Despite Portrayal of Mentally Ill Women on TV, We Aren’t Anybody’s Damsels in Distress

Posted on April 20th, 2013

In 2011, Showtime introduced the series “Homelandstaring Claire Danes in the role of a CIA officer who is investigating a domestic terrorist suspect. Her character, Carrie Mathison, has bipolar disorder. Here is a leading woman in a powerful role, able to hunt down bad guys across multiple continents. Potential spoiler alert: Because of her illness, she is aware of who the terrorists are, even when no one else can see it. In “Homeland,” we see how productive, hyper-vigilant and intense a person can be when she is running on hypomania. We see how distorted and risk-prone her actions can become when her hypomania ramps upward into mania. And we see how women with mental or emotional differences are treated differently than men.

Heather Havrilesky wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine, “TV’s New Wave of Women,” that got a lot of bloggers writing. Havrilesky remarked on the current spate of TV heroines and their mental illnesses and high level of neuroses. Besides Carrie Mathison of “Homeland,” there is Mindy Lahiri of “The Mindy Project,” an ob-gyn obsessed with aging and beauty and afraid she will never find a husband. Her fears are so great that she imagines a Barbie doll telling her that if she doesn’t get it together, no one will ever love her. There is “Nurse Jackie,” in which a highly competent nurse with a brilliant bedside manner can only seem to function when she is stoned into a state of calm on opiates she either steals from the hospital or coerces others into giving to her. There is Detective Sarah Linden of “The Killing,” who is obsessive and dogged in a way that makes her a good investigator but a bad mother. (And we know how TV audiences like to see powerful women being bad mothers.) There’s a slew of comedic TV series with leading women who are portrayed as having high level neuroses, as well – “Parks and Rec,” “Community,” and “30 Rock.” And one controversial 2012 HBO series, “Girls,” written by and starring Lena Dunham, portrays young, white, privileged New York 20-something women with every level of neuroses, as well as a severe case of OCD (an autobiographical storyline around Dunham’s own experience).

Damsels in Distress; Men as Heroes

In 2010, TNT’s “Saving Grace” was canceled. It was a crime drama starring Holly Hunter as an alcoholic, highly sexual, risk-seeking cop – an excellent cop. There have been other crime dramas to pop up since “Saving Grace” with female leads just as flawed, with demons nearly as ferocious, but without a theme as obvious to the plight of women in TV and our culture; “Saving Grace” implied a force outside of Grace was the only hope left to her. Certainly no show about leading men and their demons would ever suggest the same. Men are seen as their own saviors and everyone else’s heroes.

As others have written, Don Draper of AMC’s “Mad Men” makes narcissism look advantageous. He gets the client and lands the deal every time. We see his broken childhood and his lack of nurturing during his infancy and early childhood and we want him to be loved. We are sympathetic to his character. But the women we see on TV who are struggling with madness or neuroses are irritating in their bad choices, and that is intentional. Their emotional reactions are overwrought and to the degree that we relate, we are repulsed. We pull away. We want them to get it together, or we believe they will never be loved.

Confronting Gender-Bias in Media

But those responses are based on gender-bias, and if we are women who struggle with mental illness or neuroses ourselves, we should all the more closely examine them. Ignore the statistics for a moment, because statistics tell you nothing about your individual life. People do get well. They do learn to manage the challenges their minds and emotions present for them, and as a result, become calmer, more consistent personalities. (This author can attest to it.) The tides of mood become just another expected event, like the changing of the moon or the ocean, and we learn to plan for it in advance. Changes in mood or emotion no longer feel like a sudden problem that is happening to us, and as a result, we feel calmer when it does, less stressed. We begin to identify our states of mind and to the degree that we are doing so, we feel more in control – no longer at the mercy of our states of mind. We begin to say, “I am in ____ state of mind. I’d like to be in ____ state.” And it happens; we change just by observing and identifying. To the degree that we learn how to manage our mental and emotional health challenges, we become our own heroines.

It Is Fiction

The representations we see in media have an enormous impact on us whether we realize it or not. Men are portrayed in ways that show them as embittered, cold, aloof, wild, brazen, or broken, but as ultimately successful. The wildly popular Netflix series “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey portrays a narcissistic, manipulative, morally corrupt politician who will stop at nothing to attain more power. But we like him. It’s Kevin Spacey after all. And despite his tremendous defects of character, he gets what he wants. As Havrilesky rightly claimed, with heroines in television, you take away the mental illness or the neuroses and you remove the very personality traits that make them successful. When they go into the hospital or into treatment, they are no longer portrayed as being good at what they do. Why does TV stop there? No one is at their most productive immediately after a hospitalization, but in the real world, being well and on treatment is what makes us ultimately better. And the characterizations of ill-but-successful men who always win are harmful by comparison. It is fiction.

That is what is most important for women who watch television to remember: we are consuming that fiction. A statistic that does matter: Women own only 6 percent of commercial broadcast television stations in the U.S., and only 6 percent of all full-power commercial broadcast radio. Women represent only one in four of the communications jobs filled between 1990 and 2005. This means that what you are seeing when you are watching television was written, created, produced and distributed predominantly by men, even when it pertains to the lives of women. Always ask yourself whether the characters feel real to you and whether you would desire to be portrayed in the same light. In the age of mental illness awareness, destigmatization, equality, and getting better should be our real world drivers, if not our fictional storylines. We aren’t anybody’s damsels in distress.

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