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.

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Teal Christensen
“Rock On!”

Teal Christensen

Teal is a recently-graduated English literature student with more unfinalized future plans than favorite songs from Hamilton. Her main hobbies are reading books, thinking about books, and talking about books.

2 responses to “Why are Women with Mental Illnesses Portrayed So Inaccurately on TV?”

  1. Cherylynne says:

    Excellent point. Thanks for calling this our

  2. […] Why are Women with Mental Illnesses Portrayed So Inaccurately on TV? by Kate Harveston […]

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