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Mad Women: You Made Us Like That

By Lauren Hutton

“No one likes a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / You made her like that” - Mad Woman, Taylor Swift


Trope: The Shrew Wife

Year: 1594

Woman: Katherina, from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

Description: Unwilling to be ordered around by men, stubborn, and prone to angry outbursts, Katherina is belittled, insulted, and denigrated by the characters in this play. According to the men, “that wench is stark mad” and an “impatient shrew.”

Reason for Madness: Subjected to a patriarchal society in which she is expected to blindly follow her father’s wishes and be courteous to suitors who are often less than kind to her, Katherina is trapped in the role of the maiden daughter — a voiceless part she has no interest in playing. Once married off, her husband withholds food and sleep from her in an attempt to “tame” her. Those in her circles frequently laugh at her unmarried status, enjoying her daily humiliations. It sounds to me like Katherina might have some good reasons for being angry, but alas, as an angry, outspoken woman, she must be the “devil.”


Trope: The Madwoman in the Attic

Year: 1847

Woman: Bertha Mason from Bronte’s Jane Eyre 

Description: In the words of Mr. Rochester, “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations!” 

Reason for Madness: After being brought to England from Jamaica in a marriage she had little say in, Bertha is left to suffer in a patriarchal and racist society that directly colonized her. Additionally, her marriage is repressive and in being locked away for many years, isolation and emotional neglect create this mad woman — who must be equal parts furious and devastated. Bertha has every reason to be mad at her life’s circumstances, and instead a white man at the forefront of her abuse begs readers and Jane alike to believe her madness is biological, an innate flaw. 


Trope: The Hysterical Artist

Year: 1941

Woman: Virginia Woolf

Description: Woolf was a crazy woman and a coward, according to the press at the time of her suicide at the height of WWII. The public perceived her suicide as an inability to cope with the war, rather than the result of a lifelong battle with depression that had included multiple previous suicide attempts. Those who hated to acknowledge the revolutionary nature of her work at the time were quick to dismiss her in death as well.

Reason for Madness: Suffering from sexual abuse from her brothers from the time she was six until she was twenty-three, enduring a multitude of family deaths, and struggling with mental illness that sometimes devolved into psychotic episodes, mania, hallucinations and frequent institutionalizations throughout her lifetime, Woolf’s depression is often weaponized against her. Combined with feminist writings and societal critiques, it is easy to imagine why it might have been desirable to write her off as hysterical and insane. In reality, she was tortured, intelligent, and unwell not to the detriment of her writings, her legacy, or her lasting influence on women and writers everywhere. Those who can only acknowledge the genius of her work through the lens of her mental state diminish the reality of her record; as writer Victoria A. Brownworth puts it, it is “as if the very idea of a woman having so great and iconoclastic a mind is in itself madness.”


Trope: The Angry Black Woman

Year: 1981

Woman: Audre Lorde

Description: A writer, feminist, and civil rights activist, Lorde was perpetually asked to cater to white women feminists’ needs. She was lectured on the harshness of black women and discouraged from her anger, categorizing her as an angry black woman, a persisting stereotype that sees black women as bad-tempered, hostile, and overly aggressive.

Reason for Madness: In her keynote The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,

Lorde describes her anger as political as much as it is personal, coining it a lifelong response to structural racism. bell hooks notes that part of the colonization process is to teach black folks to repress their rage so that their anger about racism cannot be used against white individuals. Lorde fittingly used her anger as a tool towards liberation, noting in her speech for the National Women’s Student Association that “My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival and before I give it up I'm going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity." Dismissed as just another angry black woman, Lorde effectively states that all black women are, or should be, angry and it is in their best interest to remain as such. 


Trope: The Unhinged Female Athlete

Year: 2009

Woman: Serena Williams 

Description: In the Women’s Tennis Open, Williams yelled at a lineswoman and broke her racket. As a result, she was fined $17,000 and bombarded with negative media coverage calling her a sore loser. 

Reason for Madness: Williams’ actions paralleled many male players in high stakes games, yet these players received no penalties either financially or in the press. The Women’s Tennis Association called the penalty “sexist,” and expressed their belief “that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women.” Emotional outbursts from male players are often seen as a beloved passion and celebrated intensity for the sport. When Andy Murray kicked a ball at an umpire in the 2016 Cincinnati Masters, he suffered no consequences, won the match, and was humorously celebrated for his “football skills” in subsequent press coverage. And yet, Williams was just throwing a tantrum. 


Trope: The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Year: 2014

Woman: Taylor Swift

Description: Many media outlets have deemed Swift the crazy ex-girlfriend for her many penned songs about failed relationships and the men who hurt her. 

Reason for Madness: Swift embraced the public’s perception of her in her music video for “Blank Space,” whereby she plays a psycho ex-girlfriend who smashes up her ex-boyfriends car and comes across as completely deranged, singing “Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane.” Swift embraced this trope in a way many every day women can’t women everywhere often hide their true emotions and insecurities in relationships for fear of becoming the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” But when we look at what a crazy ex-girlfriend is, more often than not, it is a woman who has been betrayed, hurt, or made to feel small and responds to these emotions in a manner that comes across as clingy, insecure, or controlling. Crazy is a man’s way of excusing his own harmful behavior and dismissing his victim’s hurt. “For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend … that’s turning it into something that is, frankly, a little sexist,” Swift said to Vanity Fair reporters. 


Trope: The Nasty Woman

Year: 2016

Woman: Hillary Clinton

Description: Trump has called Clinton every name under the sun — nasty, crooked, crazy. When she ran against him for president, he claimed she was crazy and “unable to regulate her emotions in a way that will diminish her capacity to lead,” according to a Washington Post piece. 

 Reason for Madness: The New York Times reported that “women who deviate from traditional gender roles face a risk of backlash from men who value those roles; women in positions of power tend to be considered less legitimate than their male counterparts; and ambitious women are viewed more negatively, by men and women alike, than ambitious men. In a statement to TIME, Clinton said, “It should not be an impossible task for more women to achieve their own goals. But we face what is a pernicious double standard that is aided and abetted by the idea of perfectionism.” Women in politics are frequently belittled and trapped by double standards. Women who throw punches are deemed spiteful or nasty and women who get mad at the punches thrown at them are irrational or emotional; every action required of a politician is deemed unfit for a respectable woman.


Trope: The Feminazi

Year: 2018

Woman: Laura Bates

Description: When Piers Morgan invited writer and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project Laura Bates to discuss the #MeToo movement on talk show Good Morning Britain, he attempted to get her to laugh at the end of the segment after making a joke. He insisted “You can laugh, come on. Have a laugh,” which left a humorless Laura to state, "It's not a laughing matter, women are dying. I'm so glad you can laugh about it.” Viewers sided with each of the individuals, one tweeting “Wow Laura Bates going into full on feminazi mode there!” while another protested that Morgan was “Attempting to paint Laura as a humorless feminazi by refusing to massage his ego by giggling politely.”

Reason for Madness: Rush Limbaugh popularized the term “feminazi” to refer to feminists “who are happy about the number of abortions we have” in the United States. While no tenet of modern-day feminism needlessly celebrates abortions, the comment was a piece of deliberately poised propaganda aimed at likening women campaigning for equality with Nazi genocide so as to discourage individuals from wanting to associate themselves with the equal rights movement. This tactic mirrors earlier uses of the association between hysteria and feminism; Princeton professor Elaine Showalter said hysteria was entrenched in the “rhetoric of anti-suffragists who sought to discredit the feminist movement. The hysterical woman became a familiar caricature that was frequently mocked in the press.” By painting feminists as violent extremists or mentally unwell when they challenge the norm or push back against men who just want them to lighten up and “have a laugh,” folks play into a history of feminist movement attacks launched by insecure men. 


Trope: The Bitch

Year: 2020

Woman: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)

Description: Congressman Ted Yoho called AOC a “fucking bitch,” “crazy,” and “disgusting” for proposing that there might be a link between poverty and New York City’s recent surge of crime. Yoho’s unapologetic response to the media’s account of his language saw him call the interaction a misunderstanding and hide behind having wives and daughters as a defense for sexism. 

Reason for Madness: In an eloquent speech on the house floor, AOC harnessed her anger into a critique of Yoho’s vulgarities as well as the culture that allows men to use language that abuses and oppresses women. “When you do that to any woman—what Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters,” she said. “In using the language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community, and I am here to say that is not acceptable.”  Despite the righteous reasons behind the speech, news outlets called it “an emotional floor speech” (Fox), and said it “Rips Rep. Ted Yoho to Shreds,” (DailyBeast); the Times went so far as to link it to AOC’s aggressive political ambition and a move to uphold her fiery brand rather than a justified response to inappropriate male behavior. As The Cut writes, “these words somehow cast Ocasio-Cortez and her female colleagues as the disruptive and chaotic forces unleashed in this scenario, suggesting that they shattered norms in a way that representative Yoho’s original, profane outburst apparently did not.” A woman’s anger can only be a political move, a cry for attention, a long, irritating whine.


Trope: The “Too Ambitious” Politician 

Year: 2020

Woman: Kamala Harris

Description: A group of Biden’s backers for his presidential campaign formed a movement to discourage Kamala Harris from being Biden’s Vice-Presidential pick. They claimed she was too ambitious and would be solely focused on becoming president herself. 

Reason for Madness: While men are praised for ambition, women are portrayed as conniving for the same behaviors. Because Harris ran for president, because she attacked Biden aggressively, because she put forth her best campaign to win, she is irredeemable in the eyes of the American public. According to an Atlantic piece on the world’s fear of ambitious women, several studies illustrate the ways in which women downplay their career ambitions on dates so as to come across as more appealing. Additionally, marriages in which the woman is the bigger breadwinner are more likely to end in divorce. In a world that sees femininity as self-sacrifice and submissiveness, women who break free of these restrictions are innately unnatural, unideal, and absolutely crazy for thinking they can succeed in a man’s world.  


The list goes on in both directions. Women were deemed crazy in Biblical times and women will continue to be undermined and minimized for their alleged hysteria moving forward. In literature, politics, sports fields, and songwriting, women’s anger is such an acute threat to men that its widespread villainization runs rampant. These stories try and convince us that a woman’s anger is damaging and harmful to herself and others, rather than a justified response to oppression.

These women weren’t mad before they were married off against their will, locked in attics, maligned for mental illness, racially stereotyped, upheld to a double standard in sports or pop culture, sexistly belittled, condescended or outright insulted, or attacked for doing their jobs. Society made these women mad. Ignorant men made these women mad. Misogyny, racism, and sexism made these women mad. 

Female anger is something with which society is not yet ready to grapple. It is as if this entity is too terrifying to confront, and it must be dismissed as madness — an absence of logic. A woman displaying anger cannot be sensible because to accept widespread female anger as a valid response to mistreatment would be to accept that as a society we are still wronging women. In politics, in business, in art we are still not ready to treat women as equals, and if we accept their anger as rational, we would have to accept the flawed nature of the personal and political spheres, the disempowered place women still inhabit, the inability to make genuine progress. 

And no one wants to admit to that or to tackle the steps necessary to improving it. That would be crazy.


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