2016 Film Essays

The Feminine Grotesque #1: A Unified Theory on Female Madness in Cinema and American Culture


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

I have a madness in me, real as my own heartbeat. It has three names: anxiety, bipolar disorder and anger. It’s the last one that even my closest friends have never seen. Unsurprisingly, female madness is a preoccupation of mine. For over a year, I have been developing my own theory that explores the way female madness is framed in cinema. Films of The Feminine Grotesque continue the questions and preoccupations of 1940s women’s pictures primarily within horror, but at times finding a home in noir and fantasy. The Feminine Grotesque is a genre, style and thematic preoccupation that truly begins with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and continues with recent films like Queen of Earth and The Witch.

The emotional, social and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the character’s sense of womanhood provide the meat and gristle of this genre. The questions of women’s pictures turn on their pretty heads in The Feminine Grotesque. The tools of beauty — physicality, dress, makeup — become weapons that wound as much as they empower.


(Joan Crawford photographed by Eve Arnold)

Like women’s pictures, The Feminine Grotesque offers visual liberation from the confining strictures of the patriarchy. No matter how temporary, women are able to see themselves as bold, defiant, vulnerable, sexually realized, ambitious and hopeful. The films of The Feminine Grotesque obsess over female desire and subjectivity, but even with this strong feminist impulse, the genre is often muddled by endings that show these women integrating themselves but lacking any hope for a future. In cinema, like in life, it often feels like there is rarely hope for the madwoman.

Madwoman (noun)

  1. A woman who is mentally ill.
  2. A woman with a transgressive place in society because of her anger, sexuality and/or refusal to play by the rules.
  3. A woman ruled by her passions. (see: Taylor, Elizabeth).
  4. A woman of fire and music. (see: Davis, Bette in All About Eve)

I redefined madwoman as an act of reclamation, an act of learning to love or at least come to terms with the part of myself society tells me to hate. As a teenager, I found a sense of family with the real and unreal women that now make up my pantheon of madwomen. They became my sisters and aunts, mothers and mentors that I always yearned for in real life. When I’m brutally honest with myself, which usually happens around 3 a.m., I still yearn for this sense of sisterhood in real life. This series is ultimately about these women.


You’ve seen her before. She’s Lilith refusing to lie under Adam. She’s Zelda Fitzgerald in the sanatorium. She’s your ex-girlfriend that drank too much and laughed too loud and in the dark muttered about her intense fear of becoming the mother she barely knows. She’s Medusa. She’s your best friend from college whose red lips seemed abhorrent, like some open wound speaking all the things women aren’t even supposed to think. She’s the mess you don’t want to clean up. She’s me. Or maybe you’ve seen her on screen in the overripe sexuality of Nicole Kidman in Stoker. Or in the gunshot loud shriek of Bette Davis facing the mirror image she can’t escape in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Or she’s the warped legacy that Joan Crawford has become in the cultural imagination. These women have been with us for a long time, and they are legion.

In an interview with Flavorwire, Elisabeth Moss said something that set off an alarm for me about how other women look at madwomen in regards to her film Queen of Earth:

“I think that women have a lot less tolerance for other women, and we expect a lot,” she explained. “Sticking, of course, to my own opinion, I think we value strength in other women. As a woman, you see another woman go insane, and you’re a little, ‘Get over it!’ It’s just not quite the same thing.” Men, she posited, are thus preoccupied by female madness, whereas women sometimes find it exasperating, or at least less thematically interesting.

Well, I find it thematically interesting. I think it is a necessary conversation we need to have. I think the stories of madwomen have merit. I couldn’t agree less with what Elisabeth Moss said. And the more I think about it, the angrier I get. Maybe because I have felt people dismiss my struggles with mental illness as something easy to get over. Maybe because I feel more women as artists and people should be central to the conversation about female madness. Furthermore, I feel like we need to talk about female madness that doesn’t just obsess over pretty, young, white women falling apart. This dynamic exists beyond film. Look at most of the memoirs that have been widely published and discussed about mental illness. Check the author’s photo. Who do you find? White, young-ish, conventionally attractive women.

It isn’t lost on me that the primary cultural examples (even beyond film) of women grappling with mental illness happen to be of young, desirable white women. Even when these narratives are more hopeful or transgressive, there is also a part of me thinking of The Ophelia Factor, which is a cultural phenomenon I’ve named to explain the lurid obsession with watching conventionally beautiful, fragile, young-ish white women unravel. The Ophelia Factor leaves no room for a black latina like myself or the many women who don’t fit those categories.


(Joan Crawford photographed by Eve Arnold)

What continues to mark the films of The Feminine Grotesque is an interest with women at war with each other and their internal selves. While they often end with women able to reintegrate their split selves and completing a harrowing journey toward self-awareness, they rarely demonstrate even a glimmer of a hopeful future. For the women of Dead Ringer, Black Swan, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other examples of The Feminine Grotesque, the future involves death, hospitalization and continued delusions.

What does it say that decades after Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s 1960s version of The Feminine Grotesque that we aren’t able to culturally imagine women able to truly live with their madness and come to an understanding of the world around them? I think we still have a hard time picturing the unraveling woman able to restitch herself out of her own desire and will power. I’m distressed with how the stories of these cinematic madwomen play out, perhaps because I see so much of myself in them.


(Joan Crawford photographed by Eve Arnold)

The Feminine Grotesque will be an ongoing series mixing critical discussions of films of the sub-genre (Black Swan, The Witch, Hush Hush…Sweet Charlotte, The Craft, Jawbreaker), films I feel are precursors to The Feminine Grotesque and/or deal with madwomen (Gaslight, Leave Her to Heaven, Now Voyager), profiles of actresses who are important to the genre and discussions of actresses who dealt with mental illness in real life (Frances Farmer, Gene Tierney).

There are also questions that I have trouble answering that will thread throughout the series: is it possible for a madwoman to survive and thrive in a world that doesn’t see her complexity? What do the trends in The Feminine Grotesque say about the real life experiences of women who grapple with mental illness? How can a madwoman like me, as black as I am, as fierce as I am, create a life she’s proud to live?

Thinking of these questions, I turned to one of my favorite poets, Rachel Wetzsteon, and her collection Sakura Park.

“[…]It was life

you’d rather be drunk on, roaring life

that told you there is no time for spirits

of dark staircases, only lightning ruses

that not only leave no bruises but give

all parties their wish; rinsed vision and second chances.”

— Rachel Wetzsteon, “Short Ode to Screwball Women”

This series is all about giving second chances for madwomen and looking at them in ways that may not be afforded to them in other critical conversations. Most importantly, it is a way to articulate my suffering and joys and desires through the lens of my cinematic obsessions. And perhaps, through writing, forgive myself and make sense of this madness that has shaped my life since adolescence in ways I am still reckoning with.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.

9 replies »

  1. I am enjoying your series on madwomen in film. I have thought about these issues myself for many years.

    To this question:

    “What does it say that decades after Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s 1960s version of The Feminine Grotesque that we aren’t able to culturally imagine women able to truly live with their madness and come to an understanding of the world around them?”

    I would say that what we don’t see happening in the world is difficult to imagine happening in life. Within a patriarchal culture a woman who does not behave as she is expected to will always be shunned, and I don’t see how anyone can come to terms with that reality. So the movies are realistic about what happens to women who are mad. But most movie plots, especially since the 1970s, have centered on men, and movies that attempt to focus on a woman’s interiority are rare and special so I still love films with these themes even if they are flawed. They are an attempt a least to address the issue.

    Have you seen Fassbinder’s FEAR OF FEAR? In the end of that film the protagonist is offered a chance to be normal and have a good future by a doctor if she simply takes some pills. While she seems grateful, it feels like a tragic ending because the pills are a way of making her “normal,” whereas her madness is part of her personality and part of her special gift of sensitivity. Plus, if she does not change her circumstances she will not be happy, but will continue to be unhappy, just sedated. I wonder if a different ending is ever possible, since women live in a society that tamps them down?

    Would you consider Jeanne Dielmann a madwoman? She does in fact murder a man, and she seems to have OCD, and she has daily sex with strangers whom she loathes. But more than being mad, she is understandably depressed by her circumstances. To me, the “good” movies about madwomen frame them in a social context which explains their madness. But until we accept women who are “different” as a whole in society, the endings of these films will always be tragic. And indeed a happy ending will still always feel like a compromised ending, as in FEAR OF FEAR, because in gaining sanity these women are conforming to stereotypical gendered roles. The only other possibility seems to be to live in isolation with their madness or self-destruct.