Thursday 29 September 2016

Tanya Sweeney: 'Men invoke the 'bitches be crazy' defence in dating when things don’t go their way'

Any man who refers to another woman as a nutjob or a crazy person gets shown the door

Tanya Sweeney

Published 05/05/2016 | 10:21

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

We need to talk about Federica. You know which one — the one who sashayed into the First Dates restaurant and made the Irish series must-see viewing.

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If the show’s producers wanted talking points, they hit the jackpot with this sultry South African beauty. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the Twittersphere to have their say on Federica: “She’s maaaad!” was the general gist. My phone vibrated with similar sentiments: “What a nutcase!” offered one friend. Once her date got her age wrong, a dozen internet memes were born.

Personally, I adored Federica. She is fun, strong and outspoken. She survived the death of her parents within three years of each other and is still smiling. My hunch is that she would make formidable drinking company. I felt a protective pang towards her when Twitter denounced her as simply mad.

Yet, in the trenches of dating, you would be forgiven for thinking that every Irish woman is a bulb short of a tanning bed. I’ve lost count of the number of dates I have been on where talk turned to an ex, or a former fling. “My God, she was maaaaad,” the menfolk seem to sigh as one.

Looking for love: 'First Dates Ireland' participant Federica featured in the first episode of the new RTE show.
Looking for love: 'First Dates Ireland' participant Federica featured in the first episode of the new RTE show.

One man I know forlornly pointed out how his ex couldn’t get over the death of her grandmother, five weeks after the fact. “She was always going on about it,” he sighed, exasperated. “Headcase.”

Another guy I’d dated spoke of his previous girlfriend with the traumatised tone of a man back from a particularly punishing tour of duty.

“Why, what did she do?” I asked, imagining all sorts of colourful, distressing scenarios.

“Ah, ye know,” he replied. “Ringing me to see where I was. Being jealous all the time. Just… giving out yards about nothing. When we broke up, she told me I had treated her like crap.”

“And had you?” I asked.

His slightly guilty twitch told me all I needed to know. Essentially, his ex was an emotionally sound human being, and he simply couldn’t handle it.

Now I have a golden rule: any man who refers to another woman as a nutjob or a crazy person gets shown the door.

And then it hit me. Men invoke the “bitches be crazy” defence in dating when things don’t go their way. The woman’s apparent addiction to drama makes them feel important. When their date becomes not an eager-to-please wimp, but a real-life human being with feelings and insecurities of her own, when things go sour, it’s easier to sling, “Well, you’re mad anyway” than own up to your own shortcomings.

Culture often describes women as oversensitive, hysterical and crazy, and this is the latest term that effortlessly dismisses and insults women at the same time.

“Bitches be crazy” has even been added to Urbandictionary.com, such is its prevalence. Pop culture has long perpetuated a trope of women as shrieking harpies; their men as stoic, long-suffering sidekicks. There’s even a site where men can rant about “the ridiculous antics of the women in your lives” (bitchesbecrazy.net).

But the thing is, none of these women were mad, not one bit. It’s the easiest way to denigrate a strong, outspoken woman — calling her actual sanity into question. Turning their emotionality as something to kick her down with. In Ireland, it’s part of the conversational tapestry, and I’ve even had to catch myself on occasion uttering, “Sure she’s mad.”

But every time you call someone — and that “someone” is often a woman — a “madser” or a “mental bitch”, you are perpetuating the idea that a simpering, eyelash-batting milksop is a woman’s default setting. That we’re all meant to be pretty, wholesome types, like the Corrs or the Seoiges. A whisper above that? A wild streak to the left? Dare to talk about your chequered past, or your unorthodox views on anything from Beyonce to Nandos? Are you sexually bold and not backwards in coming forwards? Congratulations, you’re officially mental.

Of course, the problems with this language are painfully obvious. Using the word “mental” as a weapon to put someone down undoes the work of several mental health awareness campaigns. It reminds us that “mental” or “mad” is something to be wary of. Something that’s not welcome in our lives. Despite the best efforts of mental health charities, it will always be misunderstood. It will always be “the other”. And there’s absolutely no point in crowing about government money being siphoned away from mental health services in this country if you don’t at least play your own small part first in breaking down the stigma.

Forget actual cold hard cash… our collective mindset is still the problem when it comes to tackling mental health challenges in this country. For all the lip service paid to “talk about it”, there is still so much shame around it. Our readiness to denounce someone as mad is only half the problem. One friend of mine in her 40s — educated, intelligent, self-aware — has only recently owned up to the possibility that she might be experiencing a depressive disorder.

What held her back from investigating it all these years? She didn’t want to be labelled as mad, or mental.

As women get older, and more assured of themselves, they start to realise that kowtowing to convention, or to expectations, is a bit of a waste of time. It’s no coincidence that the older they get, the more you see them described as having gone mad.

It’s not likely that we will be able to prise talk of “headcases”, “nutters” or “certifiable” out of everyday talk. They’re there, at several conversational turns, whether we like it or not. Maybe we need to look at it as a badge of honour. Because once I see a woman described as “a mad yoke”, I know for sure that not only is the person saying it emotionally stunted… what she has actually become is knowledgeable and powerful enough to really speak her mind.

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