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.
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.