If you have ever heard the adjective ‘crazy’ being used to describe a woman who doesn’t necessarily suffer from a mental health issue then you are aware of this problematic yet popular trope of the madwoman.
For a long time, the representation of women in mainstream media has been categorized into the forms of either the goddess, the laxmi of the house or the madwoman, the witch who wishes for nothing but everyone’s demise. This distinction between the good witch and the bad witch is rooted in the idea of the male gaze that controls what type of a woman can fit in to serve their side of the narrative. A woman is either a sweetheart who says yes to you for a date or she is a crazy ‘bitch’ who doesn’t like you. Here, we are trying to dissect a very popular trope in media culture which is that of the madwoman. Its roots lie in the misogynistic representation of women all over the world. To understand this, we need to ask ourselves: who are these crazy women?
In an industry dominated by men, women have but a few avenues to display their side of the story. It is imperative to ask if the crazy women we see in media are actually crazy or simply a character trope created to belittle the stories and emotions of women.
How it began
While this trope is a modern manifestation, its roots actually date far back in history. The idea of dismissing a woman’s emotional state as ‘crazy’ goes back to the medieval era of witchhunts. From that, the idea slowly progressed into the 17th and 18th century’s idea of female hysteria. This notion of a madwoman, therefore, has always existed. Even in the 20th century, it was very rare to see women on TV starring in a role where their emotions weren’t caricatured or exaggerated in contrast to the portrayal of men’s level-mindedness.
The Madwoman in the Attic is a famous literary trope that was originally created by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason was the OG Madwoman. She had an established mental illness, was violent and could cause serious harm, and lived in a Gothic mansion’s attic. However, this character was not created out of an intention to dismiss women’s very natural mental illnesses. This character has since then been twisted by patriarchal media representation and today we see its manifestation in the many angry or crazy women on TV and in books.
A very contemporary example of the mad or crazy woman is the very idea of a crazy ex-girlfriend which we observe in many TV shows and movies. She is usually put there as a side character who will advance the protagonist’s story or perhaps provide humor. A crazy ex-girlfriend is someone who stalks their ex, yearns to regain their love, and is ready to do anything, even break laws, to get back with their ex. If this sounds similar to some other trope, then you are not far off. While in a women’s case, such actions are seen to be the works of a ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’, when a man does that, he is chalked off as a ‘hopeless romantic who is just trying to win back his girl. This dynamic is based on a very sexist and misogynistic idea that perceives women’s feelings as crazy and hysterical while men’s actions are seen as rational.
Presently, we see different examples of this trope which are so varied that we don’t even realize that this trope is being executed in women’s portrayal. Any vamp in an Indian TV soap is a Madwoman but so is Regina George from Mean Girls. Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter is a crazy witch but Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl gives us Amy Dunne’s crazed actions. This variation sneaks upon us and we don’t even realize it.
Recently, the feminist audience and creators have tried to reclaim the idea of the madwoman in an attempt to legitimize women’s emotions and feelings while at the same time, spreading information about mental health issues. A very popular cultural image of Medusa’s madness is now used to understand the complex emotions and experiences of women that might push them towards what mainstream media considers ‘madness’. Medusa as a mythical figure has been used to portray the idea of a monster but now, people are willing to look at her side of the narrative by examining her rape by Poseidon and the eventual curse by Athena.
In a TV show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend starring Rachel Bloom, the creators have done a splendid job not only in selecting a self-aware title but also by exploring the nuanced life of the protagonist as she understands her mental health issues and learns to deal with them. The writers of the show do not dismiss her mistakes but make them an important point of her character development.
Songs like Halsey’s Nightmare (“I’m tired and angry, but somebody should be”) and Taylor Swift’s Mad woman (“No one likes a mad woman/ You made her like that”) talk about how it is the patriarchal society which has created the madwoman. These notions of the Madwoman trope try to liberate the idea of madness and associate it not simply with a mental condition that should get you locked up but a certain kind of female rage that has been pent up and will drown everyone in its lava.
Today, movies and TV shows are created with the help of larger participation by women. Now, the women are not simply mad or angry but their rage is more nuanced and complex. We have angry superheroes like Scarlet Witch and we have super villains like Hela. Their anger and agony are explored and the audience gets a chance to empathize with their characters instead of marking them off as lunatics.
Is it time to give up this trope or do we need to reclaim it? While as a primitive trope, its real-life effects on the representation of women in society can be significant but one cannot ignore the Dionysian factor of the idea of the Madwoman. Perhaps it is time to explore the idea of gender and insanity to understand that while both these ideas work separately, their intersectionality cannot be ignored.