ARTICLE / LONG READ
MENTAL illness is under represented in mainstream cinema. When it is addressed, mental illness tends to be rather shallowly linked to violent characters as a means of justifying their actions. But that is not the only problem with onscreen psychopathology. A further issue is gender representation; the majority of films focusing on mental illness foreground male protagonists. A BEAUTIFUL MIND (Ron Howard 2001), IDENTITY (James Mangold 2003) and THE VOICES (Marjane Satrapi 2014) are all contemporary examples that focus on a male character struggling to come to terms with disorders of the mind, despite both males and females being at risk. When it comes to cinematic representations of mental illness, where are all the women?
Recent attempts to raise awareness about mental illness in films only perpetuate the negative stigma surrounding certain disorders, such as an association with violence. The three examples mentioned feature a main character who has murderous tendencies as a result of his mental illness. In THE VOICES, while suffering hallucinations and delusions, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) murders women and keeps their heads in his refrigerator. Paranoid schizophrenic John Nash (Russell Crowe) almost drowns his own baby in A BEAUTIFUL MIND when he stops taking his medication and, in IDENTITY, Pruitt Taylor Vince plays a convict with dissociative identity disorder who has killed multiple people. A recurring theme of irrational and deadly behaviours emerges in the majority of films featuring characters with mental illness, reinforcing the tenuous link between mental illness and violence.
Perhaps, then, this is simply the result of mental illness being misunderstood. It is no secret that representations of schizophrenia, a complex mental disorder, have been criticised for their inaccuracies onscreen. Schizophrenia is derived from a Greek word meaning “split mind”, which often results in confusion with dissociative identity disorder, a developmental rather than psychotic disorder. An example of this misunderstanding onscreen can be seen in the controversial comedy ME, MYSELF & IRENE (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly 2000). In the film, not only is the illness incorrectly identified as schizophrenia, but mental illness is once again linked to a violent state. This demonstrates a need for greater education of both the public and filmmakers so that this stigma and inaccurate representations can be eradicated.
A RECURRING THEME OF IRRATIONAL AND DEADLY BEHAVIOURS EMERGES IN THE MAJORITY OF FILMS FEATURING CHARACTERS WITH MENTAL ILLNESS.
The psychological horror TRIANGLE (Christopher Smith 2009), although more fantastical than other representations of schizophrenia, should not be rejected for its fantasy approach. In fact, many representations of the mind and psychological issues tend to have more fragmented and mind-bending stories. Films such as DONNIE DARKO (Richard Kelly 2001) or SHUTTER ISLAND (Martin Scorsese 2010) offer a far more accurate portrayal of what it is like to be in the mind of someone suffering from a mental illness as we are aligned with the apparent madness of the character.
TRIANGLE still has something worthwhile to say about mental illness and perhaps the most important way it does this is through its female protagonist. The film explores the psychological state of Jess (Melissa George) as she and a group of friends board an abandoned ocean liner after their own vessel capsizes in a storm. They soon discover they are all being hunted down by a mysterious figure, who may not be such a stranger after all. Jess embodies a range of female identities, which is unconventional for a female protagonist. She demonstrates three distinct variations: the domestic and motherly figure to her autistic son; the common horror genre trope of the damsel in distress; and finally a subversion of traditional femininity - the psychotic killer.
Or is she? An element of intrigue with TRIANGLE is its ambiguous storyline, which leaves the film open to multiple interpretations. One of these readings is about how a person can so easily slip into delusion and psychosis and that the madness only occurs inside Jess’s mind. This is indicated by the director who revealed that “if the story is going to be fractured […] it is also a movie
about a psychosis”. The psychosis is alluded to through frequent shots of Jess looking into mirrors where she pauses to look at her reflection. When Jess looks into a broken mirror - a visual representation of her fragmented mental state - she begins losing control over reality and succumbs to the effects of schizophrenia.
While TRIANGLE falls into the trap of falsely associating mental illness with killer behaviours, the representation of mental illness in TRIANGLE is approached in a far more powerful, thought-provoking and sympathetic way. Jess may be the killer yet we are invited to empathise with her character - a single mother struggling to bring up an autistic son on her own - who through tragedy has found herself in an inescapably hellish subconscious loop. TRIANGLE demonstrates the evolving gendered portrayals of mental illness in contemporary media, reflecting changing attitudes and a long overdue increased understanding towards mental illnesses.
It is clear that a definite inequality exists, not just in the inaccuracies in representations of mental illness but in the representation of gender too. This is epitomised by the Academy Awards and their tendency to give recognition to films representing mental illness that feature a male protagonist. In a 2012 BBC report “How to Win an Oscar”, Lucy Rodgers writes that 16% of all Oscar winners since 1927 played a character suffering some kind of physical disability or mental illness. For men the percentage was slightly higher at 17% compared with 14% for women. It is pleasing to see such a high percentage of Oscar winners playing a character suffering from a physical disability or mental illness because this has no doubt increased the awareness surrounding the issue to the general public, especially when considering the awards success of mental health related films in recent years such as John Nash’s battle with schizophrenia in A BEAUTIFUL MIND, bipolar love story SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (David O. Russell 2012) and possible psychosis featured in BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (Alejandro González Iñárritu 2014).
MALE FOCUSED FILMS ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS ARE PROPELLED TO QUALITY DRAMA STATUS.
These films demonstrate that the success of films portraying mental illness at the Oscars is a trend that is very likely to continue. However, they also demonstrate the association between mental illness and critical acclaim, whereby portraying characters with abnormal mental health leads to seemingly guaranteed recognition and acceptance. The difference in percentages for men and women winners is definitely concerning but, unfortunately, not surprising. There are far fewer films released that focus on mental illness through the eyes of a female protagonist and, therefore, it can only be expected that women would win fewer Oscars as a result.
The majority of contemporary films that focus on the issue of mental illness feature a male protagonist and therefore it was an important moment when Jennifer Lawrence was recognised by the Academy Awards for her role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. It suggested that women were beginning to be acknowledged for their portrayals of mental illness too. And yet the main character with a mental illness in the film was played by Bradley Cooper; Jennifer Lawrence’s character was simply his romantic interest. The extent to which gender representations are advancing can certainly be called into question.
In his 2009 book MADNESS, POWER AND THE MEDIA: CLASS, GENDER AND RACE IN POPULAR REPRESENTATIONS OF MENTAL DISTRESS, academic Stephen Harper also highlights this emerging trend, suggesting that “the most feted film dramas” - in other words the ones that most thoroughly and sympathetically explore the psychology of mental illness - “tend to be those produced by avant-garde male auteurs and which primarily feature male, rather than female sufferers”. This is true of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which was written and directed by Russell and primarily featured a male sufferer. It was praised by many critics, however, for its accurate portrayal of mental illness, which may have been due to the fact Russell was writing from experience in having a son with bipolar disorder. It becomes apparent that male focused films about mental illness are propelled to quality drama status whereas female focused ones are left to dwell in the sub-genre of psychological horror.
In her 1992 study MEN, WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS: GENDER IN THE MODERN HORROR FILM, Carol Clover argues that “masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body” and therefore one could conclude that there should be no difference between genders in the representation of mental illness. Why, then, are there still more instances of sympathetic representations of mental illness in male characters? Despite the greater prevalence of cinematic representations of mental illness, there remains a concerning lack of understanding and gender bias that has resulted in inaccurate and insensitive approaches to mental disorders. Research continues to suggest that representations of mental illness in popular media can have a strong influence on their audiences. Surely it is time to change these socially constructed representations. The best way to overcome these stigmatising representations is to continue to tackle the issue of mental illness onscreen.