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.
Image: Will Riker, out of uniform and scruffy looking, walks down the corridors of the Enterprise insisting he’s sane.
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.
Image: Topher and Sierra from Dollhouse. Topher is dressed in “regular” clothes, while Sierra is in a hospital gown, her hair disheveled, and obviously quite distressed.
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. 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.] 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.