The Subversive Power of Madness for Feminism
Queering Resistance, Haunting Heteronormativity, and Building New Worlds
Who is the madwoman behind the tears and the screams and the mountain of misunderstandings drowning her essence? She is lost in the desolate terrain of silence, left in the shadows of a heteronormative social order, and teetering on the edge of a world that is and a world she wishes to be. But it is in the midst of this madness and darkness that she is truly free.
Written by Megan May Walsh
Edited by Maia Luem and Rose Schachererer
Artwork by Megan May Walsh
Who is the madwoman behind the tears and the screams and the mountain of misunderstandings drowning her essence? Where does she turn when her desires, hopes, and dreams–her very existence–is intelligible to the world around her? How does she survive amidst the evil that objectifies her, renders her owned and other, and steals her autonomy? And most importantly, how does she resist?
Lost in the desolate terrain of silence, she is left in the shadows of a heteronormative social order, and teetering on the edge of a world that is and a world she wishes to be. But it is in the midst of this madness and darkness that I imagine her truly free. I imagine her circling in the shadows with the prowess and warnings of a black cat. She is adorned with tattoos and body art; her nails are long and brightly manicured, beautiful talons poised to strike; her hair is an assortment of colors as well as lengths, edgy and defiant in its appearance; and her makeup is like a starry violet night sky around her glowing green eyes. She is witchy, and she is femme, and she is queer, and she is deadly. Her arsenal is packed with rage, profanity, ambition, and vanity–and she wields it all gloriously against the social script that writes her as a madwoman, delusional, ugly, hysterical, and unworthy. She un-becomes everything she, as a woman, is expected to become.
Queer theorist, Jack Halberstam, would don this woman a shadow feminist. In his book, The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam dares us to consider failure as a world building project. Shadow feminists “take the form not of becoming, being, and doing but of shady, murky modes of undoing, un-becoming, and violating” (Halberstam). They resist by failing to perform in ways that adhere to norms, social standards, and gender expectations. Instead, they harness the magic of feminist queer negativity, operating in the shadows of heteronormativity. So, when the world demands a pearly and pristine beauty designed by the male gaze or expects joy with a sparkling smile accompanied by silence to enforce complacency, the shadow feminist fails, purposefully, epically, and gloriously at becoming the object of patriarchy’s desires. She only flips her deadly manicured middle fingers up and growls, low and ethereal, “Fuck You.”
Several weeks ago, I was visiting Northwestern University to see writer Mona Eltahawy give a talk about “Dangerous Women and the Patriarchy.” Standing poised at the podium in the English department, her bright yellow hair and royal blue eyeshadow shining behind her giant oval shaped glasses, Mona began her talk by first saying, “Let’s start with a prayer.” Then, with an effortless grace she flipped both her middle fingers up and proudly proclaimed, “Fuck the Patriarchy.” I smiled, shaking slightly with the profoundness and power of her gesture.
I first came across Mona’s work last summer when I picked up her book The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. She was the first shadow feminist I realized walking amongst the living. In her book, she calls upon a feminist resistance and world building project where women and girls are sinful, where they shamelessly seek out anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust and weild it against the patriarchal systems that demand the opposite. Flipping through the pages of her book with a fervor that couldn’t be tamed, I imagined a world where women, girls, and nonbinary folk unleash unholy terror upon the patriarchy and its heteronormative social script. I imagined a shadow dimension creeping into the fabric of everyday life, where we refuse, fail, and erupt, clashing so vehemently against social order it crumbles. Total and absolute madness.
The category of the ‘Madwoman’ always intrigued me: Its history of weaponizing against women crying out about abuse, pain, and everyday suffering; its ability to immediately vanquish a woman’s credibility and autonomy; and its sly but effective power to gaslight. Writer Carmen Maria Machado masterfully chronicles the historical narrative of the term gaslight before it was ever a verb. In her chapter “Dream House as 9 Thornton Square'' of her memoir In the Dream House, Carmen tells us the story of the emergence of gaslight and everything we know it to be today–from a play called Angel Street in 1938, then a film Gaslight in 1940, followed by a second film in 1944. The story goes as follows:
“A woman’s sanity is undercut by her conniving husband, who misplaces objects–a brooch, a painting, a letter–in an attempt to make her believe she is mad so that he can send her to an asylum. Eventually, his plan is revealed: he had murdered her aunt when the woman was a child and orchestrated their whirlwind romance years later in order to return to the house to locate some missing jewels” (Machado 2019, 93).
The gaslights in the house convince the woman she has truly gone mad. Their spontaneous dimming and flickering as if someone has turned the gas on somewhere else in the house when no one could possibly have done so gives her the final push to oblivion. She becomes convinced she is forgetful and insane. She melts into hysteria and hollows out into a haunted ghost, “floating around her opulent London residence” (93). Her husband “doesn’t lock her in her room or in the house. He doesn’t have to. He turns her mind into a prison” (93). She becomes her own madwoman, and her husband maliciously enjoys every moment of torment and manipulation it took to take everything that he wanted and deemed himself entitled to.
A woman with the title Madwoman thrust upon her becomes a castaway, an outlaw, a ghost destined for the shadows. She is made unintelligible and immediately dismissed, her ideas, thoughts, dreams, desires destined to disseminate to smoke and mist. In 1967, radical feminist Valerie Solanas saw herself named a madwoman after she published the SCUM Manifesto where she begins,
“Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex” (Solanas 1967).
Infused with affective force, Solanas channels all her rage into a call for the destruction of society and annihilation of all men through violence for a female takeover of the world, bringing into existence a satiric, problematic, and violent imaginary of a post-patriarchal world. Instead of contemplating the motivations that inspired Solanas’ desire to undo the entire capitalist patriarchal social order, she was immediately named a madwoman and thrown to the shadows of legitimate feminist discourse. It wasn’t until light years later that scholars like Avital Ronell, Andrea Long Chu, Breanne Fahs, Desirée D. Rowe and Karma R. Chávez revived the written word of Solanas and worked to extrapolate a feminist theory of resistance from her work. While Solanas may have been made a ghost thrown into the shadows like the woman from the film Gaslight, her ghost gloriously came back to haunt heteronormative discourse and binary frameworks through her inspiring of a queer performativity of madness. Although madness typically relies on a binary itself in that it places itself in opposition to the norm of sanity, a queer performativity of madness deconstructs the binaries of madness “render[ing] the negative discourse of madness so powerful, [it] opens the possibility for a subversive understanding of certain constitutions of madness” (Rowe 2011, 275). Thus a queer performativity of madness prides itself on disrupting norms, experimenting with the radical, challenging the status quo, and channeling your existence to be of an entire other essence to what society aims to mold it into. To put simply, it answers Ursula K. Le Guin’s question– “What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?”
Wandering into the shadows, boldly and thrumming with excitement, we find society’s outcasts and madwomen, witches and queer rebels. We find a collective amongst the mad and insane. We find a family we choose and who chooses us back. We find a community and an undying friendship. We find ourselves, the most authentic versions meticulously and wondrously unbound from patriarchal social structures. Emerging from the shadows as a shadow feminist and bringing this beautiful madness into the world can take various forms, all spontaneous and magical and untamed. Self proclaimed “capital-C Crazy writer, zinester, witch, identical twin, high school dropout, cane-user, cripple-goth, recovering alcoholic, and white non-binary amethyst-femme,” Maranda Elizabeth occupies this shadow world proudly, drawing their magic and power from it. They imagine the real world encountering them from the shadows like a “black cat crossing somebody’s path: good luck to some, bad luck to others” (Elizabeth).
They write: “When I am bad luck, I’m haunting. The young disabled misfit you don’t wanna become. I’m ugly and mysterious. I’m in pain when I’m not ‘supposed’ to be. I’m the black cat dashing in front of your car, staring you down, trespassing on your property, daring you to shoo me away.
When I’m good luck, I’m really good. I’m a sign. Catching a glimpse of me feels meaningful. A witch in tourmaline and amethyst, my cane becoming my wand, a slight of another cripple-goth, another disabled weirdo, in a landscape too often inaccessible to us. Sometimes we share a nod. I’m the lucky talisman you find on the ground, keep in your pocket. I’m the balck cat sitting at the feet of the Queen of Wands. I’m a spell come true.
Bad luck or good, I’m magic” (Elizabeth).
To the “sane,” the upholders of the patriarchy, and the reinforcers of heteronormativity, Elizabeth is madness. They are bad luck. They are threatening to the intelligible frameworks of society (religion, heteronormativity, capitalism, etc.). They are dangerous, bad luck. They are haunting. They are resisting by simply and authentically existing. They are dangerous to those they wish to be and an ally and friend to those that need them. They conjure a smile from fellow madwomen and outcasts and they inspire discomfort and perhaps even fear in those they wish to topple. Humor writer and comedian Avery Edison, who has also written about her experiences as a transgender woman, too ruminates on her experience of becoming dangerous in her essay “Before I Was a Woman, I Was a Witch.” As a coping mechanism for enduring bullies in school, Avery became a witch. She found power in the identity.
“If I knew I was different, and everyone else did too, then at least I could do was try to harness that difference as protection. I kept an altar and started saying ‘Merry meet’ to people so I could tell myself I was doing enough to call myself a witch. I wore the pentagram necklace and carried my rose quartz and gems with me so that other people, especially my bullies, would know that I was one. I hoped that they would be, if not scared, then at least cautious” (Edison).
She brought the shadow world into the real world and inspired discomfort, perhaps even fear. She became otherworldly in her witchiness and simply resisted by failing to fit in the category of ‘boy’ that society was trying to force her into. Sara Ahmed plays with this concept of failing and inspiring discomfort in her book Living a Feminist Life. She imagines a feminist killjoy wreaking havoc on heteronormativity and gender expectations by killing the joy expected of her, by refusing to be silent or pleasant or happy. Instead, they raise the uncomfortable questions, they spout the unpopular opinions, and they shamelessly interrupt the happiness narrative that was never designed for them anyway. They kill the joy to make room for other possibilities, for ways of thinking and being beyond the social script and beyond normative frameworks. Inspiring discomfort and sometimes even fear by refusing, disrupting, and erupting makes us dangerous, and dangerous we must be if we are to upend the heteronormative patriarchal social structure that destines us for the shadows. When we fail to co write the social script and instead actively write against it, we are resisting. When we harness all the beautiful symbolism, power and magic of the “madwoman,” we upend norms and queer resistance. Striving to unbecome everything we are supposed to become makes us mad and it makes us rebels. It brings the shadow world into the real world by haunting and undoing all that it has become.
This shadow world that exists between the seams of our fabricated reality most often emerges clearest in art. Art is playful and world conjuring. It can untie the strings of heteronormativity and reel its head back in laughter at the chaos that unfolds. It can birth new stories into existence where queens fall in love, anarchism is the social order, women and queer folk are leaders, subaltern voices are unsilenced, and beauty is self-expression and love. And it can render visible society’s witches, failures, lesbians, disabled, femmes, and outlaws. The madwoman lives the most vibrantly in the aesthetic dimension. Her experiments and desires, her ramblings and tantrums, and her imaginations and dreams run wild and untamed. And sometimes she harnesses just enough power to step into the real world and unleash her beautiful chaos.
Ahmed, Sara. 2019. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press.
Berlant, L., & Edelman, L. 2014. Sex, or the Unbearable. Duke University Press.
Eltahawy, Mona. 2019. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Penguin Random House.
Fahs, Breanne. 2016. “Spitfire and Sass: Valerie Solanas’s ‘A Young Girl’s Primer’ and the Creative Possibilities of a Survival Self.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 44(1&2), 255-267.
Fahs, Breanne. 2008. “The Radical Possibilities of Valerie Solanas.” Feminist
Studies 34 (3): 591–617. New York: The Feminist Press.
Halberstam, Jack. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press.
Machado, Carmen M. 2019. In the Dream House. Graywolf Press.
Rowe, Desirée D. 2020. “Negative Affect, SCUM, and the Politics of Possibility,” Cultural Studies and Critical Methodologies Vol. 20(2), 176-181.
Rowe, Desirée D. and Karma R. Chávez. 2011. “Valerie Solanas and the Queer Performativity of Madness,” Cultural Studies and Critical Methodologies Vol. 11(3) 274–284.
Solanas, Valerie. 1967. The Scum Manifesto. Verso Books.
Megan Walsh is an incoming philosophy PhD candidate at Fordham University and a graduate from Loyola University Chicago.