It is said that white-haired, usually bearded, men continue to have control over the arts, over what is read, watched, and seen. Where, then, does that leave the representation of womankind? As servantile home bodies, surely, without minds or passions of their own. This is often the case, although there was also interest in the ladies that ventured beyond their boundaries of thought (as defined by the masochists) and let loose their passions. These women were called mad, hysterical, 100% bonkers! It is fascinating how these characters developed and were later taken advantage of by women themselves to advance their careers and position in the world: another example of how topsy-turvy and wonderful the world really is! These women were called mad, hysterical, 100% bonkers! It is fascinating how these characters developed and were later taken advantage of by women themselves to advance their careers and position in the world: another example of how topsy-turvy and wonderful the world really is!
featured image credit: Philip Nelson
Opening the list with a real person? Hardly! The use of a pseudonym suggests that a character has been created and anybody who has seen an image of her, whether a still from a video clip or simply walking about on the street, will recognise performance in everything she does. Lady Gaga is a character, both complementarily and critically. She is, it is now safe to say, insane: sporting dresses that are cubist, tubist, bubble, meat and even Kermit the frog. The fashion sense is loud, and it screams: “I’m raving mad! Look!” Surely enough we all looked, but the lunacy of dear Gaga is all too calculated that one must question whether she really was born this way.
Another infamous mad woman, living in the dust of preserved memories, Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is the ever-bride. All the clocks in her house are stopped at twenty to nine, an uneaten wedding cake sits at the heart of it, and on her foot, the lady only ever wears one shoe. Turned into a recluse by love and all its horrors, she vows to destroy the male sex. Unfortunately, the extent of her power is small only having control over one child — the adopted Estella — who is trained to be the absolute destroyer of men. Miss Havisham can hardly be distinguished from the objects in her house and late in the novel becomes one with the fireplace, so to say.
Often called a Havisham figure on account of keeping herself monkishly hidden from society, Kate Bush makes the top ten as our sole happy mad. She has succeeded at capitalising on her lunacy by setting it free and being loved for it. She breaks into the scene in 1978 in the voice of a ghostly Catherine from Wuthering Heights (by a different Brontë). Since then, she has sung pi to 150 decimal places, made “washing machine” function as a chorus all on its own, and was brave enough to sing “There’s a man behind those eyes. / I catch him when I’m bending” in a song about pedophilia. The list could go on. With each of her eccentricities and new release, Bush reveals an authentic aesthetic of madness.
Having a madwoman in the attic doesn’t always refer to the voice you hear in your head suggesting group suicides and escape. Very often it is literally referring to a madwoman in the attic. This is certainly true for the Rochester house in Charlotte Brontë’s novel in which Bertha, the contained wife of Mr Rochester, is only once named but can be felt all throughout the story. From the wild island colonies, Bertha is born with fire in her blood (and eventually lets the fire surface, actually setting the house alight). If the present absence in Jane Eyre isn’t enough, you can get a much closer glimpse into the world of in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, now a staple piece in the literary tradition of the maddest of mad women and a mighty good read.
Betty Blue is the love story that almost worked. Well, the love part of it did, anyway. Rarely on screen has there been such passion so honestly portrayed as in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1986 film. Passion continues to boil, yet something more than love bubbles to the surface. Ah, yes. It’s more craziness: snapping at civilians, burning houses, kidnapping a young boy, using a fork to stab those who annoy her and poking an eye out are some of the colours with which she is adorned. The growth of the love between Zorg and Betty responds directly to the madness that consumes the beautiful damsel. Allegorically, it is saying that love is mad. How true. Love is absolutely insane. So is the film, but particularly mad is Betty, forever blue.