The Pathologization of Female Emotions
When social networking sites are overflowing with memes and discussion of the “boys will be boys” mentality, there’s a question that needs to be asked. Is their behaviour being excused under this label as a valid excuse or is this merely a means for society to segregate genders? It’s high time that we understand the urgency of focusing on conversations that talk about equitable and responsible behaviours instead of relying on stereotypes.
Society has created a hierarchy amongst emotions. It demeans behaviour like caring deeply, depending on others, expressing emotions openly and being more open to sharing those emotions. At the same time, society also attributes these behaviours to be feminine. In contrast, behaviours like remaining neutral with emotions, showing emotional restraint even in vulnerable moments and being the epitome of self-sufficiency are regarded as praise-worthy qualities. And of course, these are stereotypically referred to as male qualities.
Read: Mental Health and Women
So there’s a hierarchy — cognition over emotion, mind over body, self over relationships (Milton, 2018). But aren’t emotions and human connection the fundamental pillars for all humans? The devaluation of female emotions has persisted over time and has years and years of history. The dichotomy between emotions extends to other areas of life and perpetuates harmful gender biases.
In this article, we examine how female emotions have been pathologized over time and how this diminishes the richness of human emotions and establishes rigid gender roles.
A Tale As Old as Time: History of Pathologization
When a normal behaviour is labelled as disruptive and in need of medical intervention, it is known as the pathologization of that behaviour. Hysteria was a medical diagnosis given to women for their extremely emotionally charged behaviour that was disproportionate to the context. While this term became extremely popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, there are records of female emotions being regarded as illness even before this. Egyptians in 1600 BC believed that hysteria occurred because of the displacement of the uterus.
In Greek mythology, Plato, in Timaeus, argued that the uterus is sad and unfortunate when it does not join with the male and does not give rise to a new birth, and Aristotle and Hippocrates agreed (Sterpellone, 2002). Melampus, a physician considered the refusal of women to honor the phallus as madness. All these incidents gave rise to the idea that female madness was due to a lack of a normal sexual life. There are many more accounts from Greek, Rome, Spain and all over the world. In all of these accounts, the womb of women was considered to be the main cause of their supposed madness.
The Hysteria Epidemic
The 18th and 19th centuries further perpetuated and amplified this ideology. During the 18th century, “hysteria,” an alleged mental health condition, became a catch-all phrase for many symptoms and was a diagnosis commonly given to women (Cohut, 2021).
Anything mysterious about a woman that men found unmanageable began to be labelled as hysteria. Hysteria was the medical explanation for all women’s experiences. 19th-century medical literature focused on the connection between female sexuality and hysteria. This was the start that reinforced many stereotypes. The idea is that women are more emotional than men and that these emotions lead to women acting irrationally, they are bossy, and many more descriptions.
Emotions and Stereotypes
While hysteria was removed as a pathologization from the DSM long ago in the 1980s, and progress has been made to deauthorize women’s experiences this notion has seeped into our societal definitions of genders as stereotypes. One prime example of this is how anger is perceived in men and women. Societal perceptions of emotions, particularly anger, often exhibit a stark gender bias.
In many cases, when men express anger, they are often perceived as assertive and strong, while women can face negative stereotypes, such as being labelled as emotional, unreasonable, or overly emotional simply because of their gender. This disparity in the treatment of emotions based on gender remains a significant issue in today’s society.
Across time and space, women’s normal emotions – like pain and anger — have been pathologized and denied. The categorization of women as excessively emotional has historical roots and is entwined with various other problematic issues. For men, their passion for sports and obsession with it is justified and a typical behaviour. For women, their passion and obsession is rabid fangirling that is crossing boundaries. If men fight for a cause they are passionate and committed, when women do it, they are irrational.
Sensitive men are the best but women who are the same are too much to handle. According to studies, most babies already link masculine faces with furious looks by the time they are toddlers. In guys, “softer” emotions like empathy, fear, and grief are less valued and perhaps even deliberately discouraged. While rage is seen as a sign of masculinity, they are perceived by many as feminine flaws.
Addressing the pathologization of female emotions requires ongoing education, awareness, and a commitment to breaking down gender stereotypes and expectations. It is essential to support mental health and emotional well-being without judgment or stigmatization based on gender.