Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bride Kidnapping in the News

kidnap2.jpg from Noriko Hayashi's "Grab and Run: Kyrgyzstan's Bride Kidnappings"-- Newsweek (Web)

US Media Representations of Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan
by B.F.
In her 2001 article “Feminism versus multiculturalism”, Leti Volpp argues[1] that minority women are frequently portrayed as “victims of their culture”. That is, Western accounts of violence against minority women tend to paint minority women as lacking in agency, and completely under the control of “cultural” forces (which somehow do not affect white, Western women). One particular problem to which this applies is that of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (and Central Asia in general). There have been a few representations of this phenomenon in US media in the past ten years, most of which have confirmed Volpp’s thesis. I will examine these representations in depth, and argue for change in US media reporting of foreign violence against women. In particular, we will see that there is some misrepresentation of bride kidnapping in US media, and that there are many parallels that can and should be drawn between bride kidnapping and violence against women in the United States. Because this is inherently a women’s issue, we will be referencing work from feminist media studies and feminist anthropology.
Bride kidnapping is a phenomenon in Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan in particular, that has gone through an “apparent resurgence”[2] since the decline of the Soviet Union. It tends to involve the abduction of a woman by a man for marriage with or without her consent. The nonconsensual ones (the ones that are the topic of this paper) often involve “three or four men, a car and vodka”.[3]The woman is often captured during the day as she is walking down the street, or alternatively, she is lured out of her residence at night to be abducted. This is often a traumatic experience for the victim of the kidnapping. Kidnapped women are frequently raped or face threats of rape if they do not accept the marriage.[4] Furthermore, if a kidnapped woman escapes, she is often rejected by her family and village, either because she has dishonored Kyrgyz tradition[5], or because the kidnapping itself dishonored her family, and the only way to restore honor is to go through with the marriage[6], or possibly for some other reason, depending on the analysis. Bride kidnapping can be viewed through a broader lens of a desire to go back to “traditional” Kyrgyz customs after gaining independence from the Soviet Union.[7]
There are several reasons why bride kidnapping is a particularly interesting phenomenon to consider in the context of US media representations of violence against foreign women. There has not been so much reporting done on bride kidnapping in the first place, compared to many other reports of “conflicts” of women’s rights with multiculturalism. For example, there have been many more discussions in the Western media of various institutions banning the wearing of hijabs. Because of the relative lack of reporting on bride kidnapping, I imagine that there is also a less “self-aware” reporting. That is, the reporting that we see is not filtered through a lens of awareness of minority women’s rights, which might come about from discussions about a phenomenon that is reported on more frequently. Thus, I think that by studying a less well-known phenomenon, we can see more directly the ways that news institutions themselves view violence against women perpetrated in other countries.
In “Feminism versus multiculturalism”, Leti Volpp gives one perspective on how minority women are represented in the West. She writes that “incidents of sexual violence in the West are frequently thought to reflect the behavior of a few deviants – rather than as part of our culture”, whereas acts of violence in the Third World “are thought to characterize the cultures of entire nations.”She argues that the consequences of this representation is that women (particularly those from non-Western cultures) are deprived of agency in Western culture. That is, they are portrayed as victims, and not as people who have power to change their situations.
In my opinion, one of the major contributions to this characterization of non-Western women is the way that they are represented in Western media. My aim is to study in the particular case of Kyrgyz bride kidnappings how this is done. By looking at specific reports about bride kidnappings in the US media, I will describe the ways in which the reports support Volpp’s ideas. We will see that the representations of Kyrgyz women serve to preserve a cultural hierarchy that places the West at the top.
My method of research is as follows. I have studied three news reports on Kyrgyz bride kidnapping from the United States. The first is a website published by PBS including an article about bride kidnapping, a video, and some facts and pictures; this was published online in March of 2004. The second source is an ordinary news article published in the New York Times written by Craig S. Smith and published in April of 2005. Finally, my third source is a 2013 photo essay by Noriko Hayashi published on the Newsweek website. I want to use these reports from the last ten years to look at how modern US media portrays violence against women in other cultures, to confirm Volpp’s thesis about representations of “other” women.
All of the news reports studied included pictures of Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz people along with the text. In many ways, the way they use photography already marks a distinction between Western people and Kyrgyz people. They almost always depict women in “traditional” dress, often in situations that emphasize their cultural distance from the Western world. The PBS report, for example, includes many pictures of Kyrgyzstan, none of which have anything to do with the subject of bride kidnapping. Most of the pictures are of rural scenery; one of them is a picture of a woman milking a mare. All of this serves to exoticize Kyrgyzstan to the Western eye, emphasizing the differences between the experiences of the intended readers of the news and the subjects of the reports.
In some ways, there is nothing wrong with these choices of pictures. Bride kidnapping is a primarily rural phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps the more westernized Kyrgyz people, who might be easier to identify with for viewers of PBS, are not very likely to be kidnapped. However, I want to argue that while these depictions may be realistic, they may not always be relevant. This is an important distinction to make in these situations. There are two ways in which we are influenced by news. First of all, the facts that we learn from the news can affect the way we think about things. But, secondly, the way that news reports frame stories is just as important as, if not more important than the facts presented. While the pictures of rural Kyrgyz people we can find on the PBS website may be representative of what things really look like, the question that really needs to be asked is what purpose these photographs serve. To me it appears that they only serve to exoticize Kyrgyz people, and thus provide a way to separate the situations from Western readers of the article from those of the subjects of the article.
The Newsweek article studied relies even more heavily on photography than the PBS report. It too contains many pictures of people in traditional clothing, but now the pictures are more focused on people than landscapes. They are mostly taken indoors, and in all but one of the photographs, the subject of the picture is a person or group of people. These photographs mostly depict people in traditional dress, just as on the PBS website. However, what is most striking about the pictures here is that the people portrayed always look dejected, with their faces usually turned away from the camera. This is different from the representations of the PBS website in that everything is not as clearly focused on the cultural differences between Kyrgyzstan and the West. However, the dispirited people depicted in the photographs do invite the viewer to think of Kyrgyz people as victimized. This is in line with Volpp’s analysis of depictions of minority women: they are often portrayed as victims, and as lacking in agency.
We see that the Newsweek article too frames the suffering of Kyrgyz women in a particular way. By portraying Kyrgyz people (women in particular) as victims, it deprives them of agency. Again, it is certainly true that a large portion of Kyrgyz women are “victims of their culture” in some sense, but by framing this suffering in a context only of victimization, the essay paints a very one-dimensional picture of what the situation of Kyrgyz women is like.
The news reports also tend to unquestioningly take the stance that there is a “correct” culture, i.e. the Western one, and that non-western cultures should aspire to be more Western. This is very evident on the PBS website, which invites readers to answer the question “Should the international community intervene when cultural traditions clash with modern notions of women’s rights?”[8]This makes it clear that the authors are painting a cultural hierarchy. One should ask oneself why the “international” (presumably this means Western) community should be intervening in Kyrgyz affairs. Certainly nobody asks whether the international community should intervene when women are raped in the United States, even though this is something that happens systematically.
The short documentary film that can be viewed on the same website poses near the end the question of the morality of bride kidnappings given that many of the abducted women end up happy in the resulting marriage. This particular question is often portrayed as a unique ethical problem facing the people of Kyrgyzstan. The New York Times article I studied spends many paragraphs describing the violent kidnapping of one woman against her will, and then ends up with a few short sentences about how she is happy with the arrangement now. I think that these descriptions serve to portray other cultures as particularly violent compared to Western ones. Furthermore, by noting that there clearly is some ethical dilemma at hand here, but not asking Kyrgyz people for their opinions, they implicitly make the claim that it is the duty of Western people to make judgments about the morality of events in other countries.
At this point, I think that I have established that the portrayal of Kyrgyz women in major US media outlets has to some extent deprived them of agency by depicting them as victims of their culture. This is not an unusual phenomenon; Volpp discusses it in some generality in her paper. It has also been studied in some other specific cases. For example, Reimers describes in her paper “Representations of an honor killing” how very much the same phenomenon has occurred in Sweden regarding discussions of honor killings by Kurdish immigrants[9]. She comes to the conclusion, very similarly to me, that Swedish representations of these killings contribute to a picture of Swedish culture as “superior” to Kurdish culture. She writes that “the purported difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ intersect with a nationalistic and colonial discourse.”[10] I now want to look more closely at how portrayals of Kyrgyz women serve to elevate Western culture above other cultures, and in particular describe how this in itself can be seen as an act of violence against the women of Kyrgyzstan.
One analysis of violence is put forward by Patricia Hill Collins, in her paper “The tie that binds: race, gender, US violence.” She argues that violence is often defined in a way that benefits people who are higher up in some social hierarchy, and that the acceptance of these definitions leads to a perpetuation of those hierarchies.[11] One example she gives is that “American soldiers who killed people during the Gulf war were excused and even celebrated,” whereas “civilians killing police in inner-city neighborhoods remain vilified.”[12] From these observations, Collins argues for a broader definition of violence, which should better take into account the suffering of socially disadvantaged people. She writes that violence can “be viewed as a group-based institution of abuse”[13]; this will be an important frame of reference for my analysis.
To elaborate on this idea, we can note that even according to traditional definitions, violence can be conceptualized as an act that limits another persons freedom, albeit usually physically. However, from a point of view of analyzing injustices, there is no clear reason to limit one’s definition of violence to the physical. To make a distinction between abusive acts that are physical and ones that are not physical does not seem entirely justified. In fact, such an approach could possibly serve to make abuses against people in oppressed positions seem less noteworthy than other abuses. It is frequently the case that minorities are portrayed in a stereotypical way in the media, while people in privileged positions can play many different roles. By claiming that media representations cannot constitute acts of violence, we are thus supporting a definition of violence that supports already existing hierarchies. It is in this context that I will examine the violence implicit in US representations of Kyrgyz bride kidnapping.
I think that it is appropriate to apply an analysis similar to that of Patricia Hill Collins to the reports on bride kidnapping studied here. As we have seen, the role of Kyrgyz people in the reporting done on bride kidnapping is always limited to providing facts and experiences, but they are never asked for their own analyses of the culture behind bride kidnapping. This upholds a cultural hierarchy that says that people from the West tend to be more neutral and disinterested than non-Westerners. People from other cultures are depicted as too bound by their culture to think rationally about moral questions, while Western people are able to look at things from a neutral perspective, either because they somehow are capable of diassociating themselves from their culture, or because the culture that is there is a culture of rationality from the beginning.
Furthermore, the portrayal of Kyrgyz women as victims rather than agents perpetuates certain Western ideas about “other cultures.” Volpp writes the following about the distinction between agents and victims.
The binary assumption that women in the West have choice, and that those in immigrant and Third World contexts have none, in part reflects the limits of our language in describing choice: Either one is an agent, or one is a victim. This binary also reflects historical representations of the West as the site of rugged individualism, and the East as the repository of passivity and culture.[14]
That is, the portrayal of Kyrgyz women as victims upholds a long-standing tradition in the West of denying non-Western women agency. This is certainly an act of violence in the sense of Collins; it is a systematic abuse of a large group of underprivileged people. It is interesting to note that the way that women in non-Western cultures are portrayed as victims of their culture stands in stark contrast to the way that violence against Western women is portrayed in the United States. A complaint often raised about US news coverage of rapes in the United States is that they fail to take into account cultural conditions that are conducive to rape.[15]
In light of this analysis of violence, I hope that it is clear how the representations studied here indeed do constitute an act of violence against Kyrgyz people, and Kyrgyz women in particular. Geopolitically, rural Kyrgyz people are typically not in a position of power, and the way that they are portrayed here only perpetuates this. They are portrayed as people to feel sorry for, not as people to identify with, or as people with their own agency.
I now want to discuss how news reporting can be transformed to depict the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan without painting them in a way that furthers Western cultural dominance over the East. Recall that there are two main aspects to the way that someone is represented in the news: the facts given, and the way that these facts are framed to give a complete picture of the situation. Of course there is a large amount of overlap between these two aspects; the choice of facts presented clearly contributes to the way that reports frame people. That is, for any given event, there are many facts about the event that can be presented in the news, and only a small number of these facts can be given. In any case, what needs to be changed is the framing of the reports. All of the news articles I have read do report accurate facts (to my knowledge), and I do think that it is important for people in the United States to be aware of the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan, but I do not think that the way that the women are portrayed represents them fairly. One way to ensure that women are portrayed fairly is to report through a transveral lens.
Transversal politics is a form of analysis which “emphasizes coalition building that takes into account the specific positions of ‘political actors.”’[16] Handrahan writes about transversalism that it “involves maintaining a starting/standing point/perspective coupled with the flexibility to recognize, but not homogenize, other starting/standing point/perspectives.”[17] We want an analysis that firmly acknowledges that all people are different in their backgrounds, their points of view, their identites, and so on, while simultaneously allowing for empathy between people with different backgrounds. One way to achieve such an empathy is by emphasizing abstract similarities between different people’s positions, while still acknowledging the potentially large differences between them as well. I believe that such an approach would be well-suited for descriptions of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.
There are many abstract similarities between Kyrgyz bride kidnapping and the problems that affect women in the United States. For example, one pervasive problem in the United States is sexual assault on university campuses.[18] Abstractly, I think that there are many similarities between bride kidnapping and campus rape. First of all, they are both acts of violence that affect mostly women. Furthermore, the victims (and perpetrators) are often young, and there is often alcohol involved.[19] Finally, the perpetrators are often acquaintances of the victims. Note that I do not mean to equate bride kidnapping with campus rape. What I want to show is that US media outlets can and should emphasize that there are similarities between the sexual violence faced by young women in Kyrgyzstan and in the United States, while still acknowledging the (vast) differences. Such an approach would serve to humanize Kyrgyz women, instead of victimizing them.
We now turn to the discussion of the ethics of bride kidnapping from earlier. We noted that one of the questions often brought up in reports on bride kidnapping is how to approach the phenomenon given that many of the resulting marriages actually end up happy. It is often portrayed as a cultural curiosity that Kyrgyz women can choose to be happy with people who have committed acts of violence against them. However, I would argue that there are certain similarities between this and the phenomenon of women who choose to remain with their abusive spouses in the United States. Again, there are many differences between the specific situation of spousal abuse in the United States and bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, but perhaps by looking at the similarities we can understand better the situations of women both in the United States and in Kyrgyzstan, and more importantly, it would allow for more connection and empathy between the women in the different situations.
Of course, there are certain aspects of bride kidnapping that are not quite analogous with any phenomena in the United States. For example, we have noted that some reporters view the increased amount of bride kidnappings since the fall of the Soviet Union as a way for a Kyrgyz national identity to assert itself. This might be difficult to relate to a US context. However, we must keep in mind that the important thing is not necessarily to paint all violence against women as being similar or even analogous, but just to always remind people that foreign women cannot (and should not) be viewed entirely as victims without agency, and that while their situation is different from those of the audience of the news, it can still be understood and related to the personal lives of the audience. We must also keep in mind that there is no one “Western” experience; there are many types of people in the West who face many different kinds of oppression. Still, by connecting the suffering of Kyrgyz women to suffering that is at least geographically closer, if nothing else, to the audience of the news, we can hope to evoke at least some additional understanding.
We have seen that the way that bride kidnapping is reported on in the US media is flawed in many ways. It depicts violence against Kyrgyz women in a way that portrays Kyrgyz women only as victims, and not as agents. This is a common feature of media portrayals of non-Western women as well as Western minority women both historically and in the present. The result of these portrayals is a preservation of a cultural hierarchy that places the West at the top, and regards other cultures as inferior and oppressive. This stands in contrast to the way Western media depicts violence against women occurring in the West, with Western perpetrators. In order to portray the people of Kyrgyzstan in a more respectful way, we must turn to a transversal reporting of their situation, and try to connect their lives to the lives of Western people.
Works Cited
Akiner, S. (1997). Between tradition and modernity: the dilemma facing contemporary Central
Asian women. In M. Buckley (Ed.), Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia (pp. 261–304). Cambridge University Press.
Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L., & Sweeney, B. (2006). Sexual assault on campus: A multilevel, integrative approach to party rape. Social Problems53(4), 483–499.
Collins, P. H. (1998). The tie that binds: race, gender and US violence. Ethnic and Racial Studies,
21(5), 917–938.
FRONTLINE/World: Kyrgyzstan - The Kidnapped Bride. (2004, March).
Handrahan, L. (2004). Hunting for women: bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. International Feminist Journal of Politics6(2), 207–233.
Hayashi, N. (2013, November 4). Grab and Run: Kyrgyzstan’s Bride Kidnappings. Newsweek.
Reimers, E. (2007). Representations of An Honor Killing: Intersections of discourses on culture, gender, equality, social class, and nationality. Feminist Media Studies7(3), 239–255.
Smith, C. S. (2005, April 30). Abduction, often violent, a Kyrgyz wedding rite. The New York
Volpp, L. (2001). Feminism versus multiculturalism. Columbia Law Review101(5), 1181–1218.
Werner, C. (2009). Bride abduction in post-Soviet Central Asia: marking a shift towards patriarchy through local discourses of shame and tradition. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute15(2), 314–331.
Worthington, N. (2008). Progress and persistent problems: Local TV news framing of acquaintance rape on campus. Feminist Media Studies8(1), 1–16.


[1] Volpp, 2001.
[2] Werner, 2009, p. 316.
[3] Handrahan, 2004, p. 209.
[4] Handrahan, 2004.
[5] Handrahan, 2004.
[6] Werner, 2009.
[7] Akiner, 1997 says that after the dissolution of the Soviet union some Kyrgyz women “feel the need to return to their ‘authentic’ roots; Handrahan, 2004 writes that bride kidnapping “has come to be understood as a fundamental ‘Kyrgyz tradition’ neither imposed nor transported but home-grown on the jailoos (mountain pastures) of the Tien Shen mountain range.” 8Volpp, 2001, p. 1186-1187.
[8] “FRONTLINE/World: Kyrgyzstan - The Kidnapped Bride,” 2004.
     [9] Reimers, 2007.
     [10] Reimers, 2007, p. 251.
     [11] Collins, 1998.
     [12] Collins, 1998, p. 922.
     [13] Collins, 1998, p. 921.
     [14] Volpp, 2001, p. 1211.
 [15] Worthington, 2008, p. 13 gives an example of even a relatively “progressive” report on a rape which still “focused so much on the specifics of the scandal without reference to broader social structures that facilitate violence against women.
     [16] Collins, 1998, p. 930.
     [17] Handrahan, 2004, p. 211.
     [18] See Armstrong, Hamilton, and Sweeney, 2006 for an in-depth analysis of rape at one university.
 [19] Handrahan, 2004 gives an analysis of the importance of vodka in Kyrgyz bride kidnappings, and Armstrong et al., 2006 discusses in depth how alcohol shapes sexual assault on US university campuses.

Gender Roles and Depression

Gender and Depression: How Structural Influences and Gender Stereotypes Affect Depression Rates
by Cassidy Clark and Rachael Van Pelt
            According to The Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression sometime in their lives, at a rate of one in four women (Bueskens 2011).  The reasons behind this significant disparity are debated: popular understandings of depression in Western society blame hormones and genetics, a view perpetuated by the medical community. However, feminists have challenged this view, contending that there are other societal and structural factors that play into the higher rates of depression in women. We argue that the particular pressure that communities place on women to fill the stereotypical role of feminine, ‘good’ woman can lead to the observed higher rates. Other stereotypes about women, especially how women deal with their emotions, what emotions are acceptable for women to display, and  historical understandings of hysteria further tie women and mental illness together. Due to these connections, we must critically examine the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)’s criteria for depression and ask if the symptoms identified are truly gender neutral. Understanding the interplay between stereotypes and mental illness leads us to question the objectivity of science: due to the potential for individual scientists to incorporate their personal gender biases into their work and the power that science has in defining normality, we conclude that analyzing depression from a purely biological perspective means missing other factors that can influence depression and rates of depression diagnosis. In order to understand the influence of gender upon depression, we must analyze how science, stereotypes and mental illness are connected.
            As an illness with ties to other disorders like anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, growing rates of depression have worried mental health professionals and have lead to inclusion of its symptoms in the DSM (Bueskens 2011). Depressive episodes are characterized by: “a depressed mood most of the day”; “diminished interest and pleasure in all our most activities”; “feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt”; “agitation or psychomotor retardation”; and other symptoms relating to weight and sleep pattern changes (“Managing Depressive Symptoms”). Although these symptoms are not restricted to certain genders, the “experience” of depression may be different: while women “report higher levels of anxiety, sleep troubles, and physical problems”, men are more disposed to ‘ignoring depressive symptoms”, through continual involvement in enjoyed activities or abuse of drugs and alcohol (Bueskens 2011). The experience and prevalence of depression is also altered by factors of race, age, and location.  Although the average rate is one in four women, rates vary widely between various groups and depend on whether or not men are included: for example, three percent of the general Japanese population feel depressed at some point in their life, compared to about seventeen percent of Americans (Jacquot & Knack 2009).
            Popular perceptions of the causes of depression center mainly on genetic and biological factors. The National Institute of Mental Health’s website about depression highlights these elements under the “Causes” section of their webpage. The NIMH is a government organization that supports research on and education about mental health issues and their website presents itself as a resource for people who want to know more about various disorders. Their page on depression includes the subtopics “What is Depression,” “Causes,” “Signs and Symptoms,” “Who is at Risk?,” “Diagnosis,” “Treatments,” “Living With,” and “Clinical Trials” (“Depression”). Under each heading, the organization adopts an educational and medical stance on the topics. Under the “Causes” section, the organization states that “depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain” and goes on to discuss magnetic resonance imaging and genetics research. It includes two brief sentences at the end of the section about how a stressful “trigger” such as a traumatic life event may bring on an episode of depression, though that there is not always a trigger. The main focus of the NIMH in regards to depression is on how biological factors affect mental health. They explicitly state that “longstanding theories about depression suggest that important neurotransmitters—chemicals that brain cells use to communicate—are out of balance in depression” and offer that theory as an explanation to the public, along with the theory that women might experience depression more often than men because of “the cyclical rise and fall of estrogen and other hormones” (“Depression”).
            This focus on biological causes is also evident on the NIMH page entitled “Women and Depression: Discovering Hope.” The organization dedicates an entire webpage to depression in women, devoting a large portion of the page to the various causes of depression they consider important specifically for women, which are “Genetics,” “Chemicals and Hormones,” “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder,” “Postpartum Depression,” “Menopause,” and “Stress.” Here again, the institute primarily discusses biological and hormonal related explanations for depression, focusing on the possibility that a family history of depression can increase risk for development and the way that hormones change drastically around life events exclusive to women, like menopause and pregnancy. These hormone changes may affect the way that the brain works, which is another area of research (“Women and…”). Even under the “Stress” heading, the website discloses that it is unknown why traumatic events trigger depression in some women but not others. Furthermore, this section mentions that “additional work and home responsibilities” contribute to stress that women may feel, but fails to connect these responsibilities to expectations for women: the idea that these extra stresses and expectations are directly a result of being a woman, rather than isolated instances, is where we begin our analysis. Overall, the page focuses on biological factors specific to women that the NIMH claim to be the most relevant causes of depression.
The focus on hormones and biology as primary sources for depression is not constrained only to this government website: an analysis of a popular advertisement for the antidepressant Cymbalta reveals the same sorts of claims. In the television commercial a woman’s body is displayed on screen with a glowing central nervous system while the narrator explains how the drug “works on serotonin and norepinephrine,” two hormones connected with mood (“Cymbalta…” 2011). Within the advertisement, no mention is given of other causes or contributors to depression (unsurprising, given that the goal of commercials is to sell their particular product). Given the authority of a government organization and constant exposure to advertisements from pharmaceutical companies, popular perceptions of depression in women are shaped by the two sources discussed here:

(Figure 1: Cymbalta Ad) The visual of a body’s nervous system and brain being changed by these chemicals emphasizes the importance of hormones in causing depression.

Instead of focusing on the biological basis for depression, feminist scholars often concentrate on structural and societal factors when exploring the possible reasons for the disparity between rates of depression in men and women. Beyond factors like poverty and abuse that disproportionately affect women and can contribute to rates of depression (Bueskens 2011), a pervasive cause that affects all women is society’s expectation of women to fill a stereotypical role. As doctors, researchers, and the public increasingly choose to look at depression on a case-by-case basis rather than as an overarching, society-plaguing problem with patterns, they “individualize” depression (Clarke 2007, 366). As a result, Clarke states, the biological understanding of depression advanced by medical profession overlooks the power dynamics and gender roles that affect depression and cause women to suffer from the illness at higher rates. Clarke observed a support group for women with depression and came to the conclusion, after analyzing what the women said and how the community atmosphere helped them, that while biological factors can contribute to experiencing depression, there are many other factors at play, which are succinctly summarized in the following figure.  

(Figure 2: Clarke 370)

While Clarke finds that “individual factors,” including biological elements, play a role in depression, they are just one part of the whole picture: the largest, unifying category that connects all women is called “society” and contains the expectations of femininity that lead to the many destructive stereotypes about women. Clearly, according to Clarke, there are overarching, structural aspects of society that cause women to be more likely to experience depression than men.
            Two other feminist scholars, Josephine Tan and Patricia M. Ulbrich explore this idea through two specific feminine stereotypes. Tan looks specifically at the ideal of women being non-confrontational and selfless and makes similar arguments to those of Clarke in her article, “Self-Silencing, Anger, and Depressive Symptoms in Women”. The central tenet of Tan’s argument is that the higher rates of depression in women are “because of their greater tendency to self-silence in intimate relationships in order to preserve harmony and the relationship and to adhere to the traditional female role” (Tan 2008, 6). “Self-silencing” refers to the idea that women tend to hide their true feelings from others, leading to “feelings of anger and self-condemnation that can lead to heightened vulnerability for depression in some women” (Tan 2008, 6). One stereotype of women is that they not get upset or angry and “self-silencing” satisfies this societal expectation, through women not expressing this anger. In the study she conducted, Tan discovered that the women experiencing the most severe forms of depression were most likely to report “greater anger expression, anger suppression and self-silencing” (Tan 2008, 13), indicating that they were more likely to have hidden their true feelings of anger from others until they eventually had to express that anger. The study discusses how the women who experienced more severe depression “ascribed more to the traditional female sex role” (Tan 2008, 13) by attempting to be the ultimate, caring, selfless wife and/or mother. These women were deeply affected by the expectations of society (indicated by Clarke) that they be caring, non confrontational, and passive and consequently, felt greater distress when they perceived themselves as failing to fit their prescribed role. Tan stresses that more attention should be paid to the structural factors that contribute to depression in women specifically and investigates the influence of such factors on depression by working with one particular female stereotype.
            The stereotype that Ulbrich addresses through her study differs from Tan’s: her examination of two income marriages connects to the image of women as dependent on men..   In her article “The Determinants of Depression in Two-Income Marriages”, Ulbrich investigates how women (and men) in two-income marriages react to the ‘nontraditional’ family structure in which they participate. Although the general attitude of society towards this issue at this time of this study (1988) was probably less progressive than it is now, the idea that women’s work is less valuable is still prevalent in current society and so Ulbrich’s work is still relevant. She discusses the reality of how men often resent the fact that their wives work and studied several particular factors in each observed marriage: “husband’s attitude toward wife’s employment, husband’s perceived attitude, and wife’s orientation to work” (Ulbrich 1988, 126). This study concluded that, for women who had low earnings, their husbands tended to oppose their employment and they also had higher instances of depression, which indicates that the value of women leaving their traditional place at home is determined by their earnings and that the husbands opinions on the wife’s employment affected the wife’s mental health. The most important factor, however, that Ulbrich determined in predicting depression in women was level of education, a factor closely correlated with social status: it appears from her study that women of higher social status had husbands who supported their employment. From this, we can understand how the topic of depression in women is an intersectional issue and how feminists choosing to look at it through various lens and taking into account various social and power structures helps gain a better understanding of how certain stereotypes are applied to certain women. Ulbrich’s work illustrates how women are expected to be the passive subjects at the bottom of the social hierarchy, something that not all women want to be. As seen in these three studies, depression often stems from women conforming to expectations unhappily. Society puts massive amounts of pressure on women to be “feminine” which often means being a caretaker, being subservient to a man, and being able to gracefully handle all responsibilities without making a fuss. This pressure is so strong that even if a woman wants to deny these expectations, society has ways to force them, by humiliation or rejection, to comply.
Stereotypes continue to be important factors not only in cases of depression, but also within understandings of mental disorders: feminists have analyzed the history of mental illnesses and the criteria used to evaluate them, arguing that psychoanalysis has historically focused on women and that symptoms associated with many disorders are connected with ideals and stereotypes of femininity. As a result of this conceptualization of mental disorders, women have been inclined to be diagnosed with such an illness at much higher rates.  In Hystories, Elaine Showalter traces the history of ‘hysteria’, a term that “throughout most of its medical history...has been associated with women” (Showalter 1997, 15).  Although the term hysteria would not be found in the DSM today, “many of its traditional symptoms were reclassified as anxiety neuroses, obsessional disorders, manic depression, or borderline personality disorders” (Showalter 1997, 17).  As scientists in the eighteenth to twentieth century attempted to discern the causes of hysteria, these male professionals often blamed female reproductive organs and identified symptoms of this illness as stereotypical qualities of females (Showalter 1997, 15-17, 21, 33). For example, Charcot defined hysterics as those who were “vain and preoccupied with their appearance, deceitful and self-dramatizing”, all traits associated with women (Showalter 1997, 34).  More concerning though are the political dimensions of this connection of femininity and hysteria: Showalter states that “doctors viewed hysterical women as closet feminists who had to be reprogrammed into traditional roles, and politicians attacked feminists activists as closet hysterics who needed treatment rather than rights” (Showalter 1997, 49). As women continue to be diagnosed more often with mental illness, accusations of madness will continue to threaten women’s claims and arguments. Although many of the pioneers Showalter discusses have passed away and the medical profession has moved on, their findings and prejudices continue to be powerful; Sigmund Freud, possibly the most famous psychoanalyst in history, “relied on cultural myths of masculine and feminine identity in shaping his interpretation of hysteria” (Showalter 1997, 44). As long as the stereotypes associated with gender continue to affect those in charge of shaping diagnostic criteria, the association of women and madness will be perpetuated.
Furthermore, feminists continue to critique the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, arguing that it both ignores external, societal factors as the causes of illness and that a gender bias is evident in the symptoms linked to many of the disorders.  Feminists have realized that as the DSM is revised, “the biomedical view has become more firmly entrenched, reducing the stated influence of social and psychological theories on the causes of mental illness” (Becker 2001, 336). This trend is problematic: in the case of depression, we have already observed how an individual’s experiences and the expectations placed upon them can affect their likelihood of developing depression. Other mental illnesses have also been connected with external events or influences that cannot be accounted for through a purely biological perspective.  An understanding of mental illness as purely internal also risks “[denying] the very real social problems that women face” (Becker 2001, 336), a problem that is connected with the historical practice of “[ridiculing] and [trivializing] women’s medical and political complaints” (Showalter 1997, 8). Again, the political and social power of associating women and mental illness is evident.
            Through analyzing current critiques of diagnostic criteria for several other disorders more commonly seen in women, we can work to scrutinize the DSM guidelines for depression.  As the DSM has been revised and reshaped, continual appeals for certain disorders to be redefined or to be taken out entirely have had varying levels of success. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is still included within the DSM, despite outcries from feminist that “the institutionalization of a natural female bodily function as a mental disorder” contributes to the idea of women as “mad” (Becker 2001, 335). In other cases, like those of several personality disorders, feminists push for diagnostic criteria to be changed due to the gender bias incorporated into the terminology and symptoms used within the DSM. Masochistic personality disorder (also known as self-defeating personality disorder) has been a site of controversy, as feminists argue “against labeling some women disordered when they display the same selfless, self-abnegating behaviors widely encouraged in the socialization of girls” (Becker 2001, 335). Women are expected to defer to others’ wishes, be kind and act courteous, while men are not typically associated with these traits; consequently, women more often have to suffer the stigmatization of being labeled with this mental illness. Considering Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD), a similar issue arises; feminists have observed that “the criteria of DPD exclude the kinds of stereotyped expressions of male dependency that may be expressed in jealous, controlling behavior”, and rely upon symptoms of dependency typical of women (Becker 2001, 339). Not only does this bias reflect dependency as “unhealthy” in women, but the example of DPD also reinforces the consequences of ignoring external influences and trivializing women’s complaints. Becker states that current definitions of DPD encourage the idea that “when [dependency] is expressed in an extreme form in women it primarily reflects dysfunction, as opposed to reflecting the actual power differences between men and women that may contribute to dependent behaviors in some women” (Becker 2001, 339). There are real consequences to this gender bias: being diagnosed with a mental illness (including ones like Borderline Personality Disorder, that are more often found in women) can lead to being discredited in judicial settings, being stripped of the ability to make decisions about your body, and being subject to the stigma associated with disability (Becker 2001, 341). Gender bias and stereotypes found in the DSM is connected to historical understandings of women as ‘hysterical’ and continues to shape political and social impressions of women.
            Judith Butler, in her work, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” introduces the idea that gender is constructed through the repetition of certain acts. She asserts that “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (Butler 520). Feminists believe that the different genders are not automatically present at birth, but that society imposes them upon us and punishes us through a variety of means if we do not comply. There are two points relating to Butler’s work that we would like to make in our discussion of the higher rate of depression in women than in men. The first comes in when analyzing the feminist scholars’ arguments about how societal pressures lead women to become depressed. We believe what they mean is that they have been sanctioned, as Butler would describe it, and feel that they cannot act the way they would like. Due to the necessity of complying with certain gender norms, women feel the need to perform in a certain way and, in turn, suppress their true desires. This suppression caused by societal pressures is, the scholars say, a factor in causing depression in women. Both in simply observing the world around us and in looking at Clarke, Tan, and Ulbrich’s research, it is not difficult to see the various ways that women have to perform their gender in certain ways and possibly forego some desires or behaviors that diverge from the standard. In the case of causing depression, many women experiencing the illness attribute it to having to live up to expectations. We think that one woman in Clarke’s study put it best:
‘Part of being depressed is obviously how you feel about yourself but that also comes from society . . . me thinking I have to be thin, I have to have a boyfriend, I have to have a family. Part of me feeling happy is me realising that I don’t have to do any of that ... I’m ok as who I am ... having clarity about what makes me happy . . . skills to be comfortable in my own skin.’ (Clarke 2007, 376)
The woman who made this comment is really talking about how society expects her to perform her gender in a certain way, i.e. by “[having] a boyfriend” or “[having] a family,” which are considered socially acceptable ways to express femininity.
The second point we would like to highlight pertains to the gender bias in the DSM criteria for diagnosing depression. If men and women are socialized to perform their genders in certain and divergent ways, as Butler argues that they do, then why would their expressions of depression be the same? It makes sense that men often will not fit into the diagnostic criteria because they, in most cases, would have been punished for revealing the emotions necessary for a diagnosis (while women are often socialized to display more emotionality and, thus, would fit the criteria when facing depression). In western society, men are expected to be brave and strong and unwavering, not emotional. The DSM requires certain factors to exist for a diagnosis of depression, and it might simply not be recognized in men if they do not outwardly express these factors. However, the reason for the phenomenon of men not expressing these factors might not be that they are not experiencing depression, but that their expression of it is different from how it is outlined in the DSM because they have been socialized not to act certain ways. It is not that men never feel “worthless” or “guilty,” (“Managing Depressive Symptoms”) diagnostic criteria set forth by the DSM, but that they might not express these feelings in the same way as women and thus might not be diagnosed with depression.
Understanding the potential for bias within DSM criteria for depression leads us to a better appreciation for the influence of the medical community and biological sciences upon our daily lives, but also brings up the uncomfortable reality of the amount of authority society gives them. Despite the power given to science, it does not objectively capture the whole picture of how our bodies and minds work: the ‘truths’ of science are affected by scientist’s individual biases and opinions and shape what is considered normal within society. The medical community has perpetuated traditional gender roles and behaviors, not only in the arena of mental disorders, but also in narratives describing the reproductive process. In “The Egg and the Sperm”, Emily Martin chronicles the continual association of a female’s egg with passivity and the male’s sperm with aggression despite new evidence that the egg plays an active role in reproduction; although research has indicated that previous understandings of reproduction were flawed, “researchers who made [this] discovery continued to write papers and abstracts as if the sperm were the active party who attacks, binds, penetrates, and enters the egg” (Martin 1991, 493). Instead of science operating in an objective space, “the picture of egg and sperm drawn in popular as well as scientific accounts of reproductive biology relies on stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female” (Martin 1991, 485). How the egg and sperm function reflects back upon female and males’ own gender performitivity: the stereotypes associated with gender are transferred to the act of conception and the language describing it changes as a result. Similarly, in the case of the DSM, the language describing symptoms of depression (especially the focus emotions and moods) reflects the influence of gender roles upon science and emphasizes that the biases of the people who write the books and manuals affects everyone’s understanding: as women are expected to perform their gender by being emotional and if these symptoms are the only ones listed, depression and other mental illnesses will only be identified in women. Future research is also affected as standard manuals like the DSM “[set] out a template for new knowledge that shapes which scientific questions will be asked and which will be overlooked” (Becker 2001, 336). Recognizing and working to end acceptance of gender stereotypes within the scientific community will have an effect on future scientific investigations, which is vital if we hope to end the association of women and mental disorders.
            Furthermore, the ability of science to rewrite normality and acceptable behavior has consequences for all. By defining increasing numbers of behaviors as indicators of a mental illness, we risk viewing “problems of living and the distress associated with diseases rather than as behavior that is transactional or socially deviant” (Becker 2001, 334). Showalter also asks “Can we redefine hysteria in a way that allows more space for the mysteries of human emotions?” (Showalter 1997, 11).  Science is another part of our culture which assists in characterizing normality which in turn influences stereotypes. In “The Sex/Gender Perplex”, Anne Fausto-Sterling provides a history of the classification and understanding of intersex individuals to argue that both sex and gender are constructed. Since such individuals display internal and external signs characteristic of both males and females, doctors did and continue to “base their assessment of sexual identity on the overall shape of the body and the inclination of the patient” (Fausto-Sterling 200, 640) and if the patient’s body falls outside what is considered normal, surgery ensues. The decision of assigning a male or female sex is not purely based upon scientific understandings: when identifying a child as female, “despite published medical information showing a range of clitoral size at birth, doctors may use only their personal impressions to decide that a baby’s clitoris is ‘too big’ to belong to a girl and must be downsized” (Fausto-Sterling 200, 644). Thus, normality for a certain gender can be shaped by individual doctors with their own biases; this conclusion can be extended to our understanding of mental disorders as well. Mental illness is a way of marking behaviors or thoughts as ‘wrong’ and through constituting incorrect behaviors (or gender performances) as symptoms of a disorder, the medical profession marks certain behaviors as right. This, in turn, shapes our societal understanding of stereotypes for each gender and discredits those who fall outside the ‘right’ parameters. As we investigate mental disorders, we must be cognizant of the impact of defining these illnesses on everyday conceptions of normality and the effects on individuals who do not fit into those representations.
            In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of depression and its higher prevalence among women, feminists must continue to investigate and popularize the other societal and structural factors that contribute to its development and bring to light the severe consequences of enforcing strict gender stereotypes. Interested individuals must be wary of how gender stereotypes affect the diagnostic criteria used to evaluate patients and must consider this bias within their research. By connecting gender stereotypes to women’s depression experiences, historical and current definitions of mental illness, and science’s ability to constitute normality, we can begin to understand the complex ways that gender interacts with society and stereotypes. Becker states: “When human problems are viewed as illnesses, the values, beliefs, and politics that influence clinicians when they make diagnoses are concealed behind the mask of a purportedly neutral and objective science” (Becker 2001, 335). In order to determine some sort of truth about what depression is, and if it truly affects women at higher rates due to biology, gender stereotypes, or for structural reasons, we must uncover this mask and critically analyze the institutions and professions that define it.

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