Cards on the table, I’m not sure I go with this one. Absolutely, hormones and stressful events can trigger all kinds of physical and mental problems. But don’t major life experiences also affect men? (Or is ‘Tiger blood’ Sheen a glorious figment of my imagination?) Gender differences may predispose us to certain kinds of craziness – busyness in women for example, or disengagement in men. But just because we women are different, doesn’t make us nut-bars.
Historically, women have been seen as victims of biology. During the Victorian era, mere possession of a womb was enough to classify you as seriously unstable. There are lots of different reasons for this, but here’s some that spring immediately to mind.
One – if you’re in a culture that equates repression with morality, then of course emotions will leak out in unhealthy ways. That’s partly because you’re HUMAN, not just female. (Interestingly, it is during this period that we see a rise in behaviours which today would be classified as eating disorders, depression, self-harm and ME. It’s also when thinness re-emerges as an ideal connected to progress and gentility).
Secondly, you’ve got the emergence of a new middle-class of essentially kept ladies. Now, if those women were made of the same stuff as me, they may also have had brains and UNCONTROLLABLE DRIVES to DO. I’m guessing that needlepoint alone doesn’t quite hit the spot – especially if you’re blessed with sausage fingers. What’s really surprising is that more women didn’t cut loose, (or perhaps they did but were all locked in the attic). Nowadays of course, you can just channel your angst, call yourself Shakira and release a (stonking) hit single where you pretend to be a SheWolf. (I would add the link but I’ll lose you forever).
Thirdly, if you’re squeezed to within an inch of your life into a whalebone corset, of course you’re going to get ‘the vapours’. That’s because your kidneys are now inhabiting the space marked ‘ tonsils’.
But what about today? Can’t we women ‘have it all?’ Haven’t we been set free from the ‘feminine myth’ and our bondage to stereotypes? Or, (as Appignanesi argues), are our cultural definitions of madness still closely tied to gender expectations? Surely in today’s enlightened culture we’ve moved beyond such primitive thinking. After all, we invented Facebook. Then again, just because gender expectations are different today, doesn’t mean that they’re healthier or less pervasive.