'The Hysterical Woman', by Matilda Surtees

‘Unnamed’, by Georgia Denton. 'Unnamed’ appears in the exhibition.

Hysteria is a bit of an embarrassment for Western medicine. Once a catch-all diagnosis that was deployed with such vigorous frequency and authority that it was alleged to affect a quarter of all women, it vanished from medical vocabulary at the beginning of the twentieth century. Medicine advanced, feminism surged, and hysteria suddenly seemed like an anachronistic and implausible fabrication, and one that institutionalised misogyny. Used to justify social quarantine on the basis of gender, hysteria was a sickness of having more womanhood than even a woman’s body could contain: it was the pathologisation of femininity itself.

Sinking quickly and silently out of discourse, the vanishing act has made it a little harder to trace a line of continuity between medicalised hysteria and current stigma around female mental health – but it’s definitely there, according to Anthea LeBrocq, who has organised and curated the all-female exhibition I Didn’t Want Flowers, I Just Wanted You to Fuck Me.

“I’m of the belief that everyone will go through some sort of mental health problem at some point in their life,” she says. “Whether its anxiety, depression, anything like that, it’ll affect your life in some way.”

“It’s not that women are crazy. It’s that people in general are crazy. But there’s still that stigma attached to women, you’re still ‘hysterical’.”

LeBrocq is not a professional curator or event organiser. She has paid for the show out of her own pocket. She is disarmingly forthright in telling me that organising the exhibition was an idea born of her own struggles with mental illness, and intended as a way to navigate them.

“I feel emotions like they’re under a microscope all the time, so ten times stronger than everyone else. And I was working this really horrible office job and hadn’t been doing my illustrations for a couple of months, and I wanted something to work towards outside of my job. If you don’t have something outside of your job, and you hate your job—” she pauses.

“It’s really fucking depressing.”

LeBrocq’s initiative has expanded well beyond her own experience, culminating in a group exhibition that aims to pull gendered oppression and social stigma out of the shadows and into an accessible and public dialogue.

Female emotion, even outside of mental illness, is rarely admitted to the public sphere.

While the exhibition has attracted a handful of sponsors, including a local clothing brand, there are no major corporate hands holding it up. It has found its impressive momentum through a young online community, for whom it evidently has a strong, and very raw, personal appeal. The Facebook event now has almost a thousand attendees.

Although the exhibition focusses on female experiences with mental health issues or illnesses, it does so in a manner that makes the focus less of a theme and more of an ethos. LeBrocq describes it as a ‘safe space’ for female artists to express their own experiences, and she notes that some of the art “is not actually referential of those themes”, but that “making the art can help the artist survive with those things”.

The title of the show, drawn from a work by illustrator Leah Jean, speaks to the specific difficulties that women who grapple with mental illness face.

“At different times you need different things,” LeBrocq reflects. She adds that “People assume you’re always overreacting, or blaming your mental health issues for you feeling something that could be completely genuine, but you never really know. If you’re aware of your problems or you’ve been diagnosed, you’re constantly in this state of flux of not knowing if it’s reality or just in your head.”

Though the stigma around mental illness is pervasive, it is not indiscriminate. Some men—queer men, poor men, men of colour—bear a greater brunt of the prejudice than others, and none escape it altogether. Men, however, have a history of power and a lineage of privilege that has long marked out who is rational, and who is not. The dichotomy determines, by gender, who is emotional, fragile, and volatile, and who is not; whose perspective is likely to be logical and reasonable and whose is not; whose experience is legitimate and whose is not. For those outside the holds of masculinity, discussing their mental illness—or any sort of emotional disturbance—is still a high-stakes gamble.

The tight chests of anxiety and the deepening lethargies of depression are afforded no space in the mandates and litanies of normative femininity; female emotion, even outside of mental illness, is rarely admitted to the public sphere.

As a more subjective, personal medium, art is an ideal tool for carving out such a space. Mythologies of gender—and especially of masculine rationality, to which feminine hysteria plays counterpoint—still structure supposedly sterile or factual discussions about mental health.

A single exhibition, transient and local, is not going to reorient the way female mental health is talked about at large; but hopefully I Didn’t Want Flowers, I Just Wanted You to Fuck Me can temporarily create at least one space where women’s emotions, expressions, and experiences can be treated as legitimate and real.

I Didn’t Want Flowers, I Wanted You To Fuck Me runs from Monday 13 to Sunday 19 October at TAP Gallery, Burton Street, Darlinghurst, and features work by Lizzie Nagy, Leah Jean, Ellie Rose, Amelia Rose, Georgia Denton, Ellen Virgona, Alexis Aquino, Anthea LeBrocq, Maddy Carroll, Maddy Young, Susanna Rose Sykes, Arielle Nguyen, Renae Titchmarsh, Naomi Beveridge and Alice Amsel.

Matilda Surtees is a Sydney-based writer. She currently writes for Honi Soit and fourthreefilm.com and can be found on Twitter as @matildasurtees.