What the media gets wrong about women’s pain
By Amelia Wallworth
Beauty is pain. As a woman, I am well aware of this. Society’s grotesquely impractical beauty standards force women into a routine of loathing, and altering, our natural state. But, I wonder if this saying’s antimetabole — that pain is beauty — holds a similar power.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is the epitome of romanticized female pain. Following Hamlet’s rejection and her father’s death, Ophelia suffers a nervous breakdown and eventually drowns — unclear to the audience whether it was by accident or suicide. In the play, Ophelia’s death is depicted as serene, even beautiful. She drowns amongst an array of floating flowers, weighed down by her “mermaid-like” dress. Her pain is remembered not as the product of incessant mistreatment at the hands of her male counterparts, but rather as an example of the impenetrable beauty of femininity. Ophelia’s pain is not allowed to be ugly or harsh or angry. Ophelia’s pain is not allowed to be authentic.
The hijacking of female pain goes far beyond Hamlet. Fiction gives creators the power to shape plots and characters in any way they please. As such, stories are inherently a reflection of their authors’ worldview. The majority of our stories — whether they be novels, movies, or television — are created by men. This is glaringly obvious in Hollywood’s oversaturation of male directors, writers, and producers. An annual report on the employment trends of women in film found that of the top 100 U.S. films of 2021, women accounted for only 12% of directors, 16% of writers, and 24% of producers. This disproportionate representation means that most female characters — their feelings, behaviour, and aesthetics — are conceived through a male perspective.
Pain — in its actual embodiment — does not conform to patriarchal conceptions of womanhood. Pain is often messy, angry, and ugly, while femininity is associated with warmth, gentleness, and beauty. Of course, most women understand this. We know the nuances and complexities of our own experiences with sorrow, but we are excluded from the very spheres where stories are created. As such, female pain is often depicted as beautiful and fragile by artists whose conceptions of femininity lack the insight of personal experience. Euphoria’s Cassie Howard cries in front of a mirror with flowers filling the background; in Casablanca, Ilsa looks longingly at her lover through tear-filled eyes while he explains why she must leave him; Holly Golighthly relieves her loneliness by, quite literally, looking at jewellery while having breakfast at Tiffany’s. These stories tell us that women can be sad, but they can’t be ugly. They can be upset, but they cannot be aggressive.
It would then follow that an authentic depiction of female pain is one that situates itself within lived knowledge, not ill-constructed gender roles. A nuanced depiction of female pain can be found in Fleabag, a television series written and produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The show follows a woman, referred to as Fleabag, as she deals with depression following the death of her best friend. Fleabag’s suffering challenges traditional conceptions of femininity. Her pain is not pretty or “lady-like” — she is selfish, destructive, and rude. Fleabag lies to her boyfriend, mistreats her family members, and defines herself through her sexual desirability. But while her actions may alarm her audience, they make her real. We do not expect people to be perfectly well-behaved in the face of great suffering; in fact, we generally agree that it is perfectly normal — even acceptable — to act out. Fleabag reminds us that women are not an exception to this rule.
When asked in an interview about the theme of hypersexuality in Fleabag, Waller-Bridge describes that it was inspired by her own experiences with the notion that “[women] always ha[ve] to be perfect and pertinent, looking gorgeous before anything else.” As a woman, Waller-Bridge is aware of the ways in which beauty is unrealistically expected of women in all situations. From this, she is able to depict female pain in a way which resists romanticization and, consequently, reflects women’s actual lived experiences.
Stories are limitless. By this, I mean that they are both limitless in what they tell, and limitless in how many we can tell. Redefining the ways in which we depict female pain is possible, but to do so we must be comfortable with discomfort. We have to accept that women — our emotions, beliefs, and experiences — are often quite different from the traditional femininity expected of us. This starts with letting us tell our own stories.