As much as this project has been about telling other women’s stories, this has also been about telling my own. I have delved into the origins and mythologies of the madwoman. I’ve explained the subjective definitions and looked at how madwomen are portrayed across various mediums and genres. But I can hear my skeptical readers asking “so what?”. So, let this blog serve as what this all has to do with postmodern society. I’ve said in most of my other blogs that this problem (patriarchal oppression) has not gone away, instead, it has morphed to hide in plain sight while still holding control. Like some sort of societal BeetleJuice, if we say its name three times in a row patriarchy comes out of the depths of hell to remind us of our place. If anyone is looking for more concrete proof, I would advise them to just look around and take in everything they see. If you really look, I know you will see the madwomen around you. Watching our favorite new TV series, you’ll see her, reading a romance novel for some light reading–you’ll see her. Or at the very least you’ll see the constraints around the female(s) and their potential for madness. I know I’m still speaking in generalities, and we’ll get there. Here’s a question to ponder though, when was the last time that you did anything without thinking of all the implications around it? This question is not inherently sex/gender based, but depending on those characteristics I would bet there is a significant disparity.
Gender roles and gendered experiences are a direct cause of madness. As long as patriarchy continues to exist and oppress women, there will be madwomen. A modern-day madwoman is someone who sees the constraints stifling them and works to fight against them. If we think metaphorically, a straightjacket of societal beliefs is slowly tightened as childhood innocence declines. The more socially aware a person becomes, the tighter the confines. For me, it was about middle-school age when suddenly all the girls were wearing makeup and perfume to impress the boys and started pointing out to me my pants were ugly, that I was too loud, and I shouldn’t raise my hand so much in class. You see, no boy would ever like a loud, nerdy, know-it-all. That’s when I felt it, the slightest tug to change, to fit in with those girls, to get a boy to like-like me. From there, I was faced with a choice, continue to conform or break it all open. I tried for a time to fit in. I wore make-up, stopped wearing my favorite pants, and quieted down in class, but guess what? I hated it. I never felt so untethered, so alone as when I was doing everything “right.” So I stopped; well, it took a while, but I finally said enough.
That’s when my story gets harder.
When you say “enough” and try to get out of your straightjacket, the ties tighten. It’s brief, and it’s worth it in the end, but for those moments, being free doesn’t feel worth it. People you thought were your friends leave. People continue to tell you that you’re wrong, only now they’re louder. But in that first snap of the ties, you feel it. This overwhelming rush of warmth like the sun on your skin that feels like home. Yes, they continue to call you mad; crazy; bitch; bossy, judgemental, but their voices don’t matter to you now. There is nothing wrong with you; they don’t understand the path you took because they were too scared to try for themselves.
This brings me to less personal modern relevancy. On the world stage, the biggest example comes from the unfortunately named Trump era. During the years 2016-2020, there was a reemergence of what many considered bygone times of misogyny and sexism. Here was a self-proclaimed sexual assaulter, being elected to the highest position in the United States. Living through those four very long years was terrifyingly close to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead from The Handmaids Tale. Still, we persisted. Within these same four years, the same president proceeded to verbally harass and discredit some of the most powerful women in the United States. He called Hillary Clinton “nasty” in the Presidential debates, just because she was smarter and more qualified than him. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s mental state was called into question by the same man. The Trump era made public what had been polished over by much of society: threatening and discrediting powerful women so that men stay in power. I will point to one more political example: the treatment of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). AOC is a young, outspoken, woman of color currently representing New York’s 14th district. She is a big advocate of changes that threaten to topple the status quo, therefore, she is a threat. In an effort that can only be described as bullying, other government representatives, mostly male, harass and belittle her. Yet she persists. Fighting for changes for us all even when so many don’t want her help. If you need further proof of the treatment of any of the women above, I would advise you to search their names on your favorite browser and then select Images. These women I’ve mentioned and even more that I could not include are modern-day madwomen.
So what is the relevance of studying madwomen and their origins? The relevancy is that it is a fight we’re still fighting. As long as patriarchy continues to set the stage for women to play act for the male-gaze there will always be the women who don’t fit into the neat, pretty, little boxes. Those women that don’t fit are condemned and that leads to madness. As long as we all keep pretending things are better, nothing ever changes. We all have to see it, get mad, go mad, and make changes.
*”The Philosophers” by Lindsay Rapp