In the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that roughly one in four people experiences symptoms of a mental health condition in any given year, often concurrent with other issues. Mental illness is pervasive and very much a part of our social fabric, but it’s something people go to incredible lengths to distance themselves from, something scary and taboo and a little bit wrong. As with other things it fears, society processes mental illness through pop culture, perpetuating a lot of stereotypes along the way, and the gendered presentation of mental illness in pop culture is a really striking testimony to how people think both about gender and about mental illness.
Think about mentally ill female characters — not necessarily any given specific character, but mental illness in women in general. A lot of it takes the form of anxiety and depression, sometimes bipolar disorder, more rarely schizophrenia. Often it’s not really explicitly diagnosed at all, with viewers and readers and listeners coming to know a character as crazy on the basis of what she does. It is implied, deftly sketched in using familiar cultural shorthands.
Female characters are quirky, mysterious, ephemeral. They may not lie around on the fainting couch but there is an air of the romantically, tragically wounded about them, whether they’re depressed in the aftermath of a life event or schizophrenic and struggling to navigate the world around them. While there are outliers, many of them have a mental illness that is turned inward, focusing on a sense of internal devastation, not external traits.
There are, of course, characters who break this mold — of course there are. But in broad, general trends, there’s a Certain Kind of female character who really personifies mental illness, and she is so familiar that creators need only rough out her characteristics for people to understand that she is crazy. If it’s a text about mental illness, it becomes an all-consuming aspect of her identity. If it’s not, and she has more leeway, her mental illness still persistently interacts with everything, often in very destructive ways.
There’s an interesting parallel, here: Many of the traits such characters exhibit are also the worst of stereotyped ‘female traits.’ They’re not just crazy, but rather a distillation of everything sexists like to claim is terrible about women. They’re weepy. Screechy. Needy. Selfish. Whiny. These things are so much a part of them, and of our coding of mental illness, that many people are likely not aware about their sinister undertones, and what they imply about women themselves — if craziness is the most broken down, vulnerable, unfiltered expression of self, what does it mean when mentally ill women in pop culture tend to define themselves along very familiar and often damaging lines?
Think about mentally ill men in pop culture — again, not specific characters so much as a broad, general suggestion of mental illness in male characters. Unlike women, they experience a lot more character diversity, but they do tend to also exhibit some very specific tropes. Many are violent, dangerous, unpredictable, out of control. They are larger than life. They scream and hit things and attack indiscriminately. Mentally ill male characters are dangerous, often in a way that’s deeply wound into their embodiment — the successful assassin, the feared torturer. You send a crazy man to get the job done right.
These are also manifestations of the worst parts of stereotyped male traits. They suggest that these traits are the result of mental illness rather than, say, toxic masculinity, but also they suggest that crazy men will inevitably slip into these manifestations of personality because it’s all they know, and all they have ever known. That mentally ill men are inevitably doomed to become abusive, horrible people because this is just how it works — craziness concentrates the worst parts of themselves.
There’s a deep sense of fear that gets communicated with male characters in this context: We are supposed to fear them because they’re big and scary, and they’re big and scary because they’re mentally ill, ergo, we should fear mental illness. Even when characters take a different tack, and we see depression and anxiety in men, there’s often a violent edge to it, a sense that a character may slip over the boundary and become someone horrific and cruel if he is pushed too far — sometimes that’s a big part of how he is presented, actually, with one character paying a high price for not keeping to the boundaries.
Pop culture mimics social attitudes, not just shaping them but also expressing them. The highly gendered divide in the depiction of mental illness says a great deal about how people think about gender and mental illness. We are reminded that people think of women as self-interested and needy and mysterious, and men as brassy and aggressive and dangerous. And we are reminded about how mental illness is supposed to look in men and women, without an exploration of what it means to transgress these boundaries. These attitudes are why mentally ill men are viewed as inherently dangerous, why mentally ill women who don’t take on the tragic wilting Victorian rose achetype are regarded as frightening and unacceptable — Harley Quinn is scary not just because she’s crazy, but because she’s crazy dangerous, masculine crazy, clearly so far beyond the pale that she’s effectively irredeemable. That has real consequences for actual mentally ill people in the real world as they seek treatment, grapple with stigma, and attempt to force honest conversations about mental health needs.
Image: the devil is still haunting her, matthias lueger, Flickr