Let’s talk women in lunacy.
The crazy lady has been intimidating us through popular culture for centuries. She’s the illuminating symbol, the plot engine and the throughline for all that’s wrong and scary about the world. It’s Demeter’s illogical fury that condemns us to starving winter. Horror is the only genre in which women speak as often as men. And for my generation of young adults, the vision of Britney Spears — bald, defiant and wielding her umbrella crowbar-style at a paparazzo’s car — defines the unhinged feminine. Crazy women are evidence of why the weather sucks, what keeps us up at night and what’s worthless, sordid, barely news.
Reconciling who you are and how you’re perceived is tricky business for everyone. In seventh grade, my English teacher made us imagine celebrating our birthdays with every friend we had. Open your mind now, and visualize your work friends, who exclusively know you via sanitized lunch meetings and extremely sane Slack messages, meeting your high school friends, who last knew you a dozen haircuts and four personalities ago. These two groups compare notes, scratch their heads and revise their image of you over and over until it makes sense that the person they both know is you. It’s enough to make me consider never celebrating a birthday, attending a party or making a friend ever again.
It’s not that men aren’t crazy too — the issue here is who sees whom, who gets to cast meaning and who gets to throw around the “lunatic” label. Fictional and real-life boogeymen from Patrick Bateman to Jeffrey Dahmer commit acts of violence that Carrie and Aileen Wuornos match, and there’s no parity issue there. It’s just that men get perfectly ordinary justifications for their psychosis — the “Fight Club” dude kick-starts the entire book by announcing that he’s bored of his job and needs a hobby — while female insanity inexplicably rises, fully formed and miraculous, from nothing but seafoam. There’s no motive, no backstory, no originating seed. When you really get down to it, men go crazy for good reasons, but women go crazy because women are crazy.
This, however, begs an important question: If women go crazy because women are crazy, then why are crazy women still news? Circe curses men and turns them into pigs because she is vengeful. Scylla and Charybdis wreak senseless havoc because they do. Sirens lure men to their watery deaths because they are callous and deranged. We’ll accept the reasoning, but judging sanity is a one-way street parallel to the thoroughfare of gender. Odysseus is reputedly brilliant, but he’s never considered just minding his own business. Why does he insist on lunging into the paths of enchantresses, whirlpools and birdwomen with murderous intent? At some point, I have to ask — if you accept Hannibal’s invitation for a romantic dinner for two, is the serial killer the only person out of their mind?
Enter then, a new technological era, where who sees what about you is entirely within your control. Close Instagram friends, private Snapchat stories, and even the treasured finsta are all mainstays of the modern woman’s repertoire. As it turns out, all that women had to do to not become news was become their own paparazzi. Of the people in my life, it’s my finsta followers who I’d sob to first and only. We simply deprive the crowds of our lives of the splashy content they’re looking for. It’s objectively difficult to decide who should be institutionalized from LinkedIn profiles or photos of graduation. For once, technology shields instead of exposing, and finally, we have the blessed power to save the truly judgment-inspiring moments for just a precious few. It’s a party with a guest list so exclusive no one needs to compare notes on who you actually are, let alone call you crazy for it.
Even so, technology didn’t solve the issue of being perceived so much as bypass the arena for it, and we didn’t reclaim privacy so much as construct a poor facsimile for it. I’ve read finsta captions chronicling substance abuse, eating disorders and legal troubles that invite labeling of their authors as “crazy,” but in this setting, “crazy” is not so much a denigration so much as an explanation for how we all ended up here — sobbing on a fiercely guarded Instagram — in the first place. Social media brought young white women closer than ever to becoming the sole arbiters of their own images, but as my dear friend and finsta mutual Emma writes, the shadow of Sylvia Plath, Lana Del Rey and the modern sad girl is long and dark.
We’re ultimately far from compassion, not for crazy women and not even among crazy women. Amy Winehouse died the same year the iPhone 4S was released, and the blurry smartphone footage of her final concerts was not evidence of her substance abuse but of her inability to prioritize her fans’ experience. The finsta won’t cast the secret feminine underground into light and love. Even within the insular network of finsta mutuals, there’s a voyeuristic degree of fixation. We strain for echoes of our own heartaches and insecurities in others’ posts, an act Emma calls “staring into the fun house mirror of another girl’s hell.”
In watching to look for my own reflection, I’ve gotten a valuable education and a sensation of kinship, but their sum is a poor substitute for empathy. In the end, we’re all still just appraising, evaluating, looking for and at one another. From a sometimes-crazy woman herself, I have the sensation that we, like Odysseus, need to examine ourselves first: Why do we think women are crazy? If we walk around calling everything and everyone crazy, how can we be sure that we’re the sane ones?
Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected].