Saturday, November 6, 2010

Girl, Interrupted: Mental Illness through the Feminist Lens

When I was a teenager, a popular movie amongst my group of friends was the film, “Girl Interrupted.” This dramatic movie featured the story of a seventeen year old girl who spent two years in a mental facility during the time of the feminist struggles in the 1960s. The movie was based on a set of memoirs written by Susanna Kaysen and her journals document the psychological struggles that women, particularly young women, faced during the brink of the radical feminist movement. Although, I have never read the memoirs, Elizabeth Marshall examines the story in her article Borderline Girlhoods: Mental Illness, Adolescence, and Femininity in Girl, Interrupted and looks at the damaging internal effects that oppression and the struggle against patriarchal norms created for the young females of the era. Marshall explains in her article that “Kaysen's retrospective account of her confinement at McLean Hospital makes a cultural intervention that challenges the notion that mental illness is rooted solely in the individual (Keysan, 1994, p. 18).” Although the story was set in the past, recent accounts of women dealing with mental illness in today’s society have not changed drastically.
            The story focuses on wounded, emotional adolescent girls which is a typical picture of the teenaged female in the current media. The young girls that Susanne meets in the institution suffer from self- harming tendencies, eating disorders, self-disfigurement and erratic, non- conventional behaviours of the time. As the audience gets to know the girls behind the disorders, their stories unravel to reveal that many of their “illnesses” began after experiencing traumatic, violent events at the hands of the men in their lives. The main character, Susanne has a somewhat less dramatic story, and although she presents as a young girl with a border line personality disorder, the author explains that she simply just did not fit into the educational and social systems.“ Kaysen places pressure on the ways in which her resistance to the institutions of family and school are read as a lack of self-esteem, as private, rather than as a rebellion against repressive social norms (Marshall, 2006, p. 124).” The author also makes note that many of the disorders present in the institution are diagnosed “more commonly in women”, which also speaks to the fact that, the detrimental exclusive experiences of women are likely the key contributors to their inflictions.
            Although this particular account of mental illness is rooted in the notion that the repressive first half of the twentieth century was the cause of many psychological issues for women, current research on mental illness in women creates a very similar picture. In the article Feminism and health in the decade of behaviour, Travis and Compton argue that issues of women’s health are still related to matters of inequality and “generalized oppression” (Travis, 2001, p. 312). While women of color face the most severe situations of illness due to oppression, women in general are highly subjected to this experience (Travis, 2001). The article lists “inequalities in assessment, treatment and access to care, bias in research and lack of education and training of health care professionals…” as reasons for inadequate responses to these issues (Travis, 2001, p. 312). Much like Keysan’s memoirs, Travis and Compton argue that the mental illnesses are not entirely biological, rather they must be examined through a feminist lens which scrutinises the social structures of society (Travis, 2001).
            Both Keysan’s memoirs and Travis and Compton’s article touch on the radical feminist ideas presented in the Mullaly text, The New Structural Social Work. One of Susanne’s “symptoms” of her mental illness was her tendency towards “promiscuity,” as she had slept with an older man out of wedlock. This was seen as a sign of, again, low self- esteem and bizarre behaviour as she was openly participating in an experience that she could not possibly enjoy or feel good about. This is an example of the idea of male power over women’s sexuality which is a key concept in radical feminist thought (Mullaly, 2007). Radical feminism also “challenges the sexism of the medical profession (Mullaly, 2007, p. 167)” and encourages the implementation of women focussed counselling and treatment facilities. This idea is stressed in the Feminism and heath in the decade of behaviour article.
To this day, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men (Travis, 2001). To Keysan, signs of mental illness were not always signs of illness, but actions of deviating from the norms of oppression and patriarchy. While Travis and Compton speak more about mental illnesses as actual inflictions, it is clear that these issues are caused by the same oppression and patriarchal norms that Keysan wrote about in the 1960s and the methods of treatment are subjected to the same repressive flaws. When it is common knowledge that violence, poverty, abuse, lack of control over one’s life, unreasonable self-expectations, etc., are all factors that create psychological stress and disorder, it is hard to argue against the feminist perspective of mental illness. Until society recognizes and amends all forms of patriarchal violence, women, particularly those who fall into an intersected minority status, will continue to suffer from the psychological stressors of being subtly and boldly oppressed.


Keysan, S. (1994). Girl, Interrupted. New York: Random House/Vintage Books.
Marshall, E. (2006). Borderline Girlhoods: Mental Illness, Adolescence and Femininty in Girl, Interuppted. The Lion and the Unicorn, 30(1), 117-133.
Mullaly, B. (2007). The New Structural Social Work (3 ed.). Ontairio: Oxford Univesity Press.
Travis, C. &. (2001, December). Feminism and health in the decade of behaviour. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25(4), 312-323.

Crystal M.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. I remember watching the film Girl Interrupted as a teen and it fuelled my passion mental disorders. I like how you contrasted a view from the 1960's to the current view of feminism and mental illness. It saddens me that very little has been changed and that us as women have many barriers left to conquer.
    Tara Purvis

  2. I have never seen Girl Interrupted, but I want to because your post really grabbed my attention. I think it's interesting what women and people in general go through so we can learn from the lessons and mistakes that were made. Like you mention in your post, it is disappointing to see that we still have to wait for society to recognize the patriarchal violence.
    - Kristal B

  3. I have never seen Girl Interrupted but have always been interested in seeing it. Your blog really makes me want to go and rent it now.

    I think it has been and still is very hard for many women in our society, minority or not, to be recognized as equal to many men. It also seems that women are not given the recognition that many deserve for their successes in work or in their own communities. Men with a patriarchial view still struggle with treating women as equal.

    When you mention in your post about women being more likley to be diagnosed with depression than men, and Keysan suggesting it was due to deviation from norms of oppression and patriarchy brings the struggle women face into perspective. It is extremely disappointing that we are still struggling with this today.
    Dana W

  4. First off, Girl Interrupted is amazing, I suggest that everybody watch it. Second my best friend suffers from depression and so do all the women on her mother's side of the family. Her sister also suffers from border line personality disorder. The movie describes border line personality disorder almost to a T. I personally think that one of the only reasons women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder is because they are more open about seeking help for it. Men being "macho" aren't willing to get help as it would make them feel weaker.

    Brittney M

  5. I have never seen Girl Interrupted, but I most definitely want to now. The movie sounds very interesting. Men and women lead very different lives. It is a shame that women tend to be judged more. All though there have been some changes to society since the 1960s, there are still stereotypes. These stereotypes affect and get the worse of many people, especially women. Life is hard for women, since there are many expectations and sometimes the struggles lead to depression for example.

    Ashley R.

  6. Read the book and watched the movie! This true story is a great example for a blog on feminism and mental illness. The current field of psychology and psychiatry always seems to side step the issue of the social construction of mental illness in women. We need to remember that at one point the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the bible of psychology/psychiatry) once claimed that homosexuality was a form of mental illness. It was classified under sexual deviance and this was not long ago. It was taken out in the 70's I believe.

    Rachel Ryan-Dorn

  7. I've also read Susanna Kaysen's memoirs and in the back of the book it describes borderline personality syndrome as a "pervasive pattern of instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts." I think this describes adolescence not a disorder.
    Jessica N.