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Bitches Be Cray: The Good, The Bad, and The Pretty Little Liars of Mental Health on TV. (Or: why I thought everyone had it wrong about Carrie on Homeland but now I’m not so sure)

Danger, Will Robinson: this post contains spoilers for season one/early season two of Homeland, plus mild spoilers for season three of Pretty Little Liars and season two of Revenge.

Good news, fellow crazies! Asylums are back in fashion. Ryan Murphy’s hugely popular American Horror Story — which I will never actually watch because I’m too much of a wimp —  is back on screens soon, and this time it’s really going to be scary. Instead of just demonising abortion like before, the second season is subtitled Asylum and no doubt viewers are in for a stereotype-spewing ride through sexist, ableist tropes of the “bunny boiler” variety. (I’d reserve judgement, but Murphy’s the man who created Glee and The New Normal, shows which seem ripe for subverting harmful stereotypes but insist on conforming to them instead, so assuming the worst feels justified.)

And it’s not just AHS. In Revenge, flashbacks show that Emily’s mother was admitted to a psychiatric institution and as season two progresses we start to learn why: unspecified crazy with homicidal tendencies. (Look for it in the next DSM.) Pretty Little Liars writers obviously decided that only mental illness could make someone work for A, so locked up Mona in an institution that appears to have last been renovated circa 1940. Even Dr Who got in on the action with a Dalek asylum in the first episode of the new series, because harmful stereotypes aren’t just for humans anymore.

As someone who can’t remember what it feels like to not have clinical depression and who also loves TV, I’m always anxious (more than usual!) to see how the medium handles mental illness. Unfortunately, for the most part,  the answer is “badly”. In 2010, a Department of Health report found that 45% of television storylines involving someone with a mental illness portrayed them as being dangerous or abusive to others, whereas in reality, mentally ill people are more likely to experience violence than perpetrate it.

The report also said that where mentally ill characters were referred to by other characters, it was with such flattering language as “crackpot”, “basket case”, and “sad little psycho”. It’s especially disappointing when characters we’ve been encouraged to see as sympathetic spout this type of claptrap, because that reflects how a show’s writers want the audience to feel.

Take Pretty Little Liars (please) which, until about half a season ago, I thought was pretty revolutionary. Sure, the “scary blind girl” aspect was always problematic, but there’s been a lot of inspiring stuff, too. Girls have sex without being punished (it’s not always even a plot point), there’s a kick-ass lesbian character who gets love interests just like her hetero friends, and it uses horror conventions to explore being a female teenager, the heightened sense of reality ironically providing one of the most accurate small screen portrayals of that angst-filled time. But more recently, it’s taken a turn into “bitches be loco” territory.

It’s not clear to the Liars or to us whether Mona is actually catatonic or  just acting that way to avoid police interrogation, but it is clear to the Liars that Mona be cray. Hannah goes to visit her (ex?) friend in hospital because she wants to find out the truth, and also (I think, although I may be projecting) because she still cares about Mona despite her diagnosis. (Imagine!) Her other friends are hostile to this idea, calling Mona “psycho” and “a crazy bitch”. It’s not insignificant that Spencer, the most competent, intelligent, and accomplished of the group,  is the one who espouses these sentiments the most emphatically: as the moral centre of the show, she sets the tone.

And the tone is that if you have a non-optimal chemical balance in your brain through no choice of your own, you’re sub-human and should be treated as such. While the Mona example is dramatic, it still perpetuates stigma, ignoring the fact that psych wards can be helpful places and many wonderful people have inhabited them. This is especially irresponsible for a show aimed at young people, some of whom will have personal experience of mental illness.

The good news is, things might be changing. Earlier this month, mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness co-hosted an event for TV writers in London. They played a training film describing good practice in portraying mental illness, and there was a discussion between writers, a mental health nurse, and charity representatives, including media volunteers who’ve experienced mental illness. During the discussion, writer Danny Brocklehurst admitted that his series, Accused, was predicated on the sensationalist idea of a scary psychotic. But Dana Fainaru, who wrote an episode of Casualty where a doctor is admitted to a mental health unit, said she did extensive research into the reality of that situation, including talking to recovering patients.

While I don’t watch many homegrown shows (I also hate tea; I’m a terrible Brit) and there was some jabber about how “writers should not react to the agenda of pressure groups” (we don’t want a series of Very Special Episodes, we just want greater accuracy), this still sounds like a tentative step forward.

Which brings me to Carrie on Homeland. During most of the first season, I felt like she provided a new model for creating characters with mental illnesses: she was polished, intelligent, and brilliant at her job, but she was flawed, too (often more as a result of her personality than her mood disorder). For me the tension of the show wasn’t, as so many media outlets and tweeters seemed to frame it, that she was “crazy” and so might be experiencing delusions. For me, the tension was that she needed to keep her bipolar diagnosis a secret otherwise the CIA would stop taking her seriously.

When she was injured in an explosion and her lack of access to medication combined with the intense trauma brought on a manic episode, it seemed plausible that such a stressful series of events could have that effect, although I don’t know enough about bipolar to definitively say that it would. I also don’t know enough about bipolar to critique Danes’s performance, but she said she watched YouTube videos of people who taped themselves while manic, so there was at least an attempt at verisimilitude, although meeting people with the illness might have been helpful, too.

The blogger Just Another Manic Mummy watched the show from the perspective of someone with a bipolar diagnosis of her own, and felt that the symptoms Carrie displayed were mostly true-to-life, but lazily-written, like “a script plucked from Wikipedia’s ‘Bipolar’ page”. She also suggested that Carrie was unlikable, which I didn’t find to be true, maybe because I’m a Danes fan from way back, or because I enjoy women characters who aren’t cuddly.

But by the time she was having ECT, I wondered if I’d been putting too generous a spin on things; if Carrie was a caricature after all. I thought a lot of what they showed was realistic: they talked about the probable memory loss (convenient plot device, but true-to-life nonetheless) and it wasn’t like she was electrocuted by scary nurses — we saw her being anaesthetised. But she did flinch when the current went through her, which apparently wouldn’t happen in real life.

So far in season two, she’s cried a lot and taken an overdose, but she’s also written a report her ex-boss thought was excellent, helped engineer the capture of two terrorists, and found an essential piece of intelligence thanks to her derring-do. While the show may be veering more towards “Uh-oh, can we trust this crazy lady?” than I’d like, they’re also showing the person behind the illness, illustrating the pain that being perfect for a job but not allowed to practice it can cause, and refusing to let Carrie become a stereotype, although I’m still nervous about how the season will progress.

How do you feel about Carrie, and what are the best and worst portrayals of mental illness that you’ve ever seen?

Images via: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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About Diane Shipley

Freelance journalist (books, tech, TV, health), inveterate blogger and long-time tweeter (@dianeshipley). Loves memoirs, cats, and pictures of dachshunds.

16 comments on “Bitches Be Cray: The Good, The Bad, and The Pretty Little Liars of Mental Health on TV. (Or: why I thought everyone had it wrong about Carrie on Homeland but now I’m not so sure)

  1. starsfromheavens
    October 25, 2012

    I like and at the same time hate Carrie. hahaha… is it possible? Honestly, I find Carrie becoming more and more unlikeable. Compared to her first season when she was vulnerable to love and be loved, this time around Carrie shows more resistant with her feeling. After her painful electric shock therapy, her banning from CIA, her emotions become more complex that I find it a lot difficult to figure which one is actually her true self. Is she all about capturing the terrorist? Has she some compassion? I guess just like any other secret agents who are often portrayed to be someone else under cover, Carrie can also disguise her true feelings as much. the problem is we don’t know which one is her true feeling. Is she really ok when Estes apologise? Doesn’t she hold grudges? Is she really patriotic? Or is it her own ambition to do great at work that brings her to chase terrorist day in day out?

    • diane
      October 25, 2012

      It’s definitely possible to have conflicted feelings about her/the show! I do think we’re seeing a lot of her emotions now, though. Whether that’s a good thing, and whether Homeland is going somewhere with it other than to make her look like one of those unstable mental types remains to be seen…

  2. Susan
    October 25, 2012

    I will be completely honest, I know next to nothing about mental illness and I wouldn’t dream of saying whether or not the portrayal on TV is accurate but I think Carrie is brilliant. She is pretty much the only character in Homeland I completely trust – I even have my doubts about Saul – and Claire Danes is an amazing actress.

    • diane
      October 25, 2012

      She really is, isn’t she? (I’ve had doubts about Saul, too! Then I’m like, “No, look, he’s being lovely.” But still, there’s something that could be a bit off…) The most worrying thing is how much I find myself rooting for Brody at times, like “Oh no, his car broke down!” As if that wouldn’t ultimately be a good thing.

      • clodaghm
        October 25, 2012

        I’ve had doubts about Saul too, but I trust him now. And I know what you mean about rooting for Brody!

    • Keris
      October 25, 2012

      “Even have my doubts about Saul”?! I was totally convinced Saul was the baddie, all through S1 :)

  3. clodaghm
    October 25, 2012

    I really like Carrie – she comes across to me as a highly intelligent, interesting woman with a lot of integrity, who is also unstable at times. From my limited knowledge of bipolar disorder (I’ve never experienced it personally, but family member has it), the portrayal seems realistic to me – a bit tame, if anything.

    As for the worst, one of my pet peeves is films which portray people with bipolar disorder as really fun, spontaneous people to be around when they’re having a manic episode (Richard Gere in Mr Jones, for instance – there are others, but I can’t think of them at the moment) – and misunderstood by a society that wants to medicate and subdue them. I suppose there are variations in how people are affected, but in my experience it’s no fun at all to be around – and it’s dangerous for the person going through it.

    • diane
      October 25, 2012

      Oh, that is disturbing (the idea of Richard Gere being fun and spontaneous and “kooky” as much as anything else). I do think it’s possible that for some people, mania is a positive thing that doesn’t necessarily hurt them or the people around them, but those kind of “them against the world” mental illness narratives seem to be most often created by outsiders looking in, rather than real people experiencing that situation.

      • clodaghm
        October 25, 2012

        It was quite disturbing. He was obviously meant to be really charming and charismatic when he was high, but I just thought he was an awful eejit.

  4. diane
    October 25, 2012

    I feel like that’s a Gere trademark, sadly! (Have you seen Runaway Bride? The worst.)

  5. Keris
    October 25, 2012

    This is a really interesting and thought-provoking post, Diane. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of dismissing a character’s behaviour with something like ‘they’re just nuts’ – you told me off for saying that about Mr Schue’s wife in Glee, I remember. And you were right, not least because if a writer is using a character’s mental health issues as a handy plot device, they’re not really doing their job properly.

    • diane
      October 25, 2012

      Thanks, Keris. Yes, I remember Terri Schuester (sp?) was a big source of discussion in general (turns out the answer was to just stop watching Glee, haha). It’s perhaps even more of a problem where a character is given characteristics that could be a mental illness, but not shown as having a specific diagnosis — we’re just supposed to know she (so often it’s she) is “crazy” is some nebulous way that promotes the idea that anyone who experiences mental illness is lesser than and not to be trusted. (And the non-specificity means it can’t really be argued against; plus arguing “she’s not crazy” is still playing into the sane/crazy dichotomy that’s been used against women for centuries.)

      Of course, when writers do give someone a specific diagnosis, that doesn’t necessarily stop the whole “crazy psycho” dialogue, either.

      “if a writer is using a character’s mental health issues as a handy plot device, they’re not really doing their job properly”

      Exactly!

  6. hoola
    October 26, 2012

    Thanks for linking to my blog!

    I have to say I was thinking about writing a new post after Sunday’s Homeland – already in the first two episodes of this series I’ve found Carrie to be a lot more sympathetic and true to life. The feeling of being dismissed because of your condition (in work or elsewhere) is very real, along with the self-doubt that goes with it and the triumph of being proven to be right.

    What I didn’t like was the paint-by-numbers symptoms of the first series and the ECT being used as a convenient plot device.

    I’m more concerned now about Brody’s state of mind. I mean, who kills somebody for interrupting a phonecall?

    I’m also a massive Claire Danes fan. I re-watched My So-Called Life recently and, with the benefit of age and experience now see that Jordan Catalano was SUCH a dick. Funnily enough I also recognised a lot of my own teenage behaviour in Rayanne – she could’ve totally been bipolar.

    • diane
      October 26, 2012

      You’re welcome! It’s all right me blathering on but it’s always much more helpful to hear from someone who’s actually been there.

      I know what you mean by the paint-by-numbers symptoms thing, and wonder if part of it was an attempt to educate the audience (“people with bipolar disorder may behave in the following ways…”) but it could have been more subtly and selectively done.

      And yes, of course it’s Brody who is really the one whose mental state is the most questionable, and who has these conflicting sides to his character. (That neck twist! Makes me shudder just to think of it.)

      That’s so interesting about Rayanne, too. I’d never really thought what her pathology could be, but that might explain a few things.

  7. mallymon
    October 26, 2012

    Well I haven’t watched Homeland and I don’t really want to either but I still understand this post and I’m really pleased that writers are meeting with mental health organisations and carers in order to try to learn how to portray mental illness sensitively. How many times have we seen films and TV series where, after countless chilling murders and attacks, the perpertrator is found to be ‘schizophrenic’ (or some other term)? For more impact, they are often called PARANOID schizophrenic (eeeek!), so that the audience knows they must be really, really bad. I always find that such a disappointment. If mental illness is portrayed in our entertainment, then it should be portrayed more accurately. I hate getting to the end of a story only to be told that the killer was ‘crazy’. No background, no lead in, no explanation of how or what, just the fact that someone is crazy is enough to seal the deal. ‘Psycho’ (love the Janet Leigh pic btw!) was one of the most horrific films I’ve ever seen – it was released in 1960 (though I didn’t see it until 1970, when I was still a child, obviously) and must seem tame for 21st century audiences but I had nightmares for days (nay, weeks!) after seeing it. (And it is b/w too! That just added to the horror.) There have been many attemps at imitation since but none that have scared me out of my wits half as well.
    I’d just like to say that I love the font for ‘American Horror Story’ – but I’m never going to watch any of those!
    P.S. Keep up the long title tradition! Love it…. :) xxx ♥

  8. Pingback: Spies and sex work: Homeland, The Americans, and is it maybe OK to be a prostitute? | Bea

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