Before you come at me with accusations of reverse sexism, hear me out. It’s not usually women who express the sentiment that men are always wrong. Rather, this sentiment is loudly and ironically proclaimed by men during arguments in which they feel criticized. When men proclaim that they are always wrong, it is not a tacit acceptance of defeat but rather a joke at the expense of women. After all, women are irrational creatures who will always think than men are in the wrong.
To seemingly fix this problem, there are many translation guides online and in print that help men figure out where they went wrong when interacting with women. There’s a very helpful one in this link. It suggests women might have a “genetic defect in their inner ear” that makes the irrational woman decide to twist the “words that leave a guy’s mouth.”
There is a certain infantilizing of women in these sorts of articles. Women must be pacified because they are irrational. In fact, if what women say or “hear” is deemed crazy, then they can be silenced. This sort of silencing, I argue, is a vestige of the historical tendency to label women as mad.
It’s easy to concede to the myth that women are mad and illogical creatures who must be pacified. Ironically proclaiming “men are always wrong” is just another byproduct of this mythology, because it allows the man in question to ignore what the woman is saying on the basis that no matter what he does, the woman is too irrational to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I am of course not saying that every man treats women as mad or irrational. I acknowledge that there are a great many factors in the toxic masculine upbringing of boys which breed an insecurity in men. Calling women irrational can also be a defense mechanism against the realization that a patriarchal society has robbed men of the right to their emotional experiences. Therefore, in arguments men might feel as though they simply can’t engage on the same plane. Again, this is a generalization that does not apply to every man.
However, my argument is that women have historically been silenced within relationships with the neat little designation of madness. Take the very popular diagnoses of female hysteria, which were rampant until the twentieth century. “Hysteria” was the catchall disease for every non-traditional behavior exhibited by women. These could range from the mental health disorders we now recognize as borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia to mere sexual promiscuity. Many women were labeled mad — devoid of personal agency and completely at the mercy of the men in their lives. Madness was a convenient form of social control. The American Psychiatric Association employed the term “hysteria” until 1952.
That is but one small example of how even our modern day structures are built on a foundation of female madness. Elaine Showalter, a former University professor and a feminist literary critic, writes in the introduction to her book, “The Female Malady,” that “while the name of the symbolic female disorder may change from one historical period to the next, the gender asymmetry of the representation tradition remains constant.” For example, “as early as the seventeenth century, the files [of a certain prominent doctor] showed nearly twice as many cases of mental disorder among his women patients as among men,” Showalter writes.
This number has obviously decreased quite a bit in our society, but according to the statistics presented by the National Institute of Mental Health, women are still overrepresented as having mental illness relative to men by at least 7.2 percent. This suggests that either 7.2 percent more of women really are mentally ill, or that this overrepresentation is an extension of the patriarchal connection between women and madness that has caused an overdiagnosis of mental illness in women.
Many feminist scholars have written much about what it means to link women with madness. Psychiatry, a field dominated by men, has had largely free reign to designate women as mad when their behavior is merely inconvenient to a patriarchal figure.
While this sort of thinking might be somewhat changing within the clinical context, the concept of female madness has been subsumed by popular culture. Thereby, it has continued to infiltrate private relationships between men and women.
Many articles lauding the madness of the women in our lives exist on the internet — the modern keeper of all things popular and public. For example, if you want to figure out if you are dating a “crazy chick,” I urge you to check out this link, which contains the 50 characteristics of a crazy woman. Watch out for a woman who reads Sylvia Plath — or, God forbid, enjoys sex. Or there’s this link with a much more condensed list of only 10 items. The worst offenses are jealousy and wanting to know where you are. There are pages upon pages that detail how women irrationally bash men or how they must be pacified. Enter the discourse about “daddy issues” and “dysfunctional c*** syndrome” (“A common mental disorder amongst females. Usually involving erratic, irrational, and unexplainable behavior,” according to Urban Dictionary). These two popular terms both discredit how a woman behaves in relation to men by calling her mental health into question.
In fact, this article in The Washington Post actually goes into how “‘crazy’ is typically held in reserve for women’s behavior. Men might be obsessed, driven, confused or upset. But we don’t get called ‘crazy’ — at least not the way men reflexively label women as such.” There are many such articles on the internet written by dating coaches advising men not to call women “crazy” because there is a pushback against the notion of women as crazy.
Still, the message that women have a high capacity for irrationality is repeated over and over again across the internet and on television. It is no wonder that this characterization of women as mad has slipped into our private lives.
If a man struggles to understand what a woman is saying or simply disagrees because he finds it inconvenient, he can easily bandage his ego by designating his girlfriend or partner as mad. This modern habit cannot be understood as separate from the historical treatment of women in attics and asylums.
Bhaamati Borkhetaria is a sophomore from Jersey City, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.