People with various forms of mental health conditions have been talking back to stereotypes and stigma for a long time, but this Mad People's History and these mad people's words tend to be overlooked by mainstream society and pop culture. Occasionally glimmers of our actual experience will work their way through to small presses and independent bookstores, and at other times bits of reality will creep their way into mainstream movies or television, but for the most part, stories are told about us by others, the same way kids will tell scary stories around a campfire. Be afraid of the dark, the crazy man in the woods will get you.
However, more of us are banding together in order to talk back. We're forming blog carnivals and group blogs to talk about our experiences both inside and outside the mental health system. We're writing graphic novels and web comics that talk about our lives. We're making films and taking comedy shows on the road and writing books. We're forming societies, supporting each other through our difficulties, and celebrating our successes. We're getting proud.
The decision to continually portray mental illness in pop culture for cheap, scary thrills and to avoid giving motivation for villains beyond "the crazy" has consequences. Those consequences are primarily felt by us, our loved ones, and our communities. When people tell me I'm "reading too much" into the number of times I've seen a mental health condition as the only motive for being a murderer on the latest Crime Drama, I want to ask them if they've ever considered why I don't tell them what my diagnosis is. The only time I see "me" on TV is as a murderer, and that has directly influenced my decisions about disclosing, about seeking mental health services, and about talking to my family and friends about my diagnosis. And in that, I am by no means alone.
Many characters on television are explicitly mentally ill, and they come in a wide range of presentations. Television as a medium provides a unique opportunity for long, complex character arcs, which can be good when a show wants to take mental health seriously and really explore characters and their development. It can also be very, very bad, when a show doesn't do the research, and instead presents extended, truly awful depictions of mental illness.
Common perceptions of mental illness and relationships suggest that mentally ill people do not belong in relationships, do not deserve love and affection, and are even dangerous to marry or get involved with. Not for nothing are undesirable prospective partners "crazy bitches," are former partners whom we're supposed to hate "crazy exes." It is highly unusual to see a depiction of a functional relationship with a mentally ill partner or partners; such a thing is alien to the arbiters of relationships in pop culture.
Some depictions of mental illness in pop culture suggest that we are all overflowing with libido, unable to exercise any degree of control or restraint when it comes to sexuality. The oversexed female character in particular is a very familiar stereotype; look at Brenda on Six Feet Under, who is introduced to us having sex in an airport closet. On the road with Nate to give him a ride home, she says they shouldn't pretend this is the first time either one of them has had sex with a stranger. Implication: Stranger sex is just a thing that she does, and over the course of the series, it becomes apparent that this is because of her mental illness.
The institution as a recurring theme in pop culture tells us a great deal about how people think about institutions and mental illness, and music videos in particular provide a fascinating glimpse into perceptions of institutionalization and the institution as metaphor. Assembling this post, I pored through numerous videos depicting institutions and institutional life, ranging from the heinous to the fantastic.
Women whom history has deemed as "mad" play an interesting role in pop culture. Some of them are viewed as romantic figures, their stories revered and retold as tragic love. Others are viewed as passive objects, mostly used as props in men's stories. Still others are retroactively diagnosed as "mad" due to their actions, even when men who did the same or similar things were not.
A lot of these ideas about historical mad women are embodied in the story of Juana of Castile (in English, Joanna), often known as Juana la Loca, or Joanna the Mad. She's been the subject of paintings, plays, operas, songs, books, and movies, almost always depicted as the mad woman whose obsessive love for her unfaithful husband led to her imprisonment, for the good of Spain. Sometimes she's accused of necrophilia, other times she's distantly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, with evidence provided by accounts written by people paid by her husband, father, and son to ensure that she was viewed incompetent to rule. She is rarely presented as having any agency of her own, and in an age where Henry VIII was having wives beheaded for perceived and actual infidelity, Joanna's "hysterical" jealousy of her husband's well-known affairs has been consistently presented as "proof" of her insanity.
One particularly interesting, troubling, and recurrent depiction of mental illness in pop culture comes up in the handling of of mentally ill or cognitively impaired parents, where the traditional parent/child roles are reversed to advance a storyline. It is notable that this often involves a mentally ill mother, to underscore the idea that the parent is somehow failing at social obligations as a result of mental illness—mothers are for mothering, not for being ill, after all.
So many works of pop culture include some variation of this storyline; mother slips with a knife in the kitchen, mother lies in bed and won't move, mother becomes irrational and erratic, sometimes, in an extreme case, mother succeeds at a suicide attempt or kills a child. Father carts her off to the hospital and there is much somber discussion before he returns, alone. Visits are promised but never occur. Sometimes mother is ushered offstage at this point, never to appear again. Sometimes she comes back after her time away, a fragile version of herself whom everyone must tiptoe around.
Television stations in the US are required by FCC regulations to have a minimum of three hours a week of "educational programming" aimed at children. This actually began in the 90s, and initially television stations met the requirements by having little life lessons tacked on to their various cartoons. Some of you may recall very peppy "Sailor Moon Says!" segments, or "Knowing is half the battle!" from G.I. Joe. Other "edutainment" shows baked the lesson right into the text, such as Captain Planet and the Planeteers (pollution is bad, environment is good, go Captain Planet!) and Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? (geography and fighting crime!). More recently, FCC regulations have tightened up a bit, and shows need to do a bit more than say "Drugs are bad, m’kay?" to quality for an E/I rating, but we still have a good decade of important "educational" cartoon shows to look at and consider the life lessons we're to learn!
So, what can watching cartoons teach us about people who are crazy? Oh, lots of fun things!