Blogging Moods: A rhetorical analysis of bipolar feminist blogs

Here is the content of my presentation at the Cultural Studies Association in Chicago in 2011:


Blogging Moods: A rhetorical analysis of bipolar feminist blogs


Expressing oneself is an essential characteristic of feminism, whether it is Gloria Steinem sharing her experiences as a middle class woman exposing sexual politics of her time, Alice Walker examining her experiences with race relations in America or self-reflection expressed through Riot Grrl’s internet writings.  We can see evolutions of content and form within feminism's rich tradition of personal expression.  In particular, the web has opened up new ways of communicating and allowed a deeper exploration of what it means to be female in current cultural contexts.  These narratives reflect both the desire to transcend oppressive conditions and the desire to re-imagine femininity. 


The recent revolutions and upheavals in North Africa reveal the power of the Internet in how it can challenge and shape our social context.  New media, such as blogs, twitter and facebook, provide an opportunity for the marginalized to have their voices heard and for them to affect change.  We can also see a similar challenge to marginalization in the experiences of women who self-identify as bipolar and examine this disability through their blogging.  Just as the North African presence on the Internet has involved real risks, the women who participate in the virtual domain write under the threat of exposure and being stigmatized because of admitting in a public context such a disability as manic-depression. 


However, the willingness and courage of these bloggers to share their own experience allows us to have insight into mood disorders; it also allows us to have a gendered understanding of what those moods might mean.  Their writings also introduce us to vital questions about the female experience, such as whether emotions—or the excess of emotions—are an intrinsic part of female experience, or whether these emotional expressions should be contained and controlled by patriarchal pharmacology and psychiatry. 


In this presentation, I look at three such blogs:  “The Practice of Madness,”  “The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive,” and finally, “Smashing Skulls.”  These women, who write these three different blogs, can be identified as part of the third wave or post-feminist generation who has grown up with many of the tenets of feminism.  Furthermore, these bloggers write about their daily challenges living with manic-depression and the medicines they take to control their symptoms.  They also explore the connection of their disorder with other ailments specific to the female body, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, and sexual desire.  Their blogs also explore political and social aspects of feminism such as workplace discrimination, consumerism, and romantic relationships.   


According to Emily Martin in her book, “Bipolar Expeditions,” an interesting aspect of bipolar condition is how it is categorized and understood by the medical community (147).  Specifically, she speaks to how this disorder is diagnosed based on the performance of certain behavioral symptoms.  Within feminism, Judith Butler has examined the way that gender is a performance, as well—one that takes place in a social context, reinforced at every stage of development.  However, being bipolar is considered an aberration of performance, one that must be regulated in order to be acceptable and functional in mainstream society.  Yet, as these blogs demonstrate, there is also a gendered aspect of the performance of bipolar disorder. 


One way to understand the function of performance—of both moods and gender—is to introduce the concept of the “rhetorical situation.”  First identified by Lloyd Bitzer, the rhetorical situation is helpful to understand how the blog functions as both a narrative and a specific rhetorical form.  This understanding allows us to see how certain common conditions for disclosure and content provide a fertile understanding of bipolar disorder from a feminist context.  For those unfamiliar with Bitzer’s concept:


“The rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence to a question or a solution in response to a problem.” 


In other words, all forms of communication are the product of a particular social reality.  The question when it comes to these particular blogs is what particular social reality—especially when it comes to gender—do these narrative derive from?  A particular performance takes place in the context of these blogs. 


Further, the blog medium itself involves both immediacy and interactive nature unlike which can be experienced with the written word.  According to Mark Federman, “Unlike normal conversation that is essentially private but interactive, and unlike broadcast that is inherently not interactive but public, blogging is interactive, public and, of course, networked - that is to say, interconnected (2004).” If we can look at these blogs, what will the rhetorical situation tell us about moods and the performance of gender?


First of all, one of the common threads of blogs that describe the experiences of bipolar feminist bloggers is the autobiography and description of the experiences that lead up to this mental health diagnosis.  Within this biography, it is common to see these women describe struggling with an unknown disorder that is eventually diagnosed,  the social consequences of this diagnosis, the struggle of getting treatment for the disorder, and finally learning to cope with the treatment and side effects of this treatment, both physically and socially.  However, not all blogs embrace the diagnosis.


For example, in the first blog, “The Practice of Madness” (, we learn that the author is actually a combination of a number of women that include, “A proud woman, East Vancouver-based social researcher, “certified ‘bipolar’ madperson”, survivor (of abuse, medical malpractice, abuse, life, etc.), staunch feminist/humanist/rabble-rouser/radical thinker, and recent grad school drop-out.”  This allows for anonymity and the ability for readers to view their writing outside of the limits of particular life experiences. 


One prominent feature of this blog is resistance.  The writer(s) reject the label of “bipolar” because they reject the notion that the list of “symptoms” associated with the disorder is common to all “bipolar individuals.”  We can see this further in the comments of readers of this blog, such as when Trixie Glendale writes, “I am a survivor of multiple overmedication and the practice of psychologists and psychiatrists to maintain a certain level of sickness with which to maintain an income.  I no longer see a shrink and don't plan to ever go back to one, for any reason. While I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality, I now disbelieve any diagnosis relating to my psychological makeup. I don't believe a doctor can figure me out, for I don't fit in any pigeonhole, slot, mold, or other classification.”


A defining feature of this feminist bipolar perspective is rooting inequities and challenges in the body, specifically in terms of our medical attempt to control the female body, its moods, and the consequences of imbalance of moods.  The distrust of the medical community leads to one blog entry, which claims that psychiatric medications can cause reproductive complications and then gives a personal account of a botched abortion that led her to be a “little bit pregnant.”  In another entry, the blogger examines the label of “PMS” and the claim that it is a syndrome, arguing that it can’t be a syndrome if so many women have the experience. 


The distrust of the medical community’s control of the female body leads to women seeking help from each other, such as in one reply, “You will make it, I know you will.  Trust me, please! Have I let you down before?  No, there is a reason you are here.  Five years ago today, you lay in a hospital bed, held together by staples and bandages.  You know so much more now!  So much!  Now take that knowledge and turn it into power.  Remember, power cannot be given, it must be taken.  It is long past your time to take.  Take now, honey, before it is taken away.  That’s it, just a few more steps.  A few more steps to freedom….”  In this blog, bipolar disorder is identified as a performance that resists any attempt of control, reflecting a radical feminism that sees gender that can’t be contained. 


In the next blog, “The Secret Life of A Manic Depressive,” ( we get to read the blog entries of a woman who has not resisted the diagnosis or treatment of bipolar disorder.  Thus, we see numerous entries in which she chronicles her struggles with managing her symptoms, using different medications and their various side-effects.  For example, “MENTAL HEALTH MENTION!  I have been very stressed and it has unsurprisingly made my mood a little high. I started taking on too much, not finishing a lot of it and was rather loud and having trouble controlling my thoughts.  So I’ve been back on Seroquel for a bit at a semi-high dose. It wasn’t/isn’t severe or anything to write home about but I’m just being careful these days.” 


She also discusses the potential backlash for going public when she writes, “Before I privated most of this blog, someone was going back and quoting my own 4 year old posts at me as proof as to why I should never be a nurse, despite the fact it’s not only four years later, but I’m 25 now, and rather older and wiser. That horrified me, and was a reason why I pulled the majority of my posts.”  However, despite her fear of being found out and stigmatized for her disorder, she is open about her identity when she writes, “I’m Seaneen, a twenty four year old Irish girl, originally from sunny, usually on fire West Belfast in Northern Ireland. I moved to London when I was seventeen, and currently reside in North London with two cats.” 


In her narrative, she admires medical practioners who have helped her and even discusses going on in her education to become a member of this medical community who can help other women.  For her, the primary mode of control and self-efficacy in managing her disorder involves self-awareness and self-regulation.  Further, she does not embrace the symptoms of bipolar and struggles to arrive at a sense of normality.  She also does not want to reinforce stereotypes of mental illness and yet she recognizes bipolar disorder as a chronic disability.  Her readers who post responses to various entries applaud this and added voice to the “mental health choir,” and view this blog as an act of courage.  In this blog, she is willing to work within and participate in the system, making adjustments in her “performance” in order to fit in.  Her feminism is measured and limited by her recognition that there is a benefit in having her body controlled so that she can have happiness and a sense of normalcy.


In the last blog, SmashingSkulls, (, “Skully” identifies herself as an, “outgoing introvert, writer, researcher and blogger of gen X vintage.”  In fact, she started her blog to discuss side affects and experiences with PCOS and PMDD (which are two disorders specific to the female body).  During the process, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  Like the two other blogs, Skully struggles with the issue of privacy and  she reveals that she is a doctoral student but doesn’t reveal what subject in order to maintain  anonymity and writes, ““I don’t think I’d be doing myself any favors by alerting my peers to the fact I was suffering from mental illness while conducting my research.”  She has a critical view of modern medicine and its affect on the female body, but also turns to it as a way to manage symptoms.  For example, she writes, “THAT’S IT! I have had it with these horrid desexualizing pharmaceuticals. Yaz can stick its little active and inactive pills back up its perforated plastic hole. Until some bright spark can figure out a way to balance my hormones and address my PCOS symptoms without obliterating my roaringly healthy libido, not single birth control pill will be passing these lips again.”  In fact, she discusses how being bipolar interferes with her other medical diagnoses when she reflects on how she can’t take another birth control pills because it amplifies her bipolar symptoms –her choice becomes a diminished libido or a mood imbalance—choosing her mental health in this case affects her femininity.  For her the performance of gender is limited by her mood disorder.  Healthiness as a woman is essential to her sense of well-being; despite a desire to control over her body, she recognizes that she has to work within the limits of modern medicine. 


All three blogs examine the complex way in which our bodies influence our sense of self, how the body is controlled by the individual or the medical establishment, and the complications of this regulation, and how feminist values manifest themselves in different ways depending on various choices that women make when it comes to their own bodies, mind and sense of self.  Blogging becomes a mode of freedom for individuals who feel like their moods or bodies are out of control.   They also allow us insight on how narrative creativity opens up new ways of understanding gender, our bodies, and the interaction with societal norms.  Not only can an open discussion of a disability provide connections between individuals, it can help eradicate ignorance about stigmatizing conditions.  Just as feminism has served as an important tool for dialogue and an impetus for social change the mediums of expression, such as blogging, can serve a similar process for honoring the female experience of manic-depression.


The rhetorical situation exemplified by these three blogs reflects the complexity involved in the performance of one’s individuality in the context of social reality.  Our sense of normalcy, our mental health, is shaped by community expectations and technologies such as medicine are tools used to maintain the limits of that performance.  Blogs provide an opportunity to explore, challenge and play with those limits with containable and controllable social consequences.  They forge new communities that allow for experimentation of new, perhaps unsettling, performances of moods and gender.


As a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder over ten years ago who has written a memoir about her experiences dealing with this condition in Insanity: A Love Story, I find blogging to be an interesting way to gain insight into the way disabilities interact with feminism. Not only can an open discussion of a disability provide connections between individuals, it can help eradicate ignorance about stigmatizing conditions.  Just as feminism has served as an important tool for dialogue and an impetus for social change, the mediums of expression, such as blogging, can serve a similar process for honoring the female experience of manic-depression.


Works Mentioned:


Emily Martin, Bipolar Expeditions

Lloyd Bitzer, "Rhetorical Situation"

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  • I'm impressed with the thorough writing post here. I'm a sister with bipolar and I'm glad that you have taken the time to write such an eloquent, progressive, and heartfelt piece. Thanks.