Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin looks at how something as complex as mental illness is treated in film and television.
Progress in Hollywood is a slow business. In many regards, it is difficult to see much change in the film industry since the golden age of the cinema in the 1950s. There was much furore last year at Jennifer Lawrence’s open letter to the industry regarding the treatment of women. Yet, despite the hype in that moment, the issue has once again faded to a lull, allowing the glass ceiling to quietly solidify.
There is, perhaps, one issue where the gender divide in Tinsel Town becomes irrelevant, and it is one which is often swept under the rug: that is the representation of the mentally ill in cinema. The appeal of characters who suffer from mental illness has long been evident in literature, and it is easy to see why. Even today, in our modern, medical focused society, mental illness remains the last frontier, in many regards. It creates an aspect of humanity that is at the same time both alien and familiar, and it allows characters to act outside the rigid confines of society’s norms. However, like many groups who live in the margins of society, Hollywood uses broad brushstrokes to describe the minutiae of the mind, leaning heavily on generalisations and tropes which often do more damage that the good gained from their representation.
One of the major difficulties with the representation of mental illness in mainstream cinema is how it often resorts to the image of the mentally ill as unstable and fundamentally broken individuals. They are often used as accompanying parts in a narrative of self-fulfilment, or as an individual whose story exists as one of needing to be “fixed” (as is often the case with tropes such as the “manic-pixie-dream-girl”). This plays chiefly on the unknowable part of mental illness, the unpredictability of the mind, and how, in the end, all humans strive to fit into society. On the other end of this scale are the cases of horror; modern audiences are rarely surprised to find that a serial killer on the likes of Criminal Minds is mentally ill. One of the most famous portrayals of a psychotic break remains Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining, and it is difficult to forget the chilling-yet-intriguing portrayal of the psychopathic Hannibal Lector by Anthony Hopkins.
“Hollywood uses broad brush strokes to describe the minutiae of the mind, leaning heavily on generalisations and tropes which often do more damage that the good gained from their representation.”
Another rendering of the mentally ill is, of course, as the butt of jokes, or as the punch line in set-ups. In these cases, they are lumped in with the socially awkward to create a sense of “othering”, or of us against the unpredictable other. In cases such as that of The Big Bang Theory, it is often the case that these two groups are mixed seamlessly. It is hard to imagine many iconic comedies without odd and socially dysfunctional characters, as they often highlight the idiocy of society’s standards. Despite this, the presence of the mentally ill in comedy often only serves to reinforce the supposed “necessity” of these norms by poking fun at those who do not exist within their confines.
Where does the narrative of mental illness on screen go from here, then? It is true that not all portrayals fall into these traps. In recent years, films such as Silver Linings Playbook have offered us sympathetic and realistic renderings of mental illness. It’s Kind of a Funny Story gave us a compassionate and refreshing look at the world of psychiatric committal from a teenage point of view. Yet, despite these moves towards a more understanding and inclusive view on mental illness on screen, the prevalence of the narrative of danger remains. These are those which can be seen in American Psycho or, more recently, in Natalie Portman’s chilling portrayal of obsession in Black Swan.
In truth, it has largely fallen upon smaller productions and independent cinema to find ways of telling the stories of mental illness. Documentary films such as Tarnation, filmed over twenty years, or stories such as No Letting Go, which depict a family coming to terms with their son’s mental illness, offer a beacon of hope in an area which has largely been obscured by the use and abuse of tired and worn out tropes.
What is certain is that Hollywood’s views on mental health, much like its views on women, homosexuality and diversity in general are hugely problematic, and there is still a long way to go.