Exquisite Renditions of Drowning

First published in The Irish Examiner for International Women’s Day

In 1852, a young woman named Lizzie Siddal lay in a bathtub of ice water while John Everett Millais painted her as Ophelia. You know the painting I’m talking about. A red-haired woman lies listlessly in a river, her hands and face just barely breaking the water’s surface.  She is breathlessly fragile, and being swept along in the most exquisite rendition of drowning that art has ever known. 

It’s 2020, and I’m beginning to worry that we’re still a little too captivated by exquisite renditions of drowning. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched the media paw over the details of Taylor Swift’s eating disorder, Jameela Jamil’s medical conditions, Caroline Flack’s mental health. After Mel C appeared on Desert Island Discs recently, every headline about the episode began with details of how she “divulged” her experience of depression on air. In every case, the more detail, the better. Exactly how little a woman was eating, exactly how much she despised herself, exactly how close she was to slipping under the water.

This is not an objection to increased dialogue around mental or physical health, nor a plea for women in the public eye  to stop opening up about their personal traumas. This is about a full-scale conversation flip: one that began with “it’s important to hear the gnarly truth of people’s lives” to “women must ceaselessly bleed so that we can extend the smallest bit of empathy towards them”. 

At one point, it seemed like the currency conversion of trauma to empathy was one for one. Now, it feels like media has inflated the market past the point of all sense, and the market has bottomed out considerably. To be regarded as a human, your ability to withstand pain must almost be superhuman.

This is not just a celebrity thing, either. Having worked in the media for several years, I’ve had innumerable drinks with some of the sturdiest, most red-blooded women I know, all of whom have carefully cultivated a presence of professional fragility in order to make a living. Women who bang back straight whisky, ordered another round, and then said “don’t worry lads, this one’s on Grazia”. “What have you stuck them for this time?” we ask. “Some shit about my dad leaving us.”

To be clear, it’s not that these women don’t have complex emotions about whatever personal difficulty they have been asked to write about. It’s just that there’s an implicit expectation that, when she writes about it for the media, she must heighten every wound, and darken every night sky so that every light is blotted out until the solo, hopeful star at the end of the closing paragraph.  “No one is ever slightly upset,” an editor told me once, underlining my tendency to temper emotions in print with a “somewhat” or a “slightly”. “You’re either upset, or very upset.” 

I would feel bad ratting my friends out if I weren’t so ready to confess to doing it myself. For years, I worked at an online magazine where we were expected to rinse our personal lives for clickable copy. There, my questionable ex-boyfriends became “toxic” ex-boyfriends. My moments of mental unrest became my “struggles” with mental health. The more my online writing became popular, the more I would heighten every experience until it could be summed up to a single statement: poor me. Poor me!! 

For years, the language around female humanity has become an obsession with female vulnerability. We have become breakable in print in a way that is absolutely at odds with our real lives, our piss and vinegar reduced down to a lukewarm solution of bath salt and tap water. “What happened to fabulousness?” a friend screams down the phone at me. I’m not sure. It seems to be floating down the river with Lizzie Siddal. 

There are a lot of admirable things to hope for on International Women’s Day: a fairer, less violent world for women, pay equity, no more thrush. But my small hope on this one is that our lives in print start to resemble the ones I know we’re leading in real life. The women I know who have the hardest lives are also the ones who are the most willing to laugh at it, and Christ, we need the laughs.