Disciplining through Depression: An Analysis of Contemporary Discourse on Women and Depression

By Hurt, Nicole E. | Women's Studies in Communication, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Disciplining through Depression: An Analysis of Contemporary Discourse on Women and Depression


Hurt, Nicole E., Women's Studies in Communication


Today, more than 14 million people reportedly suffer from depression, with the majority of that group being women. Due to the seemingly ubiquitous nature of this disease, this essay seeks to elucidate the ways in which we currently think and talk about women and depression. While previous scholars have explored the social context of women's depression in social scientific studies, this essay provides insight into the ways popular discourse constructs women and depression from a critical rhetoric paradigm. I argue that the dominant discourse about depression constructs women as possessing defective bodies and passive minds; bodies that are sites of danger because of the unpredictable problems that result from women's "natural" susceptibility to depression. The culmination of these claims results in a powerful disciplinary mechanism--one that by encouraging maintenance of the female body functions to both silence the complexity of a unique and wide-ranging experience and mask the cultural, social, and political factors of that experience. Keywords: depression, women, discipline, critical rhetoric.

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In late-spring of 2005, a very vocal controversy over postpartum depression and antidepressant use infiltrated the mainstream media. The impetus for the media craze did not come from a startling new study, but, rather, it came from actor Tom Cruise's commentary on fellow actor Brooke Shields's use of antidepressants. The banter that ensued between the two celebrity camps became fondly termed the "war of words" in direct reference to the film that Cruise was promoting, The War of the Worlds. The "war of words" began when Cruise sat down for an interview with Access Hollywood. During the interview, Cruise criticized Shields for both taking antidepressants to treat her postpartum depression and "promoting" the use of antidepressants to others. Cruise proclaimed that "vitamins and exercise" could produce the same amount of benefits as antidepressants. A month later, Cruise again reiterated his judgment against Shields on a widely seen and circulated episode of the Today Show. Cruise caused quite a firestorm when he went head-to-head with Today host Matt Lauer. Throughout the tense discussion, Cruise repeatedly questioned both Lauer's and Shields's knowledge and experience and at one point emphatically exclaimed, "You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do."

Whether or not Tom Cruise truly understands the history of psychiatry remains to be seen. The ways in which women's lives have been influenced by the fields of psychiatry and psychology, however, remain certain. According to Phyllis Chesler, author of Women and Madness, many women writers were hospitalized for "various psychiatric 'symptoms'" in the early to mid twentieth century (45). Chesler, who traces the lives of famous writers such as Ellen West, Sylvia Plath, and Zelda Fitzgerald, writes, "For them, madness and confinement were both an expression of female powerlessness and an unsuccessful attempt to reject and overcome this state" (55-56). Living at a time when women's roles were strictly defined and those who strayed from these definitions were often diagnosed with a threatening psychotic disorder known as madness, depressed women sought ways to escape their sex-based confinement. Misunderstood and dejected, many depressed women, including West and Plath, turned to suicide to escape the banality of their everyday lives. Today, more than 14 million people suffer from depression, which is one of the symptoms of madness that mystified people at the turn of the century (Kluger and Song 48). In today's society, it seems plausible to think that the stigma that once plagued depression may have been obliterated due to the significant number of people who now suffer from the disorder.

Yet, do the ways in which we currently conceive of women's depression really differ from the intense stigmas of the past? How do we talk about women's depression?

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Disciplining through Depression: An Analysis of Contemporary Discourse on Women and Depression
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