Jackie Wang’s excellent post today over at HTMLGiant on, among other things, how certain kinds of young women exaggerate and perform their emotional craziness and general melancholy, reminded me of something that’s bothered me for a long time. Why are men (and other women) so attracted to emotionally or mentally unstable women? And why the double standard? Because I certainly don’t know many people attracted to emotionally fucked-up men.
This seems particularly true in regards to art, whether subjects or artists or both. Music, paintings, poetry, fiction, sculpture, plays–so often they’re about and/or inspired by the unstable, tragic-but-beautiful muse. I’m guilty of this, too, both in my writing and in my life. I’ve written these women, many times. They’re so fun to write, the Sylvia Plaths, the Bertha Masons, the Edna St. Vincent Millays, the Catherine Earnshaws (though come to think of it, Heathcliff was a little unstable, too.) They’re even fun to be, when you’re not quite them. When I was in college, studying theatre, I definitely exaggerated the hell out of a slight melancholic tendency and was able to attract a certain type of guy–writers or painters, usually, serious, smoked Lucky Strikes, wore a lot of black, loved the Sylvia Plath-type but, I discovered, treated them more like furniture than people. Like lawn ornaments.
Why is it that we love these women so? Are so fascinated with them? Wish their madness upon them in our literature, art and song? Is it because their madness gives them a kind of seriousness that we feel other women lack? Is it because their madness coveys a tragic glow, a sort of candle-in-the-wind quality that excites and saddens us, reminds us of our own mortality and comforts us with our own ordinariness? Or what?
Also, do we do a great disservice to women when we so often portray them in this manner? Do we encourage women to be impulsive, reckless, self-mutilating? Or is this relatively harmless, just another shared fantasy, like the hot schoolteacher and the naughty librarian? What is this obsession with the Sylvia Plaths? Why don’t we have the same hots for the Robert Lowells?