Cinema is a great force for challenging norms and inequalities and has always been an influential platform for encouraging change in culture and society. It’s for those reasons that the portrayal of mental illness in film is such a critical way of promoting understanding and reducing the stigma that affects millions of sufferers. Nevertheless, this will obviously depend on how the difficult topic is dealt with; while many films have represented mental illness sensitively, many more seem to glamourise the sufferers of the illness or the illness itself. This has disturbing effects on society as a whole but particularly on the young, to such an extent that even films that do show the illnesses uncompromisingly and bleakly are nevertheless understood to ultimately encourage idolising the disturbed.
Here I will focus on films where either the lead character or the love interest may be considered mentally ill and in particular those whom suffer from affective, personality or eating disorders as I think these are the most prominent examples of this ‘romanticising’ effect. I’ll look at how mental illness has been presented and then ways people may have understood and interpreted this. Ultimately, I will try to see if film fetishises and romanticises the notion of a sick mind or whether this is just an almost inevitable consequence of cinema. The trouble is that films are supposed to be interesting, and so always feature fascinating characters often played by beautiful actresses and actors to make it very easy to idolise. For the films I will be looking at, these characters also happen to have mental disorders and in glorifying the character, viewers also glorify their experiences and their illnesses.
Wildy generalising, I’ve noticed four main ways films seem to promote or perpetuate the desirability of mental illness. I’ll look each in turn and consider examples of the films that fall into each:
(1) It’s endearing;
Of all the ways mental illness is endorsed, I see this as by far the most disturbing. It seems very obvious that the illness itself is what makes its sufferer appealing and what primarily makes them so fascinating/attractive. This is extremely damaging as it promotes the qualities typically associated with personality or affective disorders. Admittedly, this happens more commonly in TV series, probably because new characters can be introduced and done with in a 21 minute episode but that is not to say it doesn’t happen in film and, when it does, I’ve noticed it seems to be in two significant ways:
(a) Mental illness as a quirk;
(b) Mental illness is alluring;
The strongest example that comes to mind is ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999). Shot as if the whole thing was on instagram, the story is told from the point of view of men looking back to when they were young boys fascinated or even obsessed with the four suicidally depressed sisters. The narrators speak of the beauty and the intrigue of these mysterious sisters and the boys’ corresponding desperation to know more while the camera zooms in on young Kirsten Dunst laughing, playing with her hair or winking. As the film progresses the boys gather more and more snippets of information about the girls which reveals more of their struggles with mental health doctors and their family, yet this only makes the boys long for them more. Other girls at the school are presented as less interesting because they are not shrowded in the mystery of secrets and illness.
It doesn’t matter that the original book is probably even more like this and so the film is a very accurate portrayal and that the nature of memory is to make images hazier and more beautiful, the issue with it is that it’s presented that way at all. Moreover, the effects of romanticising it are not cancelled out by the later harrowing scenes of their suicides, just as this has not stopped the grown up boys, the narrators of the film, from continuing to obsess about the girls and what happened and from “talking about it still”.
Further the film is a paradigm example of over-exaggerating the link between mental illness and sexuality, where the vulnerability of the women is linked heavily with her promiscuity and mental illness is effectively sexualised.
(2) It’s cool;
Take, for example, Fight Club (1999). In fairness the primary purpose of Tyler Durden’s Dissociative Identity Disorder (or what used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is probably to be a clever plot devise and probably not intended as an analysis and insight into the disorder and how one might experience it. All the same it does deal with mental illness and, while an excellent film, all in all it is hard to deny that the whole film is cool and Tyler Durden is cool, and one of the most contributing factors to that is that he’s so messed up. I can’t think of a moment that better captures it than the end scene, with all the explosions while they hold hands and ‘Where is my Mind’ by the Pixies starts playing, and then Tyler turns to Helena Bonham-Carter’s character and says “You met me at a very strange time in my life”
Maybe it is just younger people that do think this but I felt a lot of people did at school, probably from 15-17. It sounds horrible but I think the rationale behind it is that being ‘fucked up’ (that’s how I remember it being used) is interesting. It makes good gossip and creates a mystery around people so that people can speculate about them. I think this is most obviously the case for young girls and anorexia. People treated it as something that made them mysterious and interesting. And if all the contact people have had with mental illnesses is through films like Fight Club, which show it to be the kind of thing that makes people unpredictable, alienated yet fascinating, then the assumption will be that if someone is mentally ill, they’ll be just as fascinating too. I think this leads to people being infatuated with the mentally ill people they know, mimicking the effects of mental illness or worse, thinking those with mental illness are only mimicking what they have seen in films. The distorted image shown of mental illnesses harms how people can deal with it in real life.
Is it that people that age shouldn’t be watching 18s as they aren’t emotionally mature enough yet, or is it that regardless of age, a lot of films do promote mental illness as a cool trait for the most interesting characters to have?
(3) It’s for the thoughtful, deep and creative;
Now this isn’t unique to film or even TV, it is a problem with celebrities and artists and the media as well. Just think of Kurt Cobain and the obsession around him and his depression. For a long, long time there has been the notion of ‘the tortured artist’; the idea that people who are messed up think more, have deeper and richer creative lives, or understand more about people/the world/love/life the universe and everything than anyone else. That somehow their mental illness elevates them above the rest of us and this allows them to think, write and do such beautiful and creative things.
The truth is that being depressed isn’t deep. It isn’t reserved for the brilliant or for geniuses. Being reckless and destructive isn’t a necessary part of being a great artist. And no matter how many times someone unites the two, mental illness is not some necessary or sufficient cause of greatness.
Nevertheless it’s obvious that films perpetuate this. It’s hard to distinguish whether they’re to blame for encouraging this notion purposefully or whether it is inevitable when a film is based on the life of some great successful person who is also mentally ill.
While I’m reluctant to criticise ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ (2010), I think the film, and probably the book too, exaggerate the link between his intelligence and his depressive thinking; almost a ‘you think too much for your own good’ notion. And, just like The Virgin Suicides, showing the devastation that is caused by his illness and how it impacts on his life and the lives of his loved ones, the message seems to stay. Especially because now it is something he can use for his creative and intellectual pursuits.
The problem is that films seem to be biased towards the mentally ill in order to provoke the thought that it is because of their illness that they were/are so successful and not that they were successful as well as or despite being ill.
(4) Crazy love
This seems to come into films where a romantic relationship is formed that includes somebody who is mentally ill.
Have you never heard ‘No one understands our love, it is too intense’ along with some strange dichotomy between passion and destruction, a wild flame, can’t be tamed, too fierce, too powerful? I think the love between one or two dysfunctional people is too often misrepresented in film as being incredibly hot and incredibly desirable, and moreover, something you can only experience if you’re unhinged or if you are lucky enough to find some suitably destructive, disturbed lover.
Most films that feature this kind of ‘crazy love’ almost invariably end tragically, a wild fire, but also in a blaze of glory. While that does definitely show that mental illness can be devastating it doesn’t take away from the impression offered that only by being mentally ill can you experience such a strong and intense love, physically and emotionally. This notion is definitely emphasized by the fact that incredibly beautiful people are cast in these roles.
An example of this is Betty Blue (1986). The film’s opening sequence shows Betty (Béatrice Dalle) and Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) having what seems to be very satisfying sex, and the scene continues for 2 minutes (The first time I watched it I was with my Dad L). The film has many scenes of a sexual nature and the passion between the lovers is definitely brought to your attention. You definitely couldn’t miss it yet, all the while, Betty is suffering from bouts of rage and destruction and as the film progresses, depression, mania, violence and self-harm. While there is no way to say the film sugar coats mental illness as it certainly doesn’t, it still seems to carry the suggestion that it is because of Betty’s illness that she is so intense and that is what makes her and Zorg’s love so passionate and out of this world.
(b) We ‘get’ each other
Another instantiation of ‘crazy love’ seems to be where having a mental illness is the key to understanding someone else, or that it is the foundation of the relationship between the couple. Maybe we’re all past it now but at school I definitely was aware that was some boys wanted was to be there to look after her, and some girls wanted to be that one person he can really open up to and even at the time it really seemed this idea was based on some misinterpretation of living with mental illness and was strongly linked with relationships they’d seen in films.
While it is true that sometimes people who have never experienced depression or anxiety etc find it very hard to relate to people who are experiencing or recovering from those things, it seems that film blurs these lines a lot more and makes that relationship seem incredibly desirable.
Again the films I’m going to talk about are excellent films and some of my favourites but that is not what is at issue here. What matters is that they present relationships, which people who love the characters want to have for themselves.
My first example is ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001). Donnie suffers from severe delusions (…maybe) and is increasingly alienated from his family and classmates as during his delusions and memory lapses, he floods his school and burns down a celebrity’s house. During this time, he starts dating Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). While it can’t be said that she’s the one he can tell everything to, she is the one who he wants to be around, who makes him feel safer or better; that is the foundation of their relationship.
Maybe it is more obvious in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2013). The two bond over their experiences with prescribed drugs, doctors and awkward social behaviour. It’s obvious from the beginning that the two understand something about each other better than anyone else, and it seems that what is central to their bond is not just what’s happened since they have been diagnosed but the fact that the two really do have issues. Even though the film has incredibly nuanced characters, deals with the theme so accurately and sensitively and shows, through the obsessively compulsive Father (De Niro) and a stressed-out neighbour, that mental illness affects even those undiagnosed and whom we consider more ‘normal’, it nevertheless does perpetuate the idea that people with problems have some special bond with others that you just wouldn’t ‘get’ if you haven’t experienced them.
I think it just creates the idea of some special category of relationship that is so rare and so beautiful that it becomes incredibly desirable. And while I’m not saying AVOID RELATIONSHIPS WITH ‘THEM’ at all, I think it is wrong for films to suggest or make it the case that the illness it the most definitive part of a relationship or of a person.
The truth is the fascinating are sometimes mentally ill and the mentally ill are sometimes fascinating and that relationships exists regardless of representation in film. The problem is that film often gives disproportionate focus to their being ill over other facets of their character, life or story or suggests a causal or necessary link between the two that is completely fictional or at the very least is entirely reductive. And then on top of that, Hollywood so often casts or reserves these roles for the incredibly beautiful people, and it is harder to separate the desirable way the characters look from the less desirable struggles they suffer. But of course that is not to say that the mentally ill are uglies or anything ridiculous, but that over-glamourising the actor/actress can over-glamourise the character and their situation.
In the end I think that is my biggest worry with the way mental health and illness has been represented in film. The illness defines them in a way that would not exist in real life. And then, as a knock on effect of cinema and how obsessed we get with fictional characters, these illnesses become romanticised or fetishised and overall, misunderstood. What I think films have to teach and audiences have to learn, is that mental illness is a part of someone, and while that means it is a part of what makes their life great or a part of what makes them who they are, it is not all they are. In desiring them and their lives, we shouldn’t be so ready to desire the illnesses that shape them.