Anna Pearce
View profile »

This is a joint post by s.e. & Anna.

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.

We keep coming back to depictions of mental illness in the works of Joss Whedon, because it’s a theme he returns to on a regular basis and it’s one he seems to struggle with. This is seen perhaps most markedly with Drusilla, appearing on Buffy and Angel as a representative of the fragile brunette who seems to keep coming up in his work. She is delicate and airy-fairy, yet deadly dangerous; living under the protection of others, but lashing out unexpectedly in fits of violence. She is childlike, yet fanged. Some people find such characters particularly sexy, as Spike does, when they burst out of their shells to kick ass and take names. Docile and complacent most of the time, aggressive and edgy at rare moments, Drusilla is a very familiar and very harmful depiction of mental illness.

It seems fairly evident that Drusilla is supposed to be mentally ill, though it’s not really clear what her diagnosis is supposed to be. Angel talks about having driven her mad in the guise of Angelus; initially attracted to her visions, he made a game of tormenting her and her family to break her mind. Already unstable to begin with as a result of her internal and religious-rooted agony about her visions, it doesn’t take much to push her over the edge and into a state that, for lack of a better word, and sticking with diagnostic terms true to her era, is nothing short of neurasthenic.

Drusilla is edgy. She is nervous. She is clingy and dependent. She is whiny. She doesn’t track people and events around her very well; she lets a bird die in the cage because she doesn’t feed it, she plays with dollies and tarot cards, she keens and wails when challenged in any way. We are introduced to her in a physically weakened state under the care of Spike, who is obsessed with her; another trope that Whedon pokes at with the brunettes, the idea that men are attracted to weak, damaged, fragile women, a common social stereotype surrounding the attraction to victims as potential tool for exploitation and manipulation. Whedon is not necessarily presenting this without comment, of course!

In contrast to Dru, and to the more episodic treatment of women with mental health conditions in Whedon’s work discussed in an earlier post, we also have Buffy herself. Throughout season six, we see Buffy struggling with the emotional consequences of literally clawing herself out of her own grave. She is despondent and has difficulties re-connecting with her friends. She makes several bad decisions, mostly caused by her difficulties in communicating, which further alienates those around her. When she finally is able to tell someone about how upset and depressed she is, the person she turns to is Tara—someone she doesn’t know very well, who she hopes will be able to help her. She begs Tara to tell her that she’s upset because she’s come back “wrong,” that there’s a curse on her; the truth is that Buffy is depressed, and there’s no magic spell, no healing touch, that can fix that. Whereas the ending of season six did seem to go with “Now that Buffy and Dawn have hugged out their differences, everything will be better!” the overall story arc was one that well-reflects the experiences of depression that some—albeit not all—people with situational-specific depression live with. It’s a very nuanced take, one that was primarily led by Marti Noxin, and heightened by the connection we had already made with Buffy over the previous five seasons.

Glee also features several mentally ill characters; Terri, who has been discussed before, and Emma, the classic example of waiflike, wispy, romanticized person with a mental illness. She’s just so cute and so clearly needs the protection of a nice man to help her get her illness under control. It’s notable that this kind of framing of mental illness is often not true to lived experience; few people with OCD find much in common with Emma. We see her fretting about grapes in the cafeteria, but we don’t see her performing a complicated locking ritual before she leaves her house, for example.

This is just a small sampling of characters with longer-term mental health arcs. We could have also discussed Morganna from BBC’s Merlin, who begins the series drugged and ignorant of her true nature in order to keep her powers under control and from driving her mad, increasingly shown as distraught; later in the series, when she discovers the truth, she become a villain. Another show that depicts a main character with mental health condition is The United States of Tara, about a woman with dissociative identity disorder (commonly referred to as “multiple personalitiy disorder”); however, neither Anna nor s.e. have watched it, making it difficult to discuss.

In general, though, if a certain kind of main female character is shown as dealing with a mental illness, she’s often depicted as non-threatening, and given the chance to be very sympathetic in her portrayal. Emma is cute, not like crazy lying Terri. Buffy is given real depth to explain why she’s so overwhelmed in season 6, unlike crazy violent Dru. And, in these depictions, the characters we-the-audience are more likely to be sympathetic towards are the ones who are given that nuance, given a storyline with depth to it, and given the opportunity to be seen in a variety of situations, instead of plot-convenient Crazy.

Related Reading:

Previously: The Institution in Music Videos, Dating While Crazy

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

6 Comments Have Been Posted

really like these articles,

really like these articles, very useful and informing.

Good article, but none of the

Good article, but none of the links work.

I'd be fascinated to hear

I'd be fascinated to hear your take on Jane Lynch's character's schizophrenia on Criminal Minds.

United States of Tara

I have watched US of Tara, and I've read some pretty scathing criticisms from people with DID (Dissociative Identity, formerly known as Multiple Personality) about how the creators made the show without input from people who actually have the disorder. But, anyway, I think that show fits your pattern pretty well. Tara does some things as a result of her mental illness that are normally shown as reprehensible and used to show that someone is a "villain" or not worthy of respect/concern/forgiveness/thought/empathy. However, because she's the main character, you see what comes before those acts and what comes after, which gives it a totally different context and allows viewers to connect with Tara and empathize with her lack of control over her condition and her desire to live an autonomous life. The premise of the show is that she wants to get off of her meds and find a way to deal with her condition with the support of her family & therapist. So instead of, "oh shit, crazy lady went off her meds and did that horrible thing, what a jerk!" which is what would happen with a minor character, it's a much more nuanced view.

Emma in Glee

I don't think the portrayal of Emma in Glee is a total loss. The episode where she finally saw a therapist took mental illness seriously, I thought. Especially when she talked about regretting how much time her mental illness had taken away from her, I don't remember the exact quote, something like if she was too young to regret most of her life, it was something I really related to, after years of unsuccessful and partially successful treatments.. But she certainly is a cute and non threatening character, and I know the reality of mental illness is often that...it makes you difficult to deal with.

Add new comment