How Crazy Became All the Rage on TV

Television’s new female archetype is single-minded but manic, and the leader of the pack is Homeland’s Claire Danes. Elizabeth Wurtzel on why that’s a problem.

Crazy is the new bitchy. At least that is the case when it comes to women in popular culture.

Career women used to be angry. They ate Swanson dinners at the kitchen counter and drank Chardonnay alone, then fired everybody the next day. Now they take home strange men they meet buying mescal at the grocery store, and have a hell of a wild night.

Consider Homeland, and a scary blonde named Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes), who is stark raving mad. Years from now, when we have a scary blonde president, in the series finale of Homeland, we will discover that Carrie is a double agent who has been an al Qaeda operative all along. What other explanation is there? Otherwise, the show is Casablanca’s hill of beans, except that in a world gone wrong, it is the troubles of one loony woman that matter more than anything. In the name of God and country, Carrie seduces Brody the could-be would-be terrorist—and also stalks him in person and by surveillance.

Then, in the name of love—because they don’t make toe shoes fine enough for the pirouette of loving a terrorist and hating terrorism—Carrie considers giving up on God and country to live happily ever after with Brody. Then everything changes when she has to keep her CIA job to clear his name when he is presumed to have blown up Agency headquarters.

We get attached to characters on TV or in books or movies because no matter how strange they are, somehow they are just like us. And many women watch Homeland because it reminds them of their own jobs. After all, Carrie is troubled and extraordinary, but no matter how often she is right, she is always at odds with her inferior superiors—and who does not know that nagging feeling?

Underappreciated if not unappreciated, Carrie persists. The men in charge eventually admit Carrie was right all along—until they sell her out again when it’s convenient. They can do this, because she is a true believer: the personal is professional.

None of this could have happened to Carrie, but for the bipolar illness that she does not always treat properly. I don’t know when it became the fashion to attach brilliance as a side effect to a mood disorder. Personally, I will take the compliment, but there is no reason to believe anything good comes from bad moods except big doctor bills and crime sprees of the unspeakable variety.

In fact, my biggest argument with Homeland is the suggestion that a manic-depressive functional enough to be a CIA agent would be on an outmoded cure like lithium when many more refined medications have come along, the kind that are easier to comply with and don’t result in the kind of crazy that is Carrie. But, of course, the whole point of Carrie is crazy. The subplot is always whether The Company will outrun her latest mood swing, which also turns out to be somehow brilliant. And this I can’t abide: While it is an ancient literary trope that the madman sees what the rest of us cannot, in reality, a delusional person is just that.

This seems to be a persistent problem in TV culture. All the women on Newsroom are nuts. It was a female producer who threw her credibility behind the idea that the United States military was using nerve gas, and while the whole mess was going down she was mostly bothered by a mistake on her Wikipedia page. Of course that’s nothing compared to the woman who cut her own long blond hair into ugly, chopped orange, or the one who leads Occupy Wall Street and has no demands, or the one obsessed with signing a book that no one bought anyway.

But it’s not just television. Miley Cyrus’s act—and it is nothing but an act—is predicated on unhinged sexuality that is not sexy at all, but it is weird; her father defends it as some sort of comeback, which is weirder. Jennifer Lawrence won her Oscar for playing a mentally ill young woman in Silver Linings Playbook. More recently, Blue Jasmine, a brilliant and beautiful film with a shocking performance by Cate Blanchett, is a portrait of a woman undone and becoming more so.

Since art reflects life, this ought to mean that women are crazier than they used to be. But that is not how things look to me at all: If anything, it is men I fear for. There are 535 members of Congress, and only 102 of them are women—19 percent—and it is a deeply dysfunctional institution slouching toward crazy.

Consider comparative filibusters. Ted Cruz spent a little more than 21 hours speechifying, quoting Ashton Kutcher and reading Dr. Seuss, which has led the Senate to agree on only one thing: Ted Cruz is awful. On the distaff side, Wendy Davis had a true filibuster in the Texas State House, talked for 11 hours about the right to abortion, and stopped legislation from passing, at least temporarily. And she did it in pink Mizuno running shoes.

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Wendy Davis is another scary blonde. I mean that as high praise, of course.