On the cusp of Black Swan’s sure wins, we look at the misogyny that drives the meme of the insane beauty.
By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**
Everyone loves to watch a hot babe going batshit crazy. At least that’s what the astronomical success of Black Swan would have you believe, the film in which Darren Aronofsky casts his misogynist gaze upon Natalie Portman, gorgeous and coming completely undone, for what is essentially a two-hour snuff film.
Last week, Newsweek‘s Ramin Setoodeh wrote a piece exploring the phenomenon of the insane woman on celluloid, and how American society not only seems to thirst for such depictions but rewards them with box office paychecks and critical accolades. His unspoken conclusion, which he craftily writes around: it’s a one-two combo of schadenfreude and titillation. “In most crazy-chick flicks,” Setoodeh writes, “the female protagonist doesn’t just lose her mind; she loses her clothes. And sometimes she loses her sexual orientation as well.”
He interviewed several actresses who’ve recently portrayed crazy women, including Black Swan’s Mila Kunis — whose own brand of insane, propped up against Portman’s paranoia, is devious manipulation — and Leighton Meester, who portrays a stalker college student in the upcoming film The Roommate. Setoodeh points out the sexism and general ookiness of audiences’s attraction to this type of character, quoting a 26-year-old videogame designer who says, “I can’t think of a crazy girl who isn’t hot.” But he never gets past the basic concepts that seem to drive the psychology behind such desire. Sexist portrayals of women as dangerous and unhinged are statistically inaccurate. Men are three times more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorders, men are more likely to be stalkers, and men are up to 10 times more likely to commit violent crime. In a kind of mass-gaslighting, the crazy-chick film meme is simply untrue.
While there are feminist portrayals of women gone awry from societal pressures — Frances, Splendor in the Grass, The Yellow Wallpaper — there are far more films that erroneously glamorize the crazy chick. Notably, several of them are clear and direct influences for Aronofsky’s hateful take on Black Swan. [Spoilers.]
1. Mulholland Drive. David Lynch’s women tend to be gorgeous and victimized, an unfortunate holdover from the ‘40s noir films he so idealizes. (He also traffics healthily in legit crazy lady characters, but they tend to be older mother types.) But Black Swan’s idea similarities to Mulholland Drive are so numerous it almost feels like a direct rip (along with Barbara Hershey’s character, which seems modeled on Wild at Heart’s evil mom). This film follows two beautiful women whose realities are distorted after a car accident that renders one of them amnesic. Any direct plot description from there doesn’t work, since Lynch outdid himself with the double entendres and twisting narrative, but suffice to say star Naomi Watts portrays a woman on the slippery slope to madness, who suffers for her craft and who fantasizes about and has potentially fake sex with her cohort. While vastly more complicated than the Grecian Black Swan, the tropes are still there, and women die in the end, punished for their beauty and desire.
2. The Crush. Alicia Silverstone portrays a crazed 14-year-old who becomes obsessed with a handsome adult journalist who spurns her advances until she becomes unhinged. Her insanity is sexualized in a very Lolita fashion — shots of swimsuits and lollipops abound — and the concept is meant to be both taboo and titillating, exploiting the idea that a man would be so desirable a young girl would lose her mind over him. It’s a classic take on the Nabokov pedophilic man-fantasy while exploiting male fears that women will make false claims against them — when the reality is that rape and other sexual misconduct is profoundly under-reported.
3. The Piano Teacher. This is the flip to the Lolita-style crazy woman. Isabelle Huppert portrays a piano teacher, an authority figure so repressed she loses it and delves into the depths of psychosexual self-mutilation… after, of course, she starts sleeping with an underage student. Compounded by her desire to be beaten, again, sexuality is conflated with self-destruction. Black Swan parallel : super overbearing mother, dearth of privacy. While there’s enough semblance of moral retribution that some have argued this film is a critique of misogyny, the fact is the horror is tempered by the sexual heat.
In a kind of mass-gaslighting, the crazy-chick film meme is simply untrue.
4. Single White Female. A twist on the stalking film that gave life to this year’s The Roommate, beleaguered unfaithful men get brief reprieve here when the crazy chick decides to turn her obsession on her flatmate. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a psychopath who tries to subsume her roommate’s identity. While the lowest instances of stalkings are women-on-women, the concept makes for great bank at the box office.
5. Breaking the Waves. Danish director Lars von Trier gets off on portraying desperately tragic women — his career began with an art-house take on the Medea myth, and he directed a martyr-like Bjork into despondent oblivion in Dancer in the Dark. But Breaking the Waves is his most sadistic take on the crazy lady meme, depicting an innocent young woman’s descent into crazy after her husband becomes paralyzed on an oil rig (an accident she believes she caused because of her lustful prayers for his return). No longer sexually able, he begs her to sleep with other men and tell him about it, which she reluctantly does, but her love for him burns as bright as her faith, and doing so utterly destroys her. There’s also an attempted rape scene; thanks for that, von Trier. While her selflessness kills her spirit, this is the ultimate in conflating sexuality with insanity on film — the more gratuitous sex and nudity that actress Emily Watson engages in the more delusional she becomes, and it, too, is a long snuff film touted for its “artfulness.” Aronofsky owes a lot to this one.
6. Basic Instinct. The ultimate sex-charged crazy lady film, Sharon Stone made her career playing a highly attractive and highly psychopathic killer bent on bedding a cop before she kills him — the Black Widow trope, the idea-fear that a man will be so mesmerized by a woman’s beauty he will not be able to protect himself from her web. (Again, this concept is far from reality: women are three times as likely to be killed by their partners as men, and women account for 85 percent of victims of domestic abuse.)
7. Swimfan. A teen swimming star is stalked by a classmate after he has sex with her in the pool, and when he rebuffs her, she will stop at nothing to keep him. Like Fatal Attraction, this film explores the consequences of adultery with the sexy-crazy mistress as moral device… the wack concept being that infidelity is not the problem, it’s that the chick is just totally crackers.
8. Girl, Interrupted. Though meant to spotlight female struggle and friendship based on author Susanna Kaysen’s experiences in a mental institution in the 1970s, in this case it’s not the film that had misogynistic tendencies, it was the critical reaction to Angelina Jolie’s star turn as a sociopath. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for portraying a manipulative hot chick. And while her talent is formidable, you can read it as the ultimate in the glamorizing of female mental illness; a precursor to the Academy Award Natalie Portman will surely see.
The act of watching women fall apart onscreen reinforces gendered power structure. The reason Setoodeh’s source, and a lot of other men, perceive crazy women to be attractive is because it allows them to assert power over the woman’s unpredictability, their presumed sanity a locus of control. And it’s more than just a perception of power — mental disorders typically affect those who are disempowered in some way, disproportionately women. According to the World Health Organization:
Gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect
women include gender based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and
income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility
for the care of others.
Depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence and
escalating rates of substance use affect women to a greater extent than men across
different countries and different settings. Pressures created by their multiple roles,
gender discrimination and associated factors of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork,
domestic violence and sexual abuse, combine to account for women’s poor mental health.
There is a positive relationship between the frequency and severity of such social factors
and the frequency and severity of mental health problems in women. Severe life events that
cause a sense of loss, inferiority, humiliation or entrapment can predict depression.
Copyright 2011 Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
This post originally appeared at AlterNet.Org..