has been allowed access to Britney Spears’s stifling conservatorship. Spears’s early music feels as though it points to a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy — or at least a grim foreshadowing for what has come to transpire. (A few examples include “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, “Overprotected” and “Lucky”.) All of these document a woman who is suffering from various amounts of psychological torment that leave her questioning her sanity and self-control. Her music, on the whole, is a back catalogue of female passivity and anxious lyrics. Although it would be erroneous to suggest that her music acted as a motivation for her eventual conservatorship, it could be argued that her carefully crafted narrative legitimised a court order that saw her deemed unfit to manage her own affairs.

Prior to Britney’s conservatorship, she was said to be behaving in “irrational” and “concerning” ways. The turning point appeared to be when Britney shaved her head amid her custody battle over her two sons. Choosing to upset the image of America’s sweetheart was a shocking moment in the media and is still seen as a culturally iconic image. It had confused people as to why such a beautiful creature would want to upset traditional notions of femininity. To many, this was clear evidence that she had lost her mind. The repercussions of this are still felt today; even after Britney’s recent court statement, her desire to be free from her conservatorship has been denied.

Women, like everyone else, are capable of suffering from a range of mental health issues. However, misguided focus on the female mind enables a space for the subjugation of women to continue. Perfectly normal human emotions such as aggression, sadness, or frustration do not require inspection under some psychiatric lens; they require sympathy and understanding.

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