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We're All Mad Here: Of Course We Should Dislike This Character! She's Crazy!

You've seen her on the screen, encountered her in the pages of a book, heard her in the lines of a song. She's the villain you love to hate, because she's just so crazy. You know the one. She flips out over nothing, screams randomly at people, has sex with the heroine's boyfriend...the bunny boiler was written for her. She's that one lady with a vague and nonspecific diagnosis whom you're supposed to hate specifically because of the way her apparent mental illness expresses, not for any particular reason beyond that.

A tongue in cheek rendition of the bunny boiling scene in Fatal Attraction, featuring a stuffed rabbit in a pot on the stove

Terri Schuester on Glee is a notable example of this in pop culture right now; think of the way she was introduced in the pilot, firmly framed as Will's crazy girlfriend. Almost immediately, she's off on a run of manipulative behavior. She fakes a pregnancy and tries to pressure Will into buying a home, exerting control even by stepping into Will's work environment as the school nurse in an attempt to win him back. Terri is often so annoying that viewers are supposed to dislike her; she's self centered, she whines a lot, she's highly manipulative in a way that triggers the "crazy ex" button, especially after she and Will separate and she really is the crazy ex. People debate what, exactly, her diagnosis is supposed to be, but they're all in agreement on one thing: Terri is c-r-a-z-y! That's why she acts that way, you know.

Or the slew of bad roommates and others that Anna discussed in her piece on Monday. Usually they aren't given specific diagnoses; it is the vague symptoms surrounding them that are used to turn them into hateable characters. This depiction of mental illness as something viewers, readers, and listeners should hate, even without a particular diagnosis, comes up over and over again in pop culture, and it is almost always women who are framed in this way.

Such caricatures are easy to hate because they aren't given any depth. We see them primarily on screen in the role of foils for other players to play against. Speaking of roommates, look at Kathy on "Living Conditions," the Buffy episode about every college student's worst nightmare: The evil roommate. Before we learn the truth about Kathy, we dislike her already—not just because she is annoying and intrusive, but because she behaves in a way reminiscent of some mental illnesses. She's fussy about her surroundings, for instance, and she has trouble interacting with people. We're supposed to hate her because of the way she acts, and thus we don't feel bad when Buffy gets violent with her and in so doing unmasks her demon identity; what's telling is that we wouldn't have felt bad even if Kathy had been mentally ill, because of a recurrent framing that mental illness alone is grounds for punishment and abuse.

Fatal Attraction provides another classic instance of this kind of character. Glenn Close's Alex very much reads to me and many viewers as mentally ill, even though she's not explicitly coded as such. She is dangerous and frightening and her behavior escalates over the course of the film. The film's grand denouement arrives as Dan drowns her in the bathtub, because she is clearly too dangerous and frightening to live.

Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction

Scores of young adult novels feature some variation on this character as well; she's the stumbling block in the way of the heroine who steals her boyfriend or sabotages her school project or generally makes a mess of things. As a character, she has no personality beyond her outbursts of inconvenient behavior, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief when she shuffles offstage or "grows out of it." While not all of these characters are meant to be read as mentally ill—some are just cruel or careless—some certainly are, and we hate them for it.

Likewise, the first to die in horror flicks is often the annoying chick, the one with the whiny voice or the selfish attitude, and sometimes she behaves in a way that is also suggestive of mental illness. In this setting, the use of her death to advance the storyline is also a punishment; don't be like her, viewers, or you too will experience gory death at the hands of a serial killer.

One consequence of this kind of character presentation is that audience members can experience a sense of "she deserved it" when something bad happens. Take, for example, the domestic violence depicted in the Schuester kitchen, where Will grabs Terri, shoves her aggressively against a counter, and yanks at her clothing, all while she pleads with him to stop. This scene was not read as domestic violence by many viewers, because, well, she deserved it. If she hadn't been manipulative, he wouldn't have been "forced" to act in the way that he did.

This notion plays out continually in pop culture, where mentally ill characters are subjected to brutality and it is read as acceptable, appropriate, or even necessary in some cases, because of how their mental illnesses express. The symptoms and expressions of mental illness are not always easy to control, even for people receiving appropriate treatment, even for people who very much wish that these things didn't happen; it's not that people enjoy violent outbursts or crying jags or hallucinations. When viewers of pop culture receive the message that it is OK to behave abusively to someone because of mental illness, it sets a dangerous precedent.

It's the same precedent that leads to ignoring rape victims when they are mentally ill, for instance. Women with known mental illnesses who call for assistance in the wake of a rape may be outright laughed at. Additionally, mental illness puts people at increased risk of domestic violence, for a variety of reasons, and the message that domestic violence is acceptable when your partner is mentally ill goes far beyond the boundaries of the screen and the printed page.

The vaguely mentally ill woman whom we are supposed to hate because she is mentally ill, who only gets what she deserves, is an extremely dangerous stereotype, and one that should have been done away with long ago.

Related Reading:

Music Matters: Why Feminist Pop Criticism Matters
Push(back) at the Intersections: 'I Just Don't Like That Many Female Characters'

Previously: We're All Mad Here: Case Studies of "Crazy Bitches" in Cinema, We're All Mad Here: Race, Gender, and Mental Illness in Pop Culture

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Comments

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those crazy bitches

As much as I disagree with their politics, Palin and Bachmann are both faced with this characterization as well. Why we can't talk about their idocracy on issues rather than their supposed mental illness is beyond me. We certainly don't hear criticism of passionate males discussed in these same ways!

Interesting!

I had a lot of mixed feelings about the Demonic Roomie in that episode of Buffy. On the one hand, of course, we've got the "crazy roomie" stereotype that goes thematically with the other college stereotypes that come up in the first few episodes of that season, and I don't like that "crazy roomie" thing. On the other hand, unlike the other crazy roomies, this one actually turns out to be a demon, rather than a "crazy" person, which is easier for me, at least, to deal with.

I see your point about her, though.

I feel like that episode is a

I feel like that episode is a send-up of the crazy roomie stereotype, which makes me rather adore it, actually, because it does confront assumptions made by viewers. But every time I watch it, I can't help but think 'if this played out the way these things usually do, no one would bat an eye at Buffy getting physically violent with her...'

I agree, however I think a

I agree, however I think a few of the cases don't quite apply. It's been a while since I watched that Buffy episode, but Buffy is portrayed as extremely over-reactive at first, and later down right not-herself in her responses to Kathy, who is portrayed as having habits that while annoying, should have been easy to ignore or compromise on. When Buffy is first complaining about her, the rest of the scoobies, put it down to being an only child. (SPOILER) Later it's revealed that Kathy has been stealing Buffy's soul, which is why she so over-reacted. I think Kathy is at first just portrayed as difficult to live with, and annoying, but Buffy is the one who gets irrational (as a result of the spell).

In Glee I never saw Teri as being crazy and saw Will's outburst as what happens when you push someone too far, not to excuse it or say she deserved it. Of course, I stopped watching Glee because I found the entire show too annoying.

all valid points. i also

all valid points. i also think a lot of times women making valid criticisms are painted as crazy, shrill etc. so much so that any women making a valid point becomes "hysterical." and it undercuts women's ability to engage in any kind of dialogue.

The Last Station

I was fascinated by a different kind of portrayal of mental illness in The Last Station. Tolstoy's wife, as written and acted in that movie, exhibits behavior that is almost textbook Borderline Personality Disorder. However, you also see the vitality, excitement, and sensuality associated with the way she lives. You see how it hurts people and distances her children from her, but I think you also get a (more) nuanced view of how she's still a complex person, and how she loves deeply and is loved deeply. If I recall, they never actually refer to her as mentally ill or crazy, but she's definitely described along the lines of hysterical by others as the movies starts, but then the movie takes a really sympathetic approach as you see the reason behind her behaviors and the complexity of her relationships.

Glee

I love that you included Terri from Glee in this. I've always been incredibly sympathetic towards her from the start of what was arguably her most unsympathetic arc, when she decides to fake the pregnancy rather than tell Will that it was a hysterical pregnancy. She was utterly terrified at the prospect of losing him, just totally scared to death that her husband would abandon her if she couldn't give him a child. The domestic violence scene you mentioned absolutely pushed it over the edge, because even though it was meant to be the "understandable" reaction of a man distraught over losing his child/being betrayed by his wife, for me her terror and desperation in that scene circled right back to the terror that made her decide to fake the pregnancy in the first place. She was obviously terrified in that scene, and he had no sympathy for her whatsoever, and no consideration of what sort of mental and emotional stresses she had to be under to construct such an elaborate and "crazy" scheme in the first place.

For all that we were supposed to see Will as the "good guy" taken advantage of by a scheming harpy, that sort of relationship dynamic doesn't develop out of nowhere. Add in his passive-aggressive and occasionally flat-out aggressive attitudes towards Emma when she wasn't working as hard or as fast to cure her OCD as he wanted her to, and the picture of Will as the put-upon husband of an unstable woman just looks more and more like crap. If he treats his "true love", the non-manipulative, shy, passive Emma (whose mental illness he finds"almost cute", what with her adorable little quirks and all) like that, how did he treat Terri? If her illness manifested in ways beyond "being a manipulative bitch" during their marriage, how did he react to them? Not well, I'm guessing.

YES! This is the only

YES! This is the only episode of Glee I've watched. I was all WTF?! little sister what is this crap?

I've had demonstrably "crazy' roommates that drove me up the freaking wall. I had one screaming fight when she had pushed me just too far. I've also had shitty emotionally manipulative (abusive?) ex's who had me yelling at them. But Will's behavior was unacceptable. Some shit is going down there... In any case she may be "crazy" but he's not exactly a walk in the park either, and he for some reason gets a pass for it.

Obsessed

Did anyone else ever see the movie Obsessed?
I was really bothered by the ending of the film. *SPOILERS*
Ali Larter's character was very clearly portrayed as being mentally unstable, and even though we have sympathy aplenty for Idris Elba's character for being at her mercy, I personally felt that her actions weren't REALLY her fault. That she clearly wasn't in her right mind and needed professional help. Which made the smackdown from Beyonce at the end quite disturbing to me.
(And as a side bar, I found their treatment of Elba's rape in the film negligent at best)
But what disturbed me more was that no one I saw the film with at any problem with the ending, and had instead adopted a "crazy bitch had it coming" attitude.

Will Schuster, you precious little buttchin misogynist, you!

I am so glad to see this addressed! I am only now becoming aware of the way I throw the word "crazy" around, especially when (I'll totally admit it to the commenter above) I'm talking about GOP candidates.

Firstly, I think you're completely right in your critique of Will's relationship with the women in his life. I think that the pilot so immediately connects Will with Emma that all of your reactions to Terri are in relation to the "But Will and Emma! Wemma! Whyyyy" line of thinking. When I went back and rewatched the first season, I found myself incredibly sympathetic towards Terri. She finds out she is not, in fact, pregnant, and is terrified of Will's response. Of course, the ideal situation is one where Terri would have felt so comfortable and equal in her relationship with Will that she would have been able to be honest with him, but that is not what happened.

This leads into another thought that came up while I was reading your blog post. As you listed the trope characters so often called "crazy" and dismissed and used as plot devices, I couldn't help but also think about the real life experiences of women where we believe that we are always in competition with our female peers. There is plenty of work done addressing the issue of female to female competition and hatred as a result of patriarchy. These "crazy girls" are always in the way of the right girl, the good girl, getting what she wants (which usually fits some kind of patriarchal expectation of woman- or girlhood). The "crazy girl" is the one she is in competition with, or the one she has to overcome to get where she's going. Not only is this stock character dismissive and demonizing of mental illness, but it operates on the assumption that women are always in competition with one another, and that the goal is beating out all of the other women in order to get where you need to be (married, in the right job, in the right apartment, at the right school, etc.).

Thanks for addressing this!

fatal attraction

"...drowns her in the bathtub because she is too dangerous and frightening to live." The original story ended with her suicide, which is (sadly) a much more accurate predictor of her trajectory from a mental health perspective. (Test audiences hated this ending and the splashier, bad-girl-gets-comeuppance ending was created instead). Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction is often cited as a textbook example of Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the most stigmatized mental health disorders in the current diagnostic system and (oddly enough! how very odd!) diagnosed in women about 3x as often as men. The disorder is characterized by emotional intensity and lability, impulsive behavior that is often a result of attempting to modulate intense emotions, relationship difficulties, and feelings of emptiness. Suicide attempts and self-harm behavior are common (and frequently deadly) and many individuals who meet criteria for this diagnosis also meet criteria for other things (substance abuse or dependence, PTSD, depression, and so on). It is treatable, but it's hugely stigmatized... especially in the mental health field.