I've shared myleast favorite tropes before, but every so often, I come across a trope that I find particularly upsetting. Today, as part of my Kill the Trope series, I'm going to examine the "crazy telepathic woman" trope and explain to you how it combines misogyny and ableism so horrifically that it needs to be abandoned.
*Comics spoilers ahoy*
Once upon a time, there was a woman with telepathic powers. She could read minds, control them, maybe even undo them. Despite the enormous mental and emotional pressure that having such a power would exert, she managed to eke out a life as a hero. She used her incredible gift to protect lives, and even though it was a pretty scary power that was sometimes hard on her, she became a real force for good in the world. Then, one day, something terrible happens--a death, usually, or some kind of accident that breaks her powers loose.
She goes insane. Not just your regular old "wow I have a mental illness" insane, but "I am going to literally murder everyone" insane. She loses all sense of morality, all sense of boundaries, all sense of self, and wreaks terrible havoc across the world until someone finally stops her, usually by killing her. (Because she's a superhero, she will probably come back, but even once she's her normal self again, everyone will be wary of her and will constantly bring up that one time she went crazy, if not outright reject her.)
Anyone familiar with the superhero genre will know this trope. Its most famous example is X-Men's Jean Grey, who loses control of her powers and develops an evil alter ego known as "Dark Phoenix." The Dark Phoenix comics saga is pretty well-loved, and the idea was played out on screen in the 2000 X-Men movie trilogy. It will also be returning to screen soon, in a 2018 movie titled X-Men: Dark Phoenix.
But Dark Phoenix is not a one-shot. Spend enough time reading about strong women with telekinetic-type powers (which I have, since telekinesis is a favorite of mine), and you'll come across this trope over and over again.
As you guys know, my favorite superhero is Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, from the Avengers. In the comics, Wanda goes "crazy" multiple times in response to the deaths of those she loves, wreaking such destruction that everyone turns their backs on her, including her beloved husband, the Vision. (My OTP, as you also know.) At one point, Wanda even erases all superpowered mutants from existence just by speaking the words.
So this is me saying "no more crazy telepathic women." Because while this trope is powerful and dramatic, it's also incredibly damaging to mentally ill women like myself.
See, telepathic powers are in and of themselves a fantasy/sci-fi analog for mental illness. (You can read some good thoughts on disability analogs here.) These powers present an enormous mental and physical strain that the hero must struggle with their whole lives, but that, when controlled, can be used in positive ways--i.e. how my OCD helps me to better succeed in school and other projects. One of the reasons I'm so drawn to telepathic powers is because they remind me of my own struggle and they give me something positive to focus on.
When you take that positive metaphor for mental illness and revert it so that the heroine becomes stereotypical "insane," in the sense of violence and murder and amorality, it's terribly hurtful. It spreads the ableist idea that mental illness causes violence, when in fact disabled people, including those with mental illness, are far more likely to be victims of violence. Mentally ill people do not go out and start killing people. They don't just lose their sense of selves or their moral standards all in one fell swoop. Even if they suffer a terrible loss, they are going to react in a way that is consistent with who they already were. A real-life heroine with a mental illness may make mistakes, she might cause deaths, she might question her morals, or even lose her desire to keep fighting, but she will never lose herself to the extent that she goes from being a protector of life to someone who just outright murders everyone. That's not consistent with who she is, and that's not how mental illness works.
But that is how people tend to see it.
The awfulness of this trope is further reinforced by the fact that these "crazy telepathic women" are always women. You don't see men with telepathic powers going insane and murdering everyone. The "crazy telepathic woman" trope isn't just a representation of our societal fear of mental illness, it's also a representation of our fear of strong women. It stands right at the intersection of misogyny and ableism, creating this awful image of an insane woman with too much power who causes untold destruction. Dark Phoenix in particular has a sexual undertone, where she also represents the "danger" of a sexually liberated woman who follows her base desires, another key aspect of misogyny.
The way that these women are treated by their friends and family just adds insult to injury. It makes sense for people to be afraid, of course, or even angry, but to see these powerful women brutally rejected by those they love most because of their mental illness (or "insanity") is awful. Even decades after the fact, these moments will be brought up again and again by people who are supposedly "good" in order to shame the "crazy telepathic woman" into compliance. To me, one of the beauties of the onscreen ScarletVision is that Vision isn't afraid of Wanda and doesn't judge her for her powers. But when Wanda goes crazy in the comics, he divorces her and kicks her out of the Avengers and out of her home. Similarly, in the Dark Phoenix storyline, Wolverine kills Jean, even though he loves her.
What kind of message does that send to mentally ill women? Seriously, think about it. What this trope tells us is that, not only are we entirely capable of losing ourselves and all sense of morality in a single dark moment, but that we will then be universally hated, even by those closest to us. It tells us that we are dangerous, unlovable, unsafe. It tells us that we're lucky to have anyone care about us, that in the end we might even deserve death. All of that stems from horrible, real-life ideas about femalehood and mental illness that do and have led to cruelty, abuse, and actual deaths--not by us, but of us.
So, as is always the case with terrible tropes, my plea to all the writers out there is to stop and reconsider. Do you really need to use this trope in your story? Is there another way to tell a great story and make your point? Have you considered the impact that this trope has on mentally ill people and on women? Do you know what message you're sending?
I honestly believe that this trope needs to be thrown out, entirely. Instead of showing us telepathic women who lose themselves to insanity, show us telepathic women who stay true to their morals. Show us telepathic women who are human and struggle and make mistakes, but who are heroines. Show us telepathic women who are feared by the world but then prove the world wrong, by never becoming the person that the world fears them to be.
Don't turn our heroines into monsters. (And also don't turn classic anti-fascist superheroes into Nazis, either? Like, seriously.)
Let me know what you think about this trope, and if there are any other terrible tropes you'd like to see me address. I will be back again on Tuesday!
Images via comicvine.gamespot.com, marvel.wikia.com, art.alphacoders.com, and eternalcityrp.com.
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