The photograph “The Most Beautiful Suicide” by Robert Wiles has an enduring legacy that speaks to the troubling ways our culture frames women who grapple with mental illness. You may not recognize its title or the photographer who took the picture in 1947, but I guarantee you’ve seen it. The photograph occasionally pops up on my Tumblr feed when I’m scrolling through around 3 a.m. with empty platitudes about depression and beauty attached. I often wonder what the woman it portrays would feel about her enduring legacy. In the picture, Evelyn McHale (then 23-years old) looks peacefully asleep or like some shipwrecked bride that washed ashore. Her left hand clutches the pearls around her neck. Her shoes missing. Her stockings folding around her crossed ankles. Her dark lips look partially open as if she was about to speak about some terrifying dream she just had. But she is never to wake. Evelyn is folded upon a crumpled limousine, with shards of broken glass creating a jagged crown. We can see the heads of a few onlookers in the distance. A few minutes before Wiles took this picture, Evelyn jumped to her death from the Empire State Building. And ever since then, everyone but Evelyn has been writing her story.
This photograph endures because it neatly folds into what we culturally expect and desire of the “mentally ill woman” narrative. Namely, that they be white, beautiful and easily definable. Film is no stranger to this, often construing the way women deal with mental illness by manifesting them within archetypes we’ve seen time and time again…. madonna and whore, maiden and spinster, saint and sinner.
There are two films within The Feminine Grotesque canon that illustrate this dynamic most profoundly: The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Black Swan (2010). There are over 50 years between these two films, and they’re dramatically different in tone and desire, mood and genre. But they share something very important: an inability to fully inhabit the minds of their lead characters or understand the particular burden that comes with being a woman struggling with mental illness.
I have described living with mental illness in a number of ways: a pebble in my pocket whose weight changes from day to day, a bitter pull at the back of my skull, a wound I cannot stitch. In the 13 years since my initial diagnosis, and through breakdowns and breakthroughs, I haven’t been able to foster deep relationships with any other woman in real life that deals with mental illness, despite my best efforts. This is why I created a pantheon of madwomen as a sisterhood. But watching their films often leave me afraid that I too am doomed, that madwomen, in the end, may only be cautionary tales. But perhaps their endings say less about how women struggle with mental illness than how our culture expects a madwoman to be.
The Three Faces of Eve begins with five words, “this is a true story.” With the help of a stately narrator, the film frames itself as a sort of docudrama about a young, “demure” mother and wife with two other “vivid” personalities battling for dominance. Joanne Woodward is obviously having fun with the role as the titular Eve, although I don’t think she is all that moving or memorable. As the “main” personality, Eve White, she’s timid by often tripping over her words and the world around her. Her second personality, Eve Black, is vivacious, dangerous and brazenly sexual. During a hypnosis session with the help of Dr. Curtis Luther (Lee J. Cobb), a new personality makes herself known: the relatively stable Jane. The film frames Eve’s madness as an outgrowth of her womanhood. With the rather flat cinematography, moral righteousness and stark patriarchal overtones, the film plays like a 1950s after school special. Apparently, the sins of the Biblical Eve cut deep.
The casting of Woodward seems rather deliberate. Woodward has always come across to me rather plain, a sort of homely prettiness. If they cast someone like Elizabeth Taylor, it wouldn’t work. How could we believe Taylor as “that dreary little girl from across the river?” She’s too striking, too charismatic… and most importantly, she’s culturally viewed as a temptress.
The Three Faces of Eve may be concerned with fact, but it isn’t concerned with the truth, or at least the human truth of what it means to deal with mental illness as a woman (the way certain cultural stereotypes frame the way people expect you to act and the treatment you receive as a woman). For those who don’t hew toward an Ophelia-esque image of mental illness (pretty, white, young), the narratives that frame our experiences are even more restrictive. As an Afro-Latina, I am often afraid to ask for help when I deal with an episode because I am so often expected to be strong. I have survived so much that people expect I will always stitch myself back together.
Sometimes you feel weak. Sometimes you want to be saved, even from yourself, if just for an afternoon. But there are many of us grappling with mental illness who aren’t afforded the ability to fail, because failure means homelessness, loss and oblivion — not a charming man with a square jaw waiting around the corner to save you. Looking at the casting and the morality of the film reveals its true purpose. The Three Faces of Eve isn’t interested in crafting a story about a woman dealing with multiple personalities. It’s interested in how we view such women.
Watching the film, I never feel like I really get to know Eve, only people’s projections of her. The Three Faces of Eve creates a distance between the viewer and its lead. It’s as if we’re watching her through the layers of everyone else’s expectations of her — as a mother, wife and woman — particularly the men that inhabit her life. In doing so, the film isn’t really about a woman grappling with dissociative personality disorder, but a cautionary tale. Sure, after Eve’s emotionally abusive husband abandons her and their daughter, the Jane personality eventually integrates the other two into forming a complete woman. Yes, Eve marries a kind man who loves her and her daughter. But Eve never feels real. Instead, she comes across as a living guidebook for how women are supposed to act, that women with mental illness can only be a mess for so long. Without Eve’s perspective, the film can never delve deep, can never access the human truth of her struggle, which is a fault I have come to identify with in far too many films of The Feminine Grotesque.
On the other hand, Black Swan is nothing without privileging the gaze of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).
Imagine a girlish woman. Fair skin. Hair the color of chestnuts. Eyes wide with wonder and fear. She carries herself as if she is on the precipice of greatness or tragedy. Suddenly, as if in a dream, her mirror image does what she does not. Barred teeth. Cracked lips. Sly gaze. Defiance and lust contort this mirror image’s face as if a stranger is sharing her skin. This is what we learn and experience through Nina.
Through her eyes, we see some of the film’s most gruesome yet entrancing images: reflections acting in rebellion, doppelgangers passing her by, her legs breaking backwards mimicking that of a swan, feathers bursting through a rash on her back. We hear what she hears: the euphoric sigh as she illicitly opens the lipstick of her predecessor (Winona Ryder as Elizabeth “Beth” MacIntyre), a thousand voices crashing into each other during a particularly intense hallucination, the flutter of wings on a subway train. There is a lot I love about Black Swan. It’s as if director Darren Aronofsky cracked open my skull and pulled out all my deepest obsessions, splashing upon the screen with gusto and a lack of subtlety I find admirable. But there is one fatal flaw to the film. Like its clearest spiritual predecessor in The Feminine Grotesque canon, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Black Swan vacillates between empathizing with its lead character and scorning her, acutely illustrating the overwhelming intensity of living with mental illness and making a joke out of it.
In Black Swan, the war from within (the vulnerable mind of Nina) is externalized through defiant mirror images and a host of dopplegangers. Aronofsky takes the chalk outline of the woman come undone in Baby Jane and paints her red.
Red as fresh blood.
Red as an open wound.
Red as the strongest passions you’re afraid to even speak about in the dark.
In Black Swan, Nina is already in her 20s but seems to have missed her transition into womanhood. She is stuck in a suspended adolescence marked by her room full of shades of pink with stuffed animals, her downward gaze and her complete discomfort with things that mark this transition (like any form of sexuality, makeup and a stronger sense of self). This suspended state is one her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), happily continues to engender, giving her a perverse sense of power over her daughter. The film has its narrative push when Nina is chosen to be the lead in a ballet production of “Swan Lake”, thus usurping the role as the company’s golden girl from her older, angry rival/predecessor. Nina must embody the White and Black Swan, which ultimately is the madonna and the whore. For Nina, the White Swan is no act. Virginal, naive, yearning. Nina fulfills this role in real life, but that of the Black Swan remains more elusive for her. As the film progresses, we see Nina descend deeper into madness to fulfill the aspects that require her to dance the Black Swan, aspects which she has struggled to reconcile within herself. Yes, she wants to be “perfect,” but whose perfection is she aiming for?
On paper, Black Swan shouldn’t work. It is a swirling miasma of cliches like the vulgar, controlling ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and the more sexualized, powerful rival Lily (Mila Kunis). But Aronofsky and everyone involved fucking go for it. The color palette, the weaponized femininity, the music by Clint Mansell and the humor all make Black Swan revelatory. I’ve seen all of this before, the audience thinks. But not like this. Without such a cast, the film wouldn’t work. Portman strikes me as the most entrancing, finding humanity in the various aspects of Nina even when the script does not. With its lurid exploration of femininity, dark humor and overripe lushness, Black Swan is one of the clearest evolutions of The Feminine Grotesque in modern times. There are moments when I wouldn’t be surprised if the ghosts of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford made an appearance. The film underscores an essential question in the narratives that propel these characters and their stories of this genre forward. Not “What do I want?” But, “Who do I want to be?”
Yet for all its glory, Black Swan fails by breaking away from Nina’s gaze, particularly in scenes when she’s finally exploring her own sexuality and by never actually mentioning mental illness directly. That last point may seem unimportant, but in not giving Nina any sort of diagnosis or having anyone around her suggest that maybe she has schizoaffective disorder, the film is free to not have any responsibility to this subject matter. Of course, maybe that wouldn’t really change all that much of the film. Black Swan is especially interested in archetypes using Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet as both a plot device and a guide for crafting its characters and narrative.
Black Swan lacks the psuedo-happy ending of The Three Faces of Eve. Nina, dressed as the White Swan, has a brutal fight with Lily, which ends with Nina stabbing her with a mirror shard. Afterwards, Nina reaches the perfection she has so longed for by dancing the Black Swan. Here, the film is at its most glorious: the music reaching an overwhelming crescendo, Nina transforming into the Black Swan and triumphant before her audience’s adoration. Marking her face, she has the clear-eyed, passionate pride of artistic achievement. This success is short-lived when she discovers that she didn’t kill Lily after all…. she stabbed herself. At the very end of her performance, once again dressed as the White Swan, and after gazing out into the audience at her mother, Nina falls to what we presume will be her deathbed.
What’s interesting is that unlike Aronofsky, Portman thinks Nina doesn’t die at the end, perhaps speaking to the very different ways a woman would interpret such a story. Despite my intense love of Black Swan, I find it unnerving how films want to play around with mental illness but hold no responsibility for the dangerous messages they communicate. Perhaps because I see so much of myself in the women they fail to truly empathize with.
Several years ago, when I was fresh out of college and unsure about my course in life and art, I was dating a rather toxic man. I didn’t like him all that much. But I liked how he looked at me. The very last night we were together, he told me something that has stuck with me ever since. “No man likes a madwoman, you should stop calling yourself that,” he tossed off slyly between sips of beer. I was frozen in place, unsure of what to say. But I felt a hot streak of anger I have never let go of because it has proven rather instrumental. Then, I was just redefining the term madwoman for myself. Reconstructing my own narrative is important for my survival. His casual disregard for why I took on the term “madwoman” reminds me of the ways the male artists behind Black Swan and The Three Faces of Eve frame the stories of their protagonists, unable to understand the human truths of how women deal with mental illness.
For all of Black Swan’s power and occasional genius, the film is surprisingly timid in truly exploring how Nina feels about her own sexuality and womanhood. But there are moments where I see myself so clearly, it’s as if one of the many mirrors surrounding Nina reached across space and time to reflect me in the audience. The way Nina relates to other women — with longing and jealousy, a desire to connect, and vengeance — feels all too true. But then Aronofsky will frame a scene jokingly or let the camera rove upon Nina’s body in a way that I can never imagine her looking at herself. The Feminine Grotesque is posed at the crossroads of many contradictions, but the one that is most telling is the genre’s inability, at times, to ever let the madwoman truly speak for herself.
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.