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!
Advertising is as much a part of pop culture as deliberately created works of art. Here in the United States, one of the most lasting contributions to perceptions of mental illness in society has come courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, which spends an estimated $2.5 billion annually on reaching the public through advertising. Most people who have televisions or magazine subscriptions in the US have encountered pharmaceutical advertising, sometimes for products so vaguely described and marketed that viewers aren't actually sure what they are for.
"We're all mad here" might be the best description of almost all of the characters in Batman: The Animated Series, including the caped crusader himself. Most of the villains in Batman are super criminals with personal obsessions that drive their crime sprees well beyond the point of parody. Of course someone named E. Nygma is going to be puzzle-obsessed and, when double-crossed in business, take up the mantle of The Riddler to gain revenge. Of course someone named Victor Fries is going to invent a freeze ray and take up the mantle of Mr. Freeze in order to get revenge on the man who almost killed his terminally ill wife. Of course Bruce Wayne dresses up in a mask and a cape and clears Gotham's streets of super villains. And of course the villains mostly end up in Arkham Asylum instead of Gotham Penitentiary. They're all crazy! Mad as hatters! (And yes, there is a Mad Hatter, obsessed with Alice. He vows revenge when Alice spurns his advances.)
What's different about the Crazy Ladies of Batman is how their motivations and actions are a bit... different... than that of the various male characters. To steal from Nostalgia Chick'slist of the top 11 Villainesses, these ladies aren't motivated by the death of loved ones, personal betrayal in business, or even romantic obsession. No no, these ladies are liberals gone mad.
This post discusses abuse in asylums, including sexual assault. It discusses the history of lobotomies and describes (briefly) the procedure. It also contains spoilers for the movie Sucker Punch.
I went to see Sucker Punch expecting a light piece of fluff that involved conventionally attractive young women with swords fighting a dragon. It's a movie where one of the lines highlighted in the trailer is "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." I was prepared for a light popcorn-type film and showed up for a midnight screening with one of my friends, two martinis to the wind.
I was really not expecting a film that laid out how abusive asylums and long-term care centers can be—and often are. I was not expecting a film that laid out how asylums could be used to silence uppity women. And I was really not prepared for a film that showed bluntly and horrifyingly what lobotomies involved and how they completely destroyed people's personalities.
Young adult literature features a number of depictions of mentally ill characters, from authors who both bother to do their homework and take the time to present their work well and authors who don't seem to feel that research and sensitivity are necessary. In YA especially, depictions of mental illness are critical because some readers may be struggling with emotions and experiences they do not understand, or don't have words for; some mental illnesses start to manifest during young adulthood, and can be overwhelming and alarming as people start to realize that something about their adolescence is different from that of their peers. Reading about people like them can be a reminder that no, they are not abnormal or freakish, and their experiences are not unusual.
"Crazy" people aren't the only ones who are a bundle of stereotypes in popular media. We also see examples of therapists (including psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors) being presented in a very negative light. In the following examples, I highlight pop culture therapists who are incompetent in a variety of ways.
Some of these movies and television shows are, of course, comedies. Not only are therapists being mocked, but so are a variety of other people. What's interesting here is how similar a lot of the mocking of therapy is across various genres.
Throughout this list I've used the catch-all term "therapist" for consistency's sake. I've also used "incompetent therapist," although "incompetent" is often in the eye of the viewer.
Despite documenting abuses in the institutional environment in a way that might seem like a condemnation of institutionalization, pop culture often makes a point of separating out the hero from the actual crazy people. They may drift through the narrative as sources of inspiration and general interest; think of the Wise Crazy Person who advises the hero while he is trapped in the mental hospital, or the Gentle Suicidal Girl who makes the lead character sad when she finally succeeds in taking her own life.
The hunger for celebrity gossip appears unslakable; there's a reason paparazzi and gossip-mongers can always find employment in Los Angeles. Even in periods of economic depression, in fact perhaps especially in periods of economic depression, the public demands stories about celebrity shenanigans and it particularly wants stories about celebrities gone bad. Celebrities losing control. It consumes, with relish, stories about celebrity breakdowns because many people seem to enjoy a sense of "how the mighty have fallen" over their morning gossip rag.
Working in Hollywood is intensely stressful, which can tend to add to the risks of experiencing mental illness. It is a highly pressured, fast-paced environment, especially for women, who have to fight twice as hard to attain half the popularity and following of their male peers, while remaining "strong" so they can be the subject of flattering profiles rather than lurid tabloid covers. Drug and alcohol abuse tend to be high in this environment as well; I've attended enough Hollywood parties as a non-drinker to know that you experience tremendous pressure to imbibe even when you have good reasons not to do so. While neither drug nor alcohol abuse is necessarily a cause of mental illness, both can cause erratic behavior and they may trigger latent mental illness, especially in a patient who is held under the looking glass instead of being given adequate support.
This post includes spoilers for Inception. It also discusses domestic violence.
There are multiple interpretations of Inception, but for the basis of this discussion I'm going to take the movie at face value. The central story is about Dominic Cobb needing to come to terms with the tragic circumstances of his wife's suicide. Once he is able to let go of his guilt and grief, he escapes limbo and comes back to his children. It's a nice little metaphor about mourning.
One consequence of this kind of character presentation is that audience members can experience a sense of "she deserved it" when something bad happens. Take, for example, the domestic violence depicted in the Schuester kitchen, where Will grabs Terri, shoves her aggressively against a counter, and yanks at her clothing, all while she pleads with him to stop. This scene was not read as domestic violence by many viewers, because, well, she deserved it. If she hadn't been manipulative, he wouldn't have been "forced" to act in the way that he did.
This plays out continually in pop culture, where mentally ill characters are subjected to brutality and it is read as acceptable, appropriate, or even necessary in some cases, because of how their mental illnesses express. The symptoms and expressions of mental illness are not always easy to control, even for people receiving appropriate treatment, even for people who very much wish that these things didn't happen; it's not that people enjoy violent outbursts or crying jags or hallucinations. When viewers of pop culture receive the message that it is OK to behave abusively to someone because of mental illness, it sets a dangerous precedent.