To what extent do the media represent people fully?
[written for my A-level Media Studies class]
Media representations of mental illness have developed positively in recent decades, whereas past generations presented the mentally ill as dangerous and less-than. More accurate portrayals and sympathetic understandings of various mental illnesses in media have helped reduce stigma in the public view surrounding the topic, but there is still inherent bias in media representations created by people who do not belong to any given demographic, including the mentally ill. Full representations of those with mental illnesses are still not provided through the media, and often lend themselves to negative perceptions of the mentally ill by the audiences consuming said representations.
Depictions of psychosis and psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, continue to show heavy stigma and prejudice even in an age of blossoming representation. This mirrors developments in psychiatric systems and public understanding of these disorders: stigma has been reduced in both fields but psychotic people are still viewed negatively and considered freakish, strange, or even violent. The common association of psychosis with various villains in media has perpetuated negative stigma towards psychotic people in the wider public due to their consumption of these vilified representations. Characters such as the Joker are extremely popular with audiences, and the association between his mental illness and his violent actions contributes to this negative view of those with psychosis and similar symptoms to him. The 2019 eponymous film Joker explores the character’s backstory and directly addresses his struggle with mental illness, focusing on how his inability to receive treatment for his condition and how society has alienated him led to violence on his part. While this iteration of the Joker does treat his character with more sympathy than earlier versions, it still attributes his violent actions to his mental illness directly. This creates the implication that psychotic people who do not receive treatment are more prone to acting out violently and therefore are inherently dangerous. Subjects such as mental illness should always be treated with nuance in the media, and associating a villainous character with very real symptoms such as delusions and paranoia can perpetuate how audiences perceive these conditions in the real world.
Borderline personality disorder is also a frequently misunderstood and stigmatized illness, but where psychotic people are considered dangerous and violent, those with BPD are often represented as manipulative, uncaring, and aloof. The archetype of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ (MPDG) is a trope that is consistent in media representations of women who show symptoms of BPD, and one that perpetuates real-world stigma against people who suffer from this disorder. The characters of Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Clementine Kruczynski from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are often cited as popular instances of the MPDG, as well as directly expressing BPD symptoms. Impulsivity, unstable relationships and sense of self, and sudden changes in attitude towards loved ones are all symptoms of the disorder, and are all present in Ramona and Clementine.
A major trait of the MPDG trope is that she serves no purpose in the plot other than to improve the boring and unfulfilled life of the male protagonist, leading him to form a new worldview and then abandoning her when she is no longer needed. The core concept of Eternal Sunshine is that the protagonist, Joel, chooses to erase his memory of Clementine and take another attempt at their relationship knowing it did not and will not work out positively for either of them. He seeks out Clementine as his own manic pixie dream girl, hoping that she can give him some kind of positivity in life and basically wishing to exploit her personality for his own gain with no regard to how his presence affects her mental health and exacerbates her symptoms. The song ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Ruined a Whole Generation of Women’ by Negative XP directly cites “BPD and ecstasy, conceited with low self-esteem” as traits drawn from the character of Ramona Flowers that have ‘ruined’ women perceived as similar to her in the eyes of men. These characters and the public’s response to them exemplify how the association between the MPDG archetype and symptoms of borderline personality disorder has negatively affected the public’s view of women who show these symptoms, reducing them to their worst traits and even bringing down positive ones to extremely critical and judgemental levels.
The media has always and will continue to influence the public’s perception of certain demographics through representations of them. The concepts of hyperreality and Neil Postman’s “the medium is the metaphor” argue that media is unable to accurately and impartially present reality and the people within it, instead reducing them to superficial and exaggerated versions. By using mental illness as a vehicle for characterization and advancement of plot, forcing characters into archetypes based on symptoms and traits in line with certain illnesses, media show superficial and inaccurate representations of these demographics. As a result, the consumer accepts these insubstantial representations and incorporates them into their own perception of real-world people with the same traits.