Women in the Attic, X-Men, and the ‘C Word’

It’s been a very long time since I was forced to read Jane Eyre. My family and I were driving through central Australia, travelling through the vast red dirt. Even in that sweaty, decidedly ungothic car, the spectre of Bertha Mason gave me shivers. She was incomprehensible, knotted, threatening. Hints of promiscuity followed her up into the attic she was locked in by her husband. The question of ‘how was he meant to deal with her’ is rhetorical within the text—Mason is rendered as a lost cause. It wasn’t until later that I would click to what a strange representation of a crazy woman Mason is. As a character type, we have largely left her behind. Though it’s definitely not time to get cocky. Taking a more holistic view, Mason is still able to offer some uncomfortable parallels. In particular, the gendered way we approach mental health. Once labelled as lacking in emotional stability, society still seeks to contain women in more subtle ways.

When we categorise women as ‘crazy’ these days, it’s not half so dramatic. However, a level-toned usage doesn’t remove the damage it inflicts. This is because, as has been discussed elsewhere, currently when we colloquially drop the c-bomb it’s not to describe a woman struggling with mental health issues. Rather, the intention—conscious or not—is to put us back in our ‘place’. To keep us locked in the attic. In this context labelling a person or their actions as ‘crazy’ is to delegitimise feelings simply because they’re inconvenient. Another word for this is gaslighting, a form of mental abuse intended to make another person doubt themselves, sense of self and reality. And when I say ‘person’, really, I mean woman because when we label men as crazy, it doesn’t strip them of agency in the same way. In Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen is locked up in a women’s ward after a failed suicide attempt, largely against her will. A few seasons in, Mad Men enters the 60s as well and Don Draper’s rampant alcoholism is portrayed as a decision, a coping mechanism rather than an addiction. If you think that comparing memoir to drama is unfair, it’s worth considering the fact that alcohol dependency is more than twice as common in men than women (one in five, vs. one in twelve). Further, that women are more likely to experience anxiety or affective disorders—such as Borderline Personality Disorder and depression. Fact and fiction are neatly reflected in this example, as is our societal response. Kaysen gets locked up for her own good, and for a long time all Draper is treated with is another bottle of Canadian Club.

Women, it seems, need to be controlled, while boys are largely free to be boys. Even if, as in the Mad Men scenario it’s to their detriment—harmful gender expectations cut both ways, though not as deeply or to the same extent. We see this reflected in the media we consume constantly. It’s no coincidence that so many tropes against women target the nonconformist or the powerful. Mason herself comes from an influential and wealthy family. What is traditionally seen as an alluring quality in a man becomes toxic when you genderswap it. More recently, in the rightfully reviled X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Magneto and Professor Xavier can have as much power as they want while still finding the time to run schools/ rebellions (inexplicably called The Brotherhood, but don’t worry, girls are allowed) and make puns. Jean Gray goes insane within about fifteen minutes of screen time. This theme was quietly echoed in Days of Future Past. Mystique goes rogue and must be roped in, again by the two men, because her DNA has too much potential. The possibility that this was a positive thing isn’t even considered by those who claim to be her allies, despite the fact that the defensive capabilities are beyond anything the X-Men have encountered. Instead Magneto tries to kill Mystique to avoid their apocalyptic future. He is an incredibly fatalistic character, sure, however the potential of the other X-Men is never treated in the same fashion. In the passable X2, when Professor Xavier is telepathically coerced into killing (also telepathically) all the mutants in the world a non-lethal solution is found. Bluntly, his and Mystique’s potential to do harm are treated in drastically different ways. So while portrayals of women have advanced, becoming more complicated and nuanced since the largely dehumanised first wife, we’re still often considered a force to be controlled.

On the surface this is already ridiculous enough. However dig a little deeper and it feeds directly into our willingness to pathologise women’s emotions. It’s not simply hetero men calling their ex’s crazy in order to escape responsibility; or our fictional Jean Gray killing the people she loves through being overwhelmed with power. It creates a fear of perceived excess, without a critical view of the contributing factors. As Dr. Nerlove (not his real name) comments, when flinging around the descriptor ‘crazy’ there’s not a lot of self-reflection generally happening. Is your partner really nagging you, or is the reality that women still do a disproportionate amount of domestic labour getting her down? It also matters that the writers of Days of Future Past kept Mystique dead-set on killing Trask, even after the consequences had been laid out. (Even if she didn’t buy the whole bleak future thing, such a public kill would almost certainly have backfired on her goal of mutant equality) With no other real justification at hand, is it because she could, or are we ladies just chronically irrational?

These attitudes don’t exist in a vacuum. Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women than men, even if they have the identical symptoms or score the same on standardised measures of depression. The medical community is literally telling some women that they’re reactions are maladjusted, while similar behaviours in men are not pathologised. Inaccurate diagnosis methods are bad news all around because it forces people into a box that doesn’t fit, and prevents other from getting treatment that would be beneficial. It gets even tricker when you start thinking about the detrimental effect our patriarchal society has on women, and unavoidably, women’s mental health. Rates of sexual assault and domestic abuse, the wage gap, impossible beauty standards all impact how women navigate the world everyday. These are all legitimate reasons to be upset, not something that can be made to disappear with a prescription. As the World Health Organization recognises

Gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socioeconomic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment in society and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks.[1]

In other words, gender is a social construct that permeates everything. And if you happen to be anything but a cis gender male the odds are already systemically stacked against you. This is how ‘crazy’ can be used colloquially to control discussions—after this card is played men have a free pass and it’s on the lady to justify her behaviour (rather than it being an equal conversation). Medically, higher rates of diagnosis can also undercut a woman’s right to feel how we’re feeling, both explicitly and through more subtle ableist behaviour (eg. that’s ‘just’ your anxiety talking). None of this is very cool, but it is still considered socially acceptable even with the 1840s well behind.

On the flipside we have Man Therapy. This beyondblue initiative takes the form of a website hosted by Dr Ironwood (again, not his real name) geared towards getting men to acknowledge and address their mental health issues. Action certainly needs to be taken; as the website points out a minimum of six people die by suicide each day in Australia, and five of these are men. The website’s style plays directly into the ‘real man’ myth, with a sense of humour that is intended as irreverent. It’s difficult to decipher whether the problematic approach is a necessary evil or whether the focus on ‘real men’ poisons the well. However, something that is clear is the extent to which the initiative goes to assure men of their agency. The point is you can be struggling with depression and still be a Man—whatever that means.

It’s easy to find the figure of Mason in Jane Eyre frightening. I certainly did, even with the brightest sun shining through car windows. However what we should really be fighting against is the attic. Of the gendered power gaslighting wields—of women being dismissed or misdiagnosed. Of the systemic inequalities that make it more likely ladies will develop depression or an anxiety disorder. That addiction in men is written off as a choice (which, by definition, is a contradiction). In this case, the regressive structures that restrict us are much more dangerous than what they contain.

Image credit: Curtis Poe via Flickr Creative Commons


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