Welcome to We’re All Mad Here, an exciting (we hope!) 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:
What does mental health look like in TV land?
s.e.: Grim. Both in the sense that depictions of mental health issues often lack nuance and complexity, and that they are often literally grim; how many ill-lit institutions with dirty windows and sagging mattresses have I seen in the last month in various iterations across music videos, books, film, television? In pop culture, mental illness is the oogity under the bed in so many senses; the go-to metaphor, the shortcut, the epitome of evil and selfishness.
Anna: When I see someone on TV who’s “crazy,” I know I’m about to see a poorly developed parody of reality. If she’s someone’s ex-girlfriend, she’ll always be “obsessed” in some way that leads to violence. If he’s someone’s friend, he’ll always be a conspiracy theorist and the subject of general mockery by everyone else. If it’s a comedy, any time spent in either therapy or in a hospital will be the punchline of some sort of joke. If it’s a drama, the same things will prove that the person is dangerous and unstable and needs to be kept away from nice people at home. Sometimes, if I’m very lucky, I’ll see a storyline about someone with something like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by an in-show event, or someone with depression caused by an in-show event. These people, however, are often pronounced “cured” after an episode or two. I wish it were that easy.
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 everything else? 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.
Do you think there’s been a shift in depictions of mental illness over time?
s.e.: Yes and no. (Ah, what a frustrating answer!) I think that mental illness was historically presented as a disease of weak, quivering, useless women, especially women in the middle and upper classes, and that kind of shifted to something scary and frightening and male, and now we’re seeing both of those depictions. We’ve got your spoiled, nervy, whiny ladies over there, and your frightening violent men over here, and then a big nasty mess in the middle. So, you know, more change needs to happen.
Anna: I’m an historian, so when I think about “change over time,” I’m thinking of “nineteenth century to twenty-first century.” And… honestly? No, there hasn’t. I read things in the nineteenth century newspapers and fiction that would be right at home in today’s 24-hour news cycle and on television. I read an article last week in a newspaper from the 1880s that showed how horrifying it was for a person who wasn’t considered mentally ill to be forced into an asylum, which is a plot ripped out of countless genre shows. I read another one about how obviously the person who committed a particularly notorious crime was “insane.” I want there to be a difference, but it’s only in word-choice, or so it seems.
What made you decide to do this series?
Anna: Because s.e. made me! But seriously, people are afraid of mental health conditions. They see things on TV and decide that that is what “crazy” is. This can lead to stigmatizing people they know who are out about having a mental health condition, but it can also lead to people being afraid to get treatment or just seek help because they don’t want to be like that. It took me nearly a decade of trying to handle my untreated mental health condition before I sorted out that it wasn’t like that. The stigma as portrayed on TV and as perceived by everyone around me, including myself, led to years of additional misery that I didn’t need. I think these things matter.
s.e.: Because Anna made me! Um no, really. I think that mental illness is a recurrent and important theme in pop culture, and it’s often handled poorly, and people often have trouble identifying that, or know that something is wrong, but can’t articulate what, or why, or how. So the idea of exploring these topics with people who are interested in discussing depictions of marginalized identities in pop culture is very exciting, and I’d really like to make a difference in how you think about mental illness not just in pop culture, but in your own life.
We’re looking forward to exploring all of this and so much more over the next eight weeks with you!
A few short notes:
Anna is in the process of a cross-country move and will be only sporadically available for comments for the few week or so. (Seriously y’all Canada is really, really big. It takes a long time to get across it.)
Language: Preferred terms for people who have mental health conditions or are mentally ill vary from person to person, and self-identification is always trump. We are 100% in favor of people identifying however they wish (Anna likes to say she went to the crazy cakes factory and ate all the crazy cakes). Please don’t assume that people who haven’t explicitly outed themselves as mentally ill are not mentally ill, and don’t expect us (or anyone else) to provide explicit diagnostic information.
As such, we’re operating under a “language amnesty” during this eight-week period. Please don’t hesitate to comment because you’re worried about the “correct” word, although please be mindful of others and their needs; if you’re uncertain about which word to use and you’re worried, mirroring the language seen in the post can be a good start. We’re not going to hassle people who are commenting in good faith, and we ask that you do the same.
However, we do require that there is no vilification of any diagnosis in our comment threads. Diagnoses are not people, and even if you know of someone with a particular diagnosis who is violent or abusive, it does not follow that all people with that diagnosis are. Please remember that you never know who is reading.