From Ophelia to Rae Earl, via Blanche DuBois: Mentally Ill Women in the Media

‘Hamlet’ is a crash-course in depression. Existential nausea has never been summed up so well as by Hamlet’s yearning repetition of too too solid flesh. His frustration at not being able to act, at being paralysed and then frantically doing the wrong thing just to do something, is a look at the sort of ugly, sort of dull side of mental illness. He talks about bad dreams. He repeats to die, to sleep like a lullaby. We follow his reasoning through, watching where it veers down wrong or illogical paths, but always understanding.

What does Ophelia do? She exits one scene stable and enters another as what Margaret Atwood, in her lecture Ophelia Has A Lot to Answer For, calls ‘winsomely bonkers’. She sings rude songs. She hands out flowers. And then she drowns, beautifully: her clothes spread wide and mermaid-like, surrounded by crow-flowers, nettle, daisies and long purples. Her sweet, lyrical madness is followed by death.

Atwood identifies the causes of Shakespearian female madness as ‘thwarted love’, ‘a sudden horrible shock’, and ‘guilt’. There are almost always sexual undertone to this madness, one that is linked very biologically to the cis female body: notions of fragility, of that idea of the ‘wandering womb’. Ophelia’s crude, inappropriate rhymes alarm themembers of the Danish court – she’s a contrast to the daughter that Polonius lectures earlier in the play. While the loveliness of the flowers in her arms might endear the mad Ophelia to others, the words she says threaten and unsettle. And then – she dies. She is silent.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

The fictional mentally ill woman of the past is typically constructed as a threat. Shepushes through boundaries and ignores societal conventions. At the end of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’, after Hedda excuses herself from her bourgeois living room to go and shoot herself dead, Judge Brack exclaims, Good God! People simply don’t do such things. The madness is a nonsensical anomaly – pretty, messy, a little sad, but something that needs to be dealt with as quietly and cleanly as possible.

It’s Blanche DuBois of Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ whose removal might make audiences begin to question the reasoning behind this approach. We can, however, see the many Shakespearian inheritances that Blanche has been burdened with. The twist in the play is the revelation, delivered judgingly by the hypocritical Stanley, that back in her hometown Blanche used to sleep around. Her desire is almost boundless – she flirts with Stanley and Mitch and the paper boy. Even the bond she shared with her old husband is tainted, from his homosexuality and suicide.

And Blanche’s madness is ‘pretty’, too. At the peak of her hysterica, moments before Stanley rapes her, she is dressed in an outfit that symbolises the ‘Opheliana’ that Atwood talks about: a somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown, with a rhinetone tiara on her head. It’s beauty, but a little off, a little bit strange and inappropriate. It’s white, but muddied.

However, audiences would find it difficult to watch the final scene of ‘Streetcar’ without sympathising with Blanche. A doctor and nurse arrive, summoned by Blanche’s sister, to have Blanche committed. She is experiencing psychosis that the audience is forced to view, too – terrifying light and sound effects disorientate and confuse. In this moment, Blanche is intensely vulnerable. No one has believed her account of the rape, and so she is ushered, arm-in-arm with the doctor, from Elysian Fields and the Kowalskis’ nuclear family. She’s a woman exiled.

Flash forward to the twenty-first century: feminism’s slow march forward, psychiatry advancing, the media testing the waters of diversity (very tentatively, often not entirely happily). ‘Girl, Interrupted’ provided a fin-de-millennium portrayal of female madness, one that used a couple of tropes from Shakespeare and a couple of newer ones – the idea of the sane person committed against their will, for instance, which is extremely othering, making an us-and-them binary with a boundary that is difficult and painful to transgress.

‘My Mad Fat Diary’, based on a memoir by Rae Earl, premiered on E4 in 2013. Rae, the teenage protagonist, is unapologetically sexual and assertive. She drinks. She loves Britpop. She’s a good writer, and she can tell a joke better than most of her friends. And she is mentally ill. Her symptoms suggest a comorbid soup of depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia, and she deals with this in therapy and through her diary. Her life is not entirely about her madness, but the show doesn’t undermine the powerful effects of mental illness, either.

Elia Kazan, who directed a ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, fumed in a letter in 1950 that Blanche DuBois ‘pays, and pays, AND PAYS!’ Not so for Rae Earl – she learns and grows, but she isn’t punished for transgressing gender norms the way Blanche is. The narrative places us squarely on Rae’s side. She’s fully three-dimensional. Her madness doesn’t have to be beautiful to be worth watching.

And this sort of representation is quietly, slowly, insidiously seeping into mainstream media. One particular recent example was on ‘Banana’, the spin-off from Russell T. Davies’ ‘Cucumber’ – the protagonist Amy deals with the blocks OCD puts in her way when she’s trying to date. (Making the frantic images OCD forces into your head visual and real was a clever touch – the disasters that seem absurd but have their basis in little touches of the everyday, disasters that aren’t likely but aren’t impossible either.)

The mentally ill woman as ornamental, as somehow unwomanly and yet so flamboyantly female, as sex-crazed, as being just too much – too angry, too loud, taking up too much space – is harmful to the real people these tropes make caricatures of. It’s sexist and trite and a little lazy, at this point. Shows like ‘My Mad Fat Diary’ are a sign that progress is being made, but the stereotypes writers fall into when creating these women are so ingrained that it’ll probably be a gradual, effortful journey.

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