The body in the wet shroud of transparent ivory was Lizzie Siddal’s. She was a painter’s model.

John Everett Millas filled a bathtub and surrounded it with candles and lamps to heat the water. Maybe she was already shivering when he took her hand to help her into the tub, as the water licked up the thin layers of her dress like a flame. But this was what she had been paid for, and, dutifully, she let the water close over her like a veil.

Lizzie caught a cold while posing for Millas’ masterpiece, Ophelia. She almost died. It’s poignant that Lizzie almost imitates Ophelia’s end—swallowed up in the current of a man’s art, a man’s story. Her body is still on display in the Tate in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings for which she posed.

The refrain of “mad woman” on Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore, says, “No one likes a mad woman.” But that’s not true, is it? Ophelia is beautiful; her story is classic. There is ghastly poetry to a pretty, crazy, dead girl. 

My fascination with the gothic novel began when I was about thirteen, about the same time I was listening to Taylor Swift. The ache of first loves lost in Swift’s music and the thrill of mystery and adult-feeling drama in Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, and Sherlock Holmes enthralled me in that stage of life when everything is overwrought and you live in italics. 

Gothic stories are populated with beautiful, crazy, dead, and “ruined” women. Often they are the villain or the body to be sacrificed to appease the plot. Sometimes they are sane and their communities doubt about the validity of their story serves as a crucible for their ultimate triumph. 

Pretty, crazy, dead girls crop up often in the pilots of mystery TV shows. That woman in the pink coat beneath the magnifying glass of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Patrick Jane’s wife in The Mentalist, slain in her bedroom for her husband’s hubris and folly. A music teacher in the BBC period drama, Ripper Street. At the moment, I cannot think of one mystery show that does not build its plot (and the career of a male detective) on some poor girl’s bones. 

The wild, tragic woman is an ancient old trope, too. Raging Tiamat, the ambiguous mother-lover fertility goddess comes unhinged in the epic Enuma Elish. She’s timeless.“There’s nothing like a mad woman.”

The current trend toward true crime and serial killer story podcasts among young women is reminiscent of fascination with the same gothic theme. What is the allure in such a particular nightmare, in violence against bodies so often similar to our own?

Perhaps it is the magnetic pull of another creature’s interest, however twisted. We girls know we are watched by predators. We feel eyes upon us and instinctively turn our heads to see who it is. But there is also something dark and wrong in being entertained by or identifying with the character in the role of victim. 

Swift may reference the role of a pretty, crazy, dead girl too much. 

Even though folklore feels altogether more reflective, lyrical, and mature than 1984, Reputation, or even Lover, all these albums reference gothic tropes. Swift identifies with the destructive, forbidden, youthful passion of Juliet in “Love Story.” As she transitions into pop, the themes of insanity and death only grow stronger. In “Blank Space,” using the character of the alluring seductress, she sings, “Got a long list of ex-lovers; they’ll tell you I’m insane.” “Look What You Made Me Do” verges on hysterical, complete with Zombie Taylor who can’t come to the phone, “because she’s dead.” “mad woman” is lyrically similar but free from the exaggerated, sensational, highly processed pop sound that has defined the last few years of Swift’s hits. She still lays the blame at the feet of the listener—“You made her like that.” Maybe Swift is voicing her own struggles, which is valuable. But, Swift also doesn’t extend any commentary on the mad woman. The song is mournful but resigned, maybe even cooly observational. “mad woman” is in third person when Taylor has favored first person in her professions of madness. We are outside the pretty, crazy, dead girl, observing the body, as we so often do. 

It’s not like the body is unexpected. That’s why we call our mothers when we walk home after dark. That’s why we lace our keys through our fingers. It’s a formula: 

Female instability + Male violence = Tragedy. 

That’s Ophelia’s story. Our wits are our only defense. If we are inhibited, if we are confused, if we are unstable, we will be prey. And if we survive, they won’t believe us.

We could hear in “mad woman” a mere return to Taylor’s favored theme of bold pride in messy emotions, ruined reputation, oft-broken hearts, and irrationality. Perhaps that’s it—a reclamation of the wild, raw feminine.

If Taylor stops at portrayal, even an empathetic or self-reflective portrayal, however, her’s is just another career built on the pretty, crazy, dead girl trope. There is precious little dignity in mere display. 

If Taylor Swift’s musical story has three themes, they are: 

  • Broken hearts, 
  • Crazy, pretty dead girls, 
  • And a person of great privilege seeming to care too little, too late. 

Swift is theatrical. She excels at portrayal. But she is slow to prompt action. And so am I. Part of Taylor Swift’s appeal to me is the personal resonance of her stumbling journey of learning to express one’s own heartbreak while also responding to the massive weight of others’ suffering and injustice that makes our pains seem small in comparison. The temptation is strong to cannibalize another’s suffering in art, either as entertainment or when we make art that makes us the activist hero or capitalizes on the sensationalism of tragedy. 

Swift’s musical journey over the last few years (particularly “mad woman”) is a powerful reminder for artists not to drown out or consume another woman’s cry in our story of woe or joy. If we are Jane Eyre, we should tell Bertha Mason and Ophelia’s story in a compassionate third person.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    There’s a lot in here that I haven’t fully dissected yet, but I wanted to give you two YA book recommendations that center on this “mad women” trope, especially in mystery fiction: The Female of the Species by Mindy Mcginnis and Sadie by Courtney Summers.

    “It’s poignant that Lizzie almost imitates Ophelia’s end—swallowed up in the current of a man’s art, a man’s story.” Isn’t it funny how women’s bodies are the foundation of so many stories? I’m reminded of Ta Nehisi Coates’ sentiment in Between the World and Me: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

    Thanks for this. Always love a pop culture deep dive take from you, Emily.

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    I thought this a cleverly told review of two intertwining pieces, but then you walloped me at the end with a significant heartfelt truth. People don’t often speak up when the things they resonate with carry negative elements, but it is this vulnerability that does it justice. That these are issues that we face, and if we can be honest, that we might also face.

    Sidenote: “Living in italics” is such a beautiful phrase.

    Reply

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