Why did Britney Spears need to go to a mental hospital again?: Disabling Female Emotionality and Mentality in Popular Media
by Youngchi Chang — University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
December 01, 2010 – 00:00
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that women are ‘unfinished men.’ According to him, women are weaker than men, both physically and mentally. Female vulnerability is also addressed in Sigmund Freud’s idea of ‘penis envy.’ For Freud, women are mentally unstable because they don’t have a penis — the source of power.
Female vulnerability is not simply an issue for philosophers and psychologists; it should be also a serious subject for discussion among media scholars. Female vulnerability indeed has been profoundly represented in popular media. Recently, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have been illustrative figures of female vulnerability. Their frantic, shocking behaviors and statements have been mocked in many comedy programs including Saturday Night Lives, Family Guy, and South Park. Not only the networks, user-created media also have ridiculed these female stars, as the video clip shows.
Although these female stars’ scandalous manners and words became sources for these creative texts, we need to be critical of these kinds of texts. Such texts not only take female vulnerability for granted but also justify and naturalize it. For instance, this video clip ‘urges’ Spears to go to a mental institution for her disgraceful temper. It suggests that female hysteria being brought about by a lack of emotional control and that Spears’ instability of mental health is something that needs to be cured immediately. Female hysteria, which was once a common medical diagnosis in the Victorian era, remains dangerous in today’s society.
This representation of female vulnerability in the media is also perilous in that it associates vulnerable minds with vulnerable bodies. In the case of Spears, when she gained considerable body weight during her personal ‘life crisis,’ her body was ruthlessly criticized by the media. Spears’s ‘out of control’ body, not just in terms of her behavior but also in relation to her appearance, was affected by her unstable mentality. Thus, her emotional vulnerability also means that she is not capable of managing her own body.
As Sandra Bartky (in her article “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”) argues, women’s bodies become more docile through modernization, where there are more ‘eyes’ (e.g. fashion magazines) supervising bodies. Yet, disempowerment of women does not only happen through sexualization of their bodies, but also via representation of women’s in/disability to control their minds.
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