This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship in the articles and issues of IU Press journals. Posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article and are primarily written by journal editors and contributors.
In the last five years, television has begun to care about women’s mental health. First, there was Amy Jellicoe of HBO’s Enlightened (2011-2013), a corporate executive played by Laura Dern who develops new forms of political consciousness in the aftermath of a very public nervous breakdown and a subsequent two-month stay at a holistic treatment facility in California. The show’s title is partly ironic; much of its comedy is driven by the tension between Amy’s self-avowed spiritual growth and her obvious and ongoing rage and depression in the face of her company’s sexism and corruption. In one of the show’s promotional images, a close-up of Amy’s wild mascara-streaked face is paired with a caption that asks us to “meet the new face of tranquility.” But rather than presenting us with the same old spectacle of hysterical femininity, Amy’s journey over the course of the series’ eighteen-episode run reveals a nuanced approach to the everyday experience of psychological distress. Amy’s motivations are complicated; she is idealistic, self-destructive, narcissistic, noble, vindictive, principled, ambivalent, and wise. She emerges as a heroine not despite her emotional baggage, but because of it.
Though Enlightened ran for only two seasons, Dern’s character joins a cohort of television women who devote significant time and energy to negotiating their mental health, from Lena Dunham’s obsessive-compulsive protagonist in Girls (2012) and Toni Colette’s portrayal of dissociative identity disorder on The United States of Tara (2009-2011) to Jessica Jones’s (2015) focus on gendered violence and PTSD. And despite its potentially inflammatory title, Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015) deftly uses the medium of musical comedy to launch a tenderly self-aware exploration of what it looks and feels like to manage ongoing symptoms of anxiety and depression. These characters are not voiceless victims but neither are they uncomplicated symbols of female empowerment. In revealing their scars, they remind us that capitalism and patriarchy require coping mechanisms, that there is a logic to feeling bad, and that even though it may not always “get better,” there is value in celebrating the more mundane accomplishment of simply getting through the coming day, week, or even year.
It was in this context of these unfolding representations that I developed my essay, “Alison Bechdel and Crip-Feminist Autobiography.” In it, I make the case that Bechdel’s two graphic memoirs—Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012)—have something important to contribute to these contemporary cultural conversations about women and mental health. Bechdel’s relationship to psychiatric disability may be less straightforward than some of the characters described above. In Fun Home, her obsessive-compulsive disorder is contained to single chapter and never medically diagnosed as such. Meanwhile, Bechdel’s more sustained account of her depression in Are You My Mother? has been routinely dismissed by commentators as tedious, narcissistic, and self-indulgent. By and large, we have preferred to dwell on Bechdel’s rich meditations on the meaning of queerness, family, and identity. But in this cultural moment, when we are collectively reinventing the way we talk about gender and psychological disability, I wanted to explore what might be gained by taking Bechdel’s narration of her depression, compulsions, and anxieties on their own terms. In Bechdel’s narration of these issues, what we ultimately find is a subtle theorization of psychiatric disability that incorporates feminist critique without being reducible to it.
Of course, these new conversations about women and psychological disability are not limited to television and graphic memoir. Such representations have emerged in tandem with the growing field of feminist psychiatric disability studies, pioneered by thinkers including Merri Lisa Johnson, Margaret Price, Anna Mollow, Elizabeth Donaldson, and Andrea Nicki. In a 2013 essay, Anna Mollow playfully assigns the term “Mad Feminism” to some of these explorations, drawing out the “multiple affective and political connotations of this term.” Mollow elaborates: “Mad Feminism invites all subjects who are marked as mad to stand (or sit, lie, or roll) in solidarity and in collective anger at the ways the stigma of mental illness is used to discount us” (n.p.). In light of these insights, the promotional image for Enlightened resonates as more than a merely ironic juxtaposition of “tranquility” and psychosis. Rather than signifying as a marker of disqualified and dangerously unhinged femininity, the rivers of mascara that pool beneath from Dern’s right eye are readable instead as war paint. Raging against a set of deeply felt injustices, she is not only mentally ill; she is mad in every sense of the word. This is precisely what enlightenment looks like.
Nearly forty years ago, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar took the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre as an illustration of the way that a woman in the nineteenth-century who did not comply with her traditional duty as the “angel in the house” was forced to play the opposing role of the “madwoman in the attic.” In my essay on Bechdel, I spend a bit of time grappling with the genealogy that connects second-wave feminism’s “madwoman” to contemporary articulations of Mad Feminism. From the perspective of disability studies, the liability of feminism’s “madwoman” is that she often functions as a glamorized symbol of anti-patriarchal rebellion that has little to do with the lived experience of women who experience anxiety, depression, BPD, and other related personality and mood disorders. These formulations may also risk invalidating certain diagnoses that many women find useful and even empowering (see, for example, Merri Lisa Johnson’s critique of the anti-psychiatry movement’s “Label Rip” protest action). But what Bechdel’s memoirs accomplish, alongside her on-screen “mad” contemporaries, is to take the madwoman out of the attic and to place her in the boardroom, the local tavern, the artist studio, and even to the familiar couch of a trusted therapist.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2000. Print.
Johnson, Merri Lisa. “Label C/Rip.” Social Text Online 24 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Web. 2 Sept. 2016. http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/label-crip/
Mollow, Anna. “Mad Femnism.” Social Text Online 24 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Web. 2 Sept. 2016. http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/mad-feminism/