Outlive Your Idols: Why do crazy girls always die young?
It is an almost universal experience among mentally ill women in their 20s — “I did not think I would be alive this long, and I don’t know what I’m doing”.
This is no coincidence. It is carefully designed by years — centuries even — of representation, media coverage and literature. We have, by 18 or 19, outlived characters and people we felt close to or represented by. We are past it, has-beens, either too old to die as this beautifully preserved tragically lost innocent darling, or we assume that we will not live long enough to get wrinkles and follow in suit of Plath. We romanticise our own demise simply because our demise and demise of girls like us has been romanticised for centuries.
Look first at Ophelia — a perfect example. Ophelia is beautiful, angelic, she is love and innocence personified. When she experiences heartbreak, she has a short lived personal crisis, and ends her life. She is only remembered for her pure soul and face. Shakespearean tragedies are not in themselves a perfect example of this — the whole purpose of them is to, unsurprisingly, evoke tragedy and many characters die in many different circumstances — but the resulting influenced characters and the trope of Dead Sad Girl can be linked to this.
A character directly influenced by Ophelia is Sibyl Vane in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. She is innocent, beautiful, loving, who is heartbroken by a man who discards her. She ends her life in the exact same way — and is even spoken about in comparison to Ophelia among other characters she played as an actress: “The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she was always a dream, a phantom that flitted through Shakespeare’s plays and left them lovelier for its presence, a reed through which Shakespeare’s music sounded richer and more full of joy.”
We can compare these references with modern representations.
Two books that boomed during my adolescent years were Looking for Alaska and The Virgin Suicides. The Virgin Suicides speaks for itself. The boys see the Lisbon girls as something to project their own ideas and fantasies on. Their isolation and death helps create an air of mystery that makes it easier to fabricate their own lives. These girls exist only as objects of desire and fascination — never as multi faceted characters.
Looking for Alaska features the classic manic pixie dream girl whose wild free spirited energy changes and enriches the life of the male protagonist before dying suddenly and tragically.
This “die before they see you grow” is shown in 13 Reasons Why’s Hannah Baker, too, which raises concerns that the new generation of children and teenagers will wind up in the same predicament we are in now.
Why do these girls die? Simply put, because their appeal is tied to their beauty and youth, and because their madness is exhausting to endure for large periods of time. It’s a tale as old as time — you fall mentally ill, suffer, try to recover, everyone is on your side. Then you relapse again and again, and, eventually, people lose interest. Change the record. This was fun to begin with but now dealing with you is tiring. Cut it out. Etc.
Everyone loves a crazy girl. We’re fun and sexy when we’re a featured character, a walk on, a girl self destructing from the sidelines. We’re spontaneous, impulsive, toxic — but like, in a hot way. Recovering means letting that all go.
Recovery means letting wrinkles settle. It means gaining weight. It means gaining a healthy complexion rather than looking pretty and gaunt. It means not having countless reckless adventures — doing hard drugs and going on road trips with strangers on a Wednesday afternoon. Surely these are all good things, no? Wrinkles mean you’re surviving. Weight gain means you’re growing. Brighter eyes and skin mean your insides are happier with you.
To us, they are wonderful things. To the men reliant on our inability to make good choices about what situations we get into and who we allow in our lives anymore? Not so much. If you recover, you won’t be on the other end of the phone to that perpetual Soft Boy who wants to steal your chaotic energy and discard you. And they need us to remain unable to see that.
Adolescent Phe let boys turn her body into kindling to warm their hands on. I am not alone in this. They want to see us suffer, because it is fascinating to watch — like a car crash. Nobody really thinks about the person at the front wheel with a brain injury. And death, believe it or not, is not the ultimate revenge. 13 Reasons Why did not invent this idea, suicidal teens have thought it for generations — “if I die, then everyone who hurt me will be sorry. This will show them.”
No. It will not. What will show them is you taking your medication and building yourself a life, slowly but surely. Developing your own happiness, staying safe, working on your soul. What will show them most of all is you not caring about getting revenge on them. When you grow to the point where ‘showing them’ is not your priority, because you have truly focused on your own well being.
We have to deconstruct this narrative of girls dying before they have a chance to become unattractive to men. It’s harmful. It’s beyond harmful. Let mentally ill girls age. Let them become women. Let them get soft, plump, healthy. Let them outgrow their former friends and lives. Let them get wrinkles and stretch marks and cellulite and saggy breasts and grey hair. To budding writers, write mentally ill women but, when you do, please let them live.
This piece was based on one of the first blog posts I wrote in 2016 (long since deleted) and was ignited by my feelings surrounding Fiona Apple’s re-emergence with her new album. She, at 42, is one of the best living role models mentally ill young women have — she is proof you can become a fully fledged adult and survive your teens and 20s. To her work, her mind, her rightful anger and persistence I am forever indebted.