“Although Sylvia Plath was a fiercely brilliant poet and novelist, she is arguably most famous for her suicide. The most common cultural association that we have with her is an image of a young woman with her head in the oven. Her final breakdown and death have overshadowed her life and accomplishments, and her name has become a placeholder for a specific type of tragic beauty. When Adams sings that he wants a Sylvia Plath, he does not mean that he wants the reality of someone experiencing a depressive episode or suicidal ideation. He means that he wants a woman who is sort of sad but in a wild, impetuous, sexy way that will somehow benefit him. He doesn’t want a real person; he wants a Sexy Tragic Muse.
The Sexy Tragic Muse can be found in music, film, literature and pretty much every other form of media. She’s not dissimilar from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – in fact, I would argue that there is some crossover between the two tropes – but she is also very much her own distinct type. She is usually young, and nearly always white. She’s often portrayed as being hyper-sexual – she’s the type that 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy was referring to when he said “Emotionally unstable women are fantastic in the sack.” She’s damaged, often as a result of sexual assault or other abuse by men. Her life carries with it some kind of Deep Lesson, usually a lesson that a male protagonist needs to learn.
The Sexy Tragic Muse is Joon in Benny & Joon, a mentally ill woman who, to paraphrase a wonderful review by Carleen Tibbets, turns out not to need professional help so much as she needs a boyfriend. She’s Marla in Fight Club, with her eerie stare and penchant for attending support groups for illnesses that she doesn’t have. She’s Gia Carangi inGia, a movie whose tagline is “Too Beautiful To Die, Too Wild To Live.” She’s Babydoll in Sucker Punch, a pigtailed ingénue in lingerie who sexily pouts her way through an escape from a psychiatric institution. She’s Suzanne in Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, a woman who is “half crazy” but who can “[touch] your perfect body with her mind.”
The Sexy Tragic Muse fetishizes women’s pain by portraying debilitating mental health disorders filtered dreamily through the male gaze. The trope glamourizes addiction and illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia – diseases that are distinctly unglamorous for those of us who live with them. The Sexy Tragic Muse is vulnerable, and her vulnerability is sexualized. Her inability to properly care for herself or make decisions on her own behalf is presented as being part of her appeal.
And perhaps this is the most frustrating thing about the Sexy Tragic Muse – the fact that this character type seems to be a neat way of removing a woman’s agency without the film or book or song coming across as overtly misogynistic. She occupies the intersection of ableism and sexism, and her mental illness is portrayed in a way that makes it commendable, even necessary, for others to care for her. We feel gratitude to the men that step up and save her, because she obviously cannot save herself. We feel empathy for the men that break up with her, because we see that she is difficult and volatile. We never get to see things from her perspective; often it is implied that this would be impossible, because her perspective is too confused and fractured.”
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]