Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Mental Illness Narratives in Media

As someone who is both mentally ill and a vociferous consumer of popular media, it's rare for me to see a movie or TV show that accurately reflects the struggles an individual deals with when dealing with mental illness. There have been some novels written by authors who also suffer from mental illness, but by and large I have found that most media representation of the mentally ill is inaccurate, unsympathetic, and sometimes downright harmful.

Classic literature has a long history of authors writing frankly about their mental illness, even if it was in antiquated terms: Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath. But since film and television are far less personal mediums than literature, they tend to use mental illness as a plot device or an interesting character trait rather than offering a first-person account of mental illness. This is dangerous for several reasons. The first being that film and television are two of the most accessible forms of popular media, and are available to people who may not be blessed with the education level or resources needed to access classic literature and/or academic writing. This means that for many people, their entire understanding of mental illness is based on what they've seen in films and on television. Those who suffer from mental illness but haven't been diagnosed may know that there is something wrong with them, but struggle to identify with the often outrageous and outlandish depictions of mentally ill people that they've seen, and so remain undiagnosed and unable to seek help. Those who do not suffer from mental illness may have seen Jeremy Sisto as Billy Chenowith on Six Feet Under or Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction and assume that these are accurate depictions of bipolar disorder, and become fearful of schizophrenic or borderline people. Or it may not be as bad as that: maybe they've seen Silver Linings Playbook and think they understand bipolar disorder, think that their bipolar friend's problems can be solved if they just set them up with some young hottie who likes to dance. Oh, if only it were that easy! The entire psychiatric community would be out of work.

As someone who suffers from depression and is a recovering bulimic, I find it difficult to relate with the characters in film and television who are explicitly stated to be mentally ill and are supposed to represent people like me. To begin with, protagonists who are canonically defined as "depressed" are almost always white men, and usually white straight men. I think that's probably because a mentally ill character is already an "other", so the writer may try to make them as "normal" as possible in every other aspect of their characterization. Unless, of course, they're a villain, in which case they're also often coded as queer, because dangerous craziness and queerness are so often intertwined in popular media! Never mind that queer people are more likely to be depressed due to the oppression and discrimination they face every day- most Crazy Queer Villains are depicted as madmen and madwomen, driven to homicidal insanity by their sexual perversions. This is a trope that was once extremely prevalent and seen everywhere from psychodramas and thrillers to animated children's movies (think: Professor Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, coded "sissy" and violently insane). It is slowly falling out of favour, but it can still be found in popular procedural crime shows like CSI and Criminal Minds.

Even when characters aren't portrayed as villains, they are often written and acted very stereotypically and one-dimensionally, as both the writers and the actors choose to base their interpretation of a mentally ill character on a set of symptoms, rather than portraying their character as a fully-realized person with interests and quirks that exist outside of and irrelative of their mental illness. Personally, I've done a lot of research into the way eating disorders are portrayed in media aimed at teenagers, and I've found that the characters are almost always stereotypical Type-A "Best Little Girl In the World" overachievers. I'm thinking here of endless Young Adult novels, a recent storyline on Glee, and that time on Lizzie McGuire that Miranda stopped eating for one episode but was cured after a pep-talk with her friends. In most teen media in fact, eating disorders are portrayed as a confidence issue that can be cured easily (I could wrte another entire post on how this erases the very real struggles of eating disordered people, who are overwhelmingly girls and women). To my mind, the most well-rounded and developed character with an eating disorder storyline to date has been Cassie Ainsworth from the British teen drama Skins. She has anorexia, and it is a continual struggle for her, but she has character traits that are not related to or attributed to anorexia, a love interest, and is generally quite sympathetic and likeable. When I was at my worst suffering from my own eating disorder, my best friend watched Cassie's episode of Skins and said it helped her to understand me better.

And that's the thing about proper representation: it doesn't have to get in the way of a good story. Cassie's storyline is engaging and interesting even to people who don't have anorexia or bulimia. It's entertaining, but not damaging. The same can be said for the many mentally ill characters on Mad Men (though I'm still waiting to see how Ginsberg's schizophrenia storyline plays out).

All I want is to see people like me onscreen. People who aren't dangerous, or hopeless, or inhuman... just... whole. Because mentally ill people like me aren't broken or incomplete or irreparable, we just want to be understood.

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