Portrayal of Mental Health in Entertainment
If we are going to talk about mental health in movies, we need to address the billion-dollar elephant in the room: Joker. Since Oct., I have come to really dislike the film for its bad script. It does not hold up upon repeat viewings, and its commentary on class warfare and social decay doesn’t work. The film’s commentary on mental illness, however, falls incredibly hard on its face.
Throughout the various iterations of the iconic character, the Joker’s mental illness has never been front and center. He was just a guy who made loads of mistakes, and it took one bad day for him to just stop caring about everything and become the villain. However, this film has a different approach, which it spells out during the talk show sequence.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve.”
I include the last part in there because that’s the kicker. It’s basically saying you must treat people with mental illness nicely or they’ll go “crazy” and kill you, and it’s your fault when that happens. It is very reminiscent of the media narrative that is perpetrated about mass shootings since Columbine, minus the “it’s your fault” part.
Sure, some violent killers may have some mental illness. But it’s not like every mentally ill person who gets bullied or isolated will come back and commit some act of violence. Unfortunately, the case is often the opposite — mentally ill people are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else and be victims of violence. Joker showcases this, but it gets overshadowed by the ambiguous finale and over-reliance on the Joker’s mental health for his spree of violence.
To some of the film’s credit, it does talk about Reagan-era budget cuts for mental health facilities and social workers. But it somehow makes it worse that the film is trying to have it both ways. It tries to be a sensitive and nuanced story about someone with mental illness but also conflates mental illness with violence.
It reminds me of 13 Reasons Why to a certain degree, albeit Joker is much better than that garbage show. Joker feels like something that’s trying to be a “conversation starter” without much nuance within the story to discuss it. But now that we are on the subject of 13 Reasons Why, let’s talk about that.
The initial story is already wrong for so many reasons, from its portrayal of PTSD to the unnecessarily graphic suicide scene to how it makes Hannah a martyr with her suicide. But the second season goes to a whole new level. There is an entire subplot dedicated to a depressed character who is abused and bullied, begins to recover, gets assaulted in another tastelessly graphic scene, and then decides to shoot up the school. All of that is just wrong, and it’s super obvious why.
Part of the stigma with mental health in entertainment is how sensationalized it is, particularly the narrative of someone going “crazy” or “mad”. 13 Reasons Why is the worst example I can think of, but there are other examples of it in great movies I love, such as Black Swan and The Shining. I’ll give those films way more of a pass because it’s part of a larger story not focused on mental health, and is portrayed much better than something like 13 Reasons Why.
But the sensationalist treatment of mental illness is important to consider. No matter how hard we try, we are influenced by the culture around us. If our entertainment and media bog us down with negative stigmas of mental health, subtly or overtly, we are influenced by that. Personally speaking, I have looked down on my own mental health issues because of the negative perception that has been developed over the years.
I’ll name drop other famous movies that are part of this: Fatal Attraction, Girl, Interrupted, Psycho, and Shutter Island. The list goes on and on. I could keep talking about movies and shows that do it wrong. But, I’d rather talk about the ones that do it right, starting with Taxi Driver.
Taxi Driver was a huge source of inspiration for Joker. Travis Bickle is a lonely Vietnam War veteran with clear mental health issues frustrated with the social decay around him. His attempts to connect with people are in vain, and he doesn’t have a support system at all. He has a toxic view of the world that is separate from his mental health, and it is an extreme reflection of the social status quo and the system that breeds the toxic masculinity he embraces. In many ways, that toxic view of the world is what facilitates his declining mental health. Because of his self-radicalization, his view of himself as misunderstood is amplified to an unhealthy degree.
The violence at the end is not a byproduct of his mental health either, and Travis is not depicted as crazy or mad. Rather, he has taken his already radical views to the logical extreme. As he deteriorates further and becomes consumed in his desire to be recognized by the two women he obsesses over, he uses violence as the resort for recognition. First he tries to assassinate the senator his love interest works for, but when that fails, he decides to play a “hero” and kill the men who abuse the child prostitute he befriends.
There is a lot that can be unpacked from this about mental health, particularly the way we don’t have the patience for those we deem outcasts. Joker has a few of these elements, but it’s a very shallow exploration of these concepts. We Need To Talk About Kevin has a similar nuanced exploration of twisted viewpoints, how they can be enabled by people who are trying to support them, and how that has an impact on the character’s mental health.
Bojack Horseman and Mr. Robot are two TV shows that, while incredibly stylized, manage to have very substantive and sensitive stories about recovery while going out of their way to accurately depict the mental health issues the characters have. The shows also never use the characters’ mental health as flaws, which many movies and shows do. The flaws the characters have are separate from their mental illnesses, and often make their mental health issues worse because they influence the way the characters feel about themselves.
Horror movies are usually bad with mental health, but Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar are both incredible movies that depict mental health really well, especially in relation to grief and trauma. Hereditary also explores the hereditary nature of mental illness, and Midsommar has a powerful depiction of the importance of good support systems. It helps that the metaphorical aspects of the story work to enhance the overall exploration of the themes and concepts.
Generally, the treatment of mental health in entertainment is improving a lot. But it is still irritating when films like Joker don’t treat the subject matter with the respect and nuance it deserves, even if the intent is good. Luckily, the film’s intent is not lost on a lot of people, so that’s a good sign. But we still deserve better, and I hope the entertainment industry takes more ideas from the movies and shows that do it well rather than the ones that don’t.