Crazy in Celluloid: misrepresentation of mental illness in film
Consider your favorite “crazy” movie character, perhaps you conjure-up the image of a leering Psycho Norman Bates or a charismatically chaotic Joker in The Dark Knight. Whatever image comes to mind, there’s likely to be several common tropes imbedded in it.
Recently I watched the new trailer for the next M. Night Shyamalan film Split, set for release in January 2017. I was deeply conflicted, immediately by the implication of dissociative identity disorder being given that tired title of ‘split personality.’ Furthering my frustration, the lead actor (James McAvoy-a personal favorite) has often performed mentally ill characters with a deft balance of grit and compassion. However, apparently at the hand of a thriller/horror genre director, the film rests upon common problematic narratives of “madness.” I’m aware there’s a typical Shyamalanian ‘twist’ at the end, but does said supernatural edge make amends for the recapitulation of Hollywood’s worst psychological misapprehensions?
There’s more to this issue than my annoyance as someone inside the ‘real world’ of mental health. There’s a larger socio-cultural narrative we craft in our various forms of storytelling. We are existing in an era of pervasively accessible media intersecting with acts of terrorism, authoritarian brutality, racial and gender violence. How are we using our gifts as storytellers to portray those within our population who are in pain? Are we coloring them as malicious and fractured or as troubled fellow humans worthy of empathy and ethical intervention?
In considering numerous films headlined by a character struggling with mental illness, it becomes clear that several misrepresentations pervade. The first and most common is that ‘crazy’ is tantamount to dangerous. Based on this schema, anyone suffering with mental illness is intent upon gruesome violence. This is most commonly depicted via male characters or those who embody traditionally masculine traits. You’re in this camp, M. Night! The next misinformed mechanism is the assumption that people ‘snap’–or that mental illness is often of sudden, sharp onset. The reality–mental health issues are often progressive and insidious….and wholly treatable. A third and especially infuriating ignorance is the narrative that people with mental illness are exploitable and tokenized, often sexually. This is markedly common in portrayals of females with mental health issues. Thus we see sexism and misogyny intersect with the marginalization of people with disabilities. As a Feminist and a therapist, I am troubled by the potential impacts of these messages.
My gripe transcends impoverished depictions of those suffering mental health issues to include those who treat them. Historically, film has been a predictable perpetrator of the narrative of psychiatrists, therapists and support staff being incompetent or even cruel. Perhaps the all-time most hackneyed embodiment of the ‘therapist’ has been as a powerfully transgressive authority figure who sexually exploits clients. This is a threadbare and ignorant take on the very real, yet entirely manageable phenomenon of transference and counter-transference. The truth is that the profound majority of mental health professionals are ethically conscious, collaborative folks who just happen to value creating safe spaces for us to explore our deeply human luggage.
The somewhat positive news is that consultation and collaboration with mental health professionals is gradually becoming an industry practice. Just as the film industry will fact-check their historical references, many producers and directors are seeking assistance to more consciously craft their characterization of emotional pain. I vote we make that a universal standard!
When we take a moment to step-back and examine how ubiquitously psychology is woven into our storytelling, we have an opportunity to create richer narratives that honor the complex tension of it. If those who hold the privilege of publicly telling human stories choose to remain complacent, we’re likely to perpetuate discrimination and hatred of those worthy of our kindness and compassion. We can do better. In an effort to further our consideration of this issue, here’s a few of my recommendations to absorb and deconstruct:
Did it better:
Benny & Joon: a compassionate perspective on the worthiness of people living with occasionally debilitating mental illness and their potential to be creative, loving and contributing to society. Also an apt depiction of the challenges for loved ones and caregivers.
Filth: veering from grandiosity to angst, addiction and impulsivity in the face of losing one’s family and suppressing early childhood trauma is reflected with a beautiful balancing act only Irving Welsh and McAvoy can muster!
Cake: the slow-burn emotional erosion from a major medical trauma and chronic disability are not laid-out with histrionics, just honesty.
Did it worse:
What About Bob: too many issues to mention, from the ridiculous depiction of the mentally ill character to the laughable treatment. If you suspend disbelief entirely it’s only a good laugh, not a total mess.
In Treatment: They could have done right by the therapeutic process here if they hadn’t gone down that old ‘sex with your client’ rabbit hole.
Suckerpunch: traumatized characters are sexualized, infantilized and brutalized and caretakers are criminally unethical and abusive.
Paige Zuckerman, CMHC
mental health therapist, contributing writer and fellow human, Salt Lake City, UT