Screenshot, "Blank Space"

The C-Word: Taylor Swift, Amy Dunne, And Reclaiming ‘Crazy’

Call her crazy.

Call her crazy when she’s overreacting, making no sense, starting a scene. Call her crazy because she’s being dramatic, unreasonable, emotional, hormonal, irrational, or even just when she’s being annoying, or too needy, or too loud, or too anything. Call her crazy when she’s not around. No need to get into the details of who forgot to text who or what photo she did or didn’t see on your phone. She’s crazy, therefore, she can’t be right. She’s crazy, so she isn’t worth taking seriously. She’s crazy, no need to listen to anything she has to say. Crazy is a one-word method of policing a woman’s behavior: act a certain way and be liked, act another way and be dismissed.

Like most of the go-to insults for women, crazy’s intent is not to accurately describe a female’s state of mind so much as it is to make sure nobody hears about her state of mind from her. It’s a diversion tactic; her apparent insanity, which is beside the point, becomes the point. “She’s crazy” is the fastest, most universally-accepted way for someone, usually a male someone, to discredit the legitimate source of a woman’s thoughts, feelings or behavior. Calling someone crazy is just a low-grade version of gaslighting them, of trying to convince a woman that her perception does not align with reality.

For a long time, the way around this critique was just to dodge it. This is not the world’s most effective rebuttal; like being drunk or in denial, you never sound crazier than when you’re saying “I’m not crazy.”

Lately, though, crazy has been making a comeback. People still fling it at women like the easy slur that it is. But instead of trying to escape the label, women are starting to own it. No more of this “No, I’m not!” Now it’s all about the “You’re damn right I am. So what? Screw you.”

The latest entry in the call-me-crazy canon: Taylor Swift’s video for “Blank Space.”

In the video, she obsessively documents a barely-begun relationship – painting a portrait of her boyfriend, carving their names into a tree – and as soon as it starts to burn out, goes completely off the rails. Screaming fights, clawing at the painting, tossing his phone in a fountain, lighting his clothes on fire, bashing his car in with a golf club, and enacting these fantastic (in the literal sense of the world) acts of violence, where he’s almost dead in the driveway and, when she stabs a heart-shaped cake with a massive, butcher knife, blood gushes out of its center.

Swift says she wrote the song “from a bit of a comedic perspective. I try to stay pretty self-aware of who I actually am, and I’m also pretty aware of what the media’s depiction of me is… It’s developed over the years into this reputation for being somewhat of a crazy serial dater, needy, clingy, manipulative person. So I was thinking a lot about that, about that reputation, and I thought, what if I was that girl? What song would I write? So I wrote ‘Blank Space.’”

Swift is a publicity mastermind, and she’s complicit in the creation of her persona; still, she’s not the editor of Us Weekly, she doesn’t run TMZ. She’s a relatively passive participant when she’s reading what everyone else writes about her. But in “Blank Space,” she literally takes control of the narrative, promising after that little pen click, “I’ll write your name.”

The idea of Swift play-acting at being some guy’s psycho ex-girlfriend would have been ridiculous even one album ago, when she skipped over controversial topics like puddles on the sidewalk and stayed sweet enough for country radio. But now, riding the ridiculously successful release of 1989, her “first documented, official pop album,” she can to point to gendered double-standards in her industry and beyond.

Her latest comments in that vein come from her recent interview with TIME: “We all know it’s a feminist issue… In the beginning, I liked to think that we were all on the same playing field. And then it became pretty obvious to me that when you have people sort of questioning the validity of a female songwriter, or making it seem like it’s somehow unacceptable to write songs about your real emotions—that it somehow makes you irrational and overemotional—seeing that over the years changed my view. It’s a little discouraging that females have to work so much harder to prove that they do their own things.”

She isn’t saying, “I’m not emotional,” which would be, basically, like shouting “I’m not crazy!!!” She’s saying that she writes songs about her “real emotions”: that her emotions don’t invalidate her authority but strengthen it, that her heart does not rule her at the expense of her head, that admitting you have feelings and that those feelings inform your music is a sign of creative horsepower, not girly, sentimental weakness.

Pitchfork recently cited “Blank Space” alongside songs like Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow” (the video is, like “Blank Space,” a cinematic revenge fantasy) in a post declaring 2014 “The Year of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” But the reclamation of crazy is bigger than ex-girlfriends, and it’s bigger than music.

Take the most buzzed-about movie of the year, based on one of the most widely-read novels of the past two years: Gone Girl, which is centered around an unapologetically crazy female character, Amy Dunne. Amy is a sociopath. Amy isn’t sorry. And Amy is the responsible for a rant against “cool girls” that is one of the most widely quoted literary passages to come out in ages—imminently more quotable than anything Nick says in the entire book. “Crazy” is supposed to be a tool to silence women. But it’s Amy, not Nick, who gets to be the engine of the story. Amy gets all the best lines. And Amy gets the last word.

What “Blank Space” and Gone Girl get at is the impulse to stop letting “crazy” be such a powerful weapon. Why bother insisting “I’m not crazy” to no avail? Why not just take crazy and own it?

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CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

Gillian Flynn had written plenty of crazy women before Gone Girl, her third novel, was published in June 2012. Her earlier female crazies are, arguably, even crazier than Amy; her debut novel, Sharp Objects, came out in 2006 and featured an entire cast of women and girls who make Amy look moderately sane. But Sharp Objects didn’t even come close to the total cultural penetration of Gone Girl, and maybe that was due, in part, to the fact that readers weren’t hungry, or ready, for so many sociopathic female protagonists. The intellectual debate around whether or not leading ladies need to be “likable” rages on, but in practice, readers and audiences have already passed it. In 2014, our favorite, most popular female characters and pop icons the ones who are, perhaps not coincidentally, the most stereotypically “crazy.”

It’s a seismic shift even from just five years ago, when on television, the most popular female characters were beloved in large part because they were so grounded. Viewers adored Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, the titular teen detective of Veronica Mars, the emotionally-conflicted but professionally-focused Meredith on Grey’s Anatomy. Women pitied crazy, apologized for it, resisted it. Women didn’t hoist crazy up in the air like a trophy.

Compare that to today, where all the so-called crazy types of female behavior are fodder for self-aware humor or just brilliant entertainment value. There’s The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri. She is proudly, gloriously, unabashedly crazy. She is every “bad” girlfriend stereotype: high-maintenance, self-absorbed, dramatic, inappropriate, temperamental, oblivious to boundaries. She apologizes for specific incidents of line-crossing, sure, but she never apologizes for her fundamentally crazy nature, and her boyfriend never asks her to. (During their time apart, he missed her emotional rambling so much that he pathetically made the rounds in his office, seeking a substitute willing to vent about her problems to him.)

On Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer regularly casts herself in the role of the crazy girl: the crazy ex-girlfriend, or the crazy chick who thinks her one-night stand is going to marry her, the crazy girl who obsessively grooms, plucks, shaves, waxes and nearly kills herself in anticipation of sex (or just really high-stakes sexting).

The most beloved — or, at least, most gif-ed — female characters going are usually the craziest: legitimately-deranged Helena and basic badass Alison from Orphan Black, wine-guzzling, brother-loving Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black‘s “Crazy Eyes”.

And five years ago, Taylor Swift was singing “You Belong With Me.” Beyoncé’s monster hit was “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Now, Swift is posing as a melodramatic, mascara-streaked American Psycho Girl Doll, and Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” video has Mrs. Carter bulging her eyes out in a theatrical demonstration of madness.

flawless

CREDIT: Screenshot, “***Flawless” video

So sure, call them crazy. They’re crazy all right. Crazy like foxes.

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