Trigger Warning: The mention of certain content and topics, including mental health, in this article, may be triggering to some readers. Please use caution when reading.
When representing mental health in the media, the lines are often blurred on what is proper representation versus what is stigmatization. Some of these visions were brought to life from novels of the same name, while others were born from the Hollywood writer’s room. Either way, mental health is a topic that is currently on the rise as it gains awareness. More often than not, our first impressions of mental health come from the media we consume. When it comes to female characters, in particular, that representation is even more complicated.
The Faces of Mental Health
The presentation of mental health in the media has often been more exploitative than helpful. In most forms of media, the presence of well-developed female characters is already scarce. When adding mental health into the picture, their stories can take a dark turn. The “hysterical woman” trope is already prevalent in that it typically presents female characters as less stable than their male counterparts. Their struggles with mental health, especially against an oppressive world, are perceived as “feminine” by nature and aren’t taken as seriously. This treatment also extends to male characters who do not uphold the “masculine” characteristics expected of them.
Consequently, the interest that drives these narratives is the escalation that comes from untreated mental illness. We see them snap, but the motives that drive them are just recently becoming more ventured into the media. They are not always “good” characters, but they are far more complex and humanized than the mysterious figures that drove the plot. Granted, many modern representations have a ways to go when it comes to destigmatizing mental health. As of now, it would be fruitful to analyze some modern portrayals of female characters with mental illness.
Mental Illness as “Sexy”
One unfortunate depiction of mental illness is the sexualization of it. Whether a character has gone through some unforeseen trauma or is experiencing a poor season in life, the narrative encourages them to utilize their sexuality to reclaim some sort of power, even if it destroys them internally.
A very recent depiction of sexualized mental illness is shown in HBO’s The Idol starring Lily Rose-Depp as Jocelyn, a young popstar who gets entangled with the mysterious L.A. club owner Tedros (played by Abel Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd). Jocelyn is suffering from the recent loss of her mother, and her career takes a hit after she suffers from a nervous breakdown on her last tour. Tedros takes control and asserts that he will help Jocelyn “boost” her career. His methods, however, carry sadomasochistic qualities.
While the series seems intent on presenting the toxicity of show business, especially by sexualizing its young starlets, it approaches the matter in a way that many viewers may find to be tone-deaf. The camera spends many instances lingering over Jocelyn’s body, to the point that viewers may feel uncomfortable and complicit in her abuse. It becomes a question of what we need to see as an audience in order to get the bigger picture.
The show may have intended to reference Hollywood greed, but visualization plays a major role in how viewers interpret this message. The show may intentionally be striving for controversy in that regard, but where does the message ultimately lead? Author Ariel Levy offered a nuanced observation on what celebrity culture deems “women’s empowerment” in her 2006 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture: Woman and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
One important thing to note from behind the scenes was that the series was originally directed by Amy Seimetz, who had worked on much of the project before Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye took over. Tesfaye was reported to have dismissed her from the project, feeling that the series was leaning too much into a “female perspective.” From there, The Idol headed into a different territory under Levinson’s direction, with the sexual content and nudity being ramped up throughout the narrative.
The loss of a female perspective may have done more harm than good to the intended narrative. Jocelyn’s wants and desires are completely lost. While attempting to be satire, the series may have become the very thing it was satirizing.
Mental Illness as Something Paranormal
Out of the most severe psychopathologies, schizophrenia holds the position as the most embellished in popular culture. Media depictions often have characters with this disorder exhibiting unpredictable and violent behaviors. In typical Hollywood fashion, these features are exaggerated even further, pushing them into the archetypes of supernatural villains, inspirational magicians, or “mad” oracles.
A character that has started teetering into these categories is Lottie Matthews from the Showtime series Yellowjackets. The show takes place on a non-linear timeline, presenting flashbacks of each of the characters from before, during, and after their plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Teenage and adult Lottie is played by Māori actresses Courtney Eaton and Simone Kessell, respectively.
From a young age, Lottie frequently experienced visions. This eventually caught the attention of her parents when she correctly predicted a car crash that happened in front of them. While her mother believed it to be precognition, her father insisted she see a psychiatrist and be put on medication. After the soccer team’s plane crashes, her supply of this medication dwindles, and Lottie’s mental health starts to suffer. The return of Lottie’s visions ends up positioning her as a sort of prophet for the group.
Unfortunately, this is where the once altruistic character starts to take a dark turn. There is some implication that Lottie becomes possessed by a sinister spirit during a seance in the first season. From there, she receives more premonitions and visions of death, which promotes paranoia amongst the other girls. While it may have been unintentional, the implication is that Lottie’s calm demeanor is doomed to regress in this manner when left untreated.
It falls into one of the many misconceptions that emerge in conversations about schizophrenia, which Esmé Weijun Wang reflects on in The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays from 2019. As Wang noted on the back-cover blurb, there is no unified diagnosis like it is depicted in the media, especially since the medical community continues to have its own disagreements on the subject.
The second season doubles down on this depiction, however, as viewers are once again brought up 25 years after the plane crash. Lottie is now the leader of what she calls “an intentional community,” which she claims turns suffering into strength. The other members of her former team are far from pleased with the path she has chosen, and the tensions that rise cause Lottie’s mental health to spiral. Throughout the season, characters would speak ill of Lottie with plans to have her committed rather than hearing her out. Their act of placing the blame solely on Lottie was reminiscent of their time in the wild. During desperate times, they held her up as a prophet whose words were infallible. However, as soon as tragedy struck, Lottie was made solely responsible for their mistakes.
The Mysterious Murderess
Arguably, the most dangerous depiction of mental health is the murderess in most thriller narratives. More often than not, the audience is never offered a specific diagnosis for this character. They are given the catchall term “crazy” as a signifier of how they stray from traditional norms, even before the story’s deadly progression. They will suffer hallucinations, delusions, and even disassociations whenever the plot calls for their instability. Prime Video’s recent series Swarm adapts this complicated narrative. It starts with Dominique Fishback as Andrea (Dre) Greene, a superfan who commits a string of murders merely because the victims dislike her favorite pop singer, Ni’Jah.
The show does not stray away from being disturbing. Of course, most of this comes from how the producer, Donald Glover, wanted the actress to portray Dre. In an interview with Vulture, Glover stated that he wanted Fishback to “think of [her role] more like an animal and less like a person.” He stated that he does not feel Dre is “that layered” and rather, he “wanted her performance to be brutal” because “it’s a raw thing.” For viewers of the series, the troubling aspect of these quotes is that black women already have a history of being compared to animals. Linking that to Dre’s clear display of mental illness further dehumanizes her character.
She also lacks a proper backstory, despite carrying most of the narrative. She is only given human qualities when the story addresses her relationship with her late sister as well as her love for music. Still, her presence as the “homicidal maniac” remains the overarching spectacle of the series. The existence of this stereotype allows the audience to fill in details about the character that the story neglects to address. Their status as “crazy” is all that is needed to fill in any explanation or background for them.
The series only allows glimpses of a woman who is searching for something or someone to hold on to and reflects on the fairly real consequences of fan obsession. However, by reducing Dre to someone lacking complex emotions and thought processes, the series makes her internal struggles of needing love seem hyperbolic. In flashbacks to her childhood, Dre is shown being ostracized and abandoned. The adults in her life witnessed her violence, but instead of offering Dre some help or connecting with her, they would send her away.
In her 1993 book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed clinically explores the representation of women in horror and their connection to cultural anxieties and psychoanalytic theories. Creed examines how horror films often portray women as monstrous yet fascinating figures. Of course, culture’s need to observe the mental state of women occurs in tandem with its refusal to humanize them, to begin with.
While viewers are free to despise Dre’s actions, positioning them as simply the actions of a “crazy woman” only serves to distance viewers from the other problems that linger. Society does little to prioritize mental health, yet we find ourselves surprised by how much violence there still is.
One could make the case that the media technically is not meant to be an educational tool. Still, much of what we consume comes out of a screen of some sort. As we are guided by visuals that portray even the most mundane instances of our existence, viewers should consider the impact of these images on the psyche. For the most part, what we consume is purely for entertainment, but if our entertainment is negatively impacting how others are seen, it would benefit us to reconsider what we put out there, to begin with.
For an analysis of the representation of mental health in literature, click here!