You know one gender stereotype I can’t stand? It’s that men are more stable than women. It’s everywhere. Every undesirable quirk we have is seen as an irrevocable sign of craziness. But when men do fucked-up shit it’s seen as a personality problem.
Women are looked at as out of control while men get the dishonorable but more agency-implying label of sociopath. And let’s face it, sociopaths are slick. Look at Tony Soprano.
To most people, out of control means irrational. Irrational means stupid. And God forbid anybody be stupid. Because that’s the worst thing in the world.
If you think being on antidepressants is the most reliable sign that you’re nuts then you need to think more critically. Men are not more emotionally stable than women. Not at all. Men’s instability just comes out differently.
Let’s look at the predominant sex in some common mental disorders:
- Bipolar disorder: about 50/50
- Schizophrenia: about 50/50
- Autism: men 5:1
- ADHD: about twice as common in men
- Depression: twice as common in women
- Anxiety: twice as common in women, except social anxiety which is equal
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder: about 50/50
- Borderline personality disorder: about 75% women (some sources say it’s more even)
- Histrionic personality disorder: women 4:1
- Narcissistic personality disorder: 62% men
- Antisocial personality disorder: about 75% men
That looks like a pretty equal split to me, even if you do take those numbers for granted. The most “traditional” mental illnesses: meaning those most likely to have psychotic features – are schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. If we’re talking about people who are truly not entirely responsible for their emotions and brain functions, then Mother Nature made us pretty even.
Once we get into cognitive disorders it’s mostly males. Which could be accurate. Men are more likely to suffer from intellectual development disorder. (Intellectual development disorder is now used in lieu of “mental retardation.”) But there’s a good case that those percentages are more equal than we think. Boys with autism or ADHD are more likely to get diagnosed. They cause problems in school. They’re more aggressive towards their peers. They’re impulsive. Girls with developmental disorders are quiet and inattentive. Teachers usually can’t tell if one student is zoning out because they’re trying to handle too many kids at once.
Social expectations make a difference here too. Boys with autism learn that people might respect them if they know things. They want to be heard. Girls with autism know that being weird is going to alienate them. They learn to shut the hell up. Autistic girls frequently develop eating disorders because they learn that looking good, not knowing shit, is the best way to get people to like them.
I’m going to focus on the cluster here, though. Because they’re the most telling. If we look at the numbers we can see that the percentages are roughly the same. But we see narcissists and sociopaths as trying to gain control. They’re the Wall Street douchebags who have an objective and are going to accomplish it no matter what. Meanwhile, borderlines and histrionics have lost control. They’re just trying to get attention to fill some deep-seated void left by hurtful childhood experiences. They’ve got no objective that makes sense to anyone. Basically, men=evil, women=crazy. Which is, in a word, bullshit.
Narcissists demand attention just as much as BPDs and histrionics do. But in the form of admiration. Not unconditional love. Admiration is not a gendered need. The best example of a stereotypical female narcissist is Snow White’s stepmom who’s aging and tries to kill Snow White for being hotter. Now tell me that bitch doesn’t have agency. Some famous women (not going to name names) don’t seem too far off from that.
The narcissist tycoon who needs perpetual sycophants is just as needy as the “BPD” chick who slits her wrists outside your house. And they both have equally clear goals. These disorders are so similar anyway that if you’ve got one, there’s like a 40% chance you’ve got the other. The only real difference is that we see narcissists as intensely self-focused while borderlines are formless and malleable.
Borderline personality disorder is often thought of as the female ID gone out of control. I don’t believe that for one second. Think about the massive, massive number of psychopathic, controlling men out there who need a woman they can kick around to justify their existence. The guys who sleep all day and drink all night and have no conceivable interests except isolating themselves and their partner from everybody because the whole world wants to take their woman away from them. I don’t think anyone would call these guys feminine. But they are so codependent that they’ll scream things like “I’ll kill you if you leave me!” And a lot of them actually do.
Why is Alex from Fatal Attraction crazy and losing control while these guys are assholes trying to gain it? The line between crazy and evil is not always that strongly drawn. I’m certainly not saying all people with personality disorders are violent. It’s a spectrum like anything else. But we need to have a more nuanced perspective on how we look at these things. Not one based on black-and-white stereotypes.
And do we really believe that women are more depressed? Look at everything there is to be depressed about in the world. Failed ambitions, bad marriages, loser kids, war, death. These things affect men the same way they affect us. It just comes out differently. Most mental health literature says that women internalize their depression while men externalize it. Women look depressed. We blame it on ourselves. We’re also more likely to seek mental health help because there’s less stigma attached to women showing weakness.
Depressed men are more likely to take it out on other people. On a low-grade level, this is hip. Everyone loves the tormented, cynical genius even though he probably has dysthymia. Women can’t pull that off. We’re supposed to be cheerful for other people’s benefit.
And anxiety? We can’t have men being anxious, right? Except for OCD. That’s when you’re in total control of your surroundings. And social anxiety. That aforementioned tortured genius can’t stand to be around other people, dealing with that plebian bullshit.
But what do you call all those moody guys who can’t stand it if you say some unpredictable thing in a certain way? Some guys get set off by the strangest things. And they’re not just being particular.
Twice as many men than women have substance abuse disorders. Twice as many women than men are on antidepressants. Does that sound like men are self-medicating to you?
Look: I’m mentally ill. Most of the guys I’ve dated have been mentally ill, in varying degrees. You know Murphy’s Law that says never hook up with someone crazier than you? I must have broken that at least fifty times. And it was hot. Crazy men are hot when they’re not dangerous. Women fetishize male whack jobs just like men fetishize us. It’s just not seen that way. Look at Fifty Shades. Ana Steele is pretty stable. Christian is insane. Drama follows him wherever he goes.
My point is that being in control and out of control is a finer line than we think. And it’s not even remotely gendered. Plus, being unstable is a shitty thing most of the time, but there are a few advantages. A lot of us are more accepting of others. Not to mention that “neuroticism” (basically anxiety), bipolar, schizophrenia, and autism have all been linked to higher intelligence. It just sucks that we’re getting the bad with the good. And it really sucks that we don’t live in a world yet where a guy can tell his bros he’s bipolar without being at least somewhat blamed.
Mental illness exacerbates gender differences. It doesn’t conform to them. Our expectations are making women with mental illness even more vulnerable than they already are. And they’re keeping men from getting help. We should stop ascribing gender differences to women and men and just look at how they manifest naturally.