I used to think my emotional baseline was crazy, and even crazier that one week (if I’m lucky) out of the month when I’m in thrall to the indifferent mercy of the premenstrual cycle. During that week, in a condition of “existential disorientation,” to borrow Stephen Ahern’s words, I would gain, albeit temporarily, extraordinary powers of feeling and perception with a concomitant loss of self-possession. I would feel utterly in my body, yet trapped by my loss of rational agency. It wouldn’t matter what pissed me off or made me weep, for I imagined the cause lay in the visceral depths of my uterus. It was my cross to bear as a woman, my biological destiny.
Then I started therapy shortly after the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. And I realized that I wasn’t crazy. I was angry. I was fucking furious all the time, and maybe my PMS periodically disabled my docility, letting my rage course within and without.
As those of us who study amatory fiction recognize, that genre frequently mobilizes extremes of emotional excess, and particularly rage, in order to investigate the limits of the embodied, impassioned body’s autonomy. Sylvia in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-7), Althea in Eliza Haywood’s The Mercenary Lover (1726), and Glicera in Haywood’s The City Jilt (1724), all react in anger to their victimization by male perfidy. Ahern describes silent moments of intense feeling occasioned by the sight or even idea of the beloved as “an epistemology of impassioned perception,” in which “the body of the lover knows before the mind does what the heart wants” (Affected Sensibilities: Romantic Excess and the Genealogy of the Novel, 1680-1810, 2007). I borrow Ahern’s language here because I find it useful in my discussion of unaccountable female rage. In her Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed says that emotions have a direction in the way that they are about something, an orientation towards an object: “The ‘aboutness’ of emotions means they involve a stance on the world, or a way of apprehending the world … feeling is shaped by contact with memory, and also involves an orientation towards what is remembered … This contact is shaped by past histories of contact.”
Anger, in affective politics, is mediated rather than immediate, and for the oppressed subject, whether they are queer, a woman, a person of color, and or a non-abled-bodied person, anger is the emotional, ethical, and political response to a history of injury that has restricted mobility. This embodied way of knowing does not fit neatly within Cartesian epistemology, in which we feel in response to something, or the cognitivist view of Aristotle and contemporary theorists, in which emotions are a judgment of something. Embodied forms of knowledge can seem stubbornly resistant to analysis and interpretation; yet they also reveal the ways in which knowing is intersubjective, mediated by the experiences of particular bodies in particular times and spaces.
In the eighteenth century, excessive feeling easily became synonymous with womanhood, with the increasingly medical discourse around hysteria identifying excess as hysteria’s general symptom. Men also suffered from hysteria or general disorders of the nerve, but women’s perceived frailty made them especially susceptible to the disease. Sir Richard Blackmore, in A Treatise of the Spleen and Vapours: Or, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Afflictions (1726)—his comparison between hypochondria and hysteria—attributes the intensity of hysteric fits to women’s constitutions: “the convulsive Disorders and Agitations in the various Parts of the Body, as well as the Confusion and Dissipation of the animal Spirits, are more conspicuous and violent in the Female Sex, than in Men; the reason of which is, a more volatile, dissipable, and weak Constitution of the Spirits, and a more soft, tender, and delicate Texture of the Nerves [among women].” And, to return to the premenstrual state of “existential disorientation,” Pierre Pomme, French expert on the “vapors,” writes in Traite des Affections Vaporeuses des Deux Sexes, first translated into English in 1777, “the hysteric paroxysm generally precedes the time of menstruation.”
In her work on hysteria in the period, Heather Meek describes hysteria as the cultural metaphor for female weakness and excess grounded in the presumed inferiority of women’s bodies compared to the robust and closed system of the masculine ideal. And yet, in her examination of Elizabeth Carter, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Elizabeth Freke, Anne Finch, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s writings on their experience of hysteria, Meek argues that the language used by these hysterical patients expressed discontent with a medical paradigm that refused to comprehend or acknowledge women’s anger except by pathologizing it.
We are indelibly marked by eighteenth-century biological essentialism, which persists in present-day popular culture’s pathologizing of female anger. Bitches be crazy, amirite? From Sharon Stone’s murderous, psychopathic vulva in Basic Instinct to Glenn Close’s unorthodox cooking practices in Fatal Attraction, our popular culture underscores the danger of desirous, angry women. This fear mongering demonizes women and taps into masculine anxieties about a world ruled by women’s emotions.
In an interesting turn, women have re-appropriated the pejorative label of the hysterically lovesick woman, reclaiming the idea of the female as an embodied being wholly subject to her basic instincts. Crazy is weaponized as a tool of female sexual power. Taylor Swift croons in “Blank Space,” “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane … But you’ll come back each time you leave / ’Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” describing a scenario in which her persona feels and acts upon her emotions without restraint, living fully in her amorous passion, her jealousy, her rage, in ways that invert the traditional balance of power within the relationship.
Most recently, Ava Max’s catchy “Sweet But Psycho” reiterates the masochistic allure of the poisonous woman: “She’s poison but she’s tasty … You’ll be coming back, back for seconds / With your plate, you just can’t help it.” T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “Cute But Psycho,” some with adorable kawaii kittens brandishing knives, radically rework the problematic eighteenth-century idea of feminine beauty’s association with morality and virtue (and the joke of the armed pussy is deliciously obvious). I can’t imagine Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the paragon of feminine virtue, wielding a blade destined for Lovelace’s flesh.
The commodification of the “cute but psycho” conceit absorbs the longstanding discourse of hysteria in a way that ironically disrupts the conservative forces that pathologize female excess. These songs and merch not only respond to masculine sexual aggression and violence against women, but also serve as a caution and a shield, the embodiment of and response to the masculine fear of women’s desiring bodies. The “cute but psycho” discourse of anger orients us towards past histories of disempowerment, mediated through consumerist kitsch (another element of our culture that is feminized—women be shopping, etc.). Some of us slide into that pit of excess, and by some accounts, some of you, so fearful of us, choose to join us.
Kathleen Tamayo Alves is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY. She is currently completing a book manuscript titled Body Language: Eighteenth-Century Medicine and the Comic Novel.