Giselle Storm discusses a history of women and hysteria, and why we <em>don’t</em> need to calm down.
Back in the 1800s, women’s mental asylums introduced compulsory laundry. Hundreds of women deemed mad would spend their days scrubbing, pressing and washing in a desperate bid to keep them occupied and based on some strange notion that if cleanliness is next to godliness, then freshly pressed petticoats must be next to sanity.
Give or take the laundry, the notion of the hysterical woman has haunted women throughout the centuries, from witches to books in which a female characters literally dies from ‘The Unpleasantness’, even an inhumane medieval device called a Scolds Bridle to stop women nagging. The bizarre notion of a ‘wondering womb’ was one of the many suggestions for women’s innate hysteria and the only reasonable solution was thought to be a medically proscribed orgasm. In the immortal words of David Cameron, the ultimate ‘calm down, dear’.
Ideas of women generally being a bit mad compared to our unutterably sensible male counterparts are still alive and well and one of the more recent incarnations of female hysteria is that of the mad girlfriend. Or better yet, the mad ex-girlfriend. Satirized by Youtubers in wigs and unnaturally high pitched voices, TV shows and films alike, the notion of the mad ex/girlfriend is deeply ingrained into our society and culture. It’s recognised almost universally as something which should be avoided at all costs. I mean, we’ve all played along; the mental girlfriend pretending to be cool was the entire plot line of Gone Girl. We’ve seen texts but not answered immediately in an attempt to seem relaxed and aloof; we would never dare to ask a boyfriend not to go out with his friends to spend a night with us instead and we don’t ask questions about the strange girl next to him in the photos from said night. We aspire to the myth of the chilled girlfriend, the girlfriend who laughs in the face of jealousy, she doesn’t know the meaning of overbearing. She is the epitome of easy going, she doesn’t answer texts immediately because she is so cool that she turns her phone off without batting an eyelid. Yes, she turns her phone off.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this form of girlfriend is probably a myth. At least, she is in a committed, meaningful relationship. We are all capable of being a little mad, but the madness is a symptom of caring. It’s comparable to when, as a young rebellious teenager, you came home later than expected and your mum went ballistic, grounded you and consigned you to a year’s worth of hoovering the stairs. You care, you get worried, you get angry because said person made you worry, the cycle continues and you forever associate hoovers with guilt. Oh, The Unpleasantness! Or, as I like to call it, Love!
But why is it that women have this stigma as being hysterical when we act in this way? Over emotional and in need of some good honest laundering to sort us out? Historically it’s quite related to sex. As we all know, women have no sexual desires, and should anyone of us dare to exhibit even the slightest sign of being a bit horny then its off to the laundry house for us. Nowadays it seems more of a cultural phenomenon, our sex drives finally acknowledged as alive and kicking the hysteria arises from a polarization of the cool girl to the crazy girl. We can go one way or the other, we can either sit back, not question and pretend to be aloof, or we can face the social equivalent of the Scolds Bridle.
Of course the mad ex/partner goes both ways. We have all rolled our eyes when we wake up, once again, to misjudged drunken voice mails and tutted at boyfriends’ worrying excessively. But this for men is not such a cultural character. Shows such as Fleabag and Broad City are a step along the road to reversing the stereotype, but the men portrayed lack the hysteria that their female counterparts do. They may be soppy, or clingy (actually on that line of thought, they are genuinely portrayed as a touch effeminate, but another article for another day) but they are never seen to be in need of a good old fashioned ‘calm down, dear’. We take for granted that their craziness does come from a kind place.
But beyond this, why should we be branded as hysterical? There is of course a point where the line is crossed: once the trench coat and binoculars come out or dead squirrels are being posted through letter boxes you may very well be dubbed the mad girlfriend (and, perhaps, rightly so). But a female-wide fear of being laughed off as crazy seems to have lead to us restraining ourselves, not expressing ourselves when we want to or feel that we need to. We try and play along with our relaxed ideals, repressing our instincts to text back immediately, or demand to know exactly ‘Who Is Becky With The Good Hair?’ We sit there running over something that has upset us, weighing up whether mentioning it will make us high-maintenance. We are locked in a laundry room, desperately trying to scrub away any vestiges of legitimate emotion, terrified of being told to calm down, of being branded hysterical, or of scaring off our partners.
Follow Giselle on Instagram: @gisellestorms
Illustration: Mariel Abbene