February 24, 2014

HENRY | Does That Make Me Crazy?

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A couple of months ago, my friend, (let’s call him “Frank”), and I sat on his faux-leather couch, bundled up against his failing heat system. He told me about a girl who had been texting him every few nights asking if he was going out. Sometimes when Frank was at parties, this Jane Doe would hang out nearby, attempting to initiate conversations with him. Because of her surprised, wild-looking, shifty gaze, we called her “Crazy Eyes,” and referred to her as “crazy” a few times throughout our conversation.

Describing women as “crazy” is ubiquitous today, but in this instance it began to upset me. It felt rude and demeaning, and the conversation ballooned to other stories Frank and his roommates shared about other “crazy” women. Embarrassingly, however, it wasn’t male, fratty, beer-crushing and emotionally-unattached Frank who said the nickname first. It was me.

I said it because it sounded funny. I said it because we tend to make jokes about our experiences for fun. But mostly, I said it because I felt lazy, and “crazy” has become a vocabulary touchstone for an ocean of obnoxious, archetypal sentiments about women.

“Crazy” is a one-stop shop of descriptions of women we find to be irritating, sensitive, exuberant, drunk, romantically-interested, loud or upset. We rarely call women “crazy” because we’re actually trying to empathize with real mental health issues with which they might be dealing. We call women crazy for sending rude texts to exes. We call women crazy for demanding discussion of a break-up.

Mostly, however, we call women crazy for acting too interested in potential romantic partners. In this way, “crazy” is a descriptor very much tied to our sexual and romantic identities. Charlotte Lieberman, a recent Harvard grad, wrote about this phenomenon in a recent Cosmopolitan piece, “Why Is College Dating So Screwed Up?” that (I hope) you’ve seen circulating your social media accounts. Lieberman highlights what academics have called “the whoever-cares-less-wins dynamic” under which “it always feels like the person who cares less ends up winning.” I agree with Lieberman that our college communities place a premium on being “chill,” and that sexual dynamics are such that seeming uninterested gives you the edge.

Last summer, I was intrigued by similar themes I encountered when I read Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and her 2012 follow up piece, “Boys on the Side.” In the latter, Rosin praises hook-up culture for enabling college women to engage in relationships while freeing time for other pursuits. Indeed, she asserts that “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.” At the end of her piece, Rosin observes that ultimately women will need time “to figure out what they want and how to ask for it,” perhaps laying aside hook-up relationships as they pursue satisfying, deeper emotional connections. She doesn’t see that process as mutually exclusive from the hook-up culture, and actually thinks engaging in hook-up culture provides women with time to mature into long-term relationship decisions.

When we consider Rosin’s assertions about the empowering effects of hook-up culture alongside the rhetoric we use to describe it, it’s hard to agree with her. She, and many like-minded contemporary feminist thinkers, point to college-age women’s participation in hook-up culture and relatively high levels of achievement to conclude that there is an empowering effect. In her eagerness to causally link hook-up culture with college women’s ability to achieve at increasingly high levels, Rosin glosses over potential emotionally counter-productive impacts of hook-up culture on that same demographic. Rosin correctly identifies empowering elements of this culture, but fails to acknowledge everyday sexist rhetoric that mitigates those empowering effects.

Though I wish I could agree with her that hook-up culture actually promotes women’s success, here at Cornell and elsewhere, I have to conclude that women are kicking butts and taking names in spite of a cultural tradition that tells us “to care is to be crazy.”  Alternatively, when women genuinely don’t care to be seriously engaged with romantic partners and engage in hook-up culture for fun, we run the risk of being labelled “slutty,” “promiscuous” or a variety of other Scarlet Letter worthy descriptions.

In our cold winter conversation, Frank and I were saying that because she expressed overt interest in Frank, Jane Doe had stepped over a line college culture has drawn between “chill” and “crazy.” To express interest as a woman without assurance of reciprocation, even in a hook-up context, means you’re “crazy.”

 And not just to the archetypal frat boys of the world — I, and most women I know, use the description as casually and as inaccurately as ever.

I know Jane Doe. She’s not crazy, she’s not overly-promiscuous and she deserves to move through Cornell and its accompanying social scene without having to perform a reputational tightrope act worth of Cirque du Soleil. Her experience (and that of myself on occasion and, likely, a significant population of Cornell women) shows us that agency in the hook-up culture doesn’t put women on the same level as men. Instead, said culture paints over a continued social prejudice against women who take ownership of their own romantic futures. The rhetorical traditions that accompany hook-up culture encourage us, men and women alike, to crucify women who take matters into their own hands as “crazy” or “wanton.”

Ever since I started writing a column that focuses on campus issues, I’ve tried to focus on institutions — Greek life, the University administration and beyond. But a lot of the problems start right at home with me, my friends, you, your friends and the way we talk. Our use of words like “crazy” are verbal abbreviations that save us the time of an accurate description, but lead us to marginalizing women and, indeed, trivializing real mental health issues. I’m not going to call women crazy anymore, and I hope you’ll join me.