“As long as the culture cultivates inequities as norms of society, the mentally ill, along with other potential norm-violators, will be stigmatized by culture.”
What comes to mind when we think about mental illness? Violence? Scary psychiatric wards? Murder? The truth is that most of us, including those who have faced a disorder of our own or has had a loved one diagnosed, will use the shorthand examples provided by the media. This is not unlike the news anchor reports on a violent act being quick to assume or claim that the person who did it was suffering from mental instability, whatever that means, or when a woman says she was raped by some well-regarded man, or men, and it’s not soon before her sanity is questioned.
While we pretend to be above it all, most of us will experience some sort of disorder at some point in our lives. Some are passing and temporary, while others are of a chronic nature. According the United States’ National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.” So while we can pretend this is something removed from our reality, it’s actually a natural aspect of our humanity we need to accept instead of fearing it.
We know we’re supposed to take stuff on TV or movies with a grain of salt, and yet we accidentally tend to see them as gospel. I don’t think anyone’s at fault for that; it’s just the way our brains work. However, if this is inevitable, then perhaps writers, show runners, and directors should focus on showing the human side of mental illness instead of simply using it as a plot device.
How many characters with some sort of disorder do you know? Now count which ones are portrayed as villains. Then consider whether they’re protagonists or simply walking by the main premise. Finally, what’s the part of their storyline you remember the most?
A paper written for the Annenberg School for Communication of University of Pennsylvania titled Stigma: Social Functions of the Portrayal of Mental Illness in the Mass Media quotes George Gerbner on several points where the media gets mental illness wrong or generalizes it to the point where, regardless of the diagnosis, all these characters tend to act the same way.
One of these points is, “If you cannot predict how people might behave, you cannot be expected to act considerately and rationally toward them.” This paper is from the eighties, and yet most of the films and shows out there continue to portray people with psychiatric disorders as having three major traits: unpredictability, being dangerous, and evil. But if we look at the quote, there’s something else lurking beneath all this demonizing finger-pointing: fear. The general public’s utter terror of mental patients comes from both the perception that’s been instilled by media, as well as their worry that it could happen to them. Mental illness is not just bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; it’s body dysmorphia, OCD, anxiety, and the one we all run from: depression.
In the middle of all this discussion is the TV show Legion. Adapted from the Marvel comic book form to the Sci-Fi fantasy by Noah Hawley –the guy behind the television adaptation of Fargo–, the story revolves around David Haller, a mutant and mental patient. Before you start rolling your eyes, I’ll start listing why this adventure tale, instead of the usual weepy drama, actually gets it right.
First of all, I won’t say this is the best show on mental illness ever, because that would be generalizing. But what works in this case is that we know David’s story is his own. Nobody else can experience what’s been happening to him since childhood, because he’s a mutant, but also because each person reacts differently to their symptoms and situations.
We see a quick montage of how the main character remembers or thinks about himself and his life: he begins as a happy baby; then in his adolescence begins to undergo changes he cannot understand, that lead him to be suicidal and eventually to the institution. The story is never lineal, and most of the time you can’t trust the character’s narration, because even he doesn’t trust himself. The voices in his head are a constant whisper, and there’s a monstrous figure that lurks around his psyche, not unlike the darkness of losing control of reality.
The protagonist’s life is a drab routine of pill popping and “How does that make you feel?” until Sydney arrives at the clinic. While she appears to be “sane,” she won’t let anyone touch her, not even David, who becomes her romantic interest. It all seems like it will have a happy ending. I mean, isn’t love supposed to fix everything? Unless all those movies about hysterical teen girls, who believe they can get better sans treatment when falling in love, were wrong.
Well, I won’t spoil the episode for you, but I will say this. This isn’t that kind of story. Love does not conquer all, but it makes the hard times easier to deal with. David’s stress is so electric and apparent it’s almost tactile. You see his anxiety and start to feel it too. He wants to get better. He wants to have control over his mind. He wants to be normal. However, it’s not about him finding the “cure” but understanding and embracing who he is, including his mental condition. It’s only by accepting that yes, he is seeing and hearing things, instead of trying to hide it, that he can actually get help and resume his life. It’s through finding people who actually see the David behind the disorder that he can begin to deal with it all.
The Legion storyline, from the comics, functions within the same universe as the X-Men series. Yet this is not a caricature of a serious condition. If anything, it functions as a way of talking about mental illness without the connotations of our own prejudices towards it. Because, just like non-mutants look at mutants with fear and reservations, people who have not encountered psychiatric issues often look at those battling them in the same regards.