How labeling female musicians “crazy” reveals our sexist biases 

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Harper Rosenberg , Staff Writer

In August 2022, just four months after announcing she would leave the music industry, Doja Cat shaved her head. Fans quickly assumed that she was “going crazy” and taking drugs. In response to the assumptions, she was pushed to justify her decision, publicly stating that she “never liked having hair.” As the criticism continued throughout the following week, she posted, “‘You’re on drugs. You’re crazy. What has she done to herself? You need to seek help.’ This isn’t a cry for help or an issue of any sort. This is just me having no hair. I’m still the same me,” on all of her social media accounts. The scope and severity of this reaction demonstrates how women in the music industry, even in 2022, remain subject to the archetype of the “mad woman.” From Britney Spears to Doja Cat, why have we seen so many famous women seem to “go crazy” in the public eye? And, why does that go hand in hand with the shaving of their hair? In my independent study this year, I have been analyzing the perception of women in the music industry as “crazy,” and I hope to highlight as many takeaways of my research as possible in this article.

I believe that the label of insanity assigned to “infamous” women in the industry is intertwined with the way we evaluate what being “crazy” means. The understanding of our perception of mental health is inextricably linked to our cultural norms and values. The most profound cultural lens through which we view madness is gender. For centuries, the idea has reigned that madness is gendered primarily as a feminine illness. From Sinead O’Connor to Britney Spears, the music industry predominantly allows us to see, on a large scale, the ways in which women are brought to present hysteria and insanity as a result of their gender. 

Although anger is associated with discomfort, hysteria, and fear, it is also a critical and powerful emotion. Anger demonstrates that something is wrong and calls for change; it is the human response to the threat of physical harm, misconduct, and degradation. We draw from anger to demand accountability and justice, forming vibrant political communities. Despite this, anger is so commonly perceived as a negative reaction based on how our society evaluates emotion, predominantly on the basis of identity and status.

From a young age, our culture identifies anger to be connected with manhood and masculinity. In a study published in “Frontiers of Physcology,” researchers discovered that by the time they are toddlers, children associate angry expressions with male faces. More “soft” emotions, including empathy, fright, and sorrow, are discouraged in boys and are associated with femininity. Women and girls are urged to extinguish their anger and “negative emotions,” as they are not supposed to utilize their anger or demand their own needs. Girls are told to smile more, speak nicely, and stay indifferent, so when they take up anger in the same forms as men, they are perceived to be ‘crazy or insane.’

In my Independent Study research, I came across an article titled “7 Popular Singers Who Went Certifiably Crazy,” by a celebrity magazine called Fame10. This list was particularly striking as six out of the seven musicians on the list were women. Although about 20% of pop musicians are female, over 85% of the artists mentioned in the article were women. This article is one of many; throughout my study I have seen similar lists and descriptions that highlight the way that female musicians have higher expectations for preserving their sanity.

Returning to the discourse around women like Doja Cat, Britney Spears, and Sinead O’Connor shaving their head, it is important to recognize that women’s hair is often regarded as a symbol of her femininity and sexuality. Without hair, women achieve a cultural shock as they defeminize themselves. Bald hair appears in ancient history in Hindu funeral traditions and Ptolemaic beauty regimens; it could represent devotion, rebellion, and even mental collapse. In the modern west, the shaving of a woman’s head is rare and unorthodox as it embodies a shocking cultural statement. Undeniably, the powerful effect of a woman with a shaved head unsettles the traditional and patriarchal image of womanhood. 

Sinead O’Connor shaved her head after record executives encouraged her to take on softer, sexualized looks by wearing short skirts and keeping her long hair. In refusal, she went directly to the hair salon. She aimed to “opt out of the male fantasy,” claiming that in the male dominated music industry it was “dangerous to be a female.” I see her aiming to dodge the expected status quo of her female peers and grapple with her ability to self govern. In fact, one of the executives who encouraged her to preserve her soft femininity was the same person who urged her to have an abortion when she was pregnant with her first son Jake to maintain the image of an innocent woman. Her notable lack in classic femininity caused her to “possess one of the most iconic heads in pop culture memory… the very dimensions of her skull seemed inscribed in the public consciousness,” as New York Times writer Amanda Hess noted.

O’Connor’s career took a unique turn when she performed on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Looking right into the television camera, she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II in protest of abuse in the Catholic Church. Although she had already “been branded as insane” for boycotting the Grammy Awards and denying the request to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before her concerts, this behavior “killed her career,” putting her reputation at “permanent risk,” wrote Hess. “The media was making me out to be crazy because I wasn’t acting like a pop star was supposed to act,” O’Connor noted. She exclaims that being a female pop star is “almost like being in a type of prison… you have to be a good girl.” In response to O’Connor’s actions, she was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert and comedian Joe Pesci threatened to smack her in a Saturday Night Live monologue. Similarly, after her actions on Saturday Night Live she was reprimanded by the Anti-Defamation League and the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, who employed a steamroller to destroy hundreds of her albums right outside the headquarters of her record company. In this instance, I see an innocent woman who took to national television to express herself and promote justice being discriminated against by the masses.

“Crazy is a word that does some dirty cultural work,” wrote Hess, a statement with which I agree. A woman called “crazy” by journalists without psychology degrees is not being attacked for the way her brain works but the way she is received by our culture. “Calling someone crazy is the ultimate silencing technique. It robs a person of her very subjectivity,” wrote Hess, highlighting how O’Conner’s “insane” label allowed her to face disregard from the public. 

Nearly ten years after O’Connor protested the Catholic Church on Saturday Night Live, Pope John Paul II acknowledged sexual abuse in the church, validating O’Connor’s behavior. However, the overreaction to O’Connor’s defiance was not centered on the truth of the cases in the church; rather, “it was about the kinds of provocations we accept from women in music,” wrote Hess. O’Connor declared that she is a human being, explaining that she had the right to put her hand up and say what she felt. But, I gather that her womanhood stripped her from her ability to have a voice on live television without career threatening backlash.

O’Connor’s breakout song, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was written by seven time Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Prince. Despite his excellence in the industry, O’Connor claimed that he “terrorized” her. He brought her to his mansion, scolded her for cursing in interviews, and insisted on having a pillow fight in which he put something hard into his pillowcase to hurt her. In the middle of the night, O’Connor escaped on foot, but was followed by Prince in his car; he jumped from his vehicle and ran after her on the highway. “Prince is the type of artist who is hailed as crazy-in-a-good-way, as in, you’ve got to be crazy to be a musician,” O’Connor claimed. To the press, Prince’s form of madness is deemed acceptable; yet when a woman is titled “crazy,” the word’s meaning shifts to declare her threatening and undeserving of autonomy.

Similarly, in 2007, Britney Spears shaved her head during her infamous “meltdown.” When Spears went to a local salon in Tarzana, California, asking the employees to shave her head, she was denied by the salon’s owner, who claimed Spears was having a “hormonal moment.” Rumors claimed that she had shaved her hair to avoid taking a drug test, but this has since been proven incorrect. Instead, Spears remarked, “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me,” while she grasped a razer and shaved her hair off. Here, I see a woman who has been micromanaged and pushed around to fulfill the goals of the men who are governing her. In this moment, we finally saw her reclaim her agency. Unfortunately, instead of this being perceived as a powerful moment of protest, the press tarnished Spears with the “crazy” title, again stripping her of her autonomy. 

As women in the music industry work to solidify their right to have a voice, I have found that they have continuously been stained by being labeled as insane. In this society, we have all,  including women ourselves, been engraved with unconscious misogynist biases, which we can work to unlearn. By supporting female musicians, learning about the history of mental health, and identifying times where you may have been misogynistically biased, one can help unravel centuries of sexism.