Category Archives: movies
Note: This post is going to discuss representations of psychiatric abuse in pop culture.
Have you ever watched a genre-show where the main character is one you know, for certain, is sane, because you’ve been watching them for a season and a half, and yet the episode opens with them being in an asylum, accused of heinous crimes, drugged up, and undergoing treatment they scream their way through? Whether it’s Will Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation loudly insisting “I may be surrounded by insanity but I am not insane!”, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day screaming the truth at Dr. Silberman, or Priya Tsetsang/Sierra of Dollhouse describing the asylum as “hell, I’m in hell”, storylines of characters we identify with and know are sane are pretty common. And no matter what the purpose of the particular scene is, there’s one thing all of them have in common: What happens to the character is terrible because we, the audience, know they don’t deserve it. They’re a sane person stuck in an insane asylum, and that’s what makes it creepy.
I hate this plot.
Not because the shows or movies are poorly written: I am still a huge fan of ST:TNG, and Terminator 2 is still one of my favourite movies. I was not a fan of Dollhouse, but can see why many fans of the show were quite taken with Belonging. They’re also typically quite well acted, and even with my dislike of Dollhouse I gotta admit that Dichen Lachman was amazing as Sierra.
No, no, I hate this plot because there’s never any real attempt to discuss that what makes this plot work is the very frightening idea that what happens to these characters would be in someway okay if they were actually diagnosed with the mental health conditions they are accused of having.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind”, the opening teaser is of Commander William T. Riker explaining to an off-screen interrogator that he’s not crazy, that he understands his actions, and that he’d like to now be released from the asylum. This scene is repeated throughout the episode, both as a scene from a play that Riker is performing with Commander Data, and as scenes from the actual asylum that Riker has been forced into by the antagonists of the episode, the hospital administrator on Tilonus IV.
Memory Alpha sums up the episode as “Riker thinks he is losing his mind when reality keeps shifting between an alien hospital and the Enterprise, where he is rehearsing a play.”
Throughout the episode we see scenes of Riker being taunted by the staff at the asylum. We also see a few other inmates, with the implication that these people, unlike Riker, are actually crazy, since one of them uses a spoon to attempt to contact Star Fleet. Finally, we see Riker strapped down, forced to undergo treatment that will permanently alter his personality and change him into a different person. In the end, he’s rescued by his shipmates. There’s some implication that the asylum may be shut down, but it’s not clear by the ending.
ST:TNG was pretty episodic, and only rarely touched directly on previous episodes. (This isn’t a criticism!) My issue isn’t really with the fact that the Enterprise may have warped away from an abusive asylum without a second thought, since that wasn’t really the point of the show. It’s just that this episode is pretty much predictable in how it plays out, and manages to reinforce the idea that yes, what happens to Riker is terrible, because Riker isn’t crazy.
I really enjoyed this episode when I first watched it, and thought it was very powerful. Since then, I’ve become a lot more aware of forceable institutionalization and the practice of forcing people into Electroshock Therapy against their will, and the episode is a lot less enjoyable.
More recently, of course, is Dollhouse and “Belonging”. I was actually asked to watch and review this episode when it first aired. I watched it with a few friends who weren’t familiar at all with Dollhouse and found the entire idea of the show – Wikipedia sums it up as “The show revolves around a corporation running numerous underground establishments (known as “Dollhouses”) across the globe which program individuals referred to as Actives (or Dolls) with temporary personalities and skills. Wealthy clients hire Actives from Dollhouses at great expense for various purposes” – very very creepy. I ultimately ended up not reviewing it because the episode left me so angry and drained that all I wanted to type was “arg arg arg arg I hate you show I hate you”.
I have some distance from that now.
In this episode, it’s revealed to the audience that Sierra was sent to the Dollhouse to become an active because she was diagnosed with a mental health condition. Topher describes it to another character, Boyd, as “I helped Sierra, you know. She was a paranoid schizophrenic, psychotic. I helped her.” This idea of having “helped” Sierra is very important to Topher’s sense of self. When it’s later revealed that Sierra wasn’t actually psychotic, but had been drugged to the point of appearing that way, that’s when Topher suddenly believes that tying her down to a chair and forcing her to undergo painful treatment that she kicked and fought against might have been a bad idea. Because doing that to an actual crazy person is okay, but doing it to a sane person is wrong.
As I said, I wasn’t a fan of the show, and this was the only episode in Season 2 I watched, but I did follow what else happened in the series. I know that this is a pretty pivotal episode to Topher’s arc, and it’s in realising that he’d forced a sane person to undergo this horrible treatment that he begins to really question what’s going on with the Dollhouse and what his role is in it all. I also think it’s pretty clear from the show that we’re supposed to view the folks in the Dollhouse as being people who are “morally suspect”.
I still hate the episode.
I hate it because there are so many genre-shows that do basically exactly this, and this episode is part of that trope. Despite the fact that the characters are presented as morally ambiguous, they’re still our point of view characters, and they’re still saying “What happened here is wrong” as being directly tied in to Sierra not having been “psychotic” in the first place.1 They’re also not unique in this view, and it’s a pretty common idea that it’s okay to force people who are “crazy” into treatments that would be considered torture if they were done to anyone else.
What I hate about this trope is that it’s done all the time, it’s very rarely analyzed in a way that discusses the message of “It’s okay to do this to a crazy person, but it’s off-limits if the person is sane” as being problematic, and because it implies that these sorts of things don’t happen in real institutions. Except that, in many (but by no means all), these images are not exaggerations, but understate the amount of abuse and forced treatment.
I think that this trope, like yesterday’s one about Crazy Roommates, comes from an exaggeration of the natural fear of being forced into medical treatments you don’t want because somehow you’ve lost control. The problem with this particular trope is it’s not based on fiction: this is the real experience of thousands of psychiatric patients and survivors. This is frightening to me because it’s true, and I wish that particular truth wasn’t used as fodder for genre shows to add depth to their characters.
- I really really really want to find the time to write about the repeated trope of fear of institutionalization in Whedon’s work. It’s on my list of things. My list is long. ↩
Don and I went to see a movie the other night, and gosh, we had fun! I mean, there’s nothing funner than going out for a nice evening with your husband and being confronted straight on with the knowledge that one of the scariest things some people can imagine is being forced to live with someone like you! Yay, fun times for everyone!
The particular film trailer that is paining me this month is for “The Roommate”. At first looks like some sort of “And then they went to university and had awesome adventures” sort of film, right up until that immortal line “She is taking her medications, right?”
There’s a whole genre of these particular films which take an idea that can be pretty scary – moving in with a stranger or virtual stranger – and kick it up a notch. If it’s a comedy, then obviously the problem will be someone who drinks all the milk or borrows all your clothes or is just really annoying, and that particular story will usually be about two white dudes, and in the end the hero will get the girl. When they want to really frighten people with some thriller-version, then it’ll be all about the scary white chick who moves into some other white woman’s life, kills some of her friends, seduces her boyfriend, and tries to steal everything away from her, while some family member eventually reveals that the crazy lady is on medication for some undefined mental health condition.
Gosh, I have no idea why stigma is still attached to mental health conditions!
I really hate that I can’t turn around twice without being reminded that people like me, just by virtue of existing in the world, are scary. There’s always someone reminding me of that, whether it’s a classmate telling me she’ll just say she’s crazy if she kills someone so she can get off without punishment (even though Canada’s jails are full of people with mental health conditions), the near constant repetition of the myth that crazy people are more likely to be violent (even though people with mental health conditions are actually far more likely to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators), or waiting for the next remake of Single White Female to be put into general release.
I know. They’re just films, and they really are just taking the perfectly normal fear of moving in with someone you don’t know and exaggerating them for effect. But I also know that people are really afraid of those of us with mental health conditions, and that the stigma and myths about mental health conditions can make it really hard for people who are having problems to seek out help. I have also had many discussions with people who have been honest about their mental health conditions to roommates or university officials, and suffered the consequences.
I often see the housing concerns framed as a concern for other students – being around someone with a significant mental illness might traumatize them. And I agree that finding me dead in a bathroom would have traumatized someone. But my self-harm and my mania did not seem to me to be any more potentially traumatizing for other students than my dormmates who would go to the communal bathroom to throw up after every meal, those who were using hard drugs like cocaine, or even those who would binge drink until passing out naked on the stairway, none of whom ever suffered any potential housing consequences. To say nothing of my then-boyfriend, who was then causing me active and ongoing psychological trauma through his emotional abuse and who got to stay in the dorm with all our mutual friends after I was shipped across campus. That I was the only student looked at by the university and potentially subject to penalties – and identified as potentially problematic because I sought lifesaving and appropriate care – speaks volumes about how students with mental disabilities are seen by administrators.
I hate these movies because of the stereotypes they reinforce. I hate that these stereotypes are the main reason I don’t discuss my diagnosis. I hate that I can’t just go to the movies without being reminded that my existence is scary-thriller frightening to enough people to make these movies popular.
Mostly, I’d just like to go see a movie without the reminder. It makes my popcorn taste bad.
Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
Dorianisms – A Different Kind of Coming Out
Today is (Inter)national Coming Out Day. It happens on October 11th every year, and I think it’s a really cool initiative. Visibility is important, for one thing. And sometimes, people find it easier to come out knowing that other folks, all over the country or the world, will be doing the same thing at the same time. Acting with a group is a powerful thing, and I think this day attempts to harness that power in what is really a very positive way. So, with the above in mind, I’m coming out. Not as queer—I really think that’s something most, if not all, of you have been aware of for a long time. I’ve been out about my sexuality to basically everyone since…geez, since I was in eleventh grade. That is, for those of you keeping track, somewhere in the neighbourhood of five years ago now. That’s a long time. This coming out is a bit of a different one, though probably still not a surprise if you’ve been paying ANY kind of attention to the things I write and the things I link. I am a person with disabilities.
The World Health Organization says more than 75 percent of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders living in developing countries do not receive any treatment or care. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan says people in poor countries miss out on care because it is generally believed that sophisticated and expensive technologies are essential in improving mental health. “In other words, we face a misperception that mental health care is a luxury item, a luxury item on the health agenda … It costs two dollars per person per year,” Chan explained. “It is one of the best buys you can get. High profile disease always get the attention and mental disorders are disorders that people often do not talk about, brush aside, sweep under the carpet.”
AFL-CIO Blog: Actors with Disabilities All But Invisible on TV
About one in eight Americans is disabled, but you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. In the new fall TV season, only six characters out of 587, about 1 percent, will have a disability. Even more amazing is that only one of those actors has a disability in real life. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and a new report shows persons with disabilities are all but invisible on the nation’s five broadcast networks— ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC. That also means there are few opportunities for actors with disabilities to be cast.
cripchick – Happy Disability History Month
I want to talk about why disability looks white. I want us to understand how ableism has been leveraged against communities of color with black folks historically being thought of as less capable (therefore fit for slavery) and special education commonly serving as a means of segregating students of color both with and without disabilities. I want us to create a disability pride that acknowledges the complexities of our experience and does not pit living resiliently and proudly against the knowledge that disability is often created by injustice our communities face. All of this must be done without flattening our differences, without saying being disabled is just like being of color, just like being poor, just like being queer. Let us bring our best selves to community and learn to be with each other in ways that transform and grow who we are, even when (and though) the work is hard.
Huffington Post – Psychiatry and the Media: A Strange and Strained Relationship
As a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist for almost 30 years, I cannot believe the major role sensationalism plays in determining what gets published in the popular media about mental illness and its treatment, especially concerning children. Recent examples include the September 2, 2010 New York Times front page article, “Child’s Ordeal Reveals Risks of Psychiatric Drugs in Young,” the September 8, 2010 piece in the Huffington Post, “Psychotropic Drugs, Our Children and Our Pill-Crazed Society” and the September 23, 2010 Huffington Post’s, “Making a Market in Antipsychotic Drugs: An Ironic Tragedy.” Where is the balanced approach to journalism that the public is entitled to expect from a free press? Most people get a substantial amount of their knowledge from what the media chooses to print, and sadly what is disseminated these days is often quite biased. Frequently, it is the off center, brash, highly emotional and clearly outrageous stories and/or the unorthodox physicians or therapists who write them or serve as their sources which make headlines much more than those with more reasonable views and approaches.
Denver Post – Movie Review: ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story‘
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” based on the first-person novel by Ned Vizzini, follows bright, depressed Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist) as he checks into the psych ward of a Manhattan hospital. He’s having suicidal thoughts. But as he hands his shoe laces over to an orderly, he’s having second thoughts. Yes, he’s blue. He’s has a crush on his best friend’s girl (Zoë Kravitz). He’s blocked about writing an essay for a prestigious summer school gig. Yes, he’s part of the Zoloft nation. But does he really belong on Three North among a population of wounded, idiosyncratic characters? How to explore mental illness — particularly depression — without cheating on the pain people face and keeping the wry energy of the book? It’s a balancing act that filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don’t quite pull off.
I hope all is well in your world on this fine Tuesday! Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
Canada: Disabled-services flip-flop at Winnipeg Free Press:
The about-face came one day after an internal U of W memo was leaked to media and revealed a number of university programs to help disabled students were on the chopping block. The decision outraged students and raised eyebrows since it comes just weeks after the U of W launched a new disability degree program devoted to the “critical analysis of disability in society.”
USA: College Web Pages Are ‘Widely Inaccessible’ to People With Disabilities from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The study found that more colleges are deploying basic accessibility features, like adding alternative text to images so a blind student can understand them with read-aloud software.
But those gains were offset by challenges from inaccessible emerging technologies. For example, a person with disabilities who can’t use a mouse will often be stymied by a Web site that requires users to hover their mouse over a page element to trigger a sub-menu.
Australia: Disabled drivers get no favours on private property from the Brisbane Times:
The Department of Transport, which issues disabled parking permits under its Disability Parking Permit Scheme, is powerless to protect drivers who park in shopping centres, with centre management charged with enforcing the scheme there.
India: Promote sign language, urges deaf association from expressbuzz.com:
More than 100 members of the Deaf Enabled Foundation, an NGO for the deaf, took out a rally on International Day of the Deaf, here on Sunday, from the Labour Statue to Light House.
And, also from India, framed in possibly the most patronising way possible, Movie made by deaf and dumb to premiere on Oct 9 from the Indian Express:
The movie Amir=Garib, to be premiered on October 9 in the Town Hall Auditorium, has all the essentials of a Bollywood flick, but one fundamental element — sound. The movie has been made by deaf and dumb people.
Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.
If you ever want to confuse people, tell them glasses are assistive devices that assist people with lower-level vision impairments, and then compare these assistive devices to such things as arm crutches or wheelchairs. In my experience, they’ll often insist that people who wear glasses are normal. (Not like people who use wheelchairs or arm crutches or any other type of assistive tech, no no, those people are disabled. And everyone knows you can tell who has a disability and who doesn’t just by looking at them, right?)
I’ll often introduce people to the idea that our image of what “disabled” looks like is constructed by talking about glasses as assistive tech, just assistive tech that is generally accepted by society. For a lot of people I interact with every day, getting glasses is routine, and you’ll see glasses everywhere on the street – advertisements for fancy glasses frames! and for new types of lenses! Glasses for everyone! (For certain definitions of “everyone”.)
At the same time, media & pop culture still use glasses as “code” – either for This Is Serious Work, or This Person Is A Nerd/Geek (and a particular type at that) or a scientist/doctor, or a Serious Scholar. This is true whether the person uses glasses all the time, or if they just use them for certain things. On Leverage, for example, when “the bruiser” character Eliot puts on his glasses
he suddenly becomes totally sexy and I’d totally hit that because I’m shallow it’s usually an indication that his persona for the episode is Egghead/Nerd or Expert on something. Neal, who is a “recovering” con artist, does something similar in White Collar when he’s doing close-up nerdy-type work on his forgeries, or when his persona is “doctor”. I also clearly remember Elle Woods putting on her Serious Glasses and getting into her Serious Clothes for when she wants to be taken seriously as a lawyer in Legally Blonde. Glasses = Smart!
What brings this back to Glasses As Assistive Tech is that glasses are very normalized to people watching the shows, and yet glasses aren’t all the common as just a Thing The Character Wears in the show. I know why this is – glasses cause light-reflections, glasses make it harder to read someone’s expression on the screen, glasses can be dangerous in fight scenes, if they have lenses they can get scratched up and cause more problems, and if you’re not someone who wears glasses all the time I’m betting they’re distracting.
But, of course, movies and television aren’t the only media we consume. Comics, novels, and video games don’t have these problem. You can give every character in a novel glasses if you want, and it doesn’t really matter. And yet, when I was reading romance novels & chick lit all the time, I can only remember one heroine who wore them, and she went through the whole “Oh, but no one will find me pretty! Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!” (And, despite her glasses being a huge thing in this novel, the cover art didn’t show her with them. Not that this is surprising, but still.)
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, glasses are assistive tech that is very normalized, and yet doesn’t appear very often in our media. When it does appear in our media, it’s often a code for something. This person is Smart. This person is Studious. This person in Playing A Role.
This person is Eliot and his glasses make him really really hot omg why are there not more episodes of him wearing glasses and being friendly? And if we can’t see this incredibly common type of assistive tech in our media being used as just a Thing That People Wear, it’s no wonder we so rarely see people using assistive tech in our media just because Some People Are Blind or Some People Uses Arm Crutches or whatever.
Commenting Note: Sadly, I am still on Thesis Time, and likely will be until the end of the calendar year. Comment-approval/responding to will be slower-than-usual on account of this.
[Tame OYD Review with mild SPOILERS ahead]
It is a story of a teen boy, Hiccup, who lives in the Viking village of Berk, which is on an island. His village of one of fierce dragon slayers, and Hiccup is the only son of the chief, Stoick the Vast. Except, he isn’t really very good at slaying dragons, because he is kind of clumsy (I can relate). Longing to be accepted, despite his awkwardness, among his tribe and the other viking teens, and naturally wanting to win the heart of the beautiful girl, Hiccup wants to be a great dragon slayer, too, until he actually catches one of the fiercest and little-known about breeds of dragon, the dreaded Night Fury.
Just when Hiccup has the chance to Slay the Dragon, he realizes that he doesn’t have the heart to kill the creature that looks up at him and surrenders its will in such a helpless manner. He lets the dragon go, and in turn, the dragon doesn’t kill him, which goes against everything he has ever been taught. Slowly over time he earns the dragon’s trust, and learns that that the reason the dragon hasn’t left is because part of his tail has been lost when Hiccup captured him.
Using his knowledge of the forge, Hiccup fashions a sort of prosthetic half-tail for the dragon, and together he and the dragon learn how to fly together, because the dragon now needs assistance using the new tail piece.
There are many themes in the movie that I am not going to excuse. If you think by now that you are going to see a Dreamworks movie that has a fair representation of girl characters, you are wrong, as they even manage to throw in some boob jokes, and once again, the main character has lost his mother in another ridiculous excuse to not have to write one in or to draw out some sympathy for him. Mothers in pop-culture and YA literature/movies are never to be known and always to be mourned. If you think there is anyone who is non-white in this movie, think again. And if anyone tries to excuse it by telling me that “This is a Viking village!”, I can tell you that there were probably more non-white people around Villages than actual dragons, so they could have maybe thrown a bone in there, especially since they had America Ferrara voicing the female lead, because I think that might have been a nice nod to her character. (But at least she wasn’t a wilting lily of a wee girl.)
But I can tell you that I don’t have to love every aspect of things that affect my marginalization to be impressed when something actually goes right once in a while.
At the end of the Epic Battle (no I won’t spoil that), Hiccup loses his foot, and is fitted with a prosthetic one made in the forge, and other than two brief mentions of it, and a heart warming moment when his dragon helps him start to adapt to learning to use it, that was pretty much all the attention given to it. Hiccup, being a mechanical tinkerer, says he might play around with it and improve upon it, but, no one makes a Big Deal. While this might not be realistic and probably dismisses the reality of dealing with that type of loss (and in the mythical world they created this is a common thing they deal with), I liked that this loss of Hiccup’s foot was not treated as The Worst! Thing! Evah! Hiccup actually just goes out, and climbs aboard his dragon. Life as usual. In fact, his fancy new foot fits better into his riding harness, the one he made for the prosthetic tail for his dragon.
I like it when we can see people with disabilities in a positive light. Moreover, I like it more when the characters in pop-culture around this character aren’t reacting in a way that makes it seem as if this is the worst tragedy to ever hit their lives. They are Vikings, and in the long view of things, they have managed to avert a major crisis and now have dragons for pets, which is pretty cool. Stoick is thrilled to have his son, the person, with him, and the depiction of the girl is still…well, painfully stereotypical.
But this depiction of disability, it made me very happy.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians did that. I loved Greek mythology in High School (even if I went a little cross-eyed reading The Odyssey and The Illiad). Hollywood is trying to make mythology cool again, and I was stoked about that.
I so wanted to see this movie…and because I think I live under a rock sometimes, I hadn’t heard it was a book series *scribbles a wish list*.
And then we went to the theater.
***Spoilers Ahead. Turn Back Now!***
Last Chance to Avoid Spoilers!Read more: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief — The Special Thing About You