Reel Mental Illness: How Hollywood Vilifies Victims

Picture retrieved from the Mithra Trust website.

“And the Oscars goes to…”

For years, watching the livestream of the Oscars was my ritual- I would skip a school day for its sake, but little did I know that the Oscars, as most film awards, have been secretly planning an inauguration for the new emblem of threat. With the Joker film’s iconic success during the past awards season, Hollywood appears to have found shore to set foot and build up fantasies for war against the new terror: mental illness. However, we are yet faced by a few doubts. Should “diagnostic vagueness”, as referred to by doctors writing for the Guardian, be a matter of concern? Why not consider it part of an artist’s freedom and creativity? Why not say it is Art for Art’s sake or entertainment? To move beyond such arguments would be through saying the following: it is a matter of chronic false representations surrounding the mentally ill, Joker is just a thread. Reaching the stigma of violence associated with mental illness has been preceded by a history of other “dramatic” on-screen stereotypes rendering the patients as both imposters and pitiful.

1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson, remains to be a major Academy Award winning film till current times and a classic screening in film studies classrooms. The film follows McMurphy, a prisoner faking insanity to escape prison labor, as he moves into a ward for the mentally unstable and gets into a series of trouble with the cruel head nurse. Aside from its engaging plot, the film has a lot to offer by representing psychiatric illness as either a myth of itself or intellectually disabling. Being a major production during the New Hollywood era, it is a must to consider the significance of the anti-hero, McMurphy, and why as such a character was admired by audiences back then. By choosing to have McMurphy as an imposter faking illness to benefit from special treatment, this narrative puts those who identify as mentally ill under the scope of social skepticism. They become morally ambiguous; hence, taken less seriously. This builds up tension and anxiety levels for patients being treated for mental illnesses; they are expected to silence their sufferings. Furthermore, the film itself offers a split understanding of mental illness through also driving in a sense of “pity”. McMurphy’s fellow patients get captured as shallow and weak. The film establishes a false correlation between mental illness and physical appearance where the latter gets characterized as weird. It also blurs the line between being intellectually disabled and mentally ill as in the case of patients making strange body movements and remarks throughout the film. Hence, pity gets transcended to audiences without them knowing which threatens to diminish respectability and overall citizenry value of patients. Whether it be stereotypes of mental illness being a fraud or a complete opposite view of it as a downfall in one’s life, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest still passes the bar as a production stigmatizing the mental health care system rather than patients.

Fast forward to today, Joker presents mental illness as a demon which carves out the human soul and crafts a violent and evil villain. Suddenly, the mentally ill progress from being anti-heroes pranksters to criminal minds thirsty for bloody revenge. The serious part of the story is that we passively go with the flow. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance of the Joker, a socially disregarded and bullied aspiring comedian suffering from a condition leading to sudden uncontrollable excessive laughing or crying, first establishes a relationship based on pity with audiences. However, his darker side cuts off those connections; he becomes a nightmare. There is much to talk about the stares shot at the character both within the film and by audiences; all eyes are terrorized at first. Everyone wants an explanation, and the film offers one appropriated reasoning lacking reason. Munching on kernels, audiences repeat: “he has some mental illness, that’s why!” Consequently, the violence gets associated with mental instability, and that is not a conclusion made by watching Joker but rather of a recurrent “coincidence” – think of Split (2016).

Being the most spoken of movie industry, major thematic approaches and studies target Hollywood productions. However, misrepresentations of mental illnesses have roots within other major industries as Bollywood. In Mad tales from Bollywood: the impact of social, political, and economic climate on the portrayal of mental illness in Hindi films (2005), Bhugra’s study of Hindi films from the 1950s through the 1990s suggests a correlation between social, political and economic variables and the portrayals of the mentally ill. Thus, the matter of mental illness is possible to be read as intersectional with politics and other subcategories of representation including that of gender. For Bhugra (2005), portrayals of mental illness are deeply rooted in cultural and political environments rather than the level of education and awareness regarding the issue. Again, the case is not only so with Hindi films. Politics, in general, plays a big role in framing media content across the globe. Moreover, and speaking of major cinemas, the Arab film industry remains to be of shy presence. Matters of mental diseases have not been central in major productions, yet there exists threads of mockery and negligence when speaking of mental wellbeing which mirrors the dominant negative view Arabs have regarding mental illness. The previous is noticed within the “comedic” content tending to reference one’s less intelligence to that of mental retardation. The words often used are: بسيط (simple minded) & معتر (shallow). In Arab context, expressing challenges with one’s mental health often gets caged within the social structure: العيب (shame). However, and being a pro-masculine society, Arab TV productions have increasingly been using mental illness to cover up abuse against women. Regardless of whether the woman would later sympathize with her abuser or not, having such content mainstreamed to audiences builds up a forgiving attitude for domestic abuse where trauma gets thrown in as an excuse. The latest example would be with Five: Thirty (2019) where Ghimar’s murderous character still appealed to many viewers. 

The intention of highlighting such an issue is not to attack the media but rather urge change as consequences following the vilification or romanticism of the mentally ill on screens have bigger implications on the audiences walking out of cinema halls or flipping through other channels when the credits begin to roll. The term stigma has been used recurrently as it is a wholesome title covering branched negative effects following false media representations. In Stigma and mental Illness (1992), editors Fink and Tasman offer that: “stigma means fear, resulting in a lack of confidence. Stigma is loss, resulting in unresolved mourning issues. Stigma is not having access to resources… Stigma is being invisible or being reviled, resulting in conflict. Stigma is lowered family esteem and intense shame, resulting in decreased self-worth… Most importantly, stigma is hopelessness, resulting in helplessness.” Hence, it is a matter beyond feelings; societal interactions are affected. More so, this false take on mental illness is also dispersing seriously wrongful medical diagnosis and characteristics of illnesses; for example, Goodwin (2013) unveils “… the definition of schizophrenia from the World Health Organization (2012), we see that it “is a severe mental disorder, characterized by profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception, and the sense of self. It often includes psychotic experiences, such as hearing voices or delusions. It can impair functioning through the loss of an acquired capability to earn a livelihood, or the disruption of studies.” However, the film Schizo (Walker, 1976) defined schizophrenia as “a mental disorder, sometimes known as multiple or split‐personality. Characterized by loss of touch with environment and alternation between violent and contrasting behaviour patterns.”” (p. 201).

To wrap it all up, falsified stereotypes have always accompanied the mentally ill, yet that of violence has topped all. With films wide spreading prejudice against the mentally ill as being mad and threatening, there is a must for a defying counter movement. It should be made clear that real life generally offers more examples of victims of violence being patients of mental illness, and through vilifying victims, a license of violence to be practiced against the mentally ill gets permitted for sake of precaution or defense. That is no joke.

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