Bones: The Devil in the Details

I have been lagging behind on my Hulu queue and I actually watched this episode last night, but I didn’t feel up to writing about it until, well, know. Anyway, please assume spoilers are in force.

This week’s Bones revolved around a man with schizophrenia who was murdered and then burned on the altar of a church. It should come as no surprise to learn that as soon as the word “schizophrenia” was said on screen, I said “ooooooh nooooo” and my fears turned out to be well grounded.

It turns out that mental illness is “living in hell,” according to the Bones creators, and all that crazy people do is wander around institutions being crazy. Either they have blank stares on their faces or they are fighting nurses or they are lining up for medications or they are deep in delusions and hahaha isn’t it hilarious that that one guy thinks he’s Thomas Edison?! Oh, or they are “highly functioning” and trick people into thinking that they are not crazy (because crazy people are normally soooooo easy to spot).

So, you know, one of the things Bones does, which I have discussed elsewhere, is it will present problematic content/ideas/beliefs in someone’s characterization, because it’s appropriate for the character, and then the surrounding episode will break those ideas down in various ways. And, as I’ve also said before, this doesn’t always work. In this case, both the characterization and the episode were ignorant.

It was obvious that Booth making ignorant and bigoted statements about the “loony bin” was appropriate for his character. And the depiction of mental illness in this episode was, I think, supposed to break down stereotypes, except that it did not. In fact, it failed pretty much big time and reinforced a lot of stereotypes.

Something that’s also important to note about this is that I think some viewers miss the nuance. People who agree with the bigoted views of an ignorant character are probably not going to pick up on the fact that the episode is deconstructing and challenging those views. Or it’s done so subtly that people can differ in their interpretation of the episode; look at the different ways in which Laura and I reacted to “The Dentist in the Ditch.” (Laura’s review of that episode and my review of that episode, for reference.)

So yeah, that was annoying.

So was the insistence on pigeonholing Arastoo as “that Muslim guy.” It’s curious that Booth isn’t “that Catholic guy” and Bones isn’t “that atheist girl,” but Arastoo needs to be “the Muslim guy.” Again, I think that the show is trying to break down misconceptions about Islam (as presented by Cam), but, again, it fails. If Arastoo could be a character who happens to be Muslim, I think it would work well. But instead he’s presented for Special Learning Experiences and it makes me cringe.

I also felt uncomfortable with the intersection of body modification and mental illness in this episode. The character who dies has horn implants and was born with a tail (which, as you can imagine, played into the themes of the episode in a major way). Initially I was really pleased that his parents didn’t remove the tail at birth, giving him a chance to make his own decision about it, something which I think should be done more often with infants who are born with bodies which fall outside the norm. But in this case it was clear that we were supposed to view the character as crazy in part because of the tail and the added horns; body modification=crazy, you see!

One of the key themes of this episode was the question of what happens when your faith is shaken, and this theme was explored from a number of perspectives, including both religions and scientific faith. It’s actually one of the things I really like about Bones, the exploration of science and faith and dichotomies and whether or not the dichotomy is really as cut and dried as it appears to be. I think that one of the things which the show is moving towards is that scientific faith and religious faith do not necessarily need be mutually exclusive, but they can become so when people are literalist and think inflexibly. (This should not necessarily be read as a firm belief that the two should be blended, either; I’m thinking specifically of people who live in a state of conflict because they believe that religious and scientific faith must be separate. People who separate them and are fine with that shouldn’t be obliged to change their approach to faith.)

I wish that they could stick to more of that, which I think they do reasonably well, and that they would tread more carefully when trying to provide learning experiences for viewers. I’d be curious to know if anyone with mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, was consulted for this episode and if anyone bothered to visit a facility where treatment for mental illness is provided.

Laura also has a review of this episode up at Adventures of a Young Feminist.

5 Comments on Bones: The Devil in the Details

  1. It feels like some of the people the Bones team run into are zoo exhibits: there for the people on the outside of the bars to gawk at and maybe learn a little something from. Maybe it’s just the unsubtle writing.

  2. meloukhia // 7 February, 2010 at 4:59 pm //

    Yes, zoo exhibits is a really good way to describe it.

  3. I never quite know how to deal with the Arastoo storylines. I hate that he can’t just show up and be the assistant, he has to be The Muslim Dude, but I feel like at least some of the writers are – often quite badly, and this does not excuse it – trying to turn that on its head. It’s not like he shows up and tells them Just How Muslim He Is, it’s always the other characters making it an issue for him, which then makes him super-conscious of his difference and pushing it to the front of his mind so he has to talk about it. They assume he’s a terrorist, or that he can’t do his job, or that he’s homophobic, and set their course to make things really uncomfortable for him. Pretty much my favorite Arastoo moment was “just let me do my job!” because I think that’s how he feels a lot.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit and I think I will comment about mental illness as “living in hell.” Some of what is called mental illness is just a different way of being. Those people do not live in hell except, possibly, when they have to put up with the rest of us trying to make them live the way we do. Other mental illness, such as major depression, can cause actual psychic pain. Some of that pain is so severe that people kill themselves to get away from it. While I strongly support the right to self determination, I also feel strongly that people in that kind of pain should be offered as much help as I can possible give them.

  5. @xiomera: I’m one of those people and you’re right, it is offensive and othering. I don’t have schizophrenia. But I see and hear things other people don’t. I’ve been psychotic; I’ve been delusional; I’ve been paranoid–in the clinical sense and not the vernacular. There are parts of me that hate me and want me dead. I was in a psychiatric hospital with suicidal plans as recently as last month. Enough things in my past were traumatic that I run into triggers daily.

    Many of these things are not fun. A lot of them are scary–I worry that I’m going to lose my job before I’m ready to quit because I can’t focus enough to do it any more. Driving when every car that came near me provoked images of flaming wreckage was very difficult. But I’d never say I was living in hell. If a mental health professional told me that I’d fire them in a hot second. I don’t think a person who believes that can work with me. I have a good life.

    You’re also right about suicide. My experience has been that depression often isn’t a primary disorder, it’s a symptom. For me it’s trauma from abuse and a few other things and before I started transitioning, the tension of trying to be male when I wasn’t. For the young disabled woman whose mother was recently acquitted of her attempted murder in the UK, her wish to die seemed to be a symptom of her social isolation. Death–no matter how dignified–is the right answer for only a very few people. Most of us need help with the things that hurt.

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