Behold, the Art of the Unhinged Woman

By Payton Aper, Blog Staff
Trigger warning: mentions of mental illness and violence.

As Halloween rolls around and we (okay, maybe just me) prepare to watch Jennifer’s Body, Midsommar, or Black Swan for the umpteenth time, I’m thinking about why female villains and antiheroes are so satisfying on screen. There’s something almost personal in watching protagonists go completely Lady Macbeth on screen– I’m talking full blown, revenge-driven, psychotic break here. Is it the fact that a shitty man is usually taken down in the process (read: Nick Dunne from Gone Girl), or that they almost always look hot doing it? Or is it self-gratifying to see a woman, having pent up their emotions for so long, finally losing it? 

Oh Young-sook of The Call.

Seeing the Unhinged Woman trope is thrilling, especially when stakes are raised and emotions are anger or violence. “Good for her”, Twitter users say of Azula from Avatar for aiding in genocide, or Wanda Maximoff after she takes an entire city hostage. There seems to be little spoken rules for these characters, only that they subvert the patriarchy by weaponizing their gender and sexuality. Whether this is done by enhancing or rejecting their femininity, for revenge or money, The Unhinged Woman is really just determined to beat men at their own game. 

You can find loads of playlists inspired by these characters online (definitely none made by me), as well the newly popular femcel aesthetic, which attempts to embody the Unhinged Woman. Femcel consumption includes alternative artists, like Radiohead or Fiona Apple, a variety of fashion styles, and feminine horror films as well as traditionally “male” films and franchises. There are several brands of femcels: Sylvia Plath/Phoebe Bridgers/Mitski fans, the Lana Del Rey/Virgin Suicides/Brandy Melville aesthetic, the Nana/Evangelion/Mars Argo fans, to name a few. That isn’t to say that these interests never overlap for a person, but that each has its own set of unique features that are portrayed together to make a femcel aesthetic. At the helm of each aesthetic is a cast of Unhinged Women, mascoting a unique set of mental illnesses, abuses, or coping mechanisms.  In their online essay, Rayne Fisher-Quann brilliantly put it that: 

“it’s become very common for women online to express their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume — and because young women are conditioned to believe that their identities are defined almost entirely by their neuroses, these roundups of cultural trends and authors du jour often implicitly serve to chicly signal one’s mental illnesses to the public.”

– “standing on the shoulders of complex female characters”

Mental illness of some sort or another is pretty ubiquitous among these characters, but it isn’t constructively discussed in fan interpretation. Instead, fans of femcel villains view their struggles from a place of relation that can border on enablement. The same goes for the lyrics of alternative artists defining the femcel moment, which tend to tackle pretty dark concepts. But while Amy Dunne or Dani from Midsommar are able to work through their mental health issues with homicide, that option is neither desirable nor feasible for the rest of us. We assume a sort of kinship or understanding between ourselves and these characters, often not considering that even if they work through their mental illnesses, they do not overcome them.

I don’t think it’s wrong to relate to femcel culture; it’s something I do myself. I’ve struggled with several of the issues tackled by femcel characters, and love the idea of horror/psychological genres created as a space for nonmasculine people. The concerning aspect of femcel culture is that, at times, it not only acknowledges and relates to these struggles, it encourages them. I love Lana Del Rey and Black Swan as much as the next person, but their use in pro-ED content is concerning. With a collection of colors, patterns, and songs, internet users can subtly display their mental illness and even encourage it by romanticization. It’s much easier to justify not seeking help by reassuring yourself that you have an online community of people and characters who never did, but rather made it glamorous and aspireable. It is no mistake that nearly all Unhinged Women are white, thin, and have at least one love interest, because audiences are more receptive to a psychotic woman if she otherwise appeals to their comfort. Accordingly, the goals of femcel culture sometimes veer towards being thin, sexy and intriguing even when mentally you’re at your worst. Thanks a lot, Jennifer’s Body.

Obviously the ability to heal from, and get help for, abuse and mental illness is an immense priveledge. It’s one that fictional Unhinged Women often have, but either fail or choose not to take advantage of. And honestly, this year, I’m urging myself (and others) to stay mostly on the edge of femcel culture: appreciating what it does well, while avoiding the things it doesn’t. You’re allowed to watch Carrie or Pearl without enhancing, and encouraging, your own ‘unhingedness’- take a study break, touch some grass, call a parent, go to therapy. It’s not very femcel, and it’s definitely not what Lady-Macbeth-approved — but hey, we’re all for subverting tropes anyhow.


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