(Ab)Normalcy and Mental Health in Film

Adam Woerlein 

Finding some kind of positive representation of mental illness in Hollywood film and culture poses a huge challenge. Most of the time, mental illness is used for a quick piece of entertainment on the newsstand. For instance, Hollywood often portrays mental illness in the form of young starlets (Lindsay Lohan) comes to mind, who cycles in and out of alcohol and other drug-related activity in an attempt to repair personal issues. Additionally, think of the common horror trope of the killer who escapes from an “insane asylum” and goes to a nearby town to murder impossibly sexy babysitters in order to satisfy his satanic bloodlust. These two examples display some dangerous subtext in regards to the way in which the whole Hollywood system tries to construct abnormalcy vis-a-vis mental health.

“I would like to argue that Hollywood is a cultural phenomenon that produces a normative status quo through various forms of media like film, magazines, television, books, as well as the spectacle of celebrity.”

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by Leila Panjvani

These mediums work together to create a cohesive message about what is understood as normal (what the audience should value), and what is abnormal: what the audience should not value.

While a movie may feature a person with mental illness, often times, these are not sincere portrayals of mental illness but a trope of mental illness. Take, for example, the character of the “insane killer” as seen in The Shining. In this classic film, the lead character slaughters his family as a result of suffering a mental breakdown brought on by alcoholism and extreme isolation. These tropes, whether in the imagined world of film or the ‘real’ world of reality television, all play into the idea that mental illness is something to be feared, mocked, or shamed.

“These stereotypes harm because they distort reality cumulatively over many years, ultimately causing the viewer to internalize negative images of mental illness.”

This makes it a challenge to tell the difference between what is real in ‘reality’ and what is sold as reality by Hollywood.

What is most dangerous is the fact that tropes are constructed side-by-side with a fallacious delusion of the ‘normal.’ I do not believe that a path to empowerment is possible if a person continues to believe that a ‘normal way of being’ and knowing exists. Let me explain: the very essence of ‘normal’ is rooted in ableism.

My intent is to break ableism out of its standard definition of ‘social prejudice against people with disabilities’ and standard application to all groups who do not follow any or all indicators of ‘normalcy.’ For many of you, questioning ‘normal’ could be a very new venture. I want to trouble our understanding of ‘normal’ and the assumption that the ‘normal’ is the same thing as natural.

Think about what it means to live a normal life: to exist and thrive every day; to go to a normal job; to have normal friends; to eat normal food; to enjoy normal sex with a normal person who has normal orgasms and then requests normal cuddling afterwards. Can you picture any universal examples that come into your thoughts when trying to imagine what anything in the previous instances would look like? Would this look the same for every person? If not, does ‘normal’ even exist?

Yet, despite this diversity of what we consider to be ‘normal,’ I have noticed that the illusion of the universality of ‘normal’ has been faithfully supplied by Hollywood as readily as candy on Halloween.

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“the illusions of the universality of ‘normal’ has been faithfully
supplied by Hollywood like candy on Halloween” by Leila Panjvani

Television has had a huge impact on me, especially between the ages of 10 to 14. Television’s non-stop flow of reruns pounded messages into my brain. During this period, I was especially vulnerable to indoctrination of the ‘normal.’ It was a time where I was becoming more exposed to social relationships, undergoing hormonal upheaval, developing sexual interests, and trying to come to terms with death: a dying grandmother and a child from across the street who was dying from leukemia. During this time, I retreated into television and the internet because it appeared to be a safe haven – a wealth of ‘knowledge’ teaching me how to navigate through the metaphorical woods of adolescence. I could spend nights in bed staring at simulated images of American life and absorbing the canned laughter of the damned. This is where the disconnect between my life, and the message that I was receiving, began.

On shows like ‘Saved By the Bell,’ I learned that normalcy, in relation to adolescence,  was about socializing, dating, sports, and shopping.

(As a sidenote, it’s interesting how shopping always gets tied into what the ‘normal’ experience for teenagers should be. The neoliberal system creates a competition and class insecurity at an early age, so that those who feel left out also have their self-esteem tied to conspicuous consumption.)

Most of the time, my own reality could not measure up to those unrealistic expectations.

Whenever I faced problems because of my disability, I believe that it was rarely the disability that is the issue. Rather, it is my perception of myself as a person who operated outside the margins of what I deemed to be normal. Like the characters I had seen and idealized, I looked to others to help fill a social role that would erase my disability and, I suppose, to legitimize me as a person. I did this because the media told me that my mental illness and hearing disability were at ‘fault’ for my lack of access to the dating scene – a fact that painfully reminded me of my failure to thrive. But by comparing myself to impossible standards of the media representation and then wallowing in self-pity by saying I could not reach them in reality, was I not just fulfilling my own prophecy and enabling a nasty pattern that would make my character unappealing to others who I sought to  befriend?

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One response to “(Ab)Normalcy and Mental Health in Film

  1. Pingback: The American Dream: Is it Worth Our Mental Health? | Journalists for Human Rights·

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