When a relationship breaks down between two people, why is one, mostly always the woman, labelled as mad? Have you ever heard a woman call a man a psycho following a break up? This article aims to look a bit closer at this rhetoric, the use of the word ‘psycho’ itself, and aims to look a bit deeper behind the overused phrase into what actually might have happened.
One of my favourite new songs at the moment addresses this issue in its lyrics (Psycho by Maisie Peters by the way, if this article could have a backing track – boy it would be that!) and it got me thinking. Firstly, why is this even a thing? And secondly, why do we still believe it?This subject is most likely not new to most of you, but in case you are lucky enough to never have encountered this type of slander of a human being, let me break it down real quick. So, two people are dating (in this article, I argue that more commonly, it is the woman who is given this title based on heterosexual relationships, as the man is often the one who places this title onto the woman. This is not to say it does not happen in other types of relationships including male-male, female-female and female-male, I am just focusing on a male-female relationship for the purpose of this article), and things start to go wrong. There will be many different reasons and truths behind a breakdown of a relationship, but these are commonly covered up by the man when discussed with friends afterwards in the guise of “oh mate, don’t even get me started! She’s an absolute psycho!”.
Faced with this type of statement, has anyone ever asked “but what do you mean? Why is she a psycho?”. Why psycho specifically? By writing this article, I actually had to think – well what does this even mean? If you look at the literal meaning of the word, shortened from “psychopath” the traits of this are: someone who is callous, unemotional, and morally depraved… individuals who were deceitful, manipulative, and uncaring. If a man knew that he wanted to describe someone like this, to describe them as ‘morally depraved’, then yes, psycho is the correct terminology. However, as we don’t often really consider the meaning of our language when we speak, when we hear the word ‘psycho’ in response to women in the breakdown of a relationship, we assume that psycho is synonymous with madness. So men are not really saying women are ‘morally depraved’ as the word would suggest, but instead, they are labelling a woman as mad.
Society has always been obsessed with mad women. From Shakespeare’s mad women like Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and Tamora, to the burning of innocent women in the Salem Witch trials, to ‘the crazy old woman in the woods’ trope in the horror genre, women are mad. For many years, the word ‘hysterical’ has been used to describe women too. Funnily enough, the term ‘hystéra’ derives from the Greek term for ‘uterus’ and ‘womb’ (the Greeks believed that ‘hystéra’ was caused by disturbances to the womb). This later turned to ‘hysterical’ which was assigned specifically to women and came to connote the uncontrollable and irrational nature of the female emotions. Yikes. I’m not sure whether to feel proud or offended that women have a whole word assigned just to them and their erratic behaviour! And so, the tale goes, that when women are mad, they are dangerous. For patriarchy and for men, dangerous women are a complete threat to them. Dangerous women are unruly, uncontrollable and disobedient, everything that the patriarchy is frightened of, because this type of behaviour risks taking the patriarchy apart. So naturally, to protect the patriarchy and the power of men, women who are ‘mad’, women who are ‘psycho’, should not be touched. People do not often ask why this label has been given, in fact, a lot of people just accept what they have been told, and the label is then branded to that name. This rhetoric gives the man many reasons to elicit it: he avoids discussing the actual issues of the break down (which he is most likely unable to emotionally express anyway – see my first article about toxic masculinity about why this is), he ensures that the woman he brands will not gain any sexual or romantic interest from his peers, he ensures that his peers know that he is right and she is wrong, and most importantly, it gives him power. Men love to feel powerful because patriarchy has told them to be powerful is to be the “best type of man”. Therefore, gaining power over women by deeming them ‘mad’ is making them the right man, the good man, the powerful man. The brand of ‘psycho’ lives with that woman in the minds of those who are told it for the rest of time. She then becomes chaotic, dangerous, terrifying and thus undateable. For a male peer, to decide a woman is not worthy of their love and attention, they perceive that to be a very powerful thing, (because patriarchy has told them it is) and so they too have power over this untamable mad woman, because she is no longer desirable by them. This rhetoric therefore lets a man, and all his peers, feel powerful over one woman through a story they are not connected to, purely so that they can have control of this insatiable, crazy lady, wondering freely amongst them (the horror!). When it’s put like that, doesn’t it all seem so clear? Ah, power is why.
We have considered then that yet again, this rhetoric about women, like many others, is a grab of power by men over women. What does this idea hide then? We know what it gives, but why do we accept it? This type of conversation covers the real problems and issues behind the breakdown of a relationship. Most commonly, it hides toxic behaviour. There are many instances where this branding conceals the lying and the manipulation by the male of the female (again, I would like to stress that this type of behaviour is not only perpetrated by men, and can be done by women, but for the purpose of this article, the male-female relationship is the focus). Men use this idea to cover up their insecurities and weakness within the relationship itself. There is the perfect get-out clause, it wasn’t me, it was her. We very often hear the phrase of something along the lines of “well she wanted more, and I didn’t, so when it ended, she turned psycho”. Many men are fixated with commitment; they focus on it so much because they tend to be frightened of it. Again, patriarchy has told men that they are to act so many contradictory ways, that a committed relationship seems to blur these lines, and men become frightened of what they should and shouldn’t be. Men are afraid of looking weak and out of control, especially regarding the breakdown of a relationship. They feel the need to take control of the story, so this rhetoric and thus the woman, becomes the perfect scapegoat for these insecurities.
The quieter voice, the female voice, often reads a completely different tale. Women try to stay out of the limelight because that’s what they are told to do. Don’t make a scene, don’t attract attention to yourself, don’t speak out of line and hope for the best that its over quickly, and without much fuss from her. Accept you are now a mad woman and stay quiet. Some women will share stories between herself and peers in quiet circles of trust, and some women will not speak at all. Because women are told, who will listen? Who even cares? Who will believe you, over a man? Fundamentally, we are looking at another way in which society controls and subdues women and their own narratives.
Unfortunately, women being the cover-up for male powerlessness has been perpetuated time and time again. Women not being able to speak about their own lives and stories is not a new concept. However, it is time now, that we start to really think about the stories we are told, and the language that we hear. There are two sides to every story, but this ‘psycho’ brand shouts the loudest. No one is interested in hearing the quieter side, mostly because we forget it exists. The examination of this type of story hopefully helps you think about the times you have heard this be told to you, and think “well, what about the other side? Could there be more to this?”. The answer is yes. There always is. Try to take the time to consider every side, to every story, because somewhere in the middle, is the truth. Women are not ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ for believing the words of others that they think they trust, which is the absolute crux of this type of tale. I am encouraging you to examine the language and the stories of others that you are told, with everything, by thinking about the reality behind one. Take the time to talk, take the time to ask, take the time to think. Do not let yourself be overpowered by the loudest voice, because in reality, the quieter voices are the ones with the most to say.