This year, the SMHAFF film programme is unusual. Half the features being screened are directed by women, which shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. Like most things, mental health is a feminist issue. But despite the fact that female-directed films are rarely so visible, it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that there’s any shortage of mainstream narratives about women and mental illness.
Throughout history, women have been associated with emotional excess and mental instability: from the millenia-old medical myth of hysteria to the 50s image of the Prozac housewife, from literature’s myriad madwomen in the attic to contemporary language of crazy bitches, female feelings have been constructed as irrational and unhealthy, in need of control and repression.
Mental health, then, has always been at the heart of feminist politics: if stories about women’s irrationality have been used to delegitimise our voices, women through the years have increasingly raised those voices to tell their own stories about the complexities of emotional life. The interplay between socio-cultural pressures and mental wellbeing is there, from the earliest feminist fictions and non-fictions about domestic entrapment and depression; it’s there in body positivity movements that resist the pressures of feminine conformity and shame; it’s fundamental in working to recognise and recover from the traumas of gendered violence.
SMHAFF’s programme is rich with female voices. As well as films that centre individual women’s struggles with mental illness, like Good Girl and Ida’s Diary, there is a recurring theme of artists compelled by the complexities of female family relationships. In films like Rocks in my Pockets, The Closer We Get and Mental, as well as in the physical performance art of In Her Shadows, women’s and girls’ places as mothers, daughters and sisters becomes a central focus. And in the literary sphere, two events by the Writing Mums group, Push Me, Pull Me and The Secrets We Keep, provide a creative space to talk honestly about motherhood in all its complexity; the project is described by its curator Hannah Lavery as ‘a relief, an escape route or perhaps more accurately a bunker from the overwhelming critical, finger wagging narratives in the media and in our society about what a mother, a wife, a daughter, a woman should be.’
But while centring women’s voices is always a positive move, to deal fully with the gendering of mental health is more complicated than that. If women have been associated with madness and emotional fragility, men face an inverse imperative to maintain a silent, stoic masculinity that admits no weakness. And if there’s one thing we know about mental wellbeing, it’s that silence is stifling. Author Matt Haig, who is appearing at an event co-programmed by SMHAFF and the Dundee Literary Festival, was involved in a Twitter controversy last year when he proposed writing a book on ‘the perils of masculinity.’ There’s often an understandable kneejerk reaction when men start talking about gender - male voices, after all, tend to dominate most conversations, and some feel that feminism should be one small corner of women’s territory in a patriarchal world. But in this case, as often happens on Twitter, knees jerked faster than brains processed. If there’s one area of feminism where men’s voices absolutely should be heard, it’s in the project of dismantling masculinity.
Haig’s original point, that ‘there may be too many books about and by men, but not many looking at the perils of masculinity,’ is crucial. For most of history, ‘man’ has not been a gendered category but the default status of humanity, a story assumed to be universal (when was the last time you heard someone talking about a ‘man writer’ or a ‘male director’?), which is why stories by and about men have dominated culture. But for men to write consciously as men is a powerful recognition that all of our experiences are shaped by gendered expectations. That’s good for women, because it removes the assumption of male neutrality; and it’s good for men, because it’s the first step in being able to unpick how the pressures of ‘being a man’ can be a deeply damaging way of living.
The damage that masculinity does to men is demonstrated, says Haig in Reasons to Stay Alive, by the fact that ‘depression is more fatal if you are a man.’ Paradoxically, more women suffer from depression and attempt suicide than men do, but men choose more fatal methods and die in vastly greater numbers as a result. It’s hard to imagine that this phenomenon is not entangled with ideas about manhood, in a dark distortion of the masculine expectation to carry things through decisively, an inability to conceive of doing something that might be interpreted as a ‘cry for help.’ Manly men, society says, don’t cry for help: they stay quiet and they get things done. And to a suicidal mind, getting things done can mean something devastatingly destructive.
If masculinity and femininity shape the way we experience mental health, people who do not conform to conventional ideas of what a man or a woman should be are faced with even more intense pressures. LGBT people face a twofold oppression when it comes to mental health. On the one hand, their very existence has been pathologised - as Alison Wren from LGBT Health and Wellbeing told me, ‘homosexuality was classified by the World Health Organisation as a mental illness in itself right up until 1992, and transgender people still often have to engage with the pathologising formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria to access the support they need.’ On the other, living in a world so hostile to your identity puts an enormous amount of strain on mental wellbeing, leading to high rates of depression and suicide. As Alison puts it: ‘There is a fraught history between LGBT identities and the social history of mental health, and people need spaces to explore and express what this means for them.’
One such space will be found at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on Saturday. Living With… is an event showcasing creative work by LGBT people managing long-term health conditions that affect their mental wellbeing. The high rates of suicide and depression among LGBT youth is widely known thanks to high-profile campaigns like It Gets Better, whose message of hope tends to be expressed through a particular kind of story, describing a trajectory from a lonely, repressed adolescence to a well-adjusted, ‘normal’ adult life within mainstream gay culture. But that story is only one of many, often more complex experiences. The Living With… project recognises that for many people of all genders and sexualities, managing mental wellbeing will be a lifelong journey with many twists and turns, in which ‘normality’ is not necessarily a desirable destination.
On Saturday 31st October at Platform, the Festival’s Gender Programming event will create a space to explore all of these issues in a day of performance and discussion. The event features screenings of two films about the pressures of femininity and masculinity respectively, as well as a work-in-progress play called Niqabi Ninja, exploring life as a women in contemporary Cairo. Teen performance group Lab Station, whose ideas inspired the event, will put on a show ‘heavily inspired by pop culture and balls and runways’ that explores, as organiser Eoin McKenzie told me, ‘ideas surrounding gender norms, gender presentation and performance’. And there will be events including make-up workshops, a dressing-up corner, zine-making, and a vogue workshop running throughout the day, providing an interactive space for people to explore their own relationships with gender.
Written by Shona McCombes