I’m watching Country Strong in the background tonight because it’s a movie where Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to be weak, because she’s losing her battle with addiction, but she comes across (to me) as incredibly strong. This is a genre of movies I think Netflix should curate for me, Movies People Love To Hate Because They’re About White Privileged Women With Mental/Chemical Problems. Genre includes: Country Strong, Girl Interrupted, Black Swan. I watch them over and over and connect each time on a visceral level that most people reserve for like, hearing the national anthem.
So, this is in the background tonight while I’m gchatting a friend about a controversial writer, whom I love. My friend’s opinion was less approving.
The reason I have a very particular kind of affection for her, I argued, is because of her memoir. She spilled her guts about her struggles with mental illness and chemical abuse and people were just like “LOL privileged white girl, you call these problems?” As if traumas are a pissing contest and only the winner is allowed to shed tears or feel badly. Bad experiences are real to the people who experience them, they aren’t negated by the existence of worse experiences for which the person has no means of measuring themselves. I think about what I would do if at a young age if I did something I was proud of, turned my scars into stories–and even being knowledgable about how deeply they affected me–people rejected the notion that I should be allowed to be upset about what they judge to be trivial things.
My friend said, we take young dying pretty actresses or writers and get camp value out of their self destruction and that in these cases, if they didn’t have those things, those privileges, they would likely be dead or in a clinic or shelter with the rest of the junkies. Which is fair.
But the magnetism to these stories, for me, is how honestly they portray women. They are faulty and deeply flawed, they are unlike any other characterizations of women in media: they are real, they hint at this unspoken bond I have felt with other women.
I’m obsessed with something the model and writer Crystal Renn said, “We can always find each other, we girls with secrets.”
It brings me back to 2006 when my friend and I were kneeling on the floor in adjacent stalls at a suburban Taco Bell, alternatively holding hands and puking. We knew each other well enough to know we’d both had “eating issues” in the past, but that applies to most girls, honestly, and the stories are told with a narrative of having reached full and final recovery, always. We were both 21 and living in a shitty house and doing just enough to not get swallowed up by the enormity of our respective post-college neurotic avalanches. We didn’t speak, or plan our twisted means of catharsis. We found each other without words, synchronized as if our muscle memory knew the same choreography.
The loudest voices in our culture tells us mental suffering isn’t as “real” as physical suffering (this is patriarchy, see dualism), that self-expression is narcissism, and that the only narrative to tell about mental illness and addiction is one of complete recovery, retrospect, and in which we diminish the all-consuming hell our lives became for a time because there are bigger issues in the world–other people’s. This is wrong.
As women we’re particularly inclined to devalue our own feelings already. We can’t think our stories are worthy or writing down or sharing? I look at a lot of media like it is an open market. If someone wrote an essay no one related to, it wouldn’t get read or shared on a mass level and we would solve our own “problem.” The fact that these stories are popular speaks to how many women relate to them. This is a powerful, and good, thing.