[Trigger Warning for talk of suicide and mental illness]
You might remember that a month ago, Vice published a fashion spread of models reenacting the suicides of famous female writers. In it, Sylvia Plath stares pensively at her oven, Virgina Woolf serenely wades into a river, and Sanmao delicately adjusts the stocking that’s wrapped around her neck. As horrifying as it is to process what is being shown — the beautification of feminine suicide — after looking at the perceptions of these deaths for so long, it sadly doesn’t feel like so much of a jump. However messy, uncomfortable, and volatile their lives were, that simple image of Plath viewing her oven is the take-away. Quiet and beautiful, even in death.
Part of the reason why, when I broke down about three years ago, I didn’t take comfort in Yellow Wallpaper-esque stories or Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy (which was a favorite of mine as a teenager), is that I couldn’t relate. The truth, painstakingly documented in personal works, would not have the same effect on public consciousness as the idealized woman that Vice tried to portray in their ill-advised photoshoot. Publicly, we are only comfortable with one kind of feminine depression. The kind that is somber, gorgeous, and above all else, silent.
So if you are a woman who suffers from mental illness, the amount of spaces in which you feel comfortable expressing that are quite small. I remember my extreme discomfort at the public shaming of Britney Spears when she shaved her head, as that sort of overblown, compulsive behavior was something that I identified with. While Spears was clearly demonstrating that she was not OK, the punchline, as it always is for feminine behavior that pushes the envelope of respectability, was that she had “gone crazy.” The great irony is that the stress from keeping quiet as expected can lead to this sort of massive breakdown.
The danger of being labeled “crazy” as a woman is far more extreme than it is for men. Typically, “crazy” is used to diminish real expressions of anger and grief, the emotions that collectively society doesn’t understand how to deal with in women. When normally expressed emotions are written off as crazy behavior (largely why you should always run from anyone who says “my crazy ex girlfriend”), where does that leave women who actually do suffer from mental illness?
Part of my frustration about this is caused by the reaction to Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos, who has recently become a sort of figurehead for mental illness in the music industry. It’s admirable that Angelakos continues to work to de-stigmatize mental illness in public consciousness, but the reality is that the consequences of him outing himself are far less severe than they would be had he been a woman. The Pitchfork cover story that initially revealed that he is bi-polar is fraught with romanticizing, right from the subhead of “Inside the brilliant and troubled mind of Passion Pit leader Michael Angelakos.” From the story, Angelakos’ mental illness is sort of a creative boon, giving him inspiration and insight for his music. I don’t know if Angelakos would agree with this characterization, but the story does little to humanize him, instead making him the most recent version of “mad genius” that the music industry loves to celebrate.
The most troubling part of the story is when Angelakos talks about his girlfriend, whom he is now married to.
“If she had left me, there is no question that I would have killed myself. I don’t remember anything I did– which is terrifying, because now I have to live with this guilt.”
I was a little startled with how abusive this statement seems, how he lays the responsibility of his life and well-being on his girlfriend. Even more than that, his remorse is not caused by the actions that he doesn’t remember, but the guilt that he feels as a result. Men are allowed to act up, be irrational, and do cruel things (especially if they are artists or musicians), but the most accepted role for women is what Angelakos’ partner seems to occupy, which is the caretaker.
I think this is why Poly Styrene and Lauryn Hill have never been characterized as mad geniuses. For Styrene, her mental illness was little more than a footnote in her obituary, either because it wasn’t a big talking point for her, or because we still aren’t comfortable with mental illness in women. Lauryn Hill (who has not been diagnosed as far as I can tell, but is largely derided for being “crazy”), who, as a black woman, would not be able to fit into the Sylvia Plath depression narrative anyways (sad, pretty white women), is mostly a subject of ridicule for her tax problems and court ordered counseling. Meanwhile, Michael Angelakos receives an award for erasing the stigma of mental illness.
The key to ending the more prevalent stigma of female mental illness is to be free to talk about it. And for this one, Angelakos is not allowed to be our spokesperson.