The “Madwoman” in film

Photo by Blake Israel

We have seen it time and time again. Feminine madness is a sort of all-consuming, overtaking rage inseparable from the pain and despair that fuels it. This madness is within us all; I have felt it myself, but most of all, this madness lives on-screen. Female hysteria has undoubtedly set the tempo for the psychological horror genre. 

The term “female hysteria” originated as a diagnosis for any number of mental illnesses suffered by a woman. Even further,  the term “hysteria” alone has socially gendered implications, as the diagnosis itself was primarily made in women, sometimes with female sexuality or promiscuity even being thought to indicate a manifestation of accompanying mental illness. It was even believed that men could not physically suffer from hysteria, due to their lack of a uterus. For women, trauma and mental illness meant hysteria, but for men, similar trauma was what led to the development of modern theories around PTSD. 

So what is female hysteria in modern film? Despite its dubious and controversial history, it has since evolved as more of an umbrella term for the depiction of feminine madness within the film industry. 

Artist Susu Laroche, who has gained a cult following for her films and photography explaining this feminine madness, says, “the hysterical woman is not just furious or oversexed,” referring to the antiquated denotation of female hysteria. Now, “[she is] merely a woman confronting the constant undermining of herself,” whether in a positive or negative sense.

This sentiment from Laroche raises an important point; has the term “female hysteria” transformed from being reductive and misogynistic to essentially a redefinition of what it means to truly feel and truly express, as a woman? 

Writer Anjelica Bastién answers this question in her publication “The Feminine Grotesque,” stating that she “[redefines] ‘madwoman’ as an act of reclamation, an act of learning to love or at least come to terms with the part of myself that society tells me to hate.” 

As more and more female filmgoers rally behind the “madwoman” trope, the opposition to the trope gains traction as well. In the Tufts Observer, writer Jordan Lauf asserts that the “madwoman” trope is harmful to women. 

“It stigmatizes female mental illness, portraying mentally ill women as highly unstable and sexually promiscuous. It enforces gender roles by posting any ‘unfeminine’ activity as the product of illness,” says Lauf. 

While I am inclined to agree with Lauf that the modern filmographic “madwoman” trope upholds many of the same issues that the original “feminine hysteria” umbrella did for mentally ill women, I cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of catharsis seeing the “madwoman” on screen. Even further, many women also find solace within these portrayals. 

Bastién says, “I think we still have a hard time picturing the unraveling woman be able to restitch herself out of her own desire and willpower. I’m distressed with how the stories of these cinematic madwomen play out, perhaps because I see so much of myself in them.”

These portrayals of the “madwoman” provide women today a way to see other women’s emotional expressions, even if on an extreme scale. It feels almost novel to see women retaliate to the way they are treated in situations in which we often cannot retaliate ourselves — to see women in “Carrie” or “Promising Young Woman” taking revenge on those who hurt and betrayed them. Seeing women front-and-center, dominant, and in imperfect and controversial roles puts the “thrill” in thriller, subverting the manic-pixie dream girl I began to expect as an avid film lover. At the end of the day, tropes are just that — tropes. Even the “madwoman” will never begin to represent a woman’s complex emotions and motivations. However, the “madwoman” is part of a larger manifestation of a longstanding unapologetic anger that many women collectively share. Female protagonists don’t have to be likable, or even in the right. They can be angry, depressed or over-the-top in expression. They can inspire terror, be a force to be reckoned with, and they can take revenge; after all, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

If you like this article, watch: “Climax,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “Possession,” “Hysteria,” “Carrie,” “The Virgin Suicides,” “Melancholia,” “I, Tonya” and “Jennifer’s Body.”