How the Trope of the Madwoman Evolved into Feminist Horror

By Hannah Yale

Hysterical. Lunatics. Madwomen, embittered by exploitation, that have turned against the society of men.

The stereotype of the “madwoman” was developed by the oppressive ruling class of white men to dehumanize real women in society. The trope describes a woman with a history of trauma and exploitation by male authority figures that have caused them to become bitter and disobedient. Ultimately, the madwoman is an outcast from the society of men– not only because she is a woman, but because she refuses to submit to her patriarchal oppressors. 

In this context, madness is a cultural construct that has been specifically constructed as a tool to delegitimize and villainize women. This cultural construction of madness is separate from medically diagnosed mental health issues because the concept of madness specifically undermines women’s autonomy by emphasizing irrationality and being unable to control one’s emotions. However, those women who are labeled as “mad” often do have mental health issues related to the trauma and ostracization they have faced at the hands of the same men who call them insane. 

Most literary scholars trace the beginning of the madwoman trope in literature to the racially prejudiced portrayal of Mr. Rochester’s first wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It is important to note that high-society European men created the idea of feminine madness and the madwoman, and in the early days of its conception it was used primarily to describe white, educated women who were viewed as emotionally and physically weak. The trope of the madwoman spread with colonization, and it began to take on a new shape as women living in their indigenous lands were forced to assimilate to the violently patriarchal European cultures of their oppressors. In the 19th and 20th centuries, madwomen of color were specifically viewed as emotionally erratic, promiscuous, and prone to anger. This is reflected directly in how male authority figures treat these “mad” women in novels of that time period, such as the aforementioned Jane Eyre.

Though this trope was originally used to undermine and delegitimize women’s autonomy, women have gained control of the narrative by giving a voice to women who have been deemed “insane” by a failing patriarchal society. This representation in literature encouraged more empathy and validation towards women who have faced violence at the hands of the patriarchy and was highly beneficial to feminist political movements over the past couple of centuries. In recent years, the madwoman has appeared in film, specifically in the emerging feminist horror genre.

The evolution of the trope and cultural acceptance of the madwoman can be looked at through the timeline of the Western feminist movement. Wide Sargasso Sea— a novel written from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s “mad” wife from Jane Eyre— takes place at the beginning of the 19th century, a little before the first wave of feminism really took off. During the first wave of feminism, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Yellow Wallpaper, a first-person novella that tells the story of a woman who is confined to bedrest by her husband when she falls ill after pregnancy and the death of her newborn child. She shares all of the traditional characteristics of the madwoman, and is eventually driven insane by the isolation, dehumanization, and gaslighting she faces during her confinement. 

Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero, a novel featuring an Egyptian prostitute named Firdaus, takes place during the second wave of feminism, which specifically emphasized issues like financial independence, female sexuality, reproductive rights, and combating domestic violence. Alternatively, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, shows the perspective of a white, upper-class American woman during the same time period who is institutionalized and undergoes electric shock therapy. Throughout the novel, the main character’s needs and wants are continuously ignored, and this dehumanization causes her to feel paranoid, isolated and trapped. 

Novels like these telling the origin story and perspective of the madwoman have continued to develop over the decades and in correlation with the Western feminist movement– paving the way for today’s fourth-wave feminist manifestation of the madwoman in the feminist horror film genre. 

If you haven’t heard of feminist horror, I highly recommend you watch some. A niche, emerging genre, it has produced some of my favorite horror films ever, such as Jennifer’s Body (2009) and The Fear Street Trilogy (2021). 

Jennifer’s Body is largely considered a cult classic in American alternative culture, following the story of Anita “Needy” (Amanda Seyfried) and her boy-eating best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox). While it is certainly a campy, nostalgic masterpiece, Jennifer’s Body can be also interpreted as the story of a modern, teenage madwoman. The movie begins and ends with Needy narrating from inside a mental institution. A traditional interpretation would suggest that Needy has made up the entire story about Jennifer’s possession or is delusional, but I think that’s boring. Instead, we can choose to believe the story that Needy is telling, and recognize that she underwent a supernatural tragedy only to be blamed and labeled insane by her community. 

Within the feminist horror genre, it’s been observed that there are two main sub-genres: alternative tellings of Final Girl horror stories, and tales of women revenge-killers. The first sub-genre doesn’t usually include components of the madwoman trope, but if you’re looking for a contemporary horror movie with a badass Final Girl, I suggest Evil Dead (2013). 

Movies about feminist revenge killers have become increasingly popular in the last decade, and the majority of them depict the madwoman trope, as their characters are driven to violence after enduring some kind of severe trauma. Many are stories of women who take to killing sexual predators, abusive husbands, or other corrupt men– such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Promising Young Woman (2020), and Teeth (2007).

One of the original female revenge killers of the horror genre was Carrie White from another cult class film, Carrie (1976). While facing abuse from her ultra-religious mother at home, 16-year-old Carrie is also ostracized and bullied by her schoolmates. After a malicious act of public humiliation at the prom, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers in a blind rage to kill everyone at the school. Carrie was not a girl who seemed predisposed to any kind of violence– in fact, she was quite timid and naive. However, after years and years of being worn down by the neurotic criticism of her mother and the cruelty of her peers, Carrie snapped. To me, it seemed that Carrie no longer knew how to keep living as this person, surrounded by these people. It was a cage that she had to break out of, with fire and blood. 

Hopefully, while taking you down this rabbit hole of “madness” and feminist horror, I’ve given you some killer movie recommendations and inspired you to look for the madwoman in the stories around you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s