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Can genre cure the stigma of women's mental illness?

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Nov 17, 2018, 12:00 PM EST

Mental illness is a difficult subject to talk about. It’s an even more difficult subject to tackle on film — at least, if you’re looking to tackle it well.

It takes so many shapes and forms and affects people so differently that any creator looking to build a story from it must accept the inherent impossibility of getting it right. Even as a woman surviving with my own “brand” of mental illness, I know what I write here won’t speak to everyone; it won’t pull some epiphany from the universe, transfer it into the collective consciousness, and suddenly cure the stigma surrounding mental health.

But I try, and I believe others try, because a piece, or a film, or a TV show might help someone to understand their own struggle better. Again, that’s if it’s done right.

Mental health has been explored quite a bit through film and TV over the past few decades, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club, and Split. Some of these were decent depictions of mental illness, some weren’t, but when I was racking my brain trying to come up with a list of films that explore a woman’s mental health, I shamefully admit to having a tough time listing them as readily as I did the films above.

Sure, there are some standouts, most notably Girl, Interrupted, a film that still feels ahead of its time in so many ways. But the lack of memorable choices left me asking: Why? Why is it so hard to find films focused on women’s mental health, and are there any out there that do it justice?

There are, it turns out. But you have to know where to look.

Most of the difficulty in finding a good film that gets women’s mental health right can be placed squarely on the shoulders of history. I harp about the patriarchy often, but damn did they screw us over with their medical diagnoses and philosophical meanderings. Did you know some of the most respected scholars, the Platos and Hippocrates of the world, once thought that a woman’s mental state was directly tied to the health of her uterus? That’s right, ladies, if your baby-making machine wasn’t satisfying your husband or carrying a fetus, it felt underutilized, making you depressed. Who knew?

Men, that’s who.

And in Victorian England, a woman experienced “hysteria,” the actual, medical term for mental illness of the female persuasion, because she wasn’t sexually satisfied. So, what did doctors do? They performed “manual stimulation” on a woman’s pelvis, eventually inventing the modern vibrator, administering their cure to women admitted to insane asylums against their will. Accusations of witchcraft and other nonsense also plagued the idea of mental illness in women, which is why, even now, women are viewed as unreliable narrators of their own stories, ignorant gatekeepers of their own bodily autonomy.

That’s an ideology that’s alive and well on Capitol Hill, but sadly, it’s also made its way to film and TV. It’s fun for audiences to see a deranged woman acting without inhibitions. Harley Quinn wearing her skimpy outfits, cackling after her boyfriend murders innocent civilians, using a baseball bat to fight baddies and provide us with phallic innuendos. That’s cool and sexy and a bit crazy — all qualities that get a man’s libido going. The idea that this badass chick might be suffering from one or more mental disorders, that there may be an internal struggle we can’t see, no matter how short her shorts are, that’s… less sexy.

But for every Harley Quinn, there’s a Jessica Jones to wipe the slate clean and remind us that genre is one of the best ways to confront the stigma of mental illness on the big and small screen.

Why genre?

It’s not because women are more readily accepted as heroines in their own story there. It’s not even because women are often labeled “strong,” “layered” characters who can “hold their own” with men. It’s because genre, with its fantastical world-building, its sci-fi exploration, its alternate-reality imagining of universes with superheroes and mutants and individuals with extraordinary abilities, manages to find reality in the extreme. A genre film — be it sci-fi, fantasy, horror — often exists in a heightened state of tension. Worlds are ending, hauntings are happening, a purple-tinged a-hole with a scrotum chin is getting ready to snap his fingers and destroy the universe. These situations aren’t real, but they serve a larger purpose. The promise of explosions and fight sequences and cool ass spaceships draw us in, but the payoff comes when we see how these extreme situations, these events beyond the control of the characters, force them to confront their demons, their flaws, or their mental health issues.

Jessica Jones, subway

Credit: Netflix

It’s what Jessica Jones does so well. The show is marketed as a Marvel superhero spin-off about a surly, heavy-drinking private investigator living in New York City. Jones is a mess. She chugs hard liquor from the bottle, rarely eats, keeps odd hours, probably doesn’t wash her clothes. Sure, it’s fun to watch her pummel bad guys with her superhuman strength, but that’s not what the show is about. Jessica Jones is about a woman living with PTSD, struggling to recover from trauma inflicted upon her by her rapist, a man named Kilgrave. And if the undercurrent of mental illness feels too subtle, consider this: Kilgrave, the villain of season one who continues to haunt our heroine in later installments, is a man capable of controlling people’s minds. He strips people, he strips Jones, of her autonomy — the same way a mental illness can make an individual feel powerless and at the mercy of their disease. Jones has to confront this feeling, this villain warping her mind, in the physical — not something many suffering with a mental illness are able to do, but that’s part of the joy in watching, too. I’ll never be able to face down the physical embodiment of my illness, tell it to smile and then snap its neck like a twig, but there’s a gratifying sense of victory in watching another woman do just that.

And yet, sometimes, that sense of normalcy, of belonging, of understanding that comes when you read or watch something that just nails how you’re feeling doesn’t happen because a character gets a much-needed win.

When Lars Von Trier gave us his science-fiction drama Melancholia, there was no triumph for Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a woman living with manic depression. She flits in and out of her life with a dreamy kind of apathy, celebrating her marriage with cake and dancing one moment, drowning her sorrows and scrubbing herself clean in a bathtub the next. Time has no meaning to her, even as a rogue planet’s impending collision with Earth has everyone checking their doomsday clock. In fact, the idea of imminent death feels oddly empowering. In the second half of the film, while Justine’s sister Claire, suffers from an anxiety disorder made worse by their circumstances, Justine seems at peace with her fate. For once, she feels understood by her family as the hopelessness and futility set in.

I relate more to Claire than Justine in the film, but neither woman conquers her illness and that’s fine too. I’ll never defeat mine. But watching them live with it, struggle through it, accept it in some ways, that also felt like a win only a genre film could provide.

There are other examples of genre getting women’s mental health right. Black Swan, a psychological thriller, does a decent job of depicting anxiety and eating disorders, Inception explores what happens when Marion Cotillard’s character loses her grip on reality, a fitting metaphor for a variety of mental illnesses, The Babadook uses defamiliarization to depict a mother’s grief. In each case, filmmakers use an extreme situation — a death, a performance, a memory implanted in a dream — to delve into the psyche, usually dabbling in fantasy and horror tropes to push their characters to probe and eventually confront whatever haunts them.

It’s something genre’s gotten good at over the years, taking a topic as, sadly, controversial as women’s mental health, and weaving it into the background of a more fantastical plot. Maybe that kind of camouflage entices us to watch, maybe it thrusts the depiction of mental illness into a spotlight it wouldn’t normally enjoy, or maybe, the world of sci-fi and fantasy, of superheroes and supernatural thrillers can do for women’s mental health what other types of films and TV series just can’t: make it the protagonist of a story, not an afterthought, speak to it without calling it by name ... show, not tell.

And maybe, after a while of this, of showing women’s mental struggles on film, we’ll all be able to name more than just a handful that get it right. 

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