Beauty sometime, in all her glory crowned,
Passing by that cleere fountain of thine eye,
Her sun-shine face there chaunsing to espy,
Forgot herselfe, and thought she had been drowned.
And thus, whiles Beautie on her beauty gazed,
Who then, yet liuing, deemd she had been dying,
And yet in death some hope for life espying,
At her owne rare perfections so amazed;
Twixt ioy and griefe, yet with a smyling frowning,
The glorious sun-beames of her eyes bright shining,
And shee, in her owne destiny diuining,
Threw herselfe, to saue herselfe by drowning;
The Well of Nectar, pau’d with pearle and gold,
Where she remaines for all eyes to behold.
Michael Drayton’s poem from 1594 describes with love the allure of the suicide of the beautiful woman. We love to see beautiful women who are sad and fetishize their deaths, which often occur at their own hands, and this poem is a great example. Another example is the persisting image of Ophelia, who is the perfect suicide: she is beautiful, and her beauty enhanced by her death (think of her hair flowing in the water, wet dress seeming to cling to her despite the original play describing a ballooning effect in the river, flowers adorning her as the most beautiful marker of madness, eyes glistening with tears); though her madness was, briefly, loud and strange (as mental illness often is), in the water and in death she is silent and becomes a quiet submissive beauty rather than a raving lunatic (her death prevents the irritation that comes when women are allowed to talk). And this is how she is so often immortalized in art: the image we recall of Ophelia is one of beauty, silence, flowers, and the glorious moments before death — we don’t not think of her triggered by cruelty, or loudly condemning men.
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
By no means is Ophelia made ugly in the play, but her death is different from its popular depiction: her clothes bloat around her like an inflatable raft rather than body-hugging wet fabric; she is out of touch with reality and sings gleefully rather than the image of her mournful expression we see in paintings; when she finally drowns, her death is muddy — characterized by filth, dirt; it is not the beautiful floral bath of her popular depictions. The mentally ill woman is made from the already fetishized psychotic suicide to be even more fetishized: more palatably psychotic (that is to say: less vocal, more silent) and more beautifully dying. We don’t see her die in the play but one can imagine the effect of her death on her body: bloated from drowning, hair tangled from the water, swampy from the river mud — not likely: flowing waves of hair, glowing pale skin with flushed cheeks, flowers neatly arranged about her clean dress and face.
Alexandre Cabanel, 1872 & 1883
Death, and suicide, are ugly. The corpse is an ugly thing, the act of dying lacks beauty, and there is nothing attractive about decay. But women have one value, and that is their beauty. Even in death and sickness, they are only valued for their beauty — mental illness or suicide only serve to make a beauty more exciting. So in the case of Ophelia, the problem of ugliness is avoided by depicting her pre-suicide, or depicting her death as a fantasy with little bearing on reality. And it is disgusting that we would want to, and almost always do, turn a tragedy and illness into a fantasy.
When we think of mental illness and suicide in women, we have images of youth, thinness, pale skin, cleanliness, and above all, natural beauty. We love women who die by suicide, especially young ones. Their youth and beauty is forever preserved and they will never grow old. They are made different from other girls because of their sadness: a depth that is there only for appeal, rather than discussion, introspection, examination; of course, you can’t go into the effects of mental illness when the person who is ill is now dead. We love when self-destruction is fun and seems to damage no one but the girl who self-destructs: for everyone else, her life is just a sexy party; for her, she’s slowly dying and will end in a death that silences her before her self-destruction becomes less than fun and before age can claim her beauty.
We reduce mentally ill women to flat extremes, where they become nothing but sexy and sad. We forget they had problems and lives outside their illnesses. We love Marilyn Monroe but don’t talk about how troubled she was and how much help she really needed. We love Jean Seberg but think of her as the French-chic pixie with a sad end rather than a supporter of the Black Panthers who struggled with her acting career. Vivien Leigh is a beautiful, young glamour icon, not someone whose illness destroyed her marriage and aged her prematurely. Edie Sedgwick is a wide-eyed party girl who’s a bit deeper than your regular party girl because she was sad; we don’t think about histories of trauma or drug addiction. We love Sylvia Plath but broadly her work isn’t taken as seriously as men poets, and we love to remember her blonde, all-American good looks while diminishing her writing talent.
Plath is a good example of the most willful ignorance that surrounds mentally ill and suicidal women. The Bell Jar is reduced to school-girl nonsense that only naive, uneducated girls seem to enjoy because they are not smart enough to read something with more depth or value. It is seen as self-indulgent. It is seen as shallow. It is seen as simply not as good (complete the sentence: as the work of men). A gross double standard: we rarely discuss the self-indulgence of, for instance, Hemingway, nor do we discuss his beauty or looks when talking about his suicide. Yet we love to look at Plath, images of her in a bikini, in a cute dress, in a sweater looking straight at the camera, bangs curled, hair loose or up, smiling or smouldering. We can fetishize this. We can take her and give her a certain value. We can consume her and her death in a way that doesn’t apply to someone like Anne Sexton, who is rarely fetishized or consumed, or Virginia Woolf, who is often mocked for her ugliness — both writers who have perhaps gained more respect for their work and talent than Plath, but who are not quite so strangely beloved. They are loved for their skills, Plath is loved for her tragedy. Because she fits into our model of the perfect suicide, and when we can diminish women we will. This is not to say that she was oppressed by her good looks or that Woolf and Sexton being taken seriously rather than being thought of as primarily beautiful is a bad thing. This is to say that the way we love to consume the deaths of beautiful women, the way we reduce women to their beauty, is disgusting.
An issue is that there is no shying away from the reality of women’s mental illness — it’s not like the grotesqueness of it all is hidden. The Bell Jar describe how the protagonist becomes so ugly after her suicide attempt that she is not permitted a mirror. We have descriptions of weight gain and loss, bruised skin, bad haircuts; deaths in dirty basement crawlspaces, deaths of characters described as looking like horses. For another example, Anne Sexton describes suicide as:
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.
I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.
But we never think of how mental illness betrays the body. We do not think of illness preventing someone from caring for themselves and descending into filth and clutter and stench. We do not think of the scars of self harm. We do not think of weight gain or loss from disordered eating, nor the effect on the body that substance abuse can have. We do not think of how lack of sleep can impact appearance. We do not consider how all of these things, going on for years, can age you prematurely, and how unsexy that really is. Nor do we think about deaths. Bodies bloated from drownings, faces bruised and filled with blood from hangings. The woman covered in her own vomit after an overdose. The exploded head from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. None of this matters when women’s mental illness and suicide is a fantasy: in that fantasy, everything is clean, no one ages, no one talks about their illness, and death is a preservation of beauty and a confirmation of an emotional depth that you never have to deal with because you don’t have to deal with problems that are dead.
The grotesque and painful reality of mental illness is unacceptable. Sickness is unacceptable. Women will never meet up to the standards of the fantasy, especially when things are bad. We will never be Ophelias, and we will never be understood. We will only be shamed more and more for not being fantasies in real life.