Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting Close: Fatal Attraction and the Construction of Mental Illness

Characters in films, television and other mediums of popular culture have a normative value. They are standard-bearers against whom others who share certain characteristics with these particular characters are or may be judged. Characteristics may include race/ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, class, sexual orientation and/or political affiliation. They become standard-bearers because of their behaviour, conduct and/or personality traits.

When people are constructed as heroes, they are often seen as persons largely worth emulating, despite their flaws (to the extent that they exist). Conversely, through the creation of villains, producers of popular culture have the ability to attach considerable stigma(s) to specific classes of people. This can then influence others to view such people through that filter and justify certain violent or otherwise harsh responses as normatively proper and just. To the extent that they may have any redeeming qualities they are largely overshadowed by their flaws.

Throughout the past century, a number of groups have been constructed as the dangerous and violent "other" through certain characters - indigenous people, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Jews communists, labour unions and of course Muslims and/or Arabs in recent decades have also been caricatured.[1] Their "barbaric" nature and conduct is then used to justify the violence meted out against them in film and television. This is a way of priming audiences to view the character's counterparts in the real world as equally malevolent and thus deserving of harsh treatment or punishment.

Adding to the classes of people mentioned above are those who have have mental illnesses or disorders and the presumed violent tendencies that embody them. In a recent interview, American film and television actor Glenn Close spoke about her regrets respecting the way her character in Fatal Attraction, Alex Forest, was portrayed. In particular, she reflected on how the film contributed to the stigma that people with mental illnesses were violent. Such portrayals cast "the stigma that [most] people with mental illness are violent. And that is not the truth."[2]  

Close argues that producers of popular culture must be responsible in the way people with mental illnesses are portrayed. In essence, characters ought to be contextualized, even if their actions are not justifiable. She posits: "I think as public figures, as entertainers, that we have a moral responsibility to only portray characters that if they have disruptive behavior, or behavior that is negative, that is has to be responsibly explained." Close states, "I really do not believe that we can any more just say, 'Let's make our bad person somebody mentally ill. That's really easy.'"

What is often striking is the lack of responsibility that producers of popular culture assume in the work they create. Close (at least now) defies this standard in a positive way and recognizes that the way characters are portrayed and dehumanized and/or decontextualized may have serious ramifications for how people are perceived and treated in the real world.[3]     

1. See Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).

2. That films can produce or perpetuate such stigmas is hardly a revelation. Scholars have examined this phenomenon as well for some years. See eg LEA Walker et al, "The Myth of Mental Illness in the Movies and Its Impact on Forensic Psychology" in MB Gregerson (ed), The Cinematic Mirror for Psychology and Life Coaching (New York: Springer, 2010) at 171-192; Otto F Wahl & J Yonatan Lefkowits, "Impact of a Television Film on Attitudes Toward Mental Illness" (1989) 17(4) Am J Community Psychol 521, online: 

3. One film which presented a more nuanced view of mental illness was A Beautiful Mind (ABM). In ABM Nash is not seen as being perfect by any means but he is not depicted in the ways that others with mental illness are portrayed - violent. Still this is not to say there aren't other criticisms to be laid against it. Anthony David, a professor of cognitive neuropsychiatry, articulates that while ABM is engaging and compassionate, it nevertheless reinforces "most of the enduring myths about severe mental illness, not least the link between genius and madness, the healing properties of the love of a good woman, and the brutality of some psychiatric treatments." Anthony David, "A Beautiful Mind" (2002) 324 Brit Med J 491, online: