MENTAL ILLNESS & THE MALE GAZE — ANNE THÉRIAULT
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I have a very clear memory of the first time I recognized the Sexy Tragic Muse. I was in my early 20s and living in ramshackle old wooden house in Halifax’s North End. A friend and I were chatting over MSN Messenger, which should give you an idea of what year it was. We were talking about music – part of a long and ongoing conversation about Songs That Really Get Me – and at some point she sent me a link to a YouTube video of Ryan Adams’ Sylvia Plath. It was the first Ryan Adams song that I’d ever heard; my friend had sent it to me because she knew I loved Plath and thought I would love the song too. I didn’t, though.
Lord knows I’d wanted to like it; as someone who is both a writer and a woman living with mental illness, I probably idolize La Plath more than I should and am always eager for more media about her. The problem was that this song wasn’t actually about her; by the second verse, it was very clear that Adams was singing about someone whose resemblance to Plath began and ended with the fact that they shared a name.
Adams’ version of Plath is a gin-swilling, chain-smoking, skinny-dipping sylph – “the kind,” he says, “that goes out and then sleeps for a week.” He fantasizes about her semi-reckless behaviour, which includes ashing on the carpets of a fancy house, sleeping on a boat, and slipping him pills. At one point he hopes that she might give him a bath, which could either be a reference to the scene in The Bell Jar where Esther Greenwood waxes poetic about the joys of lying in a tub of steaming hot water or, more realistically, is the only word he could think of that rhymes with Plath.
The picture he paints is of a woman who is nothing like the real Sylvia Plath, a non-smoker who was meticulous about housekeeping and not, as far as I know, renowned for her ability to bathe men. Instead, she’s a sort of conglomeration of projections and fantasies – a woman who walks the fine line that men seem to believe exists between sexy and mentally ill. A woman who is not so much a person as she is a thing on which men can act out whatever it is they need to act out.
Although Sylvia Plath was a fiercely brilliant poet and novelist, she is arguably most famous for her suicide. The most common cultural association that we have with her is an image of a young woman with her head in the oven. Her final breakdown and death have overshadowed her life and accomplishments, and her name has become a placeholder for a specific type of tragic beauty. When Adams sings that he wants a Sylvia Plath, he does not mean that he wants the reality of someone experiencing a depressive episode or suicidal ideation. He means that he wants a woman who is sort of sad but in a wild, impetuous, sexy way that will somehow benefit him. He doesn’t want a real person; he wants a Sexy Tragic Muse.
The Sexy Tragic Muse can be found in music, film, literature and pretty much every other form of media. She’s not dissimilar from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – in fact, I would argue that there is some crossover between the two tropes – but she is also very much her own distinct type. She is usually young, and nearly always white. She’s often portrayed as being hyper-sexual – she’s the type that 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy was referring to when he said “Emotionally unstable women are fantastic in the sack.”She’s damaged, often as a result of sexual assault or other abuse by men. Her life carries with it some kind of Deep Lesson, usually a lesson that a male protagonist needs to learn.
The Sexy Tragic Muse is Joon in Benny & Joon, a mentally ill woman who,to paraphrase a wonderful review by Carleen Tibbets, turns out not to need professional help so much as she needs a boyfriend. She’s Marla in Fight Club, with her eerie stare and penchant for attending support groups for illnesses that she doesn’t have. She’s Gia Carangi in Gia, a movie whose tagline is “Too Beautiful To Die, Too Wild To Live.” She’s Babydoll in Sucker Punch, a pigtailed ingénue in lingerie who sexily pouts her way through an escape from a psychiatric institution. She’s Suzanne in Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, a woman who is “half crazy” but who can “[touch] your perfect body with her mind.”
The Sexy Tragic Muse fetishizes women’s pain by portraying debilitating mental health disorders filtered dreamily through the male gaze. The trope glamourizes addiction and illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia – diseases that are distinctly unglamorous for those of us who live with them. The Sexy Tragic Muse is vulnerable, and her vulnerability is sexualized. Her inability to properly care for herself or make decisions on her own behalf is presented as being part of her appeal.
And perhaps this is the most frustrating thing about the Sexy Tragic Muse – the fact that this character type seems to be a neat way of removing a woman’s agency without the film or book or song coming across as overtly misogynistic. She occupies the intersection of ableism and sexism, and her mental illness is portrayed in a way that makes it commendable, even necessary, for others to care for her. We feel gratitude to the men that step up and save her, because she obviously cannot save herself. We feel empathy for the men that break up with her, because we see that she is difficult and volatile. We never get to see things from her perspective; often it is implied that this would be impossible, because her perspective is too confused and fractured.
It is so demoralizing to see so many narratives that treat mentally ill women as literal objects – objects that mostly exist only to fulfill men’s needs. Our pain and distress are not theirs to commodify, repackage in dreamy soft-focus, then serve up as some kind of panacea for whatever ails them. We deserve the right to autonomy over our lives. We deserve to exist as whole people, people who might struggle, yes, but whose worth doesn’t depend on how those struggles might benefit others. We deserve the right to exist as sexual beings without having our illnesses sexualized by those who don’t experience them. We deserve the right to exist, full stop, no extra qualifiers needed.
It’s important for there to be media representation of women with mental illness, but not all types of representation are created equal. We need characters who reflect the diverse realities of people living with mental illness; we need stories that portray the full scope of their lives – not just the difficult, painful parts, but also the joy and triumph of survival against deeply stacked odds. We need stories that are about us, not just the emotional impact that we have on others.
After all, we are people too.