One particularly interesting, troubling, and recurrent depiction of mental illness in pop culture comes up in the handling of of mentally ill or cognitively impaired parents, where the traditional parent/child roles are reversed to advance a storyline. It is notable that this often involves a mentally ill mother, to underscore the idea that the parent is somehow failing at social obligations as a result of mental illness—mothers are for mothering, not for being ill, after all.
So many works of pop culture include some variation of this storyline; mother slips with a knife in the kitchen, mother lies in bed and won’t move, mother becomes irrational and erratic, sometimes, in an extreme case, mother succeeds at a suicide attempt or kills a child. Father carts her off to the hospital and there is much somber discussion before he returns, alone. Visits are promised but never occur. Sometimes mother is ushered offstage at this point, never to appear again. Sometimes she comes back after her time away, a fragile version of herself whom everyone must tiptoe around.
Pop culture tells us a number of dangerous things about parenting and mental illness, particularly when it comes to mothering. Parenting, we are told, is simply not possible with mental illness. It’s too dangerous: You will break your children or you will abandon them in their hour of need. You are too unstable to be trusted with the tremendous responsibility of childrearing, unless you are willing to abide by very strict rules for the management of your condition.
Betty Draper on Mad Men experiences a period of depression that causes her to snap at her children and neglect them. A lot of viewers read this as pure selfishness, and it became a bit of turnoff for some of her former fans; she’s being a bitch, why won’t she snap out of it, how come she’s wallowing so much? Others read her depression as situational, and a response to the pressures of her era and the frustrations of her marriage, but sometimes this reading was tinged with irritation; why didn’t she leave if she was so unhappy?
On South Riding, an adaptation of the book of the same name that aired earlier this year, one of the most important characters is also one of the most absent; Muriel is mentally ill and lives in an institution, and her daughter is depicted as bereft without her. She’s nervous, edgy, and shows signs of mental illness herself, with her father largely neglecting her, haunted by memories of his wife. The absent parent is one depiction of mental illness, where we see that a character is fundamentally damaged and broken by lack of a parental figure.
White Oleander shows another take on mentally ill parenting, with Ingrid very much present until she goes to jail for murder. Astrid is depicted in a continually put-upon role. She has to be the responsible adult, in charge of making sure basic household needs are met because her mother is too busy spinning off into the stratosphere. All she wants is a “real mother” and Ingrid is depicted as cold and selfish, too wrapped up in herself to do anything for her daughter.
Mental illness is also implied in Push, later adapted into Precious, where the storyline suggests that Mary is mentally ill and attributes her parenting failures to this. Given that Mary is also abusive, this sets a very dangerous precedent; there is a hint that abusiveness is the result of mental illness. Perhaps that mentally ill parents are unsafe and dangerous, inherently, because of their conditions.
Cognitive impairments, while not specifically examples of mental illness, also show the ways that the reversal of parent/child roles in a disability context can be played out. On The West Wing, CJ’s father struggles with Alzheimer’s, and CJ in turn struggles with her relationship with her father, frustrated by the consequences of his illness and almost angry at him for being sick. Buffy used the role reversal as a tool in the fifth season in the storyline with Joyce, underscoring the fact that even the Slayer can’t defeat everything by disabling her mother. Joyce goes from a confident, loving, assertive figure to a shell of her former self.
This handling of mental illness tends to present it as something out of control, scary, and dangerous. And also very, very selfish. Mentally ill people in pop culture are often deeply self-absorbed, wrapped up in themselves and their disorders, which means they have no time for anyone else. When it comes to parents, pop culture implies that mentally ill parents are too broken and damaged to possibly provide the level of care and support their children need. When this is the understanding of mental illness that many people have, it sets dangerous precedents.
Finding positive depictions of mentally ill parents is an uphill struggle, let alone depictions of parents who are members of Mad Pride movement, who may reject conventional treatment approaches to mental illness. For people with mental illness who want to be or are parents, pop culture provides ample reminders that this is a bad idea and should be reconsidered. For people without mental illness, pop culture provides ample judgment fodder and this can be a big problem when those people are decision-makers, the people who, for example, get to evaluate whether a parent should be allowed to keep a child after a report to child services expressing concern, or who sit in judgment on a jury.
(Many thanks to abby jean for her help with this post!)