115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The 21st Century Hysteric: Sexualizing the Madwoman in Elle and The Piano Teacher

Nathalie Segeral, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

This paper addresses representations of sexuality, “feminine” madness and gendered violence through the male gaze in two novels and their screen adaptations. Both plots revolve around post-traumatic stress disorder resulting in deviant sexuality. While the articulation of female madness with “perverted” sexuality is not a new one, it has become increasingly used over the last decade through scenes of female genital auto-mutilation, pointing to an extension of Freudian “hysteria,” displaced from the uterus to the visual parts of the female sex. 

Proposal: 

This paper addresses the intertwined representations of sexuality, “feminine” madness, and gendered violence through the male gaze in two novels and their screen adaptations: Oh…, written by Philippe Djian and adapted into the movie Elle by Paul Verhoeven, and The Piano Teacher, written by Elfriede Jelinek and directed by Michael Haneke. Both plots revolve around a type of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting in deviant sexuality. While the articulation of female madness with “perverted” sexuality is far from being a new one, it has become increasingly used over the last decade through scenes of female genital auto-mutilation, from Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Friedkin’s The Exorcist, to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, pointing to an extension of Freudian “hysteria,” displaced from the uterus to the visual parts of the female sex.

The pervasiveness of this theme highlights a lack of evolution of the figure of the “mad woman,” since the dichotomy between the “Angel” and the “Monster” denounced in Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic still prevails. Contemporary depictions of the mad woman rest on problematic phallocentric moral issues of self-inflicted gender violence as a form of punishment for transgressing gender boundaries. Drawing on feminist theory (including Dalla Costa’s work on gynocide and Warren’s Gendercide), along with psychoanalytic theory and current psychiatric research on female genital auto-mutilation, I will study what this switch to self-inflicted genital mutilation as a trope for female madness emphasizes about the perception of madness. In this respect, I will highlight major differences between Elfriede’s novel and Haneke’s film. Thus, how does a certain male master narrative dominate the media by infusing the audience’s (un)conscious with images that perpetuate violence against women, as initiated by women themselves? My goal in exploring the construction of the self-de-gendering of the “mad woman” in these instances will be to demonstrate that the figure of the “hysteric” is still pervasive in dominating discourses and to study how these depictions shape popular perceptions of “female madness.”