Mental Health Representation in Popular Culture


Does geek culture and media challenge the stigma of mental illness? Or does it perpetuate the myths prevalent throughout society? Many characters in the media are their mental illness. In many ways it defines them and moulds their personality and motivations. Many real sufferers struggle against this. I for one, never say ‘I am Bipolar.’ but instead, ‘I have Bipolar.’ People don’t go around saying, ‘I am flu’ or ‘I am a broken leg.’ (saying ‘I am the danger’ or ‘I am the light in the darkness, I am truth’ is however, awesome). I personally don’t believe your identity should be completely entwined with a mental illness.

Poor mental health is often used as a plot device; as a motivation for good or bad. Illness creates ‘evil’ ‘murderous’ villains and words often used include ‘crazy’ ‘insane’ ‘disturbed.’ Although shaping an important part of a storyline, the specifics of the mental illness are rarely, if ever discussed. We as the audience make our own diagnoses. That, along with mainstream facets of the media, perpetuate various myths that have created stigma, fear and ludicrous notions of the mentally ill.

Myths often perpetuated:

Mentally ill people are violent. Schizophrenia is most commonly linked with violence, but Multiple Personality Disorder and Bipolar are other common examples. These people are constantly teetering between sanity and insanity, the latter urging them and inevitably leading to torture, rape and committing murderous acts. The reality is people with mental health problems are a vulnerable group in society and are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than commit them. The glaringly obvious example here is Batman and its’ multitude of lunatic, asylum dwelling villains.

Mental illness makes people mysterious and sexy. It creates an edge to a character that makes them appear exotic. The character is an ‘outsider who is not constrained by the norms of society.’ Rather then fully developing a well-rounded, believable personality. It is a lazy, cliched and poorly thought out rush job to make a two-dimensional character more interesting. Case in point; the hysterical, traumatised woman. Who is a badass and oh, is also incredibly sexy. The film Sucker Punch is a fine example of how to insult women and the mentally ill. Go and watch it…actually no, don’t bother.

The mentally ill are at all times sombre and brooding and that means the comics, video games and films have to continue this theme, from the music, to the cinematography and the colour palette. Shockingly, people suffering from a mental illness can be easy-going and wait for it…own an actual sense of humour! Hyperbole and a Half is an excellent example of how a comic strip can use humour to openly and honestly explain the realities of mental illness. ‘Adventures in Depression’ and ‘Depression Part Two’ are wonderfully entertaining reads but at the same time expose how daily, monotonous routines can become unbearable.

Obviously I understand the mundane realities of daily life can’t always create entertaining fiction. A screenwriters job is to create larger than life stories that drive ticket sales. A comic series wants to maintain and increase its readership. They are not going to change the hot girl with superpowers to the girl with superpowers who can’t be bothered to shower, comb her hair and wears pyjamas for weeks on end. The relentless hero who triumphs against all adversity, to the hero who has trouble getting out of bed every morning and feels sedated and nauseous due to their medication. A villain who creates fear and mayhem to a a villain who lives in constant fear their entire family will be killed if they don’t complete a daily ritual. When playing a video game you sometimes have to accept that although the playable character can survive an apocalyptic amount of shit in the first game go the series, that the second isn’t going to be about them overcoming PTSD. Sometimes you have ‘flashbacks’ or ‘hallucinations’ in cut scenes, but I don’t think many gamers would particularly enjoy playable hours of counselling and psychiatric sessions.

It’s interesting when you notice how many people are accepting or apathetic of the portrayal of the mentally ill when most of us will experience a phase of mental-ill health at least once in our lives. I’m not asking for much; only that producers and creators sit back from time to time and think about what they want to say with their work. Do they really need to demonise a vulnerable group in society? A little sensitivity to the plight of so many is really not asking for much .

2 thoughts on “Mental Health Representation in Popular Culture

  1. Pingback: Stand Tall Theatre: Schizophrenia – Its Okay, Right? Right!

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