#HerTake: romanticised female suffering in the arts

May 8, 2024

Photograph by Sailko of John Everett Millais painting, Ophelia. Image cropped and licensed to Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Lillia O’Brien examines beauty, tragedy, and mortality in the idealised depiction of women

Trigger Warning: If you’re sensitive about suicide or severe mental health issues, I’d recommend reading this article with caution.

“The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”
– Edgar Allen Poe

A famous Victorian depiction of romanticised female suffering is Millais’ painting Ophelia, inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When it was first exhibited, many critics complained Ophelia’s expression in the artwork didn’t do her pain justice. I believe that Millais demonstrates the unconscious masculine desire to portray female death with an attractive demeanour, denying them the capacity to express their true emotions, and further perpetuating their oppression.

Ophelia’s death scene in Hamlet, where she drowns herself in a lake, has been praised as one of the most poetically written in literature. Arguably a modernised parallel can be seen in Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, where Cecilia Lisbon slits her wrists in the bathtub.

The tragic female characters, Cecilia (The Virgin Suicides) and Lucy Westenra (in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptation), both wear wedding dresses. Similarly, Juliet Capulet (in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) and Lady Jane Grey (in Delaroche’s painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey), wear white dresses reminiscent of wedding gowns. With these depictions, an association between marriage and death arises, especially for 19th-century women. Marriage symbolised status rather than love, signifying both gain and loss of autonomy.

Film tends to romanticise portrayals of female mental illness. In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the dramatic ethereal portrayal of the stunning dancer exhibits symptoms of OCD, anxiety, an eating disorder, and a psychotic breakdown that ends in suicide. It perpetuates the glorification of the character’s mental health struggles. Even real-life experiences of figures like Sylvia Plath, who took her own life, are viewed as poetical rather than due to the tragedy of mental deterioration.

Society’s glamorisation of the deaths of figures; Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse reveals a paradox. Despite being idolised afterwards, they endured mistreatment and neglect during their lives which would likely have continued had they not died young and tragically.

Today, female pain is often used as an expression of empowerment, a phenomenon not mirrored in the male experience

Female suffering is too often romanticised. I’ve observed it within myself and my friends. Female figures who suffered and took their own lives often hold a magnetic appeal. We subconsciously feel drawn to the idea of having such control over our own lives, but we have almost no control at all.

The idea of being able to completely lose oneself, but look good whilst doing it, has a certain twisted draw. This worship of women who killed themselves may be interpreted through the concept, Freudian death drive, where people feel an inherent desire for death and destruction. So, they subconsciously look up to those who end their lives on their own terms. Sylvia Plath’s assertion “I desire the things that will destroy me in the end” sheds light on the allure of female pain as an attempt at liberation through self-destruction.

Today, there is some progress away from these views, with female pain often used as an expression of empowerment, a phenomenon not mirrored in the male experience. The artist, Tracey Emin produces unfiltered and raw pieces, many of which are created in response to her personal experiences. One of her textiles I do not expect emblazoned with the words “I do not expect to be a mother, but I do expect to die alone” reflects her feelings about her two aborted pregnancies. This highlights the reality of suffering within the female experience and demonstrates its power rather than disregarding sadness as an accessory to a woman’s beauty.

In recognising these patterns and societal constructs, we unveil opportunities for change and empowerment. By embracing resilience, diversity and the voices of creative individuals who defy convention, we pave the way for a culture that honours human experiences and enables us to thrive authentically.

As Plath eloquently put it:

“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”

Lillia currently studies Art, Psychology, and English Literature at Woodhouse College. Outside of school, she enjoys acting, reading, listening to music and watching movies.

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