Emma Murdoch


Doctoral researcher

Department of Modern Languages: French Studies

Emma Murdoch


PhD Title: ‘Madness’ and psychiatry in Francophone and English women’s film and literature
Supervisors: Dr Kate Ince and Professor Lisa Downing
PhD French Studies


My Doctoral thesis examines the intersection between gender and ‘madness’ as exemplified through the literature and films for four female writers and filmmakers who can be said to have a ‘mad’ aesthetic.  My research examines literary and filmic representations of ‘madness’ and psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s, the heart of second wave feminism and the psychiatric revolution. It is based on the work of the writers and filmmakers Chantal Akerman, Emma Santos, Jane Arden and Mary Barnes. It begins with Akerman’s films Saute ma ville 1968 and Jeanne Dielmann 1975, whose focus on the domestic ‘female’ sphere poses questions about female incarceration and alienation in domesticity. Subsequent chapters will examine Santos’s texts L’illulogicienne 1971 La malcastrée, 1974 and La loméchuse 1978, where she recounts her decade of depression and hospitalisation through a repetitive cycle of trauma; Arden’s films Separation 1967 and The Other Side of the Underneath 1972, which confront the detrimental effects of female social conditioning and patriarchal psychiatry whilst offering glimpses of a more feminist humanist discourse that recognises female subjectivity, and the memoir recounting the descent into and recovery from madness of Mary Barnes, anti-psychiatrist R.D Laing’s only case study, Mary Barnes: Two accounts of a Journey Through Madness 1971. The project’s theoretical framework is drawn from Guattari, Foucault and the Anti-psychiatry of R.D Laing and Thomas Szasz, two psychiatric cultures that will be bound together by feminist theory, psychology and theology. My overall methodology is an alternate form of feminist filmic and literary analysis drawn from an original synthesis of philosophical, psychoanalytic and psychiatric readings of madness.

The aim of the project is to provide new readings of previously academically explored Chantal Akerman and Emma Santos and provides one of few academic readings of Jane Arden and the former anti-psychiatric patient turned writer Mary Barnes. To date there has been no academic study of women, madness and psychiatry in France akin to those in the English context.  My project is amongst one of the first to carry out this socio-historical analysis in the context of Francophone literature and film.  My research aims to not only de-stigmatise mental illness but will also begin to decipher the cultural ideas about proper feminine behaviour that shaped the definition and treatment of women’s ‘madness’ in France and England.

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