Why are Women with Mental Illnesses Portrayed So Inaccurately on TV?

Post by guest contributor Kate Harveston

You’ve undoubtedly seen a storyline similar to this one on TV: A woman becomes obsessed with so-and-so. Have you ever paused to wonder how this trope plays into the inaccurate depiction of those with mental illnesses? 

Although many celebrities have come forward about their battles with mental illness, depictions of characters with these disorders in movies and TV have little to do with reality. Instead, those with such disorders, particularly women, are still portrayed as emotionless and evil. This stereotype does a grave disservice to everyone in entertainment as well as to mental health awareness.

Mental Illness and Women 

Researchers often claim that women experience mental illness at higher rates than men. However, this figure is convoluted by the fact that they also receive treatment for these disorders more often than men. For example, while more women attempt suicide, more men die from it.

Suffice it to say that all genders experience mental illness. However, you can’t ignore the way society interprets these conditions differently based on gender. For example, picture somebody with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’re like many, you may envision a male soldier coming home from war. This stereotype is valid in some cases, but not all by any means. Studies actually show that physical and sexual trauma followed by PTSD occurs more often in women than in men. 

This statistic should shock no one in a world where 90% of all adult rape victims are women. Repeated sexual and physical trauma often results in mental illness, not murderous rampages. Consider how few sexual assault survivors receive justice in our courts. The records of rapists getting away with their actions should spur an epidemic of revenge slaughter if women were inclined to turn their trauma outward. The majority of the time, however, they suffer in silence.

Depictions of Mentally Ill Women in Film

If you flip to channels like Lifetime, you’ll see countless representations of women with mental illness losing their collective minds, stalking and killing with impunity. We’ve all heard of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope. In fact, the Lifetime channel dedicates Wednesdays to Women on the Edge. On the edge of what? 

Most of the time, the violent women depicted in these types of films don’t have a definitive diagnosis. Consider the classic Fatal Attraction. We know that Glenn Close’s character boils a bunny, but the movie never tells us what disorder compelled her to commit such a heinous act. It’s as if mental illness all fits into one neat category—it doesn’t matter if you have PTSD or a schizotypal disorder or anxiety. If you’re a woman and you have a mental illness, you’re simply nuts. 

[Image Description: Screen grab from Fatal Attraction. Glenn Close’s character is lunging at a man holding a large kitchen knife. She has a look of pain on her face. She’s wearing a white plain dress with long sleeves.] Source: ABC

Contrast this treatment to the way films depict men with mental illness. Has anyone watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest without cheering for Nicholson’s character? Directors often portray men with mental illness as loveable-yet-misunderstood rogues. Such movies focus on their redeeming qualities, a man-versus-society theme. Conversely, when a woman character has a mental illness, she’s the problem—not the culture she’s grown up in.

Changing the Dialogue Around Mental Illness and Women

To truly embrace the reality of mental illness, filmmakers need to quit using it as a convenient plot device. Mental illness doesn’t explain why women, or anyone for that matter, commit heinous acts. Such actions stem from a multitude of factors. Making the simplistic correlation between violence and mental illness leads to a continued problematic stigma about mentally ill individuals. Mental illness can be a contributor to violence in a person, but it’s not the sole factor. A convenient explanation for an unpleasant phenomenon doesn’t make it accurate. 

Instead, movies should show the real way mental illness affects women. They should present how they tend to isolate themselves from those they love and withdraw into despair. Films should show—and address—the overwhelming loathing of self, not hatred of others, that often exists as a hallmark way in which disorders manifest among women

Representation matters, and the images that people see in the media form part of our collective consciousness. By depicting the reality of mental illness for women in film, we can hopefully open up a better dialogue about mental health. Ideally, this new dialogue may even inspire people to seek help if they need it, instead of feeling like they have to hide their problems from the world, lest they be labeled and stereotyped.

Teal Christensen
“Rock On!”

Panel Highlights – Geek Culture

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With GeekGirlCon only five weeks away* we’ve been giving you a sneak peek at some of our amazing content for this year. So far, we’ve shown you a sample of our amazing workshops and panels for literary geeks.

This week, we’re going to be highlighting a couple of panels that cover various aspects of geek culture. Now, we all know that geek culture is a HUGE area covering specific domains of geekdom (such as comics, gaming, TV, and so on), so we have loads of panels covering geek stuff generally, but this list of panel highlights is for all you culture vultures out there. Get excited!

JC Lau
“Rock On!”

E3 Press Conferences Show (Some) Diversity in Gaming (Sort Of)

It’s E3 week! The Electronic Entertainment Expo–or E3 for short–is one of the biggest events on the gaming calendar, with developers and publishers showing their latest and greatest upcoming releases. As a huge gaming nerd, I’ve been following it pretty closely, so I’m going to share my thoughts with you.

Obviously there’s a lot of gaming content, and I’m not going have time to go into all of the games that were announced. That said, there have been a couple of common threads:

  • As games move more to a “games as a service” (rather than single release games), a lot of game titles are trying to reflect that they’ll be around for all posterity, leading to such title names as Halo Unlimited, Doom Eternal, Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, and Super Meat Boy Forever. Because if anything survives the impending apocalypse, it’ll be video games.
  • So many games are coming to Nintendo Switch! Super Smash Bros., Fortnite Battle Royale, Super Mario Party, Overcooked 2, and Fallout Shelter were announced on that platform, for example, and some of those are playable right now. If there’s one thing to take away from E3 so far, it’s to go buy a Switch. I’m surprised at how many non-Nintendo games got announced as being ported over, but the future of gaming is there for when you want to play on the go.
  • While a lot of the big titles involved shooting things (aliens, zombies, other combatants) in the face, I thought that the offerings from smaller, indie studios offered a bigger range of types of gameplay, such as Ori and the Will of the Wisps, We Happy Few, and Unravel Two. I have to say that I am super excited about Unravel Two; it’s so wholesome that it basically brought me to tears when I watched it at the EA conference.

More generally, there has been recent moves to improve diversity and representation in games and the games industry, and I was also looking out for ways that that was demonstrated at E3. While I felt like there was increased representation in the games that were shown, the overwhelming majority of presenters at the conferences were still white men.

So, I rewatched all the press conferences and tracked some data. Here’s a breakdown of the major press conferences, by demographic:

Note: for the purposes of gathering this data, I included Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Elijah Wood in the Ubisoft presentation, and did not include the two translators for the Nintendo treehouse presentation (both were men).

Of the 77 presenters, there were a total of zero women of color. Everyone also presented as able-bodied.

What this tells me is that–where the presenters are ostensibly representative of a particular game’s leadership–the leaders of the largest game publishers, gaming consoles, and game titles are still overwhelming white and male. Of course, for each title there are only a very limited number of presenters that have to represent the studio, but those are commonly the studio or project leaders. I also don’t believe that any presenter or company was doing this intentionally or maliciously. But (to quote a recent speaker at a disability and gaming bootcamp), if you do not intentionally, deliberately, proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude. I think that’s what happened here. Despite its recent moves for diversity and inclusion, the people who determine the future and direction in which the industry moves are still homogenous. 

Having said that, the games themselves seemed to show a openness to including players from underrepresented groups, with much clearer steps towards diversity and inclusion. I’m still trying to stick to my resolution to play games that do not have a grizzled white male protagonist (which makes me relieved that I can pick the gender of my character for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed game), and the offerings announced gave me some pretty decent options for the rest of 2018 and beyond.

For female representation, I felt that there were several games that stepped up to the (very low) bar of having a female protagonist. For example, Gears of War 5’s main character is female, and the Tomb Raider franchise continues having a female playable character. Battlefield V recently stirred up a small controversy for merely putting a woman on the cover of a game about World War II. (Spoiler alert: there were numerous women who participated in the war.) Wolfenstein Youngblood offered us not one, but two, female protagonists.

I was excited enough when it was announced that in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey that you could finally pick the gender of your assassin and romance anyone in the game, but then The Last of Us 2 one-upped that for even greater LGBT representation:

That said, all of the female characters mentioned here (except for Kassandra in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) are white women. Apart from games with character creation (such as Fallout 76, Beyond Good and Evil 2, and Anthem), representation for women of color was maddeningly scarce. I mean, there were more attempts at putting a female skin on previously male characters, such as Super Smash Bros offering a female version of pikachu and Cuphead having a playable female drinking vessel(?), than there were actual playable characters that were actually women of color.

So, I can appreciate that the games industry is trying to be more inclusive and there are going to be baby steps–a LOT of them. But even though this handful of games I’ve mentioned here are trying to broaden representation, the real test of what counts as progress for me will be how these games evolve their communities to make them more accommodating and inclusive. Making people of color and women feel represented will likely get new players into fanbases, but the gaming communities and how they are included will be what makes them stay. We’ll have to see how that plays out, but I want to hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction. I want us to live in a world where people can play what they love without judgement. We deserve as much.

JC Lau
“Rock On!”

On Loving Mozart in the Jungle and Finding Relatable Characters

If I’m recommending a TV show—or any piece of media for that matter—nine times out of ten I’m talking about a story that’s distinctly women-centric. Stories about women and other underrepresented groups are so incredibly overshadowed in the mainstream that it feels wrong to spend my time and energy celebrating anything else.

However, our media landscape being what it is, I sometimes find myself drawn to books, movies, and shows that aren’t as overtly feminist as I would like. In these cases, I like to think about why, despite its less-than-ideal representation overall, a story still resonates with me. It’s this process of (hopefully legitimate) rationalization that I’ve been going through for the past few years with Mozart in the Jungle.

Teal Christensen
“Rock On!”

In Which G. Willow Wilson Talks About Identity, and I Try Not to Fangirl Too Much

Let me get the obvious out of the way first: I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work. Her storytelling finesse, and experiences as being at the intersection of several identities speaks to me. I recently saw her in conversation with KUOW’s Jamala Henderson as part of Humanities Washington’s speaker series, talking about identity, the comics industry, and of course, Ms. Marvel. Part of the flyer for the event introduced Willow (the G is silent) thusly: G. Willow Wilson lies at the epicenter of multiple fault lines of American identity.

JC Lau
“Rock On!”

A Wrinkle in Time and the Dangers of Homogeneity

Written by Guest Contributor Regina Barber DeGraaff

With all the excitement surrounding the film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, I wanted to discuss the ideas of diversity that the book explores and how the ideas of what is “different” and “normal” has affected my life as an academic in science.

Not long ago, I was an PhD astrophysicist who had never read A Wrinkle in Time. Madeline L’Engle’s book was beloved by many of my academic colleagues due to the physics references; however, literature that everyone else read in childhood was always a touchy subject for me. I remember being a sophomore in college when several fellow physics majors said to me “You haven’t read The Lord of the Rings? You haven’t even read The Hobbit?!” That summer I spent the entire break reading the Tolkien series in the Shire-esque landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Being a female, Mexican/Chinese American, first-generation college student in physics, I was already wary about my appearance and “class,” so I did anything to belong.

I did not grow up in a house with books for children or adults. My mother was always nervous about her English due to growing up in Taiwan and never wanted to read English books. When I would visit my father during the summer, he tried to encourage my sister and I to read, but he was self conscious about his own reading skills. I remember the crippling dread when teachers would ask me to read out loud. This is probably one of the many reasons I moved towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

GeekGirlCon
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GeekGirlCon ’16 Panel Recap: Finding Your Place in the Wizarding World – Race & Identity in Harry Potter

I am my most geeky when I’m thinking about Harry Potter; this is an objective truth about me. And so, when I saw that there was going to be a panel entirely about Harry Potter and critical approaches to considering it, I planned my entire con weekend around attending it.

The panel was called Finding Your Place in the Wizarding World: Race & Identity in Harry Potter. The fours panelists were Robyn Jordan, who you may know as co-host of the podcast #WizardTeam; Sabrina Avila; Isabela Oliveirla; and Olivia Hernández.

Robyn began the conversation by proposing that the blood status metaphor—one of the key themes in Harry Potter—is not quite as overt as we all may like to think. While the allusion JK Rowling draws to race in our world via blood status in the Wizarding World is obvious to many PoC readers, it’s not necessarily clear to everyone. This affects how race is discussed throughout the fandom and how readers, especially those of marginalized identities, are able (and allowed) to engage with the story.  

Teal Christensen
“Rock On!”

GeekGirlCon ’15 Panel Recap: Next Gen Geek Girls

What were you doing when you were twelve? For many of us, we might have been pursuing our geeky interests, but the speakers at the Next Gen Geek Girls panel made me (and several other people in the audience) feel completely inadequate!

 

Introduced by Whitney Winn, the Next Gen Geek Girls at the panel were two twelve-year-olds, Maddie Messer and Rowan Trilling-Hansen. Both of them had deep-seated, wonderfully geeky interests: Rowan loves comics and Maddie –who I had the pleasure of interviewing for the GeekGirlCon blog last year—plays games on her phone.

 

Both of them made waves in 2015 when they addressed gender disparities in the representation of women in comics and games. Rowan wrote letter to DC for more women in comics and merchandise, and was featured on the Today Show. She said that she had loved comics for her whole life. However, her issue with the representation of female characters began when she got into the DC Chibi collection. Rowan showed the audience the packaging for the Chibis, which lists the ones that are available. Of the twelve characters, only two were women. “I just think it would be really nice if they would add more female characters to the set,” she explained to the panel. “When I was looking at the pamphlet I kept thinking something wasn’t right.”

JC Lau
“Rock On!”

#WeWantWidow! Do you?

Written by GeekGirlCon Copywriter JC Lau

 

Over the weekend in downtown Seattle, you may have seen cosplayers dressed as Black Widow by the International Fountain, or you might have noticed your social media feeds were flooded with pictures of Black Widow. You might have seen that the hashtag #WeWantWidow was trending.

That’s because there was a multi-city flash mob to generate buzz and awareness of the lack of Black Widow on Avengers merchandising, as well as to show support for Black Widow to star in her own movie. Starting in Sydney, Australia at 12:00 pm local time, the “Widow Wave” spread across to Canada and the United States. In cities from Tampa to Ottawa, and from New York City to San Diego, hundreds of cosplayers dressed as Black Widow descended on the streets, while even more online supporters showed their support by changing their profile images to ones of Black Widow, and reposting images or tweeting using the hashtag #WeWantWidow.

JC Lau
“Rock On!”

“Why don’t the characters in my apps look like me?” An interview with Maddie Messer

Written and interviewed by GeekGirlCon copywriter JC Lau

 

Maddie Messer is not your ordinary 12-year-old girl. In March this year, she published an op-ed in the Washington Post after she noticed a disparity between male and female characters in endless runner games on her iPhone.

Although Maddie says that she loves these games, she discovered that there were oftentimes male characters, but not female ones. Or, where there were female characters, they had to be unlocked, while the default character was male. This was problematic. However, there are few statistics about the representation of gender in this genre, so, she set out to prove it.

JC Lau
“Rock On!”

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