Films dealing with disability walk a fine line. Since society, as a whole, knows little about individual disabilities and their differences, it is often left to film, and other social mediums, to portray disability to the masses. These portrayals help to shape the perceptions those within the human race have towards those who are disabled.
Mental illness is no different. Psychosocial disability comes in a variety of forms with a plethora of symptoms. However, Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness tends to follow a narrow, stereotypical path when offering a glimpse into the lives of those living with mental illness.
Though the number of disability related films is growing, there are still limited numbers of films that have discussed mental illness. Though society is progressing in its understanding of psychosocial disability, the topic of those disabilities still remains taboo within certain social circles.
In order to raise awareness of such issues, a rash of blockbuster films from the mid to late 90s and into the early 21st century were produced, which deal with the topic of mental illness. Two such films, Girl Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind, are based on the lives of actual people who have lived and dealt with mental illness. However, even when Hollywood has taken the stories of those who have psychosocial disabilities, it seems the portrayal of such characters remains stereotypical, if not, somewhat prejudicial.
Vera Chouinard discusses the issues with stereotypical portrayals of mental illness in Girl Interrupted, in her article, “Placing the ‘mad woman’: troubling cultural representations of being a woman with mental illness in Girl Interrupted.” In the article, Chouinard discusses how both disability and gender play roles in depicting women within the film as within the ‘exotic’ disability stereotype.
The exotic disabled woman aka the mad woman is one who is menacing, evil, monstrous and extremely sexualized. A perfect example of the exotic, mentally ill, mad woman is Lisa, portrayed by Angelina Jolie. Almost like an animal in a cage, Lisa is extremely menacing, yet she exudes the kind of sexuality that makes her the exotic, dangerous girl. Even if you think she is extremely “mad”, there is something sexually appealing about her.
Chouinard’s article also highlights the problem with the characterizations found within A Beautiful Mind (though she does not actually address this film). Through her discussion of disability stereotypes dealing with mental illness, she explores the notion of sentimentality. The sentimental disabled person is one who has overcome overwhelming odds and adversity, in order to present a hero-like figure to the audience.
Deemed “America’s favorite figure of disability” (Chouinard, 793), the flawed protagonist of A Beautiful Mind, John Nash (Russell Crowe), perfectly embodies this persona. Nash, who was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, descended into a make-believe world he is certain is real that encapsulates his life. Despite the many struggles he faces, which involves finding ways to deal with imaginary people, and the strain it places upon his family, Nash is presented as ‘being able to move past’ his psychosocial diagnosis in order to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Though A Beautiful Mind tries to paint a better job of dealing with the issue of disability, as the script has Nash actively attempting to work past his delusions while remaining off medication, both films offer perceptions of mental illness that provide frightening glimpses into the lives of extremely flawed characters.
These are characters those within society will fear. Nobody wants to be friends with the girl hoarding chicken under her bed, the scarred, burn victim who fears everything, or the man who abandons his baby son in the bathtub because his imaginary friend is watching the baby. In the movies, mental illness is often portrayed as frightening and those with it are considered beyond humanity.
The problem with the messages these films deliver is that society uses them as the basis for all mental illness and these characters as representations of those who are psychosocially disabled. It dictates how those with mental illnesses are looked upon and as a result, how they are treated. With such negative portrayals of mental illness in blockbuster films, it is easy to see why those with mental illness are still so misunderstood. Many are treated as though they are diseased or subhuman.
Until Hollywood starts portraying characters with mental illnesses as people, with their disability merely one aspect of their complex character, we will continue to see the negative affect films, such as the two discussed in this article, have within this society.
Chouinard, Vera. “Placing the ‘mad woman’: troubling cultural representations of being a woman with mental illness in Girl Interrupted.” Social & Cultural Geography. Nov 2009, Vol. 10 Issue 7, pp. 791-804, 14p.