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?