Why We Need To Stop Calling Women Crazy

Calling a woman 'crazy' might seem harmless, but words can have huge social consequences.Photo by Laurence Philomene

Why We Need To Stop Calling Women Crazy

by Chemmie Squier |
Published on

Used as an adjective, ‘crazy’ has a few definitions according to the dictionary: ‘mad, especially as manifested in wild or aggressive behaviour’, ‘extremely angry’, ‘foolish’, ‘extremely enthusiastic’ and ‘(of an angle) appearing absurdly out of place or unlikely’. This shows what we all already know: that context is key. Saying a person is ‘crazy in love’ typically doesn’t have the same negative connotations as calling another woman’s opinion ‘crazy’. But that's not what we're talking about. The focus here is that first definition: ‘crazy’ relating to an unsound state of mind.

It's this ambiguity – that it can mean different things depending on the context – which, taken with the fact that it's become common place and is chucked around flippantly, make it so sinister: people may not realise its impact. It becomes even more so when you consider it's primary synoyms: words like ‘mad’, ‘insane’, ‘unstable’ and ‘disturbed’, all of which primarly hold negative connotations. By default then, crazy in this context, is overwhelmingly derogative. The origins of the word back this up too; it comes from the word 'craze' which means to be ‘full of cracks’ meaning it is fragmented and not a 'whole'. Therefore the person who is crazy is sort of, missing something.

The association between women and a sense of emotional instability is age old. Women have historically and consistently been presented as ruled by their emotios and hyper-sensitive through the ages. Hysteria was a medical condition ascribed to women after far-ranging symptoms such as fainting, emotional outbursts and anxiety were noted. The word even derives from the ancient Greek word ‘hystericus’ which literally means ‘of the womb’. There's no denying it's gendered roots and today's use of 'crazy' is a modern manifestation of the same sentiment.

The word ‘lunacy’ has a similar history and originates from the word for the moon and the monthly ‘insanity’ that women apparently experience thanks to their menstrual cycle. It's this – periods – that really do seem to be at the core of this kind of sentiment around women. As one of the last remaining taboos, astoundingly it still has the potential to influence a person’s perception of how compos mentis a woman can be. Especially a woman who – god forbid – is in a powerful position because who knows what they're capable of at 'that time of the month'. This is exactly what rapper TI said during an interview last year: that the USA can’t have a female president because they can’t make rational decisions despite later apologising for his comments.

This kind of rhetoric around women isn't a one off. The presentation of powerful women in the media very often takes on an emotional slant. ‘It’s used women in power or women in authority sometimes who might do something that if a man had done it, would be perfectly acceptable because they’re meant to show their authority but when a woman does something that’s considered to be quite a masculine action, they might be described as crazy because they’re transgressing the boundaries of femininity.’ Judith Baxter, emeritus professor of applied linguistics at Aston University, told me.

And she’s right. A Slate article, for example, notes how Hillary Clinton’s laugh is often described as a ‘cackle’ (because she’s a ‘crazy’ witch, right?) and after ‘shouting’ at a Senate committee hearing, the New York Post saw fit to run the headline ‘No wonder Bill’s afraid’. Similarly, Harriet Harman, the Guardian points out, was ‘mad Hattie’ thanks to Boris Johnson, and she doesn’t just talk: she ‘raves’. Popular media loves depicting the 'crazy woman' too with arguably the most famous example the 'bunny boiler' scene in Fatal Attraction.

‘Crazy can be used to mean very feminine, i.e. extremely emotional but it could also be used if a woman is doing something which isn’t the sort of thing a woman should do,’ Professor Baxter explained. ‘It’s marking the social boundaries of what’s acceptable for women. It’s a word that’s saying, you’ve gone over that boundary, you’ve transgressed it and therefore we condemn you.’ Here we hit a strange intersection in what female behaviour is considered ‘crazy’ and once again, women walk a tight line, having to strike the exact balance between powerful enough to be taken seriously, but not so powerful that they’re criticised for it. We’re motherly, but we’re career women. We have an opinion, but it can’t be too strong: that would be crazy.

Launching the word ‘crazy’ at a woman in a situation in which they’re trying to express their opinion, is a weapon designed to do one thing: invalidate their thoughts and feelings. By doing this, their opinion is up for debate leading women to question their own beliefs and their validity. Certain phrases serve the same purpose: ‘you’re overreacting!’, ‘you’re so sensitive!’, ‘chill out!’ What these all have in common is that they imply an overly emotional reaction which renders a woman’s argument obsolete in one fell swoop. It's the ultimate fall-back because the belief that women are inherently this way is enshrined in history and propelled forward by things like the gross ‘Hot Crazy Matrix’ video which went viral and stated that no woman is a ‘0’ on the crazy scale.

Calling a woman crazy suggests that what they’re feeling is unfounded or wrong. It’s an end point because once that word’s come out to play, your entire argument seems tainted because, according to the other party, you're not thinking rationally. ‘It’s a form of control because it makes the women feel terrible about themselves,’ said Professor Baxter. ‘It has the putdown effect on people because most people don’t want to be seen as crazy. On the whole, most people want to be regarded as acceptable to their peers so a word like that is almost saying that you’re out of control.’

Women can be crazy for all sorts of reasons according to society: for voicing an opinion, bringing up an issue, for being open about their feelings... The list goes on. But what's really happening in those situations, is that our thoughts and feelings are being shut down: they’re a nuisance. It immediately absolves the man from any responsibility, because if you’re not being rational, they're 'off the hook'. Ever noticed how most men have a 'crazy ex-girlfriend'? Funny that. It's so easy for a man to end a relationship on the basis of the woman being 'crazy': crazy says a thousand words, so there’s no need to say any more.

The saddest thing is when the rhetoric seeps into how we speak about ourselves as well as other women. I’ll bet you’ve flippantly described yourself as ‘crazy’, or something similar. It’s almost a way of pre-empting the 'crazy card'; by saying it ourselves we own up to it, reclaim being the ‘crazy’ girl before it can be imposed on us. But think back to what it was you were saying when it came up. Chances are, it wasn’t something truly ‘crazy’ but by taking control and trying to implement change in our own lives, crazy is a crutch others use to shut it down. Because crazy is a full stop, an end point; there’s no coming back from crazy. In this sense it’s a way out, a tool in the vernacular to hide from what is, to them, an inconvenient truth. And to call another woman crazy only perpetuates this damaging sentiment – men will be quick to do that themselves, so lets not add to it.

‘It’s the idea that there’s a consensus about life and many things we can agree on but if you’re crazy, whatever you’re saying or doing is outside of that consensus,’ Professor Baxter explained. ‘Therefore you’re in the area of being deviant in some way; that you’re not part of civilised society if you’re acting in that way.’ This ‘otherness’, that we’re somehow subsidiary to the norm, is something that’s existed for years.

Gaslighting slots into the ‘crazy’ rhetoric, too. This is when a person exercises extreme behaviour and manipulates another into thinking their behaviour is misplaced or incorrect or ‘crazy’. That things aren’t happening the way the victim perceives them to be. It’s a form of emotional abuse and it can throw a person’s thoughts and feelings into disarray, leaving them questioning everything. The name comes from the 1944 film Gaslight%20){href='https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslight_(1944_film)%20' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer'}, in which a husband convinces his wife she’s going out of her mind.

Emotionally unstable and irrational behaviours do of course exist but the issue here, is the ease at which these kind of words are thrown at women: by other women, men and by themselves. This perpetuates a society in which a woman's actions and opinions and feelings are easily dismissed by a simple word. Refusing to use that world on yourself, and on other women, is crucial as a way to break down this vernacular. Because you're not crazy for wanting a fulfilling relationship, for arguing a point or for thinking there is an issue to be addressed; that's called taking control and being proactive in your own life, and it would be crazy not to do that.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Do Women Really Say Sorry All The Time?

Why Do We Get So Obsessed With 'Likes' On Social Media?

How Millennials Became Generation Therapy

Follow Chemmie on Twitter @chemsquier

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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