In the ‘60s and ‘70s, women in literature were portrayed far differently than they are today. With today’s image of women, characters like Katniss Everdeen, Lisbeth Salander, Lucy Pevensie, Hermione Granger are some of our generation’s role models. They are praised for their strong will, independence, and successes. Prior to the creation of these characters, readers were often exposed to a different side of women: the crazy side.
Beware, there will be spoilers!
The first book we have is Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Susann. With this tale that follows the lives of three women, who are also dear friends of one another, one character truly stood out the most: Neely O’Hara. Her actions made me want to rip my hair out, shake some sense into her, and most of all throw my book across the room. She stands as one of the prime examples of how women have been mistreated in the entertainment business and how that shaped their future. Neely juggled drug addiction, alcoholism, weight gain/weight loss, along with attempted suicide on many occasions for a mere amount of attention from the media – and somehow still thrived. Her lowest point in the novel was when she had been admitted by her friend, Anne Welles, into an asylum for the insane after a suicide attempt that made her lose everything. She was deemed insane, but in reality she was just battling with severe anxiety due to her image in Hollywood being threatened by the newest, up-and-coming starlet. Instead of those around her trying to give her the appropriate resources for success, it was easier for them to put a false label on her problems and forget about them.
Another book, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, follows a woman in the 1950s during her stay at a mental hospital and tells the story of her recovery. Esther Greenwood reflects Sylvia Plath’s own journey after being diagnosed with depression. Plath’s trajectory to recapturing her mental stability takes the same dives as Esther’s, but instead of having a hopeful ending, Plath passed away by her own hand in 1963. The Bell Jar considers the treatment of women with mental illnesses, as well as having an optimistic view on recovery. For Esther, being a woman means being under constant pressures about marriage, being forced to not excel in the workforce, and her body only being a vessel for her future children. All things that many women take for granted today.
A third example is Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The initial prognosis for the young Miss Kaysen was that she was living with depression. She was diagnosed by a psychiatrist she didn’t visit regularly or know. This lead to her admittance into McLean Hospital in 1967. Upon evaluation, the 18-year-old is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. The most important aspect of Kaysen’s retelling of her life is how she describes the treatment within the hospital. She notices the difference between how the medical personnel treat the sane and the insane. She also takes the time to examine mental illness versus recovery. Having a first-hand account of what it was like to be a woman with a mental illness, really brings home the validity of the issues the previous novels highlighted. “Crazy” was a solution, an answer, rather than an illness.
The last novel on the list is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. The ‘70s did not treat the Lisbon sisters as well as many thought. The suicides revolved around the family of seven: Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon and their five girls. All five daughters had ultimately ended their own lives, but the start of it was with the youngest sister: Cecilia. After her initial attempt to end her life, she told the doctor that he didn’t know what it was like to be a 13-year-old girl. She felt alone and her heartbreak pushed her into a depressive state, but the ignorance of her parents forced her into a deeper hole than expected. Upon questioning, no one noticed whether the girls had or had not given off warning signs. The idea of this novel is to explore how their mental illness was overlooked by all members of the community, including the Lisbon parents. Education about these illnesses and what they look like has certainly come a long way. Something that used to not be talked about at all, is now not an uncommon topic among parents, friends, or co-workers.
All in all, female characters in literature have evolved to become more independent and stronger. Although our generation has been exposed to the more sane side of women, we needed the women who had succumb to the dark side of their minds; for the readers who could relate to their troubles, for the readers who need the realistic representation of the world written in a novel. Sometimes we need to know where we come from, the trials and tribulations, to see how we’re going to change where we go.