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The Soapbox: Ashley Judd And What It Means When We Talk About Gender & Mental Health

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This piece was cross-posted with permission from the Ms. Magazine Blog

On Tuesday, Mother Jones released an audio recording of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaking with members of his reelection staff. Much of the conversation focused on actor Ashley Judd, who, until recently, was rumored to be mulling a run against the current Senate GOP leader. For the most part, the recording is typical opposition research. An aide rehearses Judd’s public politics: She loves Obamacare, is pro-gay marriage and self-identifies as a feminist.

None of this, of course, is much of a surprise — Judd campaigned for President Obama and has spoken publicly on behalf of NARAL Pro-Choice America. More disconcerting than the rehashing of Judd’s political ideology, however, is when the discussion veers from policy to Judd’s reproductive choices and then quickly to her mental health.

A McConnell aide says:

She described having children as selfish, and she thinks it’s unconscionable to breed. So you put that with what we’ll talk to you later about her sort of pro-choice stance and it’s sort of a, you know, pretty extreme posture to take. She also is critical of, of fathers giving away their daughters in marriage ceremonies. She says it’s a common vestige of male dominion over a women’s reproductive status when her father gives her away at a wedding. And then she’s clearly for pro-abortion.

The room moves next to Judd’s religious beliefs (the aide describes it as “oddly syncretic approach to Christianity”) and to her mental health. The aide says:

Ah, and again. She’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced. I mean it’s been documented. Jesse can go in chapter and verse from her autobiography about, you know, she’s suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the ’90s.

As Mother Jones points out, Judd has been open about her mental health maintenance and wrote about it in her autobiography. But what is perhaps more disturbing is that rather quick and seamless elision between Judd’s reproductive choices (“it’s unconscionable to breed”) to her mental health (“emotionally unbalanced”). Though some have dismissed the recordings as little more than the inner workings of the Washington machine and employed a rather willful blindness about the slippage of language, the discussion had by McConnell and his aides is by no means neutral. Rather, it is near Freudian, bound by a messy and gendered history of sanity. Childlessness here seems as an indictment, and sexuality as a sign of hysteria.

I use Sigmund Freud here not for the sake of glibness, but because his work is the apex of centuries of hand-wringing over women’s sexuality and the long-held belief that a woman’s mental health is deeply tied to that sexuality. Perhaps Freud’s case study of a woman called “Dora” is the most familiar, in which the psychoanalyst attempted to diagnosis and subsequently treat feminine “hysteria.” For Freud, Dora’s mental distress stemmed from her sexuality — or rather what he perceived as female sexuality — and thus treatment was pre-determined by a set of cultural mores that determined how and what women should desire. For Freud, that was bound to motherhood.

Though Freud, like his teacher, the French physician Jean-Martin Charcot, was seeking a clinical/scientific diagnosis of hysteria, the disease itself was still bound to gender, sexuality and a kind of morality. As the literary scholar Janet Beizer has written, “The womb [is] a metaphoric agent of hysteria.” Indeed, the ties between women’s sexuality and sanity were so embedded in scientific and culture discourses that Victorian doctors often prescribed clitoral stimulation has a cure for feminine madness. That women’s sexuality was long tied to the construction of sanity is no surprise, since those at the margins of society have long been the victims of the processes of creating the normative. Indeed, the very idea of hysteria is inherently feminine and, like so many mental disorders, is both formed and inscribed on the bodies of women.

Though Freud’s diagnosis and Victorian treatment might seem like oddities from the past, I don’t think that this is a history that we’ve completely divorced from our modern selves. It seems that hysterical women still abound and that we’re still quite interested in their sexuality: from crazy ex-girlfriends to “bridezillas” to depressed housewives to “feminazis” who rant and rave, the gendering of mental disorders paired with deep interest in women’s sexuality is still ever-present in political and popular culture. That is to say, when we discuss whether or not a woman is “emotionally balanced” we are having a gendered discussion which still bears the weight of a rather heavy history. This language is not gender neutral, and that discussion is almost always entwined with sexuality and reproduction.

McConnell’s discussion of Judd reminded me of the epic slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke during the last election cycle. In case you’ve forgotten, Fluke dared to advocate for insurance-covered birth control. But for some reason her advocacy drove right-leaning pundits to their own paroxysms: from Rush Limbaugh calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute” to Ann Coulter spelling it out quite clearly by calling Fluke “a hysterical drama queen.” Certainly it seems that the twinning of sexuality and mental fitness is still a political tool deployed regularly to discredit women and their ability to make rational decisions.

I am not suggesting that mental health is not a potentially worthy topic of debate when examining a nation’s leaders — though I wonder if we have a framework for doing so. But I think it’s worth a reminder that when we discuss a woman’s “emotional distress,” particularly in concert with reproduction, that our debate is haunted by a history in which gender itself was the disease.

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