So 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!
I open 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!” Sure 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.
The Salomé here portrayed is Wildean and Straussian, after the Christian tradition
The immense popularity of the character around the turn of the nineteenth century left an enormous literary, painterly, and musical legacy. In this period her character was re-written and re-established into one of a femme fatale, enchanting and destroying at will. Her dance of the seven veils captivated the world in the Strauss opera. We are still under the spell of one of history’s most dangerous women.
Both real and not, Anna O. is the most famous of all of Freud’s patients. Her image was used to illustrate hysteria — traditionally assumed only to apply to the female sex, as the word’s etymology suggests. The name is an alias to protect this victim of psychoanalysis, as she is now often interpreted. Initially treated by Josef Breuer for relatively simple symptoms such as coughing and obscured vision, hearing, and speech, her behaviour became more extreme exhibiting paralysis, hallucination, and regular fainting. Anna O. is our most objectified mad madam, a science project, and essential for our understanding of the fictional diagnosis, hysteria.
Rarely has there been such an effective psychological thriller as Black Swan. It divided people into nearly as many fractions as the film’s protagonist, Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer who dances around sanity and quite quickly pirouettes far away from it believing herself to be metamorphosing into the black swan as paranoia and competition eat away at her nerves. The clever — if not unique — filmic technique require of the audience to transcend into madness with her into poetic impossibility, if only for a hundred minutes.
Ophelia makes it so high on the list for the simple reason that her image has become the symbol of a mad-stricken woman: she continues to tremble with the terror of love long after Hamlet is finished with her. The final scene with Ophelia is one of the greatest in the English theater tradition. She distributes flowers to communicate through the barrier of madness and touches the hearts of those around her for the last time. She is a rose herself, delicate and lovely.
With all the half-witches present on the list, we can safely say that this is a trait often linked to the mad madams. Number one is a real witch, what with her concoctions and potions by which she is often depicted and identified. She has no qualms with parricide, killing off uncles and children here and there like nobodies business. And what she does to her brother Absyrtus! Let’s not even go there. With all her ties to the gods, she was able to get away. Upon the string of revenge murders, her grandfather Helios sends a chariot to aid her flight. But no matter where she goes, tragedy follows and she continues to kill. Medea is number one because she never stops!