Wanda Maximoff And The Pervasive Trope of The “Mad Woman”
The success of Marvel’s WandaVision from the first episodes to the recently-aired finale on Disney+ is a milestone for women’s characterization in the genre. This show gave us a close examination of a woman going through the grieving process. Albeit, her story is tangled up in the MCU and superpowered drama. Yet there is a trope that continues to haunt women in both fiction and everyday life. Among the discourse around WandaVision was the continued claim that Wanda had just “gone crazy.” That she was “insane” and that this was what fundamentally made her villainous. This discourse is rooted in a negative stereotype surrounding how women are allowed to express emotions. And it all goes back to the Mad Woman trope, that simply will not go away.
(Spoiler Warning for all 9 episodes of WandaVision)
Wanda Maximoff Has Undergone Significant Trauma
Image via Disney+.
But if you watch WandaVision closely, you will see that these claims are simply untrue. Wanda Maximoff is a deeply broken woman at the beginning of WandaVision. She has experienced serious trauma in her life; losing her parents at a young age, becoming indoctrinated by a terrorist organization, losing her twin brother, and then being thrust into fights she did not fully believe in.
This was of course followed by the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame where she was forced to kill her lover Vision in order to save the world. Then she had to watch that work undone by Thanos and witness the death of Vision all over again. To top it all off, Wanda was promptly snapped out of existence. She lost five years of her life. When she returned to the world of the living, she discovered that a secret government agency had claimed the body of her lover. They were clearly attempting to utilize his corpse for nefarious purposes, beyond the simple indignity of defiling it.
There Is A Particular Madness In Grief, But That Doesn’t Equal Insanity
Image via Marvel Studios.
Given all of that pain and trauma, it would be understandable if Wanda had actually gone insane and taken the whole world down. But that’s not what happened. Instead what we witnessed was an incredible outpouring of grief and emotion. This was tangled up with her ever growing magical powers that she did not know how to control. That is what created the Hex. Wanda’s grief trapped all of the residents of Westview inside of her dream of a better life.
By the end of WandaVision, it is clear that Wanda did not fully understand how her grief was impacting the residents of Westview. It is their emotional pleas that finally break through to her. This pivotal moment plays a major role in her decision to finally let the Hex down, and let these people return to their lives. She even initially tried to end the Hex, even though she was watching Vision (and their children) “die” a painful death. Even though it meant giving up the life she had always wanted, Wanda was prepared to do the “right” thing.
Going Through The Stages of Grief in WandaVision
Image via Disney+
Throughout all of this, Wanda is going through the stages of grief. We see the sitcom world she has created as a symptom of her denial of reality. Her anger is on full display when she throws Monica Rambeau out of the town, and again when she confronts Hayward and his SWORD agents (after they try to murder her). She tries to bargain with Agatha. And in the end she finally gains some measure of acceptance that leads her towards healing. Although there is still a long way to go for our intrepid heroine.
Was Wanda driven mad by grief? The answer to that question is not as simple as you might think. Nor is it as black and white as some of the comics made it out to be. Clearly her grief and pain caused her to turn away from reality and create one of her own. But throughout the series, she is clearly in control and increasingly aware of what she had done. Her inner turmoil slowly begins to rise to the surface over the course of the series, and in that conflict we can see that she knows the Hex cannot last forever. But she is desperate to hold onto Vision as long as she can.
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows what this particular type of madness feels like. Grief is not a rational emotion. It is not something that you feel immediately after death that eventually goes away. It is a persistent and constant weight that we must all live with. The depression that comes with grief is a cycle that comes and goes in waves. It never really goes away, we can only learn to live with it to the best of our abilities.
The Double Standard Inherent In The Ways Men and Women Are Allowed To Express Emotions
Image via Lionsgate
But there is a double standard in society when it comes to the way men and women are allowed to express emotions. When men are faced with grief in movies and television, we often see them go on violent rampages. And that is perfectly acceptable for viewers. The ideas of violence and vengeance are so wrapped up in the concept of masculinity, that it is actually expected.
Take the John Wick series for example. It is clear that the protagonist of those films is dealing with a deep-seated grief after the loss of his wife. When some bad guys kill his emotional support dog, that is the final straw. Wick breaks the very code that he once swore to uphold, in order to seek bloody retribution. We never see him deal with his own emotions in a healthy manner. But that’s not what audiences want to see. They want to see the bullets fly and the blood spray in order to translate the ugly feeling of sadness into something else, something that feels productive.
However, women in media (and in society) are expected to play a different role. Women are allowed to show more emotion than men, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pay a price for it. Women are expected to show gentle emotions: love, tenderness, mercy, sympathy, empathy, grace, and maternal instinct. No one likes to see a woman portray the ugly emotions of anger, fear, depression, or anxiety. If a woman gets angry and upset, then she is called hysterical. A woman who enjoys sex and is liberated in her carnal appetites is inevitably considered a whore or a slut. And a woman who suffers from depression, anger issues, and any kind of mental health problem is always called crazy.
Investigating The Origins of The Mad Woman Trope
Painting of Circe by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons
There are a number of tropes in fiction that perpetuate these ideas. For centuries we have endured the “Mad Woman” trope. Much like the stereotype of the Mary-Sue, this trope negatively impacts the way women are portrayed in genre fiction and media. We can see this characterization going all the way back to some of the earliest works of fiction ever written by men. In the Iliad and The Odyssey, these tropes are also tangled up in the fear of witchcraft (sound familiar Wanda?).
The witch-goddess Circe is considered a crazy woman for turning men who venture onto her island into pigs. It took centuries for a female author to consider that she might have had a very good reason for doing so, as a woman living alone with sailors constantly crashing on her shore. Author Madeline Miller did an excellent job of examining this character in her 2019 novel Circe, which thoroughly debunked the crazy woman trope that the character had lived with for so many years.
“Ophelia” painting by John Everett Millias via Wikimedia Commons
Circe is not alone in being a prominent woman in literature to suffer from this trope. They litter the works of Shakespeare and other early English writers. From Lady MacBeth, to tragic Ophelia, and the Lady of Shalott. All of them were given the label of crazy woman, and any onus on the men who caused them pain was simply removed. The mad woman suffers alone, and the men who caused her suffering often get a heroic death while the mad woman dies offscreen in a tragic way.
No One Likes A Mad Woman, But You Made Her Like That
The “Mad Woman” Bertha Mason as played by Valentina Cervi in the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre | Image via Focus Features
The mad woman trope was fully formed in the era of Victorian literature, and is elaborated as the “Mad Woman In The Attic” that pops up in Victorian and Gothic fiction with alarming regularity. Jane Eyre is often given as the primary example for this trope, where the wife of a male love interest is locked away due to her deteriorating mental health. This character was written by a woman – Charlotte Bronte – who was reportedly horrified by the lack of sympathy that readers held for the poor woman. Bronte would be equally aghast to learn how the trope has evolved over the years to work as shorthand for women as villains. It is easier to cast a woman as a villain if she is insane, because the lack of empathy that society holds for the mentally ill has always held.
The issues with the Mad Woman trope go far beyond our treatment of the mentally ill however. It also speaks to society’s treatment of women as a whole. This characterization constantly depicts women as irrational, dramatic, and emotionally unstable. This applies to all women, and insidiously implies that all women have some level of mental illness just waiting to break through. The trope is also used to villainize any woman who doesn’t adhere to societal norms, often paired with an accusation of witchcraft whenever a woman aspires to power or exists outside of social norms. All of this shaming of women’s power and emotions are tangled up in this trope that just won’t go away.
Male Writers Have Treated Wanda With Contempt For Too Long
Image via Disney+
To return to the character of Wanda Maximoff, there is clear evidence that this trope has been at play for many years. If you go back to Wanda’s storylines in the Marvel comics, they are full of sexist tropes. The most prevalent of these is the Mad Woman trope, as male writers constantly had Wanda go insane and try to break the world, or murder people (including a large number of Avengers and most of the mutant population on Earth). Notably, the character of the Scarlet Witch has never had a woman writer in the Marvel comics. She has always been written by men who have often treated her with contempt.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the comic book event House of M. This story was clearly one of the source texts for WandaVision, as it shows Wanda creating a new reality where mutants were the majority over humans. The reason for this dramatic action is chalked up to Wanda having a mental breakdown over the loss of her children (the same twins who show up in WandaVision). It is one of the many times that Wanda is cast as the villain due to her emotional state, where her grief has “broken her mind” and her “insanity” threatens to destroy the world. In the vein of the Mad Woman trope, it casts Wanda as the villain due to her emotional instability.
WandaVision (Tries To) Subvert Every Trope It Can Find
Image via Disney+.
One of the many great things about WandaVision is that the show took on many tropes and subverted them in clever ways. There was the subversion of sitcom tropes that was prevalent with the format of the series. Then there was the subversion of our own expectations about what a Marvel show would even look like. But the most important tropes that the series attempted to subvert are the ones involving Wanda’s turn as the Mad Woman.
The writers of the show took storylines from the comics and updated them for modern day. In doing so, they made the women the focus of the story. Wanda is the primary protagonist of the series. And in giving her this close character study we are allowed to empathize with her, and understand her motivations. This is necessary in order to humanize her, and to allow her to continue to be a hero in future MCU projects. But above all else, it allows Marvel to correct the missteps of the comics where Wanda is often treated like a villain due to her grief.
WandaVision Is About Powerful Women And What They Must Endure
Image via Disney+
Wanda is not alone in subverting tropes given to women in genre fiction. Outside of Vision, the other primary protagonists of the series are Monica Rambeau and Agatha Harkness. Each of these women are also actively subverting the tropes of the roles that they are typically given. The show directly addresses the way that black women are too often cast in the role of ‘sassy best friend’ with Monica’s turn as Geraldine in the early episodes of WandaVision. Unfortunately, cramming Monica’s own superhero origin story into another character’s show did the character a disservice. Monica deserves her own starring role, and character exploration outside of the trauma of a white woman who is far more powerful than her.
Image via Marvel Studios.
Agatha’s character also should have gone a long way to subvert the ‘evil witch’ trope that is prevalent in society. Unfortunately, this is a franchise now owned by Disney. They have perpetuated the evil witch trope in the genre for over a century. Agatha’s characterization is one of the few areas where WandaVision did not succeed as well as they could have. She is also considered to be a Mad Woman. That trope was unfortunately upheld in the end as Disney couldn’t allow us to have a grey witch. There is good (Wanda) and there is bad (Agatha) and little room in Disney’s view for anything in between.
Don’t Call Her Crazy (Just Crazy Powerful)
Image via Disney+.
In the end, WandaVision did make significant efforts to establish the trope of the Mad Woman and then tear it down. We see Wanda go through the grieving process as the series progresses, and her world starts crumbling. The audience is allowed to view her as human, despite her extraordinary powers. And after a year of pain, trauma, and unimaginable grief related to the pandemic we all needed this show. It is important to see Wanda’s pain and turmoil. It so closely mirrors our own.
Wanda is not crazy. She is simply a person broken by grief and struggling to envision what the world will be after world-altering trauma. And that is something we should all be able to relate to right now. It is vital to have empathy for the suffering of others, and to understand that we are all informed by grief and trauma. This is the lesson that WandaVision teaches us. And it is a valuable lesson to carry into the unknown future where we must all bear the burden of grief and trauma. Let Wanda be an example to all of us. Let us abolish the trope of the Mad Woman. And let women simply exist without the judgement and stigma that has followed us for so long. (Or else we’ll put a hex on you.)
For more exploration of women’s roles in comic books and genre fiction, be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today. And for more WandaVision coverage be sure to check out all of our weekly recaps on the Comic Years Podcast.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.