We're All Mad Here: Race, Gender, and Mental Illness in Pop Culture

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

In any discussion about depictions of mental illness in pop culture, we must examine who is mentally ill, and how it is framed. Pop culture reflects social attitudes at large and this can be seen especially markedly with mental illness, where the gendering and racializing that play critical roles in the disparities in mental health diagnoses in society also show up in your pop culture.

Cast your mind back over the depictions of mental illness you’ve encountered most recently; there’s a chance many of them were women, from madwomen in the attic to crazy exes, and there’s a chance that at least some of them were people of color. There is a long history of pathologizing resistance to oppression that plays a key role in the depictions of mental illness in pop culture.

Think about what mental illness, or craziness, lunacy, insanity, mean to you, and how you know a character is mentally ill without being specifically told. The character behaves irrationally. Is perhaps violent. Doesn’t respect personal space. Think, too, about how some of the very epithets we use to disparage mental illness are gendered; women who do not behave as expected are “crazy bitches.” An angry woman is “hysterical.” Think about how some of these behaviors can arise in legitimate protest against oppressive social structures; anger, for example, is a very legitimate response to sexism.

The pathologization of what some might consider perfectly reasonable responses to oppression has an ancient history. For thousands of years, women have been marginalized with a variety of diagnoses meant to keep them in their place. Ancient Greece and Rome, two cultures that contributed heavily to western pop culture—which is what we’re focusing on in this series because it’s what we know best—were both heavily patriarchal. Medical attitudes from both these societies continue to be prevalent today, including beliefs about mental health. Gender bias in mental health diagnoses is an ongoing and significant issue, as is the fact that women are more at risk of some mental health conditions exacerbated by stress, feelings of helplessness, and experiences of abuse.

Many of the suffragettes who fought for equality were considered mentally ill by their peers. Some were subjected to psychiatric torment in an attempt to curb their “antisocial behaviors.” For their hunger strikes, they were force-fed, and some were subjected to attempts to declare them mentally ill so they could be institutionalized. All for demanding the right to vote. These were the crazy bitches of the early 20th century.

These attitudes about women can be seen played out in the depiction of mental illness in pop culture. A woman who is intent and single minded, who screams and yells, is often meant to be viewed as “crazy” by viewers, even as a male character with the same traits may well be a hero. Women who resist abuse are likewise framed as mentally ill, which reinforces larger social attitudes about mental illness and women, that women who speak up and do not tolerate oppression are simply insane, and thus can be dismissed and ignored.

Inequalities in mental illness are not just about gendering. They are also heavily racialized. In the United States, some of the most blatant examples of the racialization of mental illness come from within the black community. Historically, diagnoses like “drapetomania” (“this troublesome practice that many [slaves] have of running away”) and hebetude (“laziness”) were used to pathologize the behavior of people held in slavery. Clearly no person would have a reason to flee slavery, or to experience depression while being held in slavery, so it must have been the result of disease.

With the end of slavery came new diagnostic weapons to use against black men and women; for example, schizophrenia diagnoses are much higher among the black community, particularly among men. This is not, researchers believe, because members of this community are at any particular increased risk of schizophrenia. It is because this condition has been used literally as a weapon against people who resist racism, just as drapetomania was used to dismiss the very real and understandable need to flee slavery.

When we see depictions of mental illness in people of color and nonwhite people, they are often dangerous and frightening. Work made by white creators for white viewers tends to underscore how dark and scary it all is, and this carries out into the way white people view resistance to racism, and the very real anger within communities that are not white. The use of mental illness as a weapon has been a direct contributor to the rise of the tone argument used against people of color and nonwhite people; you can be angry, as long as you are nice about it.

Furthermore, research shows that just as women are at higher risk of mental health conditions because of the oppression they experience, people of color and nonwhite people are also at increased risk of mental illness. Exposure to systemic, unrelenting racism can cause severe mental distress; we are living in a society that literally makes people sick with oppression.

It is very rare to see a mentally ill white man in pop culture, and even then, it often appears in the guise of mental illness as superpower, or in the form of a likeable character with mental illness, like Dexter, the humanized serial killer. Others may be creepy and scary, but it’s treated as specific to their characters, not intrinsic to all people like them. This contrasts markedly with the depiction of mental illness in other groups, whom we are supposed to find frightening, alienating, and scary both because of their illness and because of who they are. The next time you engage with a piece of pop culture that depicts mental illness, take note of who is depicted, and how it is framed. How are you supposed to feel about that character? How does the character’s behavior reinforce, or resist, stereotypes about mental illness?

Russell Crowe looks out a window covered in scribbled math.

Here’s Russell Crowe living the mental-illness-as-superpower dream in A Beautiful Mind.

Related Reading: Transcontinental Disability Choir: 9021-Oh No!

Previously: We’re All Mad Here: Intake Interview, We’re All Mad Here: Fighting Stigma Through Humor

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Gender and Mental Illness

<p>I could write a doctoral thesis on this idea. I might end up doing so, actually, partially because some of my favorite writers were treated for mental illness at one time or another, and I think it definitely had an impact on their writing. But also, their writing was often considered a symptom of that very illness. Women diagnosed with hysteria in the early parts of the 20th century were restricted from writing. In fact, in most cases, they were restricted from doing anything in an effort to keep them from stressing themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that some of them literally tried to climb (into) the walls (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm)? It would certainly seem that possession of a vagina is considered a mental illness in itself in a great many circumstances.</p>
<p>One interesting male character struggling with mental illness came from Billy on Six Feet Under. He was portrayed as simultaneously horrific and vulnerable, two very commonly "feminine" portrayals of mental illness. The characters on the show dealt with it as a disease, and even though that disease informed his art, his unique vision wasn't ever really portrayed as a "superpower." Instead, most of the characters on the show actually fear him including, at times, his own sister (though Claire is drawn to him, partially due to his passion and partially, I think, due to the danger of him, especially early on--she has a thing for "dangerous men" for a while). There are aspects of him that are a little problematic, but overall, I think it's the best depiction of mental illness I've seen in a white male character.</p>

Oversimplification of Mental Illnesses

My issue with mental illness as portrayed in pop culture is its oversimplification. I believe it was here on Bitch--or maybe it was somewhere else, I don't quite remember--that mentioned the phenomenon of "single point mental illness," where all of a character's flaws or symptoms can be neatly traced back to one event. Not only does this not take into account the reality of all the factors that affect people mentally, but it also seems to suggest that they would have been "normal" if not for that one, external force. I understand that a 2-hour movie has to condense things, but I've seen this so many times and it's just too easy.

On another note, sometimes I find that being a woman (or a person of color, or a non-heterosexual person) is itself pathologized. In the case of non-heterosexual or heteronormative people, it was literally considered a mental illness, but I find that being a woman is many times seen as having a mental illness in and of itself. Women are told that they are overly emotional and that any issues with anger or sadness they have are because of their "feminine" emotional nature, and it's often suggested that these feelings stem from the menstrual cycle, as though having a female reproductive system makes one automatically mentally "unsound." For example, a friend of mine who deals with mental illness spoke to her father about some negative feelings once, and his response was something like, "You should see a doctor to make sure your periods are normal." I know that PMDD is a real thing that affects some women, but to reduce everything to the period is wrong and insulting. Likewise, racial and cultural stereotypes also pathologize entire groups of people, which erases both the reality of systems of oppression as well as mental illnesses faced by those people.

mental illness as superpower

The mental illness as superpower trope bugs me to no end. Particularly depictions of OCD-- [possible TW here] Monk is depicted as being a great detective BECAUSE of his disorder. Even Miss Pillsbury on Glee, who is shown to struggle, is problematic: I remember seeing an interview with an actress where she was talking about how Emma has these cute, neat, put-together little outfits because of her OCD. Riiiight. My experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder is that it has wasted my time, destroyed my skin (I've struggled with compulsive skin-picking my whole life), and generally gotten in my way.
I guess I can understand some people wanting to see the good in their diagnoses, but these pop-culture depictions of "mental illness makes you special and extraordinary!" really get under my skin.

I definitely agree with you.

I definitely agree with you. Most media either show the really bad side of a mental illness, like OCD, or how it can be good. They don't show the middle ground or all the aspects that come with having OCD. It's dispiriting to see that.

Glee is problematic across

Glee is problematic across the board, I stopped watching that show when they had Paltrow on, discussing bipolar with symptoms more akin to paranoid schizophrenia and then assigning as homework "practice your bipolar rants - see, history can be fun!"

The worst part of that show is if anyone misrepresents things, they're not chastised, If someone had corrected Paltrow's character, that would have been fine. Then again, they flip-flop in their dealings with homosexual characters, too, and often reverse character progress to suit plot. I shouldn't be surprised....

OCD isn't funny. My friend was miserable, unable to use public washrooms except certain 'safe' ones, and washed her hands and used so much sanitizer her skin cracked and was raw.

I'm really loving this

I'm really loving this series, thanks for bringing these issues to light! I've definitely noticed the same trends myself when women and nonwhite people are portrayed in history and pop culture. I detest the "crazy bitch" trope wherein a "hot" female character with questionable behavior is labeled as crazy and is the butt of the joke. I stopped watching How I Met Your Mother around the time I saw that episode where Barney discusses the "Crazy Hot scale." (Why NPH, why? I like you so much better as Dr. Horrible)

Also, I'd like to add queers to the list people people who are disprapprotionately labeled as "crazy." My favorite This American Life episode is the one titled "81 Words," which discusses how homosexuality ceased to be labeled as a mental illness by the American Psychological Association in 1973.

Beautiful Mind

Love the article! My only issue is with A Beautiful Mind being used as an example is that the person Russel Crowe portrays in that movie is real. Being intelligent AND having a disorder sometimes go hand in hand for some of us, sadly. United States of Tara would have been perhaps a better example. Excellent piece, full of good points though!

Like this series a lot. And

Like this series a lot. And I'd loves to see more feminist theory texts exploring the issue of mental illness.

IMO the best depictions of mental illness are in literature. Mrs. Dalloway, esp the part where she talks about all the patients seeing the doctor prescribing "proportion.". And also parts of Infinite Jest, specifically the part where the patient has just been admitted to the psych ward for attempting to commit suicide. Both David Foster Wallace and Virginia Woolf could write compassionately and incisively about mental illness because they had experienced it themselves.

An exception

While the depictions are always problematic, you'd actually be hard-pressed to watch five episodes of Law & Order without seeing a white, male mentally ill character. They have mentally ill women and people of color as well, but the most dangerous and most "crazy" are usually white men.

Genderization and Sizism

I love this series..
Having lived with family with mental illness and struggling with my own, I feel that the pop-culture depictions of mental illness further distort the issues facing those with neurological differences, including the often inhumane treatment that many patient experience.
One of the most blatant things I've noticed in the "sexy, crazy female" trope is the usually waifish state of those women depicted as "insane". They all invariably have emaciated frames, doe-sized eyes, and post-coitally tousled hair. This belies the fact that a majority of people suffering from mental illness have gained weight, or do gain massive amounts of weight on their medication... barring some of those with eating disorders, and those that exercise obsessively. Far from being hip and tousled, many patients arrive at their respective hospitals unwashed and unkempt from the rigors of the issues which bring them there.... and aside from the few suffering nymphomania or the type of mania that manifests sexually, most arrive with little thought or desire for erotic pleasure. Patients are shown thrashing and grinning or creating manically, but hardly ever sprawled in bed or sobbing uncontrollably.. there are so many misrepresentations of mental illness, it's difficult to find a way to begin addressing them.

We're All Mad Here: Race, Gender, and Mental Illness in Pop

I was recommended this blog by my cousin. I'm not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed about my problem. You're wonderful!

Borderline Personality Disorder

Not to mention the huge amount of sexism in the BPD world. Many people (including most leading psychologists AND THE DSM ITSELF) say that more women are borderline than men. This is not the case; it is because more females seek treatment for it or are seen as having a problem. This a direct result of society's gender roles and the whole "men can't have emotions" shit. There are just as many borderline men as there are women.

Same with Depression.

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