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It’s sexism as old as time.
Taylor Swift knows you think she’s one “crazy bitch.” In the country-turned-pop singer’s video for “Blank Space,” which leaked Monday, Swift goes full-on scorned woman in a parody of public opinion on her love life. We open with Taylor delicately lounging in bed with her cat, before she begins yet another too-perfect courtship with a too-perfect white guy, only to see it go up in flames. She stabs a picture. She drops his phone in the pool. Like Britney before her, Taylor Swift seems to say, “You say I’m crazy? I’ve got your crazy.”
Swift’s image problem started after high-profile splits from Harry Styles and Conor Kennedy. Following the release of Red, her fourth album and first bona fide pop record, reports circulated that Swift bought a $4.8 million home across the street from Conor Kennedy. A Vanity Fair profile further pulled back the curtain on Swift’s personal life. The magazine’s Nancy Jo Sales detailed the singer’s lavish apartment, with a “foyer… covered with frames of brightly colored paper flowers.” Sales continued, “Inside, you’re greeted by a six-foot topiary rabbit. There are antique birdcages everywhere and mobs of crocheted throw pillows.”
After gazing upon Swift’s “koi pond in the middle of the living room,” Sales deemed Taylor Swift the “girliest girl in America,” but the Internet took something else away from the piece: Taylor Swift is unhinged, and her dating history (i.e., large number of ex-boyfriends) only seemed to confirm that suspicion. Sales asked Swift about a moment at the Golden Globes where Tina Fey and Amy Poehler joked about Taylor Swift’s love life, telling her to “stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son.” Swift famously responded: “You know, Katie Couric is one of my favorite people because she said to me she had heard a quote that she loved… that said, ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’ ”
But one often overlooked part of the interview shows Taylor Swift being surprisingly self-aware about her image. According to Sales, TMZ’s Harvey Levin described Swift’s housing purchasing by being characteristically blunt: “Taylor Swift is a nutcase.” According to Sales, TMZ ran a story about it “with a clip of Glenn Close acting stalker-nutty in Fatal Attraction.” “People say that about me,” Swift responded when asked about the segment, “that I apparently buy houses near every boy I like—that’s a thing that I apparently do. If I like you I will apparently buy up the real-estate market just to freak you out so you leave me. Like that makes sense, like that’s something you should do.”
As Sales mentions, Glenn Close has long held a place as America’s most iconic “crazy bitch,” a distillation of our anxieties about female sexuality. Adrien Lyne’s Fatal Attraction came out in 1987, becoming a cultural phenomenon because of its unsympathetic take on the “other woman” trope, a middle-aged one-night stand who can’t seem to leave well enough alone when she’s not wanted anymore, even though she’s pregnant and alone. Close’s Alex Forrester is the clear villain of the picture, but the recent Gone Girl showed that the tides have turned: The so-called “crazy bitches” are starting to talk back.
One of the early examples of the “crazy bitch” trope in pop culture was the image of the femme fatale, famously epitomized by Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. On the classic trope, the New Republic’s Becca Rothfield wrote, “Dizzyingly, dazzlingly dangerous, she’s the picture of traditional feminine elegance—but she did real violence, both symbolic and literal, to the institution of marriage, an establishment that kept her a virtual captive within the domestic sphere.”
But she’s more than a prisoner: The femme fatale is silenced, usually through death or other means. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, Gloria Grahame takes a pot of hot coffee to the face for her own moral transgressions. The Postman Rings Twice offs Lana Turner’s Cora in a car accident, and Fred MacMurray shoots Barbara Stanwyck to death for her sins. Latter-day femme fatales don’t get off much easier. Presumed dead, Alex Forrester gets shot in the bathtub after she leaps out at her lover, less a domestic drama than something out of a horror movie. This is because the “crazy bitch” isn’t a person: She’s a monster.
However, society has denied women of humanity long before the existence of the femme fatale, and the reason why comes down to a single word: “crazy.” In the 19th century, the term “hysteria” developed as a loose way to describe lady problems, or what Psychology Today’s Michael Castleman argues today would be deemed as “sexual frustration.” According to Time’s Jessica Bennett, the idea didn’t “disappear entirely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders until 1980,” and it’s since hung around in pop culture. Bennett writes, “[T]he trope of the crazy, emotional, moody, hysterical, PMS-ing, crazy woman—or worse, the crazy, emotional, hysterical romantic stalker—remains in full force.”
How do you define a “crazy bitch” in today’s society? The problem is that just about anyone can be a “crazy bitch,” depending on your definition. In her best-selling book, Bossypants, Tina Fey described it as a “woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*ck her any more.” According to Harris O’Malley, the “crazy bitch” is just a simple way to invalidate female behavior, one that “[applies] to just about any scenario.” O’Malley writes in the Huffington Post, “At its base, calling women ‘crazy’ is a way of waving away any behavior that men might find undesirable while simultaneously absolving those same men from responsibility. Why did you break up with her? Well, she was crazy.”
Here, “crazy” has little reference to the word’s origins in public health, where it operates as a problematic way to describe mental illness, but instead is a way to describe actions we don’t like. However, the term’s roots can have real-world consequences. The early 20th centuries own “crazy bitches” were suffragettes. In an essay for Bitch magazine, the Daily Dot’s S.E. Smith reminds us that they were “considered mentally ill by their peers.” Smith writes, “Some were subjected to psychiatric torment in an attempt to curb their ‘antisocial behaviors.’ For their hunger strikes, they were force-fed, and some were subjected to attempts to declare them mentally ill so they could be institutionalized. All for demanding the right to vote.”
Although the suffragettes eventually won their fight, time hasn’t been as kind to Zelda Fitzgerald. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s long-suffering and enigmatic spouse is remembered as both the “original It Girl” and the “madwoman in the flapper dress,” making her the the proto Taylor Swift. Her memory has been so pathologized that the image of the institutionalized Zelda is inseparable from her legacy, despite the fact that she had real problems. Her husband routinely plagiarized from his wife’s work, even lifting entire passages of her writing for his own Beautiful and the Damned; to write Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald took the words right out of his wife’s own mouth, in order to write his characters’ dialogue.
What was left then for his wife to write? Nothing that would receive notice, and reviewers widely dismissed her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, as derivative of her husband’s work. F. Scott put the final nail in the coffin by publicly denouncing her as a “third-rate writer.” A foray into art didn’t go any better, with the New York Times referring to her paintings as relics of a bygone era, “with whatever emotional overtones or associations may remain from the so-called Jazz Age.” After her husband’s death, Zelda Fitzgerald was inspired by his last unfinished manuscript to take one last shot at writing her own Great Novel, but she would never finish. While awaiting electroshock therapy in Asheville’s Highland Hospital in March 1948, the hospital kitchen burst into flames, quickly spreading to the rest of the building. Trapped in her room, Zelda Fitzgerald suffocated. She was 47.
After Zelda’s death, however, the idea of the genius artist with the “crazy bitch” wife has stuck, even though scholars how describe the relationship between the two as “gaslighting.” In an essay for the Huffington Post, Yashar Ali describes gaslighting as a practice in which a person is continually made to believe they’re “crazy,” in order to get them to regulate their own behavior, a term that comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight. In the film, Bergman’s husband makes his wife question her mental state, keeping her away from friends and relatives and telling her she shouldn’t go outside, you know, for her own good.
It’s not just isolation. As Ali argues, it’s classic abusive behavior:
Today, when the term is referenced, it’s usually because the perpetrator says things like, ‘You’re so stupid,’ or ‘No one will ever want you,’ to the victim. This is an intentional, pre-meditated form of gaslighting… The form of gaslighting I’m addressing is not always pre-mediated or intentional, which makes it worse, because it means all of us, especially women, have dealt with it at one time or another. Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction—whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness—in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.
According to Ali, this can have dire consequences on women’s self-esteem. “It renders some women emotionally mute,” Yashar Ali writes. “These women aren’t able to clearly express to their spouses that what is said or done to them is hurtful. They can’t tell their boss that his behavior is disrespectful and prevents them from doing their best work. They can’t tell their parents that, when they are being critical, they are doing more harm than good.” While Ali thinks that these women are more likely to engage in passive-aggressive behavior, in the age of the Internet, they’re also likely to disconnect entirely.
It’s the Internet’s worst-kept secret that the Web exists as a tool to harass and silence women. Witness a website called Psycho Ex-Girlfriend, in which a man describes the alleged details of an emotionally abusive relationship. We get his side of the story, but where is she in all of this? His girlfriend might be “crazy,” but she’s not the one spending countless precious hours devoted to preserving the memory of their relationship on Blogger. Elsewhere, an article on WikiHow will help you rid yourself of your “obsessive ex” with advice like: “Don’t share any details about your new partner with the ex. It makes her obsess more, and details about the new girl’s life, where she works/studies, pictures, etc. may endanger her.”
While you’re diligently browsing some of the many websites that will help you determine if you’re a “crazy ex–girlfriend,” the heartbroken little sister of the “crazy bitch,” it’s important to note that a woman doesn’t even have to be “crazy” to be undesirable. A woman can also lose points for being too “bossy,” as Sheryl Sandberg’s #BanBossy movement pointed out. “People are already wary of assertive women at work, but call a woman ‘aggressive’ out loud and they will probably like her less,” wrote Jessica Bennett on Sandberg’s campaign. “Call a female politician a ballbuster enough times, and people may actually be less likely to vote for her. Words tell us something about the way our culture perceives women in power, and whether we believe they’re supposed to be there.”
Bennett also singles out words like pushy, angry, brusque, ballbusters, bitchy, careerist, cold, calculating, shrill, and strident as targeting the “wrong kind” of powerful woman, of which Hillary Clinton is the most frequently cited example. Hillary haters can buy their own nutcracker in her full emasculating likeness, along with their “Hillary For President? No Way!” shirt from CafePress. As Hillary Clinton shows, terms like “crazy” and “bitch” are all interchangeable. A 2008 Reddit post (one oddly endorsed by Wil Wheaton) referred to Clinton as “the democratic party’s psycho ex-girlfriend.”
Even the ostensibly liberal New Republic fell into the trap in 2008 with a magazine cover promising an exploration of “Hillaryland’s Fatal Psychodrama.” Headlines like those aren’t isolated incidents but have a way of forcing women out of public spaces, and in the case of Clinton, they cost her the election. For Anne Hathaway, last year’s most-speculated upon “crazy bitch,” the wide criticism did severe damage to her self-esteem. She explained to Harper’s that the wide Internet backlash against her awards speeches during the 2012-2013 Oscar season was like “being punched in the gut.” Hathaway later told Ellen DeGeneres, “I listened at first. And I couldn’t help it, you know? You try to shut it off and I couldn’t.”
Anne Hathaway didn’t lose an election, but being unfairly labeled as “a bit crazy” or a “drama camp kid eager to prove herself” was bad enough, just because she was acting in a way we didn’t like. And according to the Washington Post’s Emily Yahr, it made Hathaway all but unemployable. Yahr said, “Her reputation started to cost her roles in movies since directors didn’t like her public image.” While Yahr argues that Anne Hathaway’s war against the trolls is unwinnable, she outlines a simple solution to the actress’ problems: Shut up and act.
Hathaway has already found the most valuable way to get back on people’s good side: Focus on what she’s undeniably good at, which is acting. She told Harper’s she started getting back in Hollywood’s good graces once Nolan cast her in Interstellar, which shows that the best way to shut everyone up is to prove it it doesn’t really matter what snarky Twitter users think—she’s still going to get roles because she’s talented.
Wired’s Kathy Sierra agrees with Yahr that the trolls will always win, but as Taylor Swift shows, it’s not about coming out on top. It’s about not letting anyone bully you into being silent. For as long as time and the Internet have existed, there’s been a reason to dismiss and invalidate women, who have every reason to quit that culture and log off. (A policy of disengagement has certainly worked for Tina Fey.) But there’s a power in fighting back, whether it’s releasing a music video to call bullshit on sexism or being open about your experiences with cyberbullying and your path to self-acceptance. If you have to be gaslighted every day of your life, it’s better not to go quietly. Just ask Zelda Fitzgerald.
Photo via Taylor Swift/VEVO | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.