Image description: A colorized hallway in what might be a hospital. Text reads:
Madness, Violence, and the Patriarchy
(or, When My Favorite South Park Episode Changed from “Reverse Cowgirl” to “Breast Cancer Show Ever”)
guest post by Emma McMurphy
This is a guest post by Emma McMurphy. Emma is a Mad Pride activist, a movement that celebrates and finds value in the states, traits, and characteristics typically categorized as mental illness. She is passionate about providing and teaching non-coercive, context-informed approaches to suicide prevention and mental health crisis. Emma blogs about Mad culture and disability justice at www.radicalabolitionist.org.
This post is part of the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note on this post for discussion of self-harm, suicidality, involuntary psychiatric institutionalization
My Mad Pride activism began as a civil libertarian cause. I firmly believed that every individual deserved the inalienable right to bodily autonomy – full control over what to do with their own bodies and minds. I knew from day one of my activism that universal bodily autonomy meant bodily autonomy for individuals designated as Mad or mentally ill – those who were hearing voices, who were suicidal, who wanted to cut, burn, or injure themselves, etc. “Give me liberty or give me death” became a favorite quote of mine, and “People should have the right to do whatever they want as long as they are not violating another person’s bodily autonomy” became a line I often repeated.
A few days after I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward after expressing passive suicidal thoughts, a group of my friends happened to be watching an episode of South Park entitled “Reverse Cowgirl.” In the episode, the South Park police department enforces a strict requirement of wearing seatbelts while using the bathroom after a character dies by almost falling into the toilet. The episode resonated so deeply with me that I was almost in tears. This, to me, is what being involuntarily committed had felt like: a profound invasion and intrusion upon my body, personhood, and dignity, a violent assault upon my autonomy, all in the name of public safety and security – all when I had not done anything to violate anyone else’s bodily autonomy.
It was shortly after my involuntary commitment that I launched my activism career. The central focus of my activism was the rejection of involuntary commitment for those who had not harmed or threatened to harm any other person’s bodily autonomy. Like many feminist efforts, my activism revolved around the personal liberties and rights of Mad people. Along with my efforts came my striving to promote the message that Mad people are not usually violent or abusive – that being a danger to oneself and a danger to others should not be conflated. “People diagnosed with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence,” I would often say.
At that point the line felt clear. I was innocent. A victim. I hadn’t done anything wrong and yet I had been locked up, strip searched, forcibly drugged, and restrained.
But life happened and things got more nebulous. My fiancé came home one day and said he wanted to break up, and I sliced my arm, threatening suicide if he left. Suddenly I was no longer an innocent victim quietly expressing passively suicidal thoughts in an emergency room. I was a full blown crazy woman, using tears, manipulation, self-harm, and suicide threats to keep my partner in our relationship. While I hadn’t violated my fiancé’s bodily autonomy, I had certainly made the shift from “harm to self” to “harm to others.”
The events caused me to carefully re-examine my activism. So many of my arguments had hinged on the notion that madness is not inherently harmful to others, that individuals should have the right to experience and engage in madness that does not hurt other people. But here I was, Mad as hell, terrified of abandonment, engaging in actions that would be considered abusive or even violent by most. Who had I become? Was I one of the violent, dangerous Mad people I had so frequently otherized? “Those Mads” – the ones who deserved to be locked up, separated from society, forcibly drugged even? Was I not even Mad – just bad? Just plain abusive?
A few months later, I found myself rewatching Gone Girl, a film I’d hated when it first came out. What a stereotyping, misogynistic film, I had thought! It makes all women, and especially Mad women, look violent. For context, the film is about a woman named Amy who frames her husband for murder after he cheats on her with a younger, hotter woman. In many ways, Amy is the classic and stereotypical portrayal of the Madwoman: she is manipulative, jealous, possessive, violent, and does everything she can to ensure her husband will never leave her. “When I tell people I’m Mad, they’re going to think I’m violent and manipulative just like Amy,” I had thought.
This time, I felt completely differently about the film. All of the sudden, I could relate to Amy. When she delivered Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” monologue, a lightbulb went off. I got it.
Below is the famous “Cool Girl” monologue:
“Nick never loved me. He loved a girl who doesn’t exist. A girl I was pretending to be. The Cool Girl. Men always use that as the defining compliment, right? She’s a cool girl. Being Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker and dirty jokes, who plays videogames and chugs beer, loves threesomes and anal sex and jams chilidogs into my mouth like I’m hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang-bang–while remaining a size 2, because cool girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool girls never get angry at their men, they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner. Go ahead! Shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the cool girl.
I waited patiently-years-for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, organize scrapbook parties and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, yeah, he’s a cool guy. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon every girl was Cool Girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.
But it’s tempting, to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick I knew that’s what he wanted. For him, I was willing to try. I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. Nick teased things out in me I didn’t know existed: A lightness, a humor, an ease. And I made him smarter, sharper. I forced him to rise to my level. I was happier for those few years, pretending to be someone else, than I ever have been before or after.
But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t me! I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That my fantasy baseball team was not a labor of love. It had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Girl. But Nick wanted Cool Girl anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your soulmate, and having him not like you?”
The “Cool Girl” monologue describes many of the insidious, subtle, overlooked forms of violence that the patriarchy has subjected people to for decades. It lists all of the ways that women are quietly coerced to conform to patriarchal standards of beauty and femininity to be loved and valued: maintaining thinness, engaging in unwanted sexual experiences, feigning interest in hobbies and interests that are constructed as masculine, and performing a sense of nonchalance and detachment toward romantic relationships. These are violences that affect us all but that are felt differentially and responded to differentially by people. While Amy is a white, thin, relatively privileged woman, it is often the most marginalized groups of women – women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, trans women, and fat women – who experience the highest degree of pressure to make drastic alterations to their bodyminds in order to conform to these standards. For the most marginalized groups, these violences may result in coercion to disguise or kill off entire parts of one’s identity; failure to do so may result in more explicit forms of violence such as hate crimes, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or police brutality.
It was at this moment that it struck me that Amy was describing violence in the “Cool Girl” monologue. Being coerced to make painful, humiliating alterations to one’s bodymind in order to be valued is violence. “Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed,” Amy says. In some ways, it is murder.
But the patriarchy is hardly ever recognized as violent or murderous. Instead, it is seen as the norm, as acceptable. So Amy seeks to change that. She frames her husband for murder. She stages a violent, manipulative, crazy rebellion to the patriarchy. What other option did she have?
I had also attempted to be the “Cool Girl” in my relationship with my (now ex) fiancé. I had worked 80 hour weeks to perform capitalist ideals of success that he so admired, while still making sure to have enough time to spend with him every day. I had maintained thinness, forced myself to engage in strenuous exercise, participated in sexual acts I found degrading. I had given up real, important parts of myself – my Mad Pride, my Autistic identity, my outward disabledness. And here I was, being told that still wasn’t good enough. I had given up so much, and I was being pushed beyond a limit.
Slowly but surely, I started to get radicalized. I started to learn more about the systemic factors impacting not only suicide and self-harm but also violence. I began to think about the role that powerlessness and systemic devaluation play in driving people to extremes. I started to think about the ways people might feel trapped in situations and dynamics, and how sometimes they might see violence as the only or most feasible way to regain control or escape.
I still see Mad Pride partially as a civil libertarian movement. My belief that every person deserves bodily autonomy, including those who are hearing voices and those who are suicidal, has not changed. But Mad Pride is about so much more than that. I see it as a movement fundamentally about pain, and largely about the pain inflicted by systemic and structural forms of violence. I believe Mad Pride is about recognizing the validity and legitimacy of people’s reactions to this pain.
Like my earlier version of Mad Pride, I believe that feminism often attempts to distance itself from stereotypes. Many feminists have worked to reject the notion that women are more emotional, manipulative, hysterical, or crazy. They have fought to defend the fact that women are just as rational, intelligent, and sane as men. I recently saw a book entitled, “Strong is the New Pretty.” This echoes a sentiment I have often heard in feminist circles: women are not weak like men think we are. We are strong enough to rise above our impulses, to maintain a cool rationality and sense of logic, and to exercise our bodies to meet standards of physical able-bodiedness and athleticism. Of course, I am very grateful for these feminist efforts and lines of thinking; stereotypes are harmful to everyone.
However, I often wonder if, in working to reject these stereotypes, feminists disavow madness – particularly reactions to the patriarchy that may involve violence, manipulation, and strong emotions. What if sometimes our response to the patriarchy – to all of the violence that has been committed against us for thousands of years – involves being weak, being emotional, giving into our impulses to scream, to shout, to self-injure, to threaten suicide, to exact revenge? Is there space for this within feminism? Is there space to at least acknowledge the validity and legitimacy of these responses, even if they aren’t always the most ethically correct or appropriate course of action?
A few weeks ago, I watched the episode of South Park entitled “Breast Cancer Show Ever.” In the episode, Eric Cartman ruthlessly mocks Wendy Testaburger’s presentation on breast cancer awareness, with other students and teachers doing little to stop him. When Wendy threatens to fight him physically to stop him, she is disciplined by her parents. Cartman’s verbal abuse continues, and finally, the school principal, a woman, encourages Wendy to fight him physically. Explaining that she is a breast cancer survivor herself, the principal tells her that “cancer does not play by the rules” and that since cancer will not stop of its own volition, it is sometimes necessary to resort to extreme measures to defeat it.
The patriarchy will not stop of its own volition. It is relentless, demanding, and abusive, and although it does not always result in overt attacks of life-threatening or bodily autonomy-threatening force, it is violent and coercive, emotionally and psychologically. It is extreme, though it is not recognized as such. Sometimes such extremity merits extreme responses. Perhaps madness and particularly Mad women are sometimes violent, and perhaps that is exactly what is needed.
Instead of shaming women for having extreme responses to the extremity and violence of patriarchy, I believe that it is important to engage in practices of community care and accountability that seek to explore what overlooked kinds of violence may have led to these responses. I do not have an answer as to how survivors of trauma and ongoing structural violence can best be held accountable to their responses that may include violence or harm. However, I think it is critical that we begin by taking a closer look at what we define as violence or harm and what we define as acceptable or typical, and what types of actions do or do not merit an accountability process. As our justice system currently stands, a great deal of retribution is carried out against individuals who have committed violence or harm; almost no efforts are made to address systemic or structural violence. Similarly, physical violence – breaking the skin – is seen as the ultimate, most severe and punishable form of violence, while the pervasive psychological and emotional violence that coerces people to make alterations to their own bodyminds remains unaddressed. How can we begin to shift this dynamic? How can we create a system that focuses on addressing systemic and structural violence while still allowing for individual accountability?
This post is part of the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on (approximately) the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, let us know!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
- All The Places You’ll Never Go, by Dulcinea Lapis
- An Open Love Letter to My Friends, by Michelle Dang
- Prioritizing, by Mel Vee
- Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health, by Mel Vee
- Living in the Age of White Male Terror, by Mel Vee
- I Will Not Be Thrown Away, by Mel Vee
- Selling Out the Sex Workers, by X
- Holding Hope for Indigenous Girls, by Michelle Robinson
- Three Variations on a Conversation: cis- and heteronormativity in medical settings, by Beatrice Aucoin
- Lies, Damn Lies, and White Feminism by anonymous
- Responding to the Comments, by Nathan Fawaz
- Remembering and Responding, by Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist and workshop facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. You can work with them in person or via Skype. They specialize in supporting queer, trans, polyamorous, disabled, and trauma-enhanced communities and individuals, and they are also available for businesses and organizations who want to become more inclusive. Email to get in touch!