Photo by Jelle Boontje
During the Victorian Era, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a means of getting back at Weir Mitchell, the physician whose diagnosis of her illness almost drove her as insane as the protagonist in her short story. Having just had a baby, Gilman suffered from depression and her physician, Mitchell, prescribed a “rest cure,” during which she was not allowed to work (write), or have any contact with other people. Because she was a woman, and because men dominated the medical industry, women were commonly controlled in this way, as were their bodies and their illnesses.
Hysteria at this time was the prevailing female illness; it was known as a nervous condition that was attributed to women because the illness was associated with the uterus. Whenever a woman expressed doubts, fainting spells, headaches, or signs of depression, doctors were there to pat them on their shoulders and tell them that it was because of their hysterical uterus—they were nervous and anxious because they were women and they had to rest their bodies and their minds. They were not supposed to read or write or talk or do anything that would get their imaginations running out of control. They were to be pacified.
This kind of rest cure almost drove Gilman insane; outraged at the physician and his obviously mistaken diagnosis, Gilman disobeyed his professional orders and did the opposite. Feeling better, she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” not only to expose the physician, who in the end admitted his mistake and took better care in his examination of female illnesses, but also to expose the patriarchal and one-sided stance the medical industry assumed when dealing with women’s complaints and ailments. Not only did the industry function to alienate women and their concerns, but they also normalized an illness that could only be attributed to women since they were the sole possessors of the enigmatic uterus. Since they were believed to be fragile creatures by nature, women were placated to and told that there was something wrong with them; their gender was inherently hysterical. It couldn’t possibly be because these very same women were oppressed and confined to the private realms of their lives, without voice, self-possession, or power.
And this has not changed.
Photo by Constantin Jurcut
Although women are no longer placed in institutions by their husbands and fathers for being the victims of hysteria, today the medical industry continues to make money off the insecurities of women. Plastic surgery has found its niche in female imperfection, normalizing the notion that women need to have bigger breasts, wrinkle-free faces, flatter stomachs, and thin bodies in order to be loved and accepted. Through the onslaught of media and advertising, women are sent daily messages, brainwashed into seeing themselves as ugly and imperfect. Not only will the men in their lives not love them, but they cannot love themselves unless they look like they are in their twenties. When women go into a physician’s office with complaints of depression and insecurities about their looks, instead of encouragement, they are given drugs to pacify them, numb them, or they are told that with a tuck here and a pinch there, botox injections here and a size bigger breast there they will feel better about themselves. And today’s women buy into plastic surgery and the pursuit of body perfection in the same way women bought into rest cure treatments and hysteria in the Victorian era: with the same desire towards feeling better and more fulfilled.
There is an illness that prevails among women—in the past and in the present—but it has nothing to do with their uterus, their fragility, or their perfect or imperfect bodies: it has to do with their lack of power in a male-dominated world. Women seemingly have more power today than they did in the past—they obviously have more choices—but these choices are riddled with conflict, for they still live in a world that continues to function under patriarchal laws—written and unwritten. When the needs and voices of men overwhelm the needs and voices of women—when women are still perceived as inferior in the workforce, in politics, and in the family—women will continue to exist as secondary entities, subscribing to the laws of men prescribed upon their bodies with a sense of ownership and entitlement.
If she were still alive, what kind of short story would Gilman be writing in response to this?
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