You may have noticed a long-standing trend in the media of associating women with emotional instability. Film and television portray a wide array of women who exhibit signs of mental distress, from rich girls with daddy issues to ex-girlfriends who just can’t let go. Many times, these problems go undiagnosed– there’s might be a cause in the backstory, but there’s no name given for the ailment. Sometimes the irrational behavior is even used to make the female character seem sexier and more exciting.
This trend was noted in a 2011 academic article from The Review of Communication titled “Gender, Media, and Madness: Reading a Rhetoric of Women in Crisis Through Foucauldian Theory.” The authors point out many instances where the media has exploited irrational behavior in female narratives, “Their madness a ‘spectacle’ to be consumed.” They claim that not only does the media play up the idea that women are prone to temper tantrums and destructive behavior, but it also implies that women are childlike, unbalanced, and “crazy” at the very core of their being.
Depictions of women who exhibit problematic behavior aren’t exclusive to fiction or the celebrity tabloids– they also have a habit of popping up in music. I’m not just talking about music written about women for the benefit of men. Female artists across various genres have portrayed themselves, albeit in character, as mentally unstable and even violent, without exploring the nuances within the actual psychology of behavioral disorders. Often this can turn mental illness into an object of fantasy and sexual tension.
The popular song “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift and its corresponding video play right into these harmful stereotypes. It portrays a woman who is emotionally imbalanced and manipulative, and eventually becomes abusive. Her behavior would be completely inappropriate if exhibited by a male, but is shown as only mildly disturbing within the context of the video, due to the attractiveness of Swift and her elegant surroundings. According to a post at Psych Dr. Online, the protagonist of “Blank Space” demonstrates tell-tale signs of a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness whose symptoms include an inability to maintain relationships, harmful black-and-white thinking, and reckless, impulsive behavior.
Similar messages appear in Melanie Martinez’s 2015 concept album, Crybaby. In it, the protagonist, Crybaby, describes herself as “crazy” and paints a picture of herself as a sensitive soul among ignorant “normals” who cannot understand her. The album and corresponding music videos occur within a visually pleasing, pastel-colored fantasy world where the line between childhood nostalgia and adult sexual urges are blurred. When Martinez bites, stabs, and shoots water pistols at a condescending male in “Alphabet Boy,” then destroys her belongings and sets her house on fire in “Pity Party,” the weight of these actions are diminished by her childlike appearance and surroundings. Crybaby’s erratic behavior goes from acceptable to encouraged later in the album. “Milk and Cookies” is a revenge song in which Crybaby poisons a male abuser. “I’m f**king crazy, need my prescription filled,” she sings, and this is painted as her secret weapon against her antagonist. The final song, “Mad Hatter,” describes mental illness as fun and exciting; not as something that needs to be fixed, but as something that makes Crybaby superior to the “normals.”
The Pretty Reckless paints a romanticized picture of depression in their song “Just Tonight.” In the lyrics, Momsen describes herself as feeling lost and numb, alluding to a willingness to sleep with the subject, perhaps as a means of filling the emptiness or perhaps just because she doesn’t have anything to lose. Either way, it perpetuates the idea that women suffering from depression are easier to get with. The video for this song glamorizes depression and self-harm by placing them in a fairy-tale setting. In one scene Taylor Momsen purposely cuts her finger with a rose’s thorn while wearing a black ballgown. This representation diminishes the suffering that come from depression and self-harm, and makes it seem that women with mental illness do not feel pain but instead are fantasy princesses sitting in towers and waiting to be screwed.
A discussion about the portrayal of women with mental illness in music would not be complete without mentioning Emilie Autumn, the intensely creative dark cabaret star known for being openly bipolar and cultivating a Victorian burlesque aesthetic. Her work is overtly connected to her mental illness, especially in the concept album Fight Like a Girl, which tells a story about young women trapped in a Victorian asylum and their eventual escape. While Autumn uses the Victorian setting to reveal the sexism that pervades discussions about mental illness, her own visuals and lyrics often exploit the very things she rages against.
Her portrait of corruption in a Victorian asylum contains lascivious images of helpless women violated and exploited by their caregivers. In the video for the song “Fight Like a Girl,” Autumn and her crew are manhandled by guards while scantily dressed and forced to perform as burlesque dancers.
This doesn’t mean that you should never portray women suffering from mental illness as having a sexual side or being attractive. The problem arises when mental disorders are fetishized, or when a woman’s violent behavior is made to seem ok as long as she is sexy while doing it. Depictions of women with mental illness should explore their experience rather than sensationalizing it.
It also doesn’t mean that you should stop listening to Taylor Swift, Melanie Martinez, Taylor Momsen, or Emilie Autumn. They are talented and creative ladies who use music to express themselves, and have put a lot of effort into the scenarios they describe in their music.
Just be aware when you hear words like “crazy” in music or find depictions of attractive women behaving badly– what might at first feel sexy or empowering often has a negative impact on the way we view both women and people with mental illness.
image via last.fm