You Like Your Girls Insane: Women, Mental Health & the Media

Owing to a free afternoon and an unhealthy obsession with Jennifer Lawrence, I recently saw the much acclaimed film American Hustle. I came out of the cinema intoxicated by Lawrence’s performance; her screen-stealing portrayal of unbalanced housewife cum sex kitten Rosalyn was irresistibly, deliciously off-kilter, and got me thinking about the appeal of that most controversial of roles: the unstable woman.

In no uncertain terms, the crazy bitch. I’ve used that phrase to describe myself and several of my closest female friends; our lives are always at their most interesting when we’re living a self-confessed car crash, after all. And there’s something so universally appealing about a woman failing to keep her shit together. But when does the romanticisation of female unpredictability stray from the comfortable ‘gosh, look what she’s up to now’ attitude we reserve for Bridget Jones and co., to something more unsettling? When does our fascination with the wild woman cross, dangerously, into the fetishization of the mentally unstable woman?

And why are these women so fucking interesting?

Consider Lawrence’s most acclaimed roles to date; playing the unpredictable livewire Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook she became one of the youngest actresses ever to win an Academy Award. In the dystopian never-never land of The Hunger Games, her Katniss Everdeen is perpetually walking the line between gung-ho action heroine and adolescent meltdown. In these roles Lawrence has become adept at portraying the flawed femme fatale: beautiful, ferociously intelligent and fucked-up. Is the reason we laud her performances because intrinsically we see something of ourselves in these women?

I think so. After all, literature has no shortage of the eternally mysterious, screwed-up lady. Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Williams’ Blanche DuBois, Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Plath’s Esther Greenwood – the list is endless, and these iconic female figures are marked by their instability. In their struggles – with men, with sexuality, with femininity, with their expectations of themselves – we see, to some extent, our own. We sympathize and we scorn.

There is a deeper issue underpinning this though: the fetishization of sadness, of an exclusively female brand of unhappiness bordering on hysteria. Why? On a base and unpalatable level, there is the theory that this emotional neediness makes us more attractive to the opposite sex. Men, attuned to our vulnerability, can step readily into the role of protector. Defender. Lynchpin, holding together the pieces of an imploding, imperfect female psyche. The feminist in me is aching to assert that this is bullshit, but I think there’s some truth in it. What makes a woman attractive? Volatility must account for something. And don’t, on some primeval level, all men want to be the ones to put the pieces back together?

Or perhaps we protect this part of ourselves intentionally. It’s our way of asserting that we’re genuine, that we’re not one dimensional, discardable detritus, that we’ve lived and suffered and we can be broken again. That we’re not to be taken lightly. Maybe, in some self-indulgent way, we fetishize our flaws and our shortcomings and our proximity to the edge because we’re trying to prove that we’re interesting, worthy of thought and attention.

That our unpredictability is a contrived, convoluted self-assertion is a depressing thought. As is the idea that we’d willingly walk the line between sanity and instability just to be noticed, by anybody. When Lana del Rey croons that the man of her dreams likes his girls ‘insane’, is it a sad reflection of our willingness to overexaggerate our unhappinesses to meet a criteria we are guilty of imposing upon ourselves?

Questions, questions. No easy answers. To be continued.

About fiercemissc

Twenty-something Geordie girl living and working in Hong Kong. Young, free and single and making the most of it.
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