Films dealing with disabilities 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 disabilities to the masses. These portrayals help to shape the perceptions those within the human race have towards those who are differently-abled. Mental illness is no different. Mental disabilities or deficiencies come 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 these conditions.
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 the mentally ill, the topic of such illnesses 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 living with mental disabilities, it seems the portrayal of such disorders 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 insane, there is something sexually appealing about Lisa.
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 suffers from severe schizophrenia, descended into madness, and 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 able to move past his mental disability and win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Though A Beautiful Mind does a better job of dealing with the issue of disability, as Nash actively attempts to work past his delusions while remaining off medication, both films offer perceptions of mental illness that provide frightening glimpses into 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 deemed not normal.
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 within society living with mental illnesses. 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 even subhuman. Until Hollywood starts portraying characters with mental illnesses as people first, 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.