You’ve seen her on the screen, encountered her in the pages of a book, heard her in the lines of a song. She’s the villain you love to hate, because she’s just so crazy. You know the one. She flips out over nothing, screams randomly at people, has sex with the heroine’s boyfriend…the bunny boiler was written for her. She’s that one lady with a vague and nonspecific diagnosis whom you’re supposed to hate specifically because of the way her apparent mental illness expresses, not for any particular reason beyond that.
Terri Schuester on Glee is a notable example of this in pop culture right now; think of the way she was introduced in the pilot, firmly framed as Will’s crazy girlfriend. Almost immediately, she’s off on a run of manipulative behavior. She fakes a pregnancy and tries to pressure Will into buying a home, exerting control even by stepping into Will’s work environment as the school nurse in an attempt to win him back. Terri is often so annoying that viewers are supposed to dislike her; she’s self centered, she whines a lot, she’s highly manipulative in a way that triggers the “crazy ex” button, especially after she and Will separate and she really is the crazy ex. People debate what, exactly, her diagnosis is supposed to be, but they’re all in agreement on one thing: Terri is c-r-a-z-y! That’s why she acts that way, you know.
Or the slew of bad roommates and others that Anna discussed in her piece on Monday. Usually they aren’t given specific diagnoses; it is the vague symptoms surrounding them that are used to turn them into hateable characters. This depiction of mental illness as something viewers, readers, and listeners should hate, even without a particular diagnosis, comes up over and over again in pop culture, and it is almost always women who are framed in this way.
Such caricatures are easy to hate because they aren’t given any depth. We see them primarily on screen in the role of foils for other players to play against. Speaking of roommates, look at Kathy on “Living Conditions,” the Buffy episode about every college student’s worst nightmare: The evil roommate. Before we learn the truth about Kathy, we dislike her already—not just because she is annoying and intrusive, but because she behaves in a way reminiscent of some mental illnesses. She’s fussy about her surroundings, for instance, and she has trouble interacting with people. We’re supposed to hate her because of the way she acts, and thus we don’t feel bad when Buffy gets violent with her and in so doing unmasks her demon identity; what’s telling is that we wouldn’t have felt bad even if Kathy had been mentally ill, because of a recurrent framing that mental illness alone is grounds for punishment and abuse.
Fatal Attraction provides another classic instance of this kind of character. Glenn Close’s Alex very much reads to me and many viewers as mentally ill, even though she’s not explicitly coded as such. She is dangerous and frightening and her behavior escalates over the course of the film. The film’s grand denouement arrives as Dan drowns her in the bathtub, because she is clearly too dangerous and frightening to live.
Scores of young adult novels feature some variation on this character as well; she’s the stumbling block in the way of the heroine who steals her boyfriend or sabotages her school project or generally makes a mess of things. As a character, she has no personality beyond her outbursts of inconvenient behavior, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief when she shuffles offstage or “grows out of it.” While not all of these characters are meant to be read as mentally ill—some are just cruel or careless—some certainly are, and we hate them for it.
Likewise, the first to die in horror flicks is often the annoying chick, the one with the whiny voice or the selfish attitude, and sometimes she behaves in a way that is also suggestive of mental illness. In this setting, the use of her death to advance the storyline is also a punishment; don’t be like her, viewers, or you too will experience gory death at the hands of a serial killer.
One consequence of this kind of character presentation is that audience members can experience a sense of “she deserved it” when something bad happens. Take, for example, the domestic violence depicted in the Schuester kitchen, where Will grabs Terri, shoves her aggressively against a counter, and yanks at her clothing, all while she pleads with him to stop. This scene was not read as domestic violence by many viewers, because, well, she deserved it. If she hadn’t been manipulative, he wouldn’t have been “forced” to act in the way that he did.
This notion plays out continually in pop culture, where mentally ill characters are subjected to brutality and it is read as acceptable, appropriate, or even necessary in some cases, because of how their mental illnesses express. The symptoms and expressions of mental illness are not always easy to control, even for people receiving appropriate treatment, even for people who very much wish that these things didn’t happen; it’s not that people enjoy violent outbursts or crying jags or hallucinations. When viewers of pop culture receive the message that it is OK to behave abusively to someone because of mental illness, it sets a dangerous precedent.
It’s the same precedent that leads to ignoring rape victims when they are mentally ill, for instance. Women with known mental illnesses who call for assistance in the wake of a rape may be outright laughed at. Additionally, mental illness puts people at increased risk of domestic violence, for a variety of reasons, and the message that domestic violence is acceptable when your partner is mentally ill goes far beyond the boundaries of the screen and the printed page.
The vaguely mentally ill woman whom we are supposed to hate because she is mentally ill, who only gets what she deserves, is an extremely dangerous stereotype, and one that should have been done away with long ago.