Last week, Mariah Carey revealed that she has bipolar disorder. While mental illness remains highly stigmatized, she has been met with a great deal of support and an outpouring of love on social media and in the press. As more celebrities become open about their mental health issues, we see a similar and wonderful increase in a positive and understanding response among the public and media alike in a way we didn’t even in 2007, when Britney Spears experienced very public struggles, or 2001 when Carey was first hospitalized for a physical and mental breakdown and received her diagnosis. And it certainly wasn’t the case in 1996 when Margot Kidder was found hiding in the bushes behind an LA home after being missing for 72 hours.
After her roles in cult horror classics like Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and starring in The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert, Richard Donner cast her as Lois Lane in Superman: The Movie. Not only would the role be her most famous and the most iconic portrayal of the character, but Kidder genuinely loved working with both Donner and Superman co-star Christopher Reeve. She described her experience to the AV Club in 2009, saying, “It was truly—it’s a cliché to say we were family, but we really were. Especially those of us from the States, who were over in England all that time, and away from home. It was wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful.”
Kidder’s Lois Lane greeted us with a wide-eyed strength. In a world where any given depiction of a career-focused woman might be drenched in bitter spinster, or coated in a layer of “would give it all up for the right man,” Kidder’s was truly her own person. Kidder’s Lois had seen things, and while they hardened her she was never cynical. Her work was her passion, her work was her life, her work was her love truer than she could possibly find with Superman. She was confident and driven in a way women so rarely are allowed to be—because she never questioned herself, the film didn’t question her either, and so she was never knocked down a peg or put into her “place,” whatever the nebulous concept of a woman’s “place” might be in any given scenario. She was a source of human strength in a film about superhuman strength. We could never be Superman—but we could be Lois. We wanted to be Lois.
But being Lois meant something different to Kidder. It meant a life change most of us could never even imagine.
“You know, we shared a lot of stuff, all of us. So not only did we end up with a hit movie, which surprised the hell out of me, but it was—I don’t know how to describe it—a big turning point for a lot of us,” Kidder told the AV Club. “When you finally end something like that and then find yourself world-famous, it’s pretty weird, lemme tell ya. Fame is weird, is what it really is. It’s the weirdest thing in the world.”
After Donner was fired from Superman II and Kidder spoke out against the producers, her role in Superman III was reduced to about five minutes of footage. She was in significantly more of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but that film wasn’t exactly a return to form for the franchise—which petered out, along with Kidder’s career.
That was when the mood swings that had affected her throughout her life began to worsen. Since Kidder was a child, she’d experienced the peaks and valleys of what was then known as manic depression but never sought help, even after a suicide attempt at 14. “It never occurred to anyone to send me to a shrink,” she told People. “I was just a teenager with a broken heart.” A series of medical issues, beginning with a car accident in 1990, left her with $600,000 in medical bills that insurance refused to cover, and she was forced to declare bankruptcy. The chronic pain she experienced, along with her manic episodes, caused her to self-medicate with alcohol and painkillers. “If I felt myself starting to go manic, I’d get drunk. Better drunk than crazy.” During that time, her father passed away, her daughter developed an eating disorder, and an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle she’d spent a fortune developing failed to secure backing.
In April 1996, it all imploded in a very public way. Because, as Kidder said, “Fame is weird.”
After writing a draft of her autobiography on her computer, the computer contracted a virus and she lost the whole thing, three years of work. When she learned the files were lost entirely, it developed into a delusion that her ex-husband, filmmaker Thomas McGuane, was involved and trying to kill her. The next day, Kidder was at the airport, days early for a flight. She found a crew of journalists and told them she was being stalked. They believed her, until she pointed out a man she said had been following her. They knew this could not be the case, as the man had been on their flight. She asked one of the men to switch jackets with her because hers was bugged. Four days later, she was found in the bushes behind a home in suburban Los Angeles. She’d cut off her hair, was missing teeth, and had been living on the streets. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Lois Lane found dirty hiding in bushes was every bit the tabloid sensation you'd imagine. Someone whose illness had her convinced people were following her actually had people following her, trying to photograph her, as a result. One of many National Inquirer covers proclaimed her "fatal attraction" for her former boyfriend Richard Pryor as the story behind her "madness."
"Being pretty crazy while being chased by the National Enquirer is not good," Kidder once said. "The British tabloids were the worst."
Bipolar disorder occurs equally in men and women, but according to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, women are three times as likely to experience rapid cycling, and, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, far more likely to be misdiagnosed with depression. While the psychiatric concept of the "hysterical woman" has declined since the 19th century, it remains socially. When women are difficult or challenging, be it from a mental health standpoint or just by possessing a strong personality, they can face repercussions from the personal to the professional, like getting cut out of Superman II or becoming a tabloid punchline—or, in the case of Dorothy Woolfolk, another woman in the Superverse who was punished for the crime of being female in a displeasing way, all but erased from history.
Today, Kidder is largely credited as a mental health advocate, though the type of advocacy she promotes is not backed by science. She maintains she is cured of her illness via orthomolecular medicine, a form of alternative medicine that utilizes supplements and vitamins, saying she believes most mental illnesses have an organic cause like food allergies or “toxins.” She once said, “Very few people with extremely healthy bodies end up mentally ill.” This is untrue.
Still, Kidder appears in good health and spirits, and her Lois remains the gold standard—something she knows all too well. Of the recently rebooted Superman films, she said, “They took one of the best American actresses’ around, Amy Adams, and didn’t give her anything to do! I mean, how stupid is that? They made her what used to be the girlfriend, which kind of ended in the '60s with women’s rights.”
Kidder has been through a lot in her life, and she’s done so before the eyes of a world that didn’t yet empathize with those struggles, and with society’s standards of public image and behavior, what it means to be healthy or female or famous all placed upon her like Instagram filters over decades. In that way, she’s a lot like Lois Lane. Through the years, Lois has been a powerful career woman, a desperate shrill trickster who would do anything for Superman’s hand in marriage, a hero in her own right, a damsel in distress, and more and less and all the other things all women are treated and seen as.
We still have a long way to go before mental illness is normalized, before health issues stop being tabloid fodder or the subject of celebrity gossip. Even beyond illness, at times it feels like being a woman isn’t even normalized yet. How can we eliminate the stigma of health when we can’t even eliminate the stigma of just existing? But it is the experiences of women like Kidder, and characters like Lois Lane, that crack the walls a bit more for the rest of us so that we can openly share our stories without judgment, without being reduced to crazy, without losing our careers.
We can’t be Superman. But maybe we can be Lois—the Lois we deserve.