Monday, February 21, 2011
A look at madwomen on the verge of a Black Swan breakdown
Just in time for Oscar night, I watched Black Swan which strengthened my resolve that Natalie Portman will win Best Actress this year. Her subtly strange portrait of Nina Sayers,an ambitious yet timid ballerina, was emotionally memorizing.
From the need to please passion she had towards her manipulative mentor to her mother's craven control methods to rivalries both real and imagined amongst her peers,Nina dwells in a hell partly of her own making that only the goal of "perfection" is seen as her ticket to paradise.
While tortured artists are nothing new on the pop culture landscape,this film has an extra layer of depth iced on top with the mental deterioration of it's leading lady. The term "madwoman" may not be P.C. these days but it does fit the bill for describing this sub genre of female focused cinema and literature as well. Nina's dark dance of self destruction follows in the footsteps of many other fictional women lost in the maze of their own mind:
For the most parts, women suffering from mental illness in film,book or TV tend to be either victims or monsters-sort of an off play of the classic whore/Madonna complex.
Some of the sympathy for these ladies can be traced to such old school film fare as 1948's The Snake Pit or The Three Faces of Eve(which appeared nearly ten years later) and later to more modern movies which often prefer to use real life stories as source material like Girl,Interrupted.
One of the more recent depictions of a woman haunted by insanity combined both fiction and reality to create another Oscar winning role for a talented actress. Based on the Michael Cunningham novel,The Hours had at it's center spoke the tormented authoress Virginia Woolf(played by Nicole Kidman)whose best known work Mrs. Dalloway is the lynch pin for the rest of the characters to cling to as they seek shelter from the storms in their hearts.
Empathy for Woolf's struggle is keenly felt yet there is an element of "this is the price to be paid for art" swirling around her both on page and screen:
On the other side of the sanity challenged sister coin is the madwoman as destroyer of domestic harmony in all of it's forms.
Whether it's a case of "out to steal your man"(Obsession),"I'm the better mother"(The Hand That Rocks the Cradle)or "crazy bitch stole my life!"(The Roommate),the true target of these deadly divas and their campaigns of terror are other women.
The gruesome grandmother of the modern monster woman is Alex Forrest from the unexpected pop culture sensation Fatal Attraction in 1987. The phrase "bunny boiler" became one of the code terms for an obsessive woman and sparked off a series of male fear fantasies about hooking up for some thrill seeking sex only to be trapped by a fiercely determined female hellbent on keeping him in her clutches.
That misogynistic nightmare was further compounded by having both the wife and child(a daughter,by the way)being made hostages in this brutal bloodsport along with the revised ending that had the evil big city interloper being vanquished by the suburban couple under siege.
The original finale had Alex killing herself in a way that put the blame on her married lawyer lover,something that didn't sit well with test audiences. Better to properly slay the dragon lady rather than let the sullied prince suffer any more for his sins:
These two polar opposite views of madwomen have been going on for a long time with both men and women debating their relevancy in art then and now. However,another school of thought has emerged that says many of our legendary mentally distressed damsels are symbols of rebellion and emotional repression.
The most notorious of these troubled ladies in literature is Bertha Mason,the hidden in the attic first wife from Jane Eyre. More than just a nasty little secret,many see Bertha as an extension of Jane's own conflicts about conforming to the restrictive norms placed upon women in Victorian society.
When you think about it, there are plenty of examples of this internalized resistance to social expectations that women are pushed to fit into such as the locked room heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper or Lily Bart's slow side down the social ladder in The House of Mirth and even the likes of Lisbeth Salander in the Millenium series. Perhaps broadening our view of madwomen is the true cure for these sickly stereotypes:
Mind you,that doesn't mean I think we should throw all of these archetypal babes out with the bathwater. Like any persistent theme,there is an element of truth to these standard molds of madwomen but upgrading their interpretations in pop culture is the best way to offset their worst qualities.
For one thing, women are rarely shown to be empowered by a break with reality. Many a time,men are granted life changing emotional breakthroughs,for good or ill,by losing their minds while women use it as an emotional escape hatch that can swallow them up whole.
True,movies like Fight Club from the 1990s or 1972's The Ruling Class are dark social satires but it's hard to find a movie that heralds a leading lady for her dementia. While this is not behavior that we want to encourage from any person,regardless of gender, having a strong woman control her mental condition for similar purposes would be a welcome break from the norm.
One of the goals of art is to shake things up and if we want to see a real change in how madwomen are showcased,quite a few pop culture eggs need to be broken:
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