"There is no such thing as a crazy ex,” my colleague Jess said loudly from the other side of our shared desk. "And that's a hill I will die on".
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a heterosexual woman who has relationships with heterosexual men. One of these men tells you that his ex girlfriend is “crazy”, “she is mad”. What do you do? Your first reaction would, I hope, be skepticism. Then, perhaps, you might ask him whether he means that she expressed anger, frustration or disappointment to him because of something he had said or done.
For instance, I once knew a man who was sleeping with two women in the same social circle. He warned them both that the other was “crazy” and that if she found out about their relationship she would “lose it”. When these two women serendipitously spent a night together in the pub with mutual friends they quickly realised that neither was “crazy” at all. They had both been lied to, gaslit, pathologised and caught in an intricately woven web of dishonesty and disingenuity by someone who had a vested interest in undermining their respective intuition and legitimacy.
By telling each women in this scenario that the other was "crazy" the man in question had increased his power by silencing the women he was sleeping with and discouraging them from speaking to each other. There are, to my knowledge, no rigorous studies on this subject but, if a survey were ever conducted, the majority of women would respond that they had, at some point, been in a relationship with a man who had told her that his ex was “crazy”. On closer examination, it almost always transpires that the woman in question was perfectly sane but had refused to be treated in a substandard way and, even, dared to say so.
So pervasive is the idea of the “crazy ex” that an entire Netflix series was made off the back of this trope: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ran from 2015 to 2019. The title of the show was criticised both for reinforcing the stigma that surrounds mental illness and gender-based stereotypes about women being irrational and disconnected from reality. However, as the gaslighter-in-chief, Donald Trump, runs for office once again it’s worth reflecting on the fact that it isn’t just in romantic relationships that women are wrongly dismissed as mentally unwell when they say things that men don’t like.
In a recent tirade, Trump called Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, a “mad woman” and dismissed her as “so angry”. He also called Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, “stone cold crazy”. The President often uses sexist language in a similar way to how he often invokes racist stereotypes. The intent is clear: to undermine the intelligence and credibility of his female opponents and critics, to diminish their power and neutralise what he perceives to be a threat to his own position.
"Research suggests that it is harder for women to combine authority with likeability. If they score well on one, they’ll do badly on the other”
Deborah Cameron, professor of English Language and Communication at Oxford
We keep hearing that women are “crazy” but how much attention should we pay to this language? It’s “just words” right? Sticks, stones and all that.
If the last decade in politics - from the result of the EU referendum to the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, from the election of Boris Johnson to oversee Brexit and the obtuse language used to explain Coronavirus rules during the pandemic we are currently living through - has taught us anything is that language is the most powerful tool any of us have.
And, when it comes to the ways in which women are undermined by gendered language it’s not just about what we say but how we say it. Deborah Cameron is a professor of English Language and Communication at Oxford. She has long written about the pernicious effects of gendered language. She notes that when women express any emotion, they are penalised for it. She has written that “research suggests that it is harder for women to combine authority with likeability. If they score well on one, they’ll do badly on the other”. We saw this in the last US election when Hillary Clinton was called “shrill” when making an emphatic statement while her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, was seen as passionate. Saying that a woman’s voice is “shrill”, Cameron adds, “is also a code for ‘she’s not in control’.”
Neither Trump nor the countless men who have dismissed a woman using heavily gendered language which seeks to undermine their credibility wrote the “women are crazy” playbook. It is an age old, tried and tested script that they merely read from. Helen Sauntson, a Professor of English Language and Linguistics at York St John University, says that this deliberate gendering of language to cast women as mentally unwell when they express themselves can be traced back etymologically to the linking of experiencing “hysteria” with having a uterus.
“Throughout history,” she explains, “hysteria has been cast as a sex-selective disorder. In ancient Greece, it was believed that a uterus could migrate around the female body and impact every aspect of a woman’s physiology and psychology. The word ‘hysterical’ and the description of women as ‘hysterical’ can be traced back to this now debunked idea. But the word still comes from the Greek word for uterus ‘hystera’ and the idea that women’s emotions are not legitimate because they are caused by a ‘wandering uterus’ is still implied. We can trace a linguistic history of women’s behaviour being attributed to their hormones, to their bodies and we can see how it’s still used to undermine them both in public and in private.”
Today, Helen adds, “if you look at a corpus of how the words “crazy” and “mad” are used, they still collocate (which means they are used more frequently) in relation to women than they are to men.” We must, she says, consider the use of such language “within the history of where these words have come from because it fits into a bigger discourse of women being ‘unreliable’ and slaves to their bodies and the wider picture there is the idea that women are only here to produce offspring. As long as they’re doing that it is OK, but when they step outside of that role it creates a problem. They are dismissed as irrational or illogical and, when that happens, it reinforces the idea that logic is actually only the domain of men.”
“Language always has a relationship with action and behaviour. That’s why we should pay attention to it.”
Professor of English Language and Linguistics at York St John University
Princess Diana is a particularly notable example of the "mad woman" or "crazy ex" trope. As the journalist Sophie Heawood has noted, she was regularly dismissed as "bonkers" for doing things like calling out the royal family or her ex-husband (the future king of England) on national TV because he had an affair. But, as we know now, she was in an unenviable public position, subject to intense scrutiny and married to a man who was in a relationship with another woman. "The older I get," Sophie wrote of her, "the more I see how women are described as having gone mad, when what they’ve actually become is knowledgeable and powerful and fucking furious."
When a woman is dismissed in this way it is often because people don't want to hear what she has to say; it is uncomfortable and confronting. The narrative of female "madness" has deep roots and words are never “just words”. The language we (and particularly those in positions of power) use reinforces and adds credibility to negative, harmful and outdated cultural stereotypes about race, sexuality and gender.
Research has shown that if people hold discriminatory attitudes hearing language that reinforces those attitudes can actually validate their beliefs. Helen points to one study in particular which found that men who hold sexist beliefs are bolstered when they are exposed to sexist humour because it gives credulity to their prejudices against women. So, by extension, she adds it does matter when men - whether they are the President of the United States or someone you’ve just started seeing - dismiss women who are critical of them as “crazy” because they are reinforcing the idea that a women who expresses a view or emotion is not to be taken seriously. “Language,” Helen concludes, “always has a relationship with action and behaviour. That’s why we should pay attention to it.”
In response to centuries of dogma that men are naturally more rational and believable than women, we shouldn’t blindly flip the sexist script and reinforce the idea that women do no wrong. No. We know that’s not true. Women not beyond reproach in politics or in their personal lives, they are capable of lying, cheating and manipulation too. What we should do, though, is pay attention to these tired stereotypes and question them when we hear them because how we speak shapes reality. Is a woman really "crazy" or has she been assertive? Is she "mad" or has she been upset by something and expressed it?
As bell hooks wrote in All About Love, men lie to maintain their power over women and in doing so they “present a false self” but, ultimately, the price they pay for this is “the loss of their capacity to give and receive love” in an authentic or meaningful way. Expressing an emotion, a passionate thought or feeling does not make a person, regardless of their sexuality or gender, “crazy” or “mad”. It makes them human. So, if someone describes their ex-partner to you in these terms, do yourself the service of asking them why.