Push(back) at the Intersections: Sick of This: Mental Illness in Pop Culture

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

One area of pop culture where really problematic and questionable depictions of people come up is that of mental illness. The way that mental illness is depicted, whether it is within the context of a celebrity scandal; the characterization of a person in a film, comic, or television show; a book; or music, can be extremely dubious. For those of us with mental illness(es), pop culture can be a constant reminder of the fact that we are considered both scary and public property, objects of curiosity, fascination, and revulsion.

It seems like every other week, there’s a new celebrity scandal revolving around mental illness. Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan, for example, have both been aggressively pursued and speculated about in the media. Every move they make is examined, discussed, and picked apart. Horrible things are said about them in the headlines, and not just in the tabloids. They are not allowed to live private lives, and in the process, some very upsetting tropes about mental illness are reinforced.

There’s an attitude that women can’t take the pressure in Hollywood, that all of them will eventually crack. ‘Mental illness’ is used to describe women who are using drugs, having more sex than society thinks is appropriate, resisting their agents and studios, and speaking out publicly about things they don’t like.

This is hardly new. Since time immemorial, outspoken women have been condemned as mentally ill, allowing society to ignore them. The history of compulsory sterilisation includes no small number of cases of women who were sterilised against their will simply because they were ‘handfuls’ or ‘too much trouble’ for their families or ‘wayward,’ for which read ‘didn’t do what daddy told them.’ Thus, there are some deeply rooted social attitudes involved in the treatment of women in Hollywood who are labeled as ‘mentally ill.’

In Hollywood, even as women are treated as mentally ill for daring to be different, women who really are experiencing mental illness are also held under a lens. It’s rare for people to come out publicly about living with mental illness in Hollywood, thanks to the stigma associated with it. Yet, somehow, the media manages to come up with diagnoses. It follows women who are experiencing psychiatric crises with prurient interest and blazons the pictures across the front page.

We live in a society when people with mental illness are regarded as lesser, and where there’s a certain hierarchy of mental illness. People with ‘controlled’ mental illness are socially acceptable, while people with ‘uncontrolled’ mental illness are scary and should be shut away. Writing someone off as ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’ is one of the best ways to discount and dismiss everything that person says. ‘Don’t pay attention to her, that’s just Crazy Sookie,’ one of the characters in the Sookie Sackhouse novels says, and unfortunately, that attitude persists in the outside world as well.

A pill sorter filled with medications for the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder.

Given the distorted image of mental illness that the media puts forward, it is perhaps no wonder that depictions of mental illness in pop culture rely heavily on some really harmful ideas about us, people with mental illness. We are dangerous. We need to be medicated for our own good. We are out of control. We are irrational. We lie, cheat, steal. We use our mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour. We are burdens on our families. Our lives are tragedies. We will never know love, because we can never be good enough for romantic partners.

There’s a feedback mechanism going on here. When the media reports that Britney Spears has been placed in a conservatorship, there aren’t many people talking about the long history of family members controlling every aspect of the lives of people with disabilities. People talk about her being ‘taken advantage of,’ but they don’t connect it with the history of abusing people with mental illness by declaring them incompetent. And there are plenty of people who think that she does need to be watched—for her own good, don’t you know—and that her father is justified in wanting to keep a tight reign on her.

Because us mentally ill people, you know, we are out of control. Irrational. Scary. Society needs to be protected from us, and we need to be protected from ourselves. Otherwise, who knows what we might do? Judging from the way we are depicted in pop culture, that’s a valid question.

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Hollywood also privileges

Hollywood also privileges white cisgender female pain over everyone. While it's true there is a lot of inappropriate attention paid to Brit and LiLo, the attention amounts to concern trolling. Conversely, Fantasia alleged suicide attempt and depression has been framed as character flaw (she allegedly banged a man in an existing relationship, dontcha know) and criminalized. Whereas much of the discourse around LiLo and the likes is of the "poor little white girl" variety and the narrative suggests that she needs to be saved, which comes with its own share of problems, but it still positions white cisgendered female pain as something to be healed.

That said, pop culture really does not do <em>anyone</em> any favors - even when it seeks to provide nuance or thoughtful analysis. Hollywood can only present marginally thoughtful depictions of female mental illness if the females involved are deemed worth saving, which is to say they are conventionally gorgeous, white, otherwise able bodied and affluent. The "ugly", the brown, the poor the Trans* and the disability (and all intersections...) clearly don't deserve to be save, according to Hollywood.

Excellent post, as always!
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Yes, very astute point--the

Yes, very astute point--the primary focus in the media is indeed on white, young, cisgendered, conventionally attractive mentally ill women (or women *perceived* as mentally ill) with a healthy dose of concern trolling, versus total silence on mental illness in women of colour/nonwhite women. Or, attribution of behaviours rooted in mental illness to just being 'angry' or 'attention whoring.' There's also a very interesting intersection here with the myth of the strong Black woman, which impacts both the way Black women are perceived, and their willingness to seek treatment for mental health issues.

The way mental illness is

The way mental illness is portrayed in pop-culture has always given me the squiks, especially when pertaining to women.

I would like to say, however, that I recently saw a wonderful portrayal of mental illness in the episode "Vincent and The Doctor" on Doctor Who. It gave a heart-breakingly realistic of the Bipolar Disorder Vincent Van Gogh was though to have suffered from. It showed how people abused and demonized him because they didn't understand. It also showed the rapid mood fluctuations and the chaos of the mind. But the writers handled it in such an elegant way, it was not pushed under the rug, nor glossed over, nor glamorized. It was just a snippet from a life of a mentally ill man who was also incredibly talented. I feel that was the most fair and frank way I have seen mental illness treated in pop culture... ever... really.


The other side of that is when the mental illness of a pretty white woman is fetishized, like two of my least favorite movies, BETTY BLUE and BREAKING THE WAVES. It's like the directors were saying, "wouldn't it be smoking if a hot chick was so in love with you she 'went crazy'?" With the latter, it's also never a good sign when no two critics can agree on what mental illness the character has or if they are mentally challenged. That's a sure sign that the director didn't do their homework and just lazily grabbed something out of the cliched metaphor bag.

Also, it's bad when the Magical Mentally Ill Person is just there to teach the normals how to "live, live, live." I never saw BENNY & JOON because I was afraid of that trope.

The best movie with a mentally ill female character that I've seen is THE STORY OF ADELE H. The movie is very respectful of Adele and draws you into her experience instead of "othering" her. Maybe being based on a true story helps.


This was a great piece, and it's sharp of you to point out the ways in which history has repeated itself with the silencing of the mentally ill (or those accused of being.) An entire series could probably be written just about the reactions to, and fictional depictions of, mentally ill women; goodness knows there are a lot of assumptions out there, including about people with so-called "controlled" conditions.

Yeah, the myth of

Yeah, the myth of "controlled" mental illness. Managed maybe, navigated, perhaps, but Hollywood definitely does a disservice. I mean if you put controlled in front of chaos, that describes my stuff, but that probably won't sell any papers.

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Ah, Neurasthenia . . .

If anyone reading this hasn't read "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman I reccomend it highly. plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Yes, this.

I read that last semester for a writing seminar, and since I'd incidentally just come back to college from a health leave brought on by OCD-related panic attacks, that <i>really</i> hit home for me, but it's a really good, and accurate, story nonetheless, particularly when it comes to depicting the delusions that can supersede one's perception of reality. Unfortunately, I can't even begin to think what kind of ruckus Ms. Gilman would raise if she were writing today, particularly since her life story can be seen as a sort of precursor to Sylvia Plath's.


Just watched "Frances", the biopic about Frances Farmer, the other day (for, like, the hundredth time), and if anyone wants a good depiction of exactly what this post is talking about in the fourth paragraph, check it out. It's intense and moving, sympathetic to Frances.

That said, I took issue with a few things that were said in this post, mostly when you start spitting out the harmful ways in which mentally ill people are portrayed. The media is a bunch of unforgiving vultures who feed on the plight of others to get a story, it is true. But you seem to be saying that people with certain mental illnesses shouldn't be portrayed as, say, irrational. Let me go ahead and say I'm a recovered alcoholic with bipolar disorder. And there was a big part of my life during which I was irrational. I got a lot of help, and I have tools now to talk myself through situations in which I used to act impulsively on ill thought out ideas to the point where I put myself and others in danger. That was very real. I wasn't a bad person. In fact, part of me could recognize that I felt out of control of my own behavior--I wanted to make different choices. I just couldn't seem to. But I did have to acknowledge that my alcoholism, for instance, usually turned me into a liar. Now, when I'm talking with friends and family of an alcoholic who is just starting to come to terms with their disease after years of active drinking or with other sober alcoholics who are dealing with newly sober friends, I always tell them it's important for them to know that this person will probably lie and manilpulate because they do not yet know how to be honest and direct. It's not smack talking. I've just seen it in virtually every alcoholic I've ever known. It's just the way we learned to be, and we can change with time. Also, all mental illnesses are not the same. Some mental illnesses do contribute to lying, cheating and stealing. It's right there in the diagnostic manual.

All that said, I get what you're saying about media portrayals of the mentally ill, and it's problematic to be sure. It's just that the tone toward the end of this post sounds like a swing in the opposite direction, as if people with mental illness don't really have problems except wherein they're portrayed that way. There is help. People with mental illness aren't bad people. And I even support those who don't want help in staying exactly the way they are. But I'm honest enough to admit that that might mean they continue to lie, cheat and steal--which is exactly what I'd be doing if I hadn't gotten help.

People Who Think They're Sane Are Nuts

The more vociferously someone argues their own sanity or the mental illness of another the more likely it is that they're psychotic, and at the least they seem alot crazier to me. Almost everyone has traumatic experiences in their lives. Having neuroses as a result is normal. The existence of what psychology books define as normalcy is more of a theory than something encountered in real life, although there may be some normal folks in mental institutions. There are plenty of people who have called me sick (sometimes multiple times). Just because celebrities like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan have issues to deal with doesn't mean they are "Mentally Ill". It just means they have things to work on. It does seem like women get less slack for anger related issues than men. Maybe that's because men are expected to be influenced by testosterone and maybe that's just in my own mind. Or is that out of my own mind? Since some people will choose the latter it behooves me to suggest that we need Mental Illness Liberation. It really is a shame the way people get stripped of their rights, dignity, privacy, and sometimes much more, not just in or by the media, or by the unscrupulous, but sometimes under color of authority.

You ask "Otherwise, who knows what we might do?" Well, we could comment on or write relatively sane articles like this one.

Maybe It's Everyone Else Who Has a Problem

Maybe most mentally ill women (in fact people in general) are simply reacting in a perfectly sane way to a crazy world. We work ourselves to death to pay for a roof over our heads, we are taxed by the banking elite and many are forced to work 40 hours a week in a fashion that completely assaults their circadian rythmns. This is surely enough to unbalance any perceptive, intelligent and sensitive person.

As a woman who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder I do find the treatment of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan disturbing. However, what winds me up the most is the romanticised portayal of mental illnesses in pop culture, especially bipolar disorder. It is as if our celeb culture has made this fashionable and being "mad" almost seems to be the in thing. It is my opinion that the portrayal of Ms Spears and Ms Lohan portay mental illness in an cool and aspirational way which shows no understanding or sensitivity towards the mentally ill.

Though I can only speak for myself, mental illness is painful, debilitating and that is before one even considers the stigma attached to being "mad". Being unable to get out of bed for days on end, being unable to wash, feed yourself or not sleeping for weeks and believing you are talking to your dead grandmother is nothing to try to aspire to and is certainly not glamorous. As for medication, it can be a good way to help people, I personally find it lets me live the sort of life I want to live.

People have always been demonised for being different, I have come to the conclusion that mental illness is the only sane reaction to being forced to live in an insane world.

And if that's not bad enough.

I think my favorite disservice that pop culture/fiction does to people with mental illness is the depiction in many/most movies that with a magic pill, sudden epiphany, or the right partner, mental illness can be cured no matter the depth of the problem.

There are so many people not suffering that have been influenced by this that they just think that people who are suffering just need to "get help" and "get over it." How do they not realize that if it was that simple, we probably would. It's not fun to have these issues! We do not ask for them, and I'm sure that if we could just magically make them go away we would.

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