The Reimagining of Self: Why I Love Marvel’s Typhoid Mary
This essay was originally posted on Black Girl Nerds on January 29, 2016.
In 2006, I fell in love with Typhoid Mary. The character resonated with the way I fragmented myself, the way I felt like I needed to have almost separate identities for my public, private, family, and work life. In retrospect, that’s a lot of partitions, but at the time it was what I needed.
Here’s a little backstory. Typhoid Mary is a character in Marvel’s Daredevil. She has three distinct personalities: Mary, Typhoid Mary, and Bloody Mary. Mary represented what society and family expected of me. She was docile, meek, and prone to bouts of nervousness and fear. Typhoid Mary was everything they tell women not to be – adventurous, lusty, ambitious, violent, and uncontrollable. She went for what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to take it. Typhoid represented who I wanted to be. Bloody Mary is the amped up violent side who hates all men. To be honest, it’s amazing that I don’t relate more to Bloody Mary after some of the relationships I’ve had. Kidding - that’s how you go to prison.
Anti-feminist clichés aside, these three aspects of Mary intrigued me. I saw it as a pathologization of women’s choices. It ties into the many ways that society has criminalized aspects of womanhood to control it. For example, birth control was ruled illegal in the late 1800s for approximately 100 years. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that people couldn’t be criminally prosecuted for having birth control...and because men legislated this law, you can guess who was punished for possession of contraception. To this day, condoms can be considered evidence of prostitution and until 2014, women could be stopped and searched for looking “slutty” and then arrested if they had condoms. Apparently the desire to have safe sex is considered evidence of prostitution.
Women’s bodies are legislated to death, literally. We can be arrested for miscarriages. Pregnant women are arrested under suspicion of child endangerment if she engages in an activity that could be considered dangerous. This includes having a glass of wine or smoking. Women’s lives are put unnecessarily at risk because of legally mandated “religious freedom.”
Our mental health is often judged and found lacking. Passion, anger, fear, and sadness are considered a sign of mental instability. Who hasn’t heard about the “crazy chick” or the “psycho ex-girlfriend”? Hysteria was a medical condition thought to only affect women. It’s diagnosis was predicated on extreme emotional states, sexual desire, defiance, anger, nervousness and they were considered signs of varying psychiatric issues. Female hysteria was sometimes treated in a variety of ways: from inducing orgasm to the removal of the uterus, i.e. a hysterectomy. Women were also institutionalized and underwent electroshock therapy and lobotomies as methods of treatment. All because someone thought their behavior was out of line. And all of it was to deny women autonomy and agency.
Barring the diagnosis of hysteria and hysterectomies, these treatments weren’t limited to women. They were used to treat men and children who were considered mentally unstable, and sometimes for the same reasons – their behavior was outside the accepted norm and someone in authority pursued violence as a form of treatment. It’s also worth noting that these treatments are discussed solely about the perspective and treatment of white women. Black women were subjected to a much less humane form of medical care and reporting. Despite this racialization of hysteria, Black women are affected by the negative connotations assigned to it – i.e. the removal of autonomy and agency in decision-making.
We see it on the micro-level. For example, when I decided to cut off my hair people asked me if I’d cleared it with the guy I’d been dating for three weeks. When I said it was none of his business, I was called selfish and oversensitive, because, you know, it’s just polite to ask an acquaintance’s permission on what to do with my hair.
Or when I cosplay – my corsets give me magnificent, attention snatching cleavage. My spouse (the same person from the previous example) initially had some issues with it, but I have made it clear that what I wear is always my decision. He may not like it and that’s fine. His dislike does not change my decision about what I wear. We’ve been together seven years and people still ask me if he’s okay with my outfits. And to this day I look at them like they are foolish. It’s MY decision.
And that is why I am so drawn to Typhoid Mary. Sure, she’s working in a system that has some control over her, but in that system, she’s making as many decisions for herself that she can. And most of them are not for anyone’s approval. She doesn’t try to be normal. Normalcy is for the dispassionately uninspired. She is living the life she *mostly* wants, and sadly, the only way that seems acceptable, even in comics, is to paint it as mental illness.
I don’t see Typhoid Mary as someone with borderline personality disorder. I see her as someone navigating extremely hostile waters while trying to maintain a sense of self, a struggle to which I relate. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been in a work environment where I was told that I was too loud, too assertive, too confident, too risk-seeking, too everything. And the proposed solution was for me to be quiet, to fold in on myself, to hide in plain sight. I was explicitly told to reel myself in and contain my energy and abilities. I was told to dim my shine.
And I tried. I tried for years. I moved from job to job, losing a little more of my shine each time. And finally, when there wasn’t any more shine to lose, I lost me.
There were a lot of contributing factors to my struggle and there were a lot of people who helped me get out of that hole. Mostly, it was a support network large and strong enough to absorb the shock of my fall. Not only did I fall, I shattered. With help, I put myself back together…most the same pieces, some smaller than before. I am still me, transformed into a more compassionate and nuanced version of myself - one with a greater understanding of my needs and my worth.
I came out understanding that what others saw as failure, I knew was growth. And it gave me the strength to meet life head on, to listen to my body and my mind, and to put those needs ahead of what anybody else wanted from or expected of me. People are always going to want something. And people are always going to tell me how I failed to meet their expectations. Now when that happens, I paint half my face and grab my katanas – because it’s time to slay some shit.
My inner Typhoid takes no shit. And the funniest part about Typhoid Mary is that this perception of her isn’t that she’s not being true to herself – it’s the difference between what people want to see verses what’s actually there and being able to recognize that. As a Black woman, I am very familiar with what it’s like to have people project their expectations onto me, be it the expectation of marriage, motherhood, sexual desire, fragility, or strength. Typhoid is the rejection of your perception and the reclamation of my identity. She is when I take the gloves off and just do me.
Typhoid isn’t the partitioned me. She’s all of me. All my contradictions, sharp edges, softness, and coldness, my passion, and my rage.
So now, after the fall, the reconstruction, the growth, the understanding, and the forgiveness for not living up to the expectations of others, I don’t shine anymore.
NYPD To Stop Seizing Condoms As Evidence Of Prostitution, Huffington Post, Accessed January 25, 2016
Arrested for Having a Miscarriage? 7 Appalling Instances Where Pregnant Women Were Criminalized, Alternet, Accessed January 25, 2016.
Woman Who Is Just 12 Weeks Pregnant Charged With Child Endangerment, Think Progress, Accessed January 25, 2016
Miscarrying Lady Almost Dies At Catholic Hospital, But At Least She Didn’t Get An Abortion, Wonkette, Accessed January 25, 2016