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Shirley and the Archetypal Mad Woman

Image from YouTube.

Shirley spoilers ahead!

I recently watched Shirley on Hulu and it got me thinking about the concept of “madness” through the ages, specifically regarding women. The film centers around a young couple, Rose and Fred, who are offered room and board with famed horror writer Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley. A common theme throughout the movie is that of madness as it pertains to Shirley (and later, Rose). I would also like to point out that I am not referring to madness in the context of mental illness, but rather the colloquial, harmful term used to describe people who act differently.

Shirley is a reclusive, un-social woman with a deep talent for writing horror and a vivid imagination. She is intelligent, creative, and perceptive, but she is also lonely and angry at her cheating husband and the women he sleeps with, leading her to fall into depressive episodes of bedridden unproductivity. When Rose first meets her, she dismisses her as cruel, bitter, and crazy, but as the two grow closer and Shirley grows inspired to write, the roles of mad woman and caretaker are reversed.

Initially, Shirley refused to partake in established displays of civility, pushing back against the status quo through clever subversive dialogue and inappropriate behaviors others considered rude. She was labeled as mad precisely because she didn’t conform. She was different and seemed to have no interest in normalcy, and that alone served to justify her categorization as a mad woman. On the other hand, Rose was “normal.” She and her husband, a young new professor, had a healthy relationship, and she cared for Shirley when she refused to leave her bed or eat. She was also expecting a baby with Fred. Rose was the embodiment of traditional femininity and poise.

Rose and Fred’s relationship devolved, culminating in a shocking reveal that he, just like Stanley, was cheating on his wife with his students. Shirley knew, the same thing happened to her, but she didn’t warn Rose, and thus, Rose went “mad.” She grew angered at the injustice of her situation: she was working, caring for Shirley and her newborn baby, while her husband was fooling around with other women. Then, Rose ventures into the forest and stands on a cliff, and we get two parallel scenarios: one where she inches closer to death and one where she returns to Fred. In the latter scenario, Fred assures her once they move out their lives will return to normal, to which Rose replies that no, returning to her life as the “little wifey” and “little Rosie” will not happen. That was madness. While Rose comes to be labeled as mad, Shirley slowly shrinks herself back into normalcy, dancing with cheater Stanley in the very last scene.

Shirley explores the archetypal mad woman, the woman who refuses to conform to the norm, who will not make herself smaller to fit into a box. It seems to me like madness is a term we use when someone is too big to categorize. When they won’t fit into any predetermined mold or live in a way that is socially acceptable.

In the case of Shirley and Rose, madness is equated with nonconformity to traditional gender roles. Though at different points in the film, they both refuse to be the submissive, obedient wife who labors away at home while her husband does as he pleases. Madness is a label for those who cannot be labeled; it’s a sign of society’s discomfort with the unexpected and the subversive.

Women are told to behave a certain way, to be dutiful wives dependent on their husbands. We are expected to make ourselves smaller for the comfort of men. A mad woman is one who will not do that, one who understands that conforming to gender roles is a slippery slope and that tradition should be questioned. It’s time to reclaim our madness, our uncontainable spirit, and not be afraid of breaking molds.

If being mad means being independent and self-sufficient, content with straying from the paths that others have chosen for us, and making our own way, then I’d say being labeled as a mad woman is something to strive for. Rose arrives at the end of the film a woman with eyes wide open, a woman who will not give up her happiness for someone else’s. We tend to think of madness as losing one’s mind, but maybe it’s the opposite. Perhaps it’s not losing yourself, but finding it.

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Written by Danny

Student at Georgetown University. Lover of Film and TV. Self-taught clown.

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