This post includes spoilers for the movies Single White Female, The Craft, and Perfect Blue. These three movies have several things in common:
The main point-of-view character in each one is what I've called "fake-out crazy." Each one exhibits some sort of behavior within the movie that could be viewed as "insane," but unlike the villains, these women end up being "strong enough" to overcome this. (Earlier in the film, the "crazy" character always accuses the "sane" one of being "too weak" or "pathetic".)
None of the characters are actually diagnosed with anything within the films, although psychiatrists are contacted in all cases. The Internet has provided the "crazy" characters with a variety of diagnoses.
Two of the movies have a red herring character who is "crazy" and is obsessed with the main character.
Each movie uses sexual behavior as a way of showing how "out of control" one of the characters has gotten.
Cast your mind back over the depictions of mental illness you've encountered most recently; there's a chance many of them were women, from madwomen in the attic to crazy exes, and there's a chance that at least some of them were people of color. There is a long history of pathologizing resistance to oppression that plays a key role in the depictions of mental illness in pop culture.
Last year in Canada, there were two nation-wide campaigns to fight mental health stigma.
The first focused on the financial cost of mental health. It was launched by one of our major banks, and had a slick advertising campaign full of dark colors and statistics. There were multi-page discussions in the national newspapers, as well as multiple bus shelter advertisements driving home the point: Mental illness is a cost to the Canadian economy.
The other, Stand Up For Mental Health, was launched by actual people with mental health conditions. The program is open to people with a variety of diagnoses, and trains them to become stand-up comics, making jokes and wise-cracks about the experience of being mentally ill, as well as other aspects of the lives of the comics. Last year, Stand Up for Mental Health did a cross-country tour to university campuses in the hopes of raising enough awareness to get a Pepsi Refresh Grant so they could get more funding for their work.
I encountered both of these programs at university.
Welcome to We're All Mad Here, an exciting series on depictions of mental illness (and health) in pop culture featuring the lovely Anna and s.e. smith. We thought we'd start things off with a little interview so you could get to know us, learn more about why we're doing this series, and find out what to expect from the coming weeks:
Why does it even matter? It's just entertainment, right?
Anna: I've thought about this a lot because it's something that comes up as a criticism of critiques about representation in pop culture. There's been at least one study that demonstrated that people who watch crime procedurals like CSI demand that standard police investigations now provide nearly-impossible levels of forensic evidence in jury trials. This is called the CSI Effect [Wikipedia link, although you can do a search for CSI effect and find more (like this post by s.e. on the CSI effect!)]. How things are presented on TV has apparently had an effect on court cases in North America. Why do people believe that the same thing isn't true of how everything else is? Especially with mental health conditions, which already had a stigma attached.
s.e.: There's an ongoing and continual discussion about representations of various facets of human experience in pop culture that illustrates why this stuff matters; Bitch itself is a publication dedicated to responding to pop culture and exploring how what we see in pop culture transfers over to how we think about society. Yet, mental illness in particular often gets the short end of the stick in these conversations, and there's a lot of "well that character is just crazy" that also transfers over into real life, and there's a reluctance to really drill down into that and talk about why it is that mental health stigma persists even in communities where other forms of stigma are recognized and combated.
As a mentally ill musical theatre fan, depictions of characters who share that trait with me typically fall into one of two categories: they a) don't exist or they b) make me rage. next to normal comes closer than most shows to getting it right, in a lot of ways. But where it fails, it fails hard.
There is, in my opinion, a right way and a wrong way to advertise Irish singer Susan McKeown's album Singing in the Dark. Calling it "a work exploring Creativity, Suffering and the Pursuit of Happiness," as her website does, is the wrong way. The project loses its power in those highfalutin capital letters, veering instead to the inspirational spoken-word side of the record aisle. The right way would be to say something more along the lines of, "If this album had existed six years ago, it could have changed the entire course of my life for the better."
One trait I see portrayed frequently but not often discussed is mental illness and how it is used as a mechanism to propagate or explain away the actions of characters. Often, I see mental illness used as a tool to demonstrate just how terrible a character's actions are when their actions could be held up to scrutiny on their own. The use of mental illness as an agent of character development is an old trope that has been used time and again, often marring really great games. Outside of social justice circles, though, I don't see a lot of pushback against these depictions.
Now that I have showered some well-deserved praise on BioWare for Dragon Age II, and also engaged in the almost 60 hours that it took me to get to the bitter and mind-wrenchingly disturbing end, I have a few thoughts. For all of my waxing poetic about how fabulously progressive BioWare has been with their slick political messages and wiggling new ideas into the way we consume and play video games, there was this thing tugging at me as I took my Hawke faffing about Kirkwall.
Please take note Gentle Readers: This post contains some fairly significant end-game plot spoilers for Dragon Age II. If you do not want to have this roller coaster ride ruined for you, please consider moving on. You have been warned.
Deja vu this week on Grey's Anatomy as the team at Seattle Grace is plunged into helping the victims of a shooting rampage on a school campus. A whole lot of healing over the first half of the season has been building up to this moment. How do they handle it? And what in blazes is Teddy up to?!
All this and more (spoilers galore!) after the break!
It's time to head back to the nineteenth century, and one Miss Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre (1847) is, of course, one of the most widely-read books in the English language. But I wonder about the kinds of readings that are to be had here. And I wonder what I'm getting out of this book that would have gone over the head of Brontë, as a white woman from a colonising nation. These are sensibilities supplied by Jean Rhys' parallel novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), as we will see.