EQUALIMANIA

1

by Sunetra Senior

For my first article, I thought it would be fitting to explore the relationship between two neglected areas of society that I feel passionately about: the representation of women and mental health issues. Deep down, the thought of a connection existing between emotionality and the female sex might evoke those uncomfortable, backward cultural connotations – women as fragile, women as prone to hysteria, and on the softer side of it, women as the ‘gentler’ sex.

However, bringing Freud into the discussion in general might not be so wrong because the real problem, the ongoing obstacle for both those with depression, bipolar, borderline personality disorder and the whole host of legitimate clinical disorders that I couldn’t possibly all list here, and the limitations that women still face day-to-day, is the wider, ideological practice of repression: namely society’s refusal to acknowledge the significance of psychology itself.

It is very telling that issues of women’s confidence, and the fact that many women who earn higher salaries and hold positions of power feel the need to play down their successes, has been prevalent in the news, and yet much of the general public still question whether there is a place for feminism. Among feminists (me included), there is the struggle to communicate effectively where and what the nature of the problem is. This is because we are indoctrinated by a culture that does not take seriously what it cannot see, and since a lot of the fight to advance women’s right today takes place on psychological and social territory, we begin to hit a wall.

If we look inside, emotions count; especially when those feelings of frustration, anxiety and stress are shared by thousands of women

People are obsessed with external measures of things – technology and infrastructure as markers of an advanced society, our reputations on social media as a way of valuing of ourselves, and finally in the middle of those two, the use of only legislative, or easily quantifiable, measures to verify political freedom. If women can go into work and apply for the best jobs, take maternity leave when and if they want, and  appeal to a court if any of the above rights are violated, then surely they must be equal? All the neuroses about feeling smaller in the workplace and feeling compelled to compensate for being in charge must be some lingering remnant of an old, patriarchal norm and are just some small kinks these women can work out themselves?  My response to both is of course: NO. If we look inside, emotions count; especially when those feelings of frustration, anxiety and stress are shared by thousands of women, working across several different jobs, throughout the most developed of western cities.

( © Johann Persson )

( Priyanga Burford © Johann Persson )

This is a mass, Zeitgeist response to an ongoing, sexist and belittling culture that likes to hide in the ambiguity of its own psychological guise, and so more often than not, gets away with public pardon. But there is nothing tentative or unserious about feeling patronised in a meeting, not being able to speak while men banter over you during their lunch break, and knowing – just knowing – your boss is a relentless Lech who you have to take the responsibility of watching out for. This humiliation, the effort and the overall feeling of invalidation has the same personal clout as any practical form of inhibition. And here lies the affinity with those suffering mental health problems. People suffering with depression, thoughts and emotions which are incredibly visceral and painful, experience a similar lack of sympathy, ultimately feeling that same disenfranchisement.

It is very interesting that an employment tribunal recently heard that internationally successful, IT Company Wipro expected “all women to be subservient” and that “women who were confident, capable and express their viewpoints were often called ’emotional’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘menopausal”. Not only do these adjectives display an obvious sexist aggression and the desire to scorn women, but a deep aversion to the idea of emotionality as a phenomenon itself. This shows evidence of a belief system that not only causes us to diminish others, but to fragment and reduce ourselves as entire, feeling individuals. Actress Priyanga Burford (The Thick of It) commented that her appearance in Lucy Prebble’s critically acclaimed play The Effect, which investigated the intricacies of psychological disorders, was a particularly rewarding experience because it not only helped personally affected members of the community feel assured in a statement of solidarity – the team were inundated with grateful messages – but because many men, who were feeling the stigma and embarrassment of mental health, felt very supported too.

Women are targets, not because they are inherently emotional, but because society is disproportionately unemotional

What I am saying then, is that if the fight for advancing women’s rights has shifted to straddling the line between professional agency and complete personal freedom, we might find ourselves stagnating because we are joining forces in a larger, universal battle; one that is not specifically gender-orientated, but is a decidedly corporate one. In late 2014, amidst many similar cases, top city brokers Tullett Prebon were also reported for being “awash with sexist jokes”, and what was interesting was that the report was made by an infuriated, young man. Women are targets, not because they are inherently emotional, but because society is disproportionately unemotional, and these firms know this. In a world of numbers and programming, we are not developing from, but rather regressing further into the dangerous binaries Stevenson warned us about in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This chap at Tullett’s was responding as an everyday individual, in a generally hostile environment; the intense way that people are being conditioned into internalising external values not only devalues emotional complexity and the cultivation of deeper human connections, but leaves us feeling empty and actually gears us to feel contempt for those who are struggling, and who inadvertently remind us of our own potential for weakness.

Thus, the current wave of feminism might not just be about becoming equal in society, but actually enhancing the concept as a whole – through the sensitive paradigm that was once a marker of our oppression, in an ironic, bitter-sweet twist. The way to start breaking this sexist/people-hating culture down is for people to start talking about their emotions; to not be ashamed as a community that we are having those difficulties. Speaking out and reclaiming our right to mentally breathe, is the most powerful, civic gesture. It attacks the problem literally from the inside, where bureaucratic measures can only regulate it.

inside-out-pixar-disney

( Inside Out © Disney/Pixar )

We begin to right the skewed emphasis on the superficial and overly-robotic thinking that lauds the functionality of our fingers over the wholesomeness of our minds; the right to our reactions.  Disney’s film Inside Out was so brilliant because it publicly declared emotionality as integral, and ultimately beautiful, not something disposable. In the 21st Century, women have shown their intellectual and pragmatic abilities, and now there is nowhere for that slippery ideological culprit to hide. The fight for women’s independence is a fight for human equilibrium.

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