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How sexism and mental illness stigmatization go hand in hand

By Nian Hu, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: March 3, 2016, at 6:03 p.m.

Women are crazy.

This is a common refrain heard in the media, popular culture, and everyday conversation. From song lyrics about how “bitch is crazy,” to movie and television depictions of women as clingy and jealous, to the many articles teaching men how to tell if a woman is “batshit crazy,” we as a society have thoroughly internalized the concept of labeling women as “insane.”

Using mental illness as an insult, however, is concerning. Not only does it contribute to societal expectations that prevent men and women from expressing their emotions in constructive ways, it is also incredibly inconsiderate and stigmatizing to those who do have mental illness by suggesting that they deserve to be mocked or dismissed.

Furthermore, women are not any more emotional, illogical, or “crazy” than men. Studies have shown that men and women exhibit similar emotional responses to comparable situations, and research has also shown that women tend to be better at emotion regulation than men. So why does the stereotype of crazy women persist?

The idea that women are crazy is nothing new. Hysteria was the first mental disorder attributed to women, introduced by the Egyptians in 1900 BC. It was a catch-all disorder used to explain any number of symptoms including anxiety, irritability, erotic fantasies, or even excessive vaginal lubrication. Hysteria was allegedly caused by a wandering womb—literally, a womb that moved around in a woman’s body. And although it seems laughably antiquated and unscientific now, hysteria continued to be a valid medical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until as late as 1980.

And even today, we continue to hear women being described as hysterical. Hillary Clinton, for example, was described as “hysterical” and “shrill” in a news article about her speech in a town hall. Compare this to media descriptions of Donald Trump. When Trump raises his voice during speeches, he is not described as crazy but rather as “forceful.”

The word “hysterical” oppresses women today just as, in the past, it invalidated their emotions and vilified their sexual desires as symptoms of a mental disorder. Nowadays, if a woman expresses an emotion or opinion that is deemed excessive or inappropriate, she is immediately slammed with the label “crazy.” Your girlfriend is upset at you for not texting her back for three days? She’s acting crazy.

But what about the man who punches a hole in the wall? Is he crazy? No, he’s just under a lot of stress, okay, he had a hard day at work. The poor guy.

Why don’t we make the same excuses for women? When a woman has an emotional outburst, we don’t try to put ourselves in her shoes and understand why she’s so upset. We call her crazy. We tell her that her opinion doesn’t matter and her emotions are groundless, and we silence her. Why is that?

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to explain their own behavior as a product of their situation, and to explain someone else’s behavior as a product of their personality. Therefore, since our society looks through the eyes of men, we are more likely to justify a man’s behavior with his situation, but more likely to explain a woman’s behavior by chalking it up to her personality. As a result, we as a society are more unforgiving toward women and don’t give them the same excuses that we give to men.

This tendency to label women as crazy inhibits the progress women can make in society. So long as women are called crazy, they cannot be taken seriously in any sphere of their lives. In the workplace, when women display assertive behavior—as Megyn Kelly did in her questioning of Donald Trump—they are belittled as overemotional or irrational. In the hospital, when women complain of pain—as the wife of this writer did—they aren’t taken seriously and receive less aggressive treatment. And in their personal lives, when women display anger or grief, they are told to “calm down,” suggesting that their complaints are somehow unjustified or excessive. Even scientific research shows evidence of this double standard: When a man expresses anger, this increases his power to influence his peers; but when a woman expresses anger, it makes everyone take her less seriously.

The stereotype of the crazy woman contributes to sexism by dismissing women’s emotions as irrational and questioning a woman’s sanity every time she expresses an emotion. However, the stereotype also contributes to the stigma of mental illness.

Mental illness is serious and prevalent, faced by approximately one in five American adults. However, people with mental illness often experience judgment, negative stereotyping, and stigma from society. Approximately three out of four people with mental illness report that they have experienced prejudice and discrimination. The harmful effects of the stigma are significant, including social exclusion and poorer quality of life.

Mental illness should never be used as an insult. But every time we describe a woman as “crazy,” we further stigmatize mental illness. When we call women crazy, we use the word to suggest that their behavior is so inappropriate and shameful, it’s as if they’re mentally ill.

Sexism and mental illness stigmatization may be separate phenomena, but in this case, they are not perpetuated separately. Both are prejudices deeply ingrained in our society, and both are extremely disempowering and harmful to the affected populations.

Calling women crazy otherizes, dismisses, and shames them. But it also otherizes, dismisses, and shames people who actually live with mental illness. In this way, the stereotype of women as “crazy” doesn’t just prevent women from achieving equality and respect. It also stigmatizes the mentally ill and prevents them from achieving equality and respect as well.

Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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