Two years ago I had a brief affair with a man I met while visiting my cousin in California. We met, we sparked, we frenched. I went back to Chicago and, to my surprise, he called – like on the phone – which led to video chats and regular texting and suddenly six months was too long to be apart so we decided I’d come visit before the next trip I already had scheduled and he’d split the airfare with me. Our visit was lovely, but about a week after I returned to Chicago, I could just sense a shift. His texts were fewer and further between and before I knew it, he ghosted on me. Like, completely. Without reimbursing me the half of the cost of the $500 plane ticket, as we had originally agreed. I kept trying. but he continued to ignore my texts, calls, and emails about settling our tab.
In the time between our last contact and my next trip to California four months later, I spent more time than I care to recount doubting myself and our relationship in an attempt to explain his disappearance: Did I do something to push him away? Did I make it into more than it was? Did I imagine that this person had feelings for me? Sitting on the couch with my cousin, who lived just a few blocks away from him, I half joked: “I should just knock on his door and make him give me my money. Is that crazy?” “A little bit?” My cousin replied. We both knew that my desire was valid, that I deserved not just a respectful response to the ending of our relationship, but also a resolution to the agreement about the ticket. But, we also understood what it means to be a woman demanding respect, attention, and value. It means you’re a psycho.
Last year, in response to the Isle Vista massacre, women took to Twitter to call out the inevitably of sexual violence in their lives via the hashtag #YesAllWomen. This could have easily been a campaign to call out the regularity of being called crazy and, just like sexual assault; most often men are the perpetrators and women the ones perpetrated upon. “Crazy” in American culture is a gendered term reserved specifically for women when they engage in a specific type of behavior, usually the expressing of emotion, and most frequently in the context of a relationship with a man, romantic or otherwise. These are just a few responses to the Facebook post where I asked women to share their experience with being labeled crazy:
“The woman my ex-husband cheated on me with was ‘crazy’ according to him for telling me (about the affair). She was stalking him yet he dated her for months. But she is the ‘crazy’ one.”
“I’ve been called ‘crazy’ by men when I was really doing the following on different occasions: 1. Questioning the legitimacy of something that was obviously a lie, 2. Getting upset over being treated terribly, 3. Demanding to be treated fairly.”
“I haven’t been called ‘crazy’ recently (I don’t think?) But I’ve definitely noticed an upswing in men telling me to calm down. It’s really disorienting – every time I break out of the conversation to run down this mental checklist. Tone of voice? Calm. Language used? Professional and descriptive. Body language? Non-confrontational. And it makes me feel a little crazy – like, is my self-assessment so off? Why are they asking me to calm down?!”
“I’ve been called ‘crazy’ for asking men I was dating if they were 1) cheating 2) lying to me about money 3) using drugs. All those things were true, but I was ‘crazy’ for asking questions.”
Do you see the pattern? Crazy is almost exclusively used by men to discredit a woman’s attempt to stand up for herself or for him to avoid being held accountable for his behavior.
This is what we are really saying when we call women crazy:
You are wrong.
I don’t believe you.
Your feelings are not valid.
You are not important.
Maddie McClouskey argues that calling women crazy does the following three things:
- Others them: “When you call someone crazy, the implication is that they are separate and somehow entirely different from you.”
- Dismisses them: “We use “crazy” to write people off.”
- Shames them: “In everyday life, we brand people with a scarlet letter “C” when we do not approve of their behavior. This implies that so-called crazy people have complete control of their actions and should feel ashamed for stepping outside of the norm.”
It’s nothing new. American history is built on the exclusion and discrediting of women’s thoughts and experiences. Amber Madison’s deeply researched piece on the history and influence of labeling women crazy sheds some seriously light on the subject.
“Back in the day, when people didn’t want to pay attention to a woman — or were generally disturbed by her behavior — she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with hysteria. Hysteria was a catchall diagnosis for women who were feeling nervous, irritable, too horny, not horny enough, ‘causing trouble’, or were suffering from a wide variety of other ailments thought to be caused by female biology. The word actually came from the Greek ‘hysteria’, which literally means uterus. So, in short, the problem of having hysteria really meant the problem of being a woman.”
Tell me about it. Simply operating outside traditional femininity will earn you the crazy tag – not wanting kids, being single/outspoken/assertive or simply wanting to be treated fairly. As Bitch writer se smith points out:
“Many of the suffragettes who fought for equality were considered mentally ill by their peers. Some were subjected to psychiatric torment in an attempt to curb their ‘antisocial behaviors’. For their hunger strikes, they were force-fed, and some were subjected to attempts to declare them mentally ill so they could be institutionalized. All for demanding the right to vote. These were the crazy bitches of the early 20th century.”
Not only is it offensive and inaccurate but labeling any sane person as “crazy” undermines, mocks, and belittles legitimate mental illness. In some cases, it also denies the reality of other types of assault. CNN recently reported a number of women in various branches of the U.S. military were diagnosed with personality disorders and discharged after reporting a sexual assault.
“CNN has interviewed women in all branches of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, who tell stories that follow a similar pattern — a sexual assault, a command dismissive of the allegations and a psychiatric discharge.
[Stephanie] Schroeder says a fellow Marine followed her to the bathroom in April 2002. She says he then punched her, ripped off her pants and raped her. When she reported what happened, a non-commissioned officer dismissed the allegation, saying, ‘Don’t come bitching to me because you had sex and changed your mind,’ Schroeder recalls.”
And we wonder why most sexual assault goes unreported.
When it comes to your average woman, crazy is almost exclusively associated with the expression of emotion. For men, labeling women crazy is an easy out for avoiding any responsibility on their part, especially in romantic relationships.
Popular culture is a primary source for defining the world, particularly film and television where the “psycho bitch”/“crazy woman” is a well-honed trope. In fact, the psychological phenomenon of Gaslighting was named after the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight (based on the 1938 play by the same name) in which a husband slowly manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane. This form of mental abuse where “information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity” is so subtly embedded in to our culture via normative gender roles that we hardly notice when it occurs. To give you an idea of how common this behavior is consider the title of the most formative research on the subject “Gaslighting: A Martial Syndrome” though a more accurate title would be “Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome Where Husband’s Silence Their Wives.” It is a behavior predominantly enacted by men with devastating consequences.
“The husband gaslights or distorts reality in an effort to convince his spouse that she is crazy, that what she is perceiving is not happening. The gaslighting behaviors of the husband provide a recipe for the so-called ‘nervous breakdown‘ for some women [and] suicide in some of the worst situations.”
The examples are countless and while time and places changes, the image of the “crazy woman” does not. Amanda Hess sums it up in one sentence: “Every era gets the psycho bitch it deserves.” From Fatal Attraction to the new series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we are accustomed to perceiving women as crazy on screen and this translates to how we view women in the real world.
American Horror Story: Murder House is perhaps the most relevant and successful example of the “Psycho Bitch” on television. In Season 1, Connie Britton’s character, Vivien tells her husband she was raped and she saw a ghost. HE doesn’t believe her and has her committed to a psychiatric ward, which is where American Horror Story: Asylum takes place. Bitch Flick’s Megan Kearns points out:
“And of course the usual tropes emerge, like over-the-top shocking caricatures and the crazy nympho sexpots. But one of the most disturbing elements, besides the rampant gore, is when Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) utters, ‘mental illness is the fashionable word for sin,’ reinforcing the pervasive stereotype that mental illness isn’t actually real.”
Additionally, it reinforces our conventional wisdom about appropriate female behavior. The women in this show are marked as crazy for sexual desire, sexual assault, and a resistance to sexist social norms. Yes, it is reflective of the reality of the era but as Kearns argues: “The last thing we need is yet another movie or TV show perpetuating harmful stereotypes.”
In the end, I did the “crazy” thing: I knocked on his door prepared to ask that he pay me back. He did not answer (though I know he was home) but the next day an envelope full of cash was in my cousin’s mailbox. It didn’t make me feel better. On top of doubting my credibility and stressing over being perceived as crazy, I now also felt like a whore. A petty whore. But, those feelings eventually subsided and those 250 dollars now live as a tattoo on my shoulder of the OG Crazy Bitch: Snow White’s Evil Queen.
What I did that day, and what countless women have done and still continue to do, is not crazy. It doesn’t make us psychos or stalkers or bitches. It makes us women who know our worth and know the worth of other women. It makes us women who choose our own happiness over serving the needs of others, who choose assertion over submission, who choose self-care and self-love.
We don’t call that crazy. We call that feminism.
Alicia Swiz is a writer, performer, and media educator. For information on workshops and live performances, please visit popgoesalicia.com.