Why are women with mental illness sexualised?

Okay, buckle up ol’ buddy ol’ pal, because this post is a long’un. Before I begin, I just want to add a disclaimer that at no point is this post supposed to bash men whatsoever. I bloody love men. I’m simply curious about the subject and I’m asking a lot of questions. I also want to briefly define and explain a few terms so that I can refer back to them throughout this post. 

Ophelia: A character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who is driven mad by the actions of her lover, Hamlet, who murders her father. She subsequently commits passive suicide in a river whilst collecting wild flowers. Apparently her name may be derived from an old Greek word meaning “help” (however I read that a while ago on Wikipedia, which we all know is about as reliable as a chocolate mug). Ophelia’s character is always defined by the men in her life, and she never has individual character development. Everything she does is decided by men. John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting ‘Ophelia’ depicts her death and is a very highly regarded piece of art. Her white dress which flows in the water around her has become a symbol of the vulnerable, mentally troubled female character. Many admirers have noted the fact that her hands are in a submissive gesture, and some have even surmised that the painting is in some way erotic. 

The Male Gaze: A phrase coined by film critic Laura Mulvey, which refers to media that is created from a heterosexual masculine point-of-view and so is aimed directly at – and appeals directly to – pleasing heterosexual men. 

White Knight Syndrome: A complex in which a person of any gender is drawn to vulnerable people, and believes that they can ‘fix’ their state of mind or their life with their own actions. 

Okay, my friends. Let’s begin…

It’s common knowledge that women are sexualised by society all the damn time. I remember a particular moment during my teen years when I became aware of the impact that my female body had on people and the way that it was constantly sexualised against my will by complete strangers. A multitude of experiences have resulted in me having a personal interest in the inappropriate sexualisation of the female body. During my early 20s – as I learned more about my own mental illness – I became aware that there is a very strange and disturbing culture of mentally ill women being sexualised by society. Today I’ll be discussing the ways in which I’ve personally come across this, the ways it is presented in society and culture, and the ways in which it has evolved through time. 

Sexualisation of female mental illness in cinema

To begin with, I want to discuss the ways in which mental illness in females is presented within mainstream cinema. I admit that some of the films I’ll be discussing aren’t exactly intellectual art-pieces, but I just want to outline a number of female characters which stood out for me in terms of the way their mental illness was presented. In a massive majority of films I’ve watched (admittedly I do tend to err on the dark side of human nature and therefore cinema), mentally ill women and sexuality seem to come hand in hand. Mentally ill women are more often than not played by very physically attractive actors (perhaps an accidental byproduct of Hollywood’s obsession with beauty as a whole), who behave in ways which may appeal to the male psyche. They can some across as vulnerable and submissive, and they often seem to engage in inappropriate nudity. Don’t get me wrong – nudity absolutely does not have to be sexual. I’m very much of the opinion that naked human bodies shouldn’t be sexualised or censored in any way, but I’ll be discussing the reason behind the use of nudity in vulnerable female characters, and whether the nudity was necessary for their character development, or whether it was simply for the viewing pleasure of the audience. 

An example of a mentally ill female protagonist is Nina in ‘Black Swan’ (directed by Darren Aronofsky) who suffers delusions and hallucinations in keeping with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Nina is portrayed as childlike and vulnerable, with a soft, gentle disposition and a tendency to be submissive in social situations. At the beginning of the film, Nina’s abusive ballet teacher forces himself upon her, after which she runs from him. As Nina’s mental illness progresses throughout the film, so do her overtly sexual hallucinations about her professional competition, Lily. (Remember that masturbation scene?) The film concludes with her returning her teacher’s advances, and kissing him passionately, before meeting her untimely death. In simple terms: Beautiful, unattainable woman becomes mentally ill and fragile, before becoming overtly sexual, before giving into the male antagonist’s desires… Oh and then she dies. Cool. 

This peculiar dance between mental illness and sexuality is also present in a number of Lars Von Trier’s films. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that Lars is a director who aims tirelessly to be as contentious possible, but some of his female roles really do take the biscuit. In Trier’s psychological drama ‘Melancholia’, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a woman plagued with severe depression in the lead up to the apocalypse. There are many emotive ways to convey depression, and to put it bluntly, they don’t have to involve shots of women’s nipples but ALAS there are a couple of scenes in the film during which we see nude shots of Kirsten Dunst – one in which she is splayed out seductively on some rocks, and one where she is being bathed whilst seemingly lifeless. It’s a very emotive scene and depicts depression interestingly. In this scene, she isn’t nude in a ‘sexual’ way – that’s the unsettling part for me personally. A near-catatonic woman’s naked body is being displayed on the screen, when I personally feel the nudity adds nothing to the depiction of mental illness itself. One of the covering images for this film is Dunst in a white wedding dress, floating in water whilst surrounded by foliage. I have wondered if this could be a nod towards Shakespeare’s Ophelia, or whether Trier just subconsciously picked up on the cultural pattern of mentally ill women wearing long flowing dresses. 

Another film which contains a submissive female suffering with suspected mental illness is ‘A Cure For Wellness’, directed by Gore Verbimski. Mia Goff’s portrayal of Hannah, a young inpatient at a secluded wellness centre, is admittedly captivating (although I am biased because I adore Mia). Picture a beautiful adolescent woman, pale-skinned, expressionless, with long wind-swept hair, wearing long, cream coloured, flowing dresses (surely another manifestation of the Ophelia image?). She doesn’t speak much and her eyes are always wide with vulnerability and curiosity. She appears naked a number of times in the film, and always seems to be being ‘rescued’ by the male protagonist of the film. This feeds into an extremely unhealthy view of mentally ill women, which is perpetuated by the ever-present White Knight Syndrome and again, a lack of personal autonomy in our mentally vulnerable character Hannah. In the opinion of some, Hannah’s character also seems to just be a tool for the character development of the male characters around her (again, very much like Ophelia). There is a scene during this film in which a doctor is using a pipette to drop a substance onto Hannah’s tongue whilst standing above her. For some, this imagery may seem unnecessarily dominant and sexual. A submissive woman holds her tongue out whilst a man drips something into her mouth. I’m not sure how many times I rolled my eyes at this film, and YES I KNOOOW it’s a kooky horror/thriller so you might be thinking “what did you expect”, but what I expect is for people to entertain me without using vulnerable women as props. 

‘Antichrist’ is another barmy Lars Von Trier creation which he actually wrote whilst suffering with severe depression himself. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a character simply referred to as ‘She’ – our vulnerable and grief-stricken protagonist. Her husband – a professional therapist – becomes increasingly concerned about her mental state and decides to take her away and take sole care of her (COUGHwhiteknightsyndromeCOUGH). She displays the aforementioned childlike mannerisms and submissive body language. I won’t go through the entire synopsis, but long story short, She falls deep into mental illness, and her vulnerability turns to aggression. She goes from being the ‘cinematically attractive’ mentally ill female character which we’ve discussed previously (submissive, shy, quiet), to being the unpredictable and violent mentally ill female character. Whilst watching this film, I momentarily thought that we were about to see a different and refreshing depiction of female mental illness… but then She violently cut off her husband’s penis, left him for dead, and was subsequently vilified by the entire audience. Ohhh, Lars. Lars Lars Lars. There was no realistic middle ground – she was either the ‘attractive’ mentally ill female or the villain. (N.b. In an incredibly graphic scene, she cuts off her own labia with a blunt pair of scissors in order to try and rid herself of womanhood. Keep this scene in mind, as I’ll revisit it later in the post.)

So NOW we enter the realm of cinema where mentally ill females are vilified as well as sexualised. They are often portrayed as dangerous criminals. Promiscuous harlots who have the art of seduction and manipulation down to a tee. They often wrap siren red lipstick-clad lips around cigarettes, wear lots of eyeliner, and are constantly wearing ‘fuck me eyes’. Conveniently enough, these characters also tend to get naked a lot in order to seduce men. This type of mentally ill female character is almost as prevalent as the vulnerable “help me I’m sad” characters I’ve previously discussed – think David Ayer’s Harley Quinn undressing in front of an audience in ‘Suicide Squad’, and Lisa Rowe licking the cherry at the counter of the ice-cream parlour in ‘Girl, Interrupted’. 

When I think of cinematic portrayal of mental illness in males, films such as Miloš Forman’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ come to mind, as well as Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘The Aviator’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t seem to recall a single time in which these films sexualise their mentally ill male protagonists. There are certainly no close-up bollock shots, that’s for darned sure. Mental illness in males seems to be taken far more seriously than in females when it comes to cinema. It isn’t treated as something they can be ‘saved’ from. 

It’s at this point that we have to take into account ‘The Male Gaze’ which I briefly outlined at the beginning. I’m not sure if you noticed whilst reading this post, but every single director I have mentioned has been a heterosexual man. So then I ask myself, surely it can’t be a coincidence that these films all depict mentally unstable women in a similar way? Why can’t these writers and directors step outside of their heteronormative viewpoint, then metaphorically step into the shoes of other people before writing and directing these films? Surely it would show intellect and creative flair if directors and film-writers were able to do this?

My main question here is: WHERE ARE THE MAINSTREAM FILMS DEPICTING REALISTIC MENTAL ILLNESS IN WOMEN? I’ve seen a few fairly unknown indie films which do a good job, but I want to see more blockbusters which are true-to-life, and written and directed by women and LGBTQ+ folks. If you happen to know of any then please comment suggestions because I would find them sooo refreshing to watch!

Sexualisation of mentally ill women in real-life

It would be comforting to tell myself that this sexualisation occurs solely in cinema and stays within those boundaries, but as a woman with a mental illness myself, it does not. It happens in real life, in 2019. 

Have you ever heard the saying “the crazier a woman is, the better she is in bed”? This was a common social theme when I was growing up, and it always came from the mouths of male friends and acquaintances (although I don’t doubt that there are many women who also believe it to be true). I am confused as to how a woman’s mental health correlates whatsoever with the ways in which she enjoys and partakes in sex. I’m confused as to how people have come to this conclusion. Perhaps they’ve watched too many films with the seductive, villainous portrayal of mentally ill women? Perhaps White Knight Syndrome is subconsciously present in the back of their mind and it makes the sex more enjoyable for them if they think they’re saving the woman they’re having sex with? Maybe there is an actual correlation that I’m not aware of, in which case I’d stand corrected. All I know is that when people say comments like this in the presence of women with mental health issues, it belittles their struggle, their pain, their strength, and their human experiences, and simply reduces them to whether they’re a good shag or not. Luckily, I have thick skin and so I’ve never been personally offended or affected when people have made these comments, but I do happen to think it’s an unhealthy opinion to be spreading around in casual conversation, whether it’s a joke or not. 

I’m sure many people the world over – both male and female – have experienced somebody with White Knight Syndrome in a romantic capacity. I definitely have. I’ve had exes who believe that they’re The One who will finally magically cure me. Like they can suddenly help my brain to stop reabsorbing serotonin all the time (I can’t help but find this hilarious). I’ve literally had someone say the words “I can fix you” as they were trying to persuade me to stick around. I don’t need to be ‘fixed’ – because I’m absolutely not broken. Also – my OCD and depression are things that cannot be helped by anything other than CBT and medication. If I could say one thing to people with White Knight Syndrome, it would be “Stop putting so much weight and importance on yourself and the love you have to offer. It’s unhealthy for you and it’s unhealthy for the person you’re trying to ‘fix’.” It’s also perpetuating society’s idea that an individual’s mental struggles aren’t REAL – they just need a good f**k and a bouquet of roses. *rolls eyes*

Historical views on female mental illness

In order to work out why mental illness in women is depicted the way it is, it’s important to look at the way it’s been approached in the past. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the term ‘Nymphomaniac’. This term was coined by Sigmund Freud in the 1800s to label any woman who might DARE enjoy sex or have sexual thoughts or sensations. It was seen as a physiological disorder, that carried with it a huge stigma. Women were not allowed to choose to be sexual. Women had no autonomy – much like Shakespeare’s Ophelia. 

Ironically, around the same time as sexuality in women was being denied – the vibrator was created in order to treat hysteria in women. Go figure. In the 19th Century the diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ was given to women who showed any signs of mental anguish such as anxiety, insomnia or “a tendency to cause trouble for other people”. Their doctors would slap the label HYSTERIA across their vaginas, before manually stimulating them until they reached ‘paroxysm’ (because women weren’t seen as sexual creatures, so it couldn’t possibly be called an orgasm). Utterly horrifying. Medical professionals believed that hysteria stemmed from the female sexual organs. I have absolutely no idea how they came to this conclusion. WHERE’S THE LOGIC? “You’re not allowed to have sexual feelings or stimulate yourself, but you do have to have sex with me, and if you act out of character at all, I’ll march you to the doctor’s office and he WILL make you come really hard.” 

The practises which stemmed from the theory of hysteria didn’t stop at molestation in doctor’s offices either – women who showed no sign of improvement sometimes had to undergo complete hysterectomies. Doctors believed that removing the female reproductive organs would also remove the hysteria. This makes me feel really desperately sad in my soul. How many women had to suffer this abuse because they either had a normal sexual appetite or perhaps a mental illness? This stems back to that scene in ‘Antichrist’ which I mentioned earlier, where She cuts off her own labia as a way of trying to remove her femininity. Was Lars referencing these old practises purposefully? I have to wonder whether tiny remnants of those archaic theories and practises are still trickling down through society to this day. Could these 200-year-old theories be the reason why mentally ill women are still being sexualised in 2019?

How is society’s view towards female mental health changing?

There was a long-running link between female sexual organs and mental illness until the 20th Century, when attitudes to mental illness started to change and women were taken a touch more seriously in general. Literature such as Sylvia Plath’s 1963 ‘The Bell Jar’ acted as a catalyst to this paradigm in the views towards mental health (both male and female).  

It’s now 2019, and although we have unequivocally developed our understanding of and attitudes towards mental illness since the Freudian era, I’m still shocked and saddened at the way that mental illness in women is approached in a range of mediums; in cinema, in music, and in social conversations. These ideas and perceptions are being passed down to each generation. Mental illness in women is romanticised. It’s transformed into a poem about a beautifully tragic human. It’s often presented as coinciding with nudity and sexuality. All I know is that I am a woman with a mental illness, and when I’m suffering an exacerbation of symptoms I absolutely do not look graceful, I don’t put on long white dresses, I don’t get naked in public, and I don’t throw myself at men who might be able to help me. When will society catch up?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s