Gorgeous, Sexy, “Crazy”: The Fetishization of On-Screen Mental Illness

filmschooledMental Illness10 Comments

Another day, another trailer. This time, for John Carpenter’s upcoming The Ward (2011).

Not only does it seem to bring nothing new to the standard horror movie fare, it employs a plot device which now joins the “sassy black friend,” “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” and “nagging prudish wife” on my ever-growing shit list of tropes that I wish would disappear from films forever: the sexy mentally ill girl.

Between this and Zach Snyder’s film Sucker Punch (2011), I can’t help but feel like a pattern is emerging. Take one part insane asylum, one part pitiless, evil doctors, three parts T&A, add the genre of your choice (horror or fantasy, in these examples), shake over Hollywood millions, and serve.

These films showcase mental illness both as the affliction of the untrustworthy (see the plea of “I’m not crazy!”) and as a vulnerability, which in turn is framed as an attractive trait. The women are objectified based on this trait. Moreover, I shouldn’t even call them women. Perhaps “girls” would be more apt, as their constant infantilization plays a huge role. The facilities presented in both films seem to house no one over the age of 20. Only young, sexy, ingénues. With pigtails. And lollipops.

There is, of course, a fine line. I do not wish to imply that women with mental illness cannot be or are implicitly not sexy. But there is a sharp distinction to be made between being sexual and being fetishized based on mental illness.

As I wrote this, I tried to recall other filmic representations of women with mental illness. Girl, Interrupted (1999) showcased a nuanced portrayal of mental illness, and managed to not reduce its female characters to tired sexual caricatures (imagine that!). But what of The Virgin Suicides (1999)? No, Sophia Coppola’s film does not sexualize the mental illness of the sisters, but I would argue that she does romanticize it. After all, depression is so much more palatable when its realities obscured by out-of-focus close-ups and a dreamy, de-saturated colour palate, isn’t it?

But Coppola’s film does not call into play physical vulnerability in the way that both Sucker Punch and The Ward do. These women are forcibly confined ““ in facilities, in cells, in straightjackets ““ against their will. Coupled with their mental illness ““ likely undefined, undiagnosed, easily dismissed as simply “crazy” ““ these women are represented as incredibly vulnerable.

And this is supposed to be sexy? Count me out.

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filmschooledGorgeous, Sexy, “Crazy”: The Fetishization of On-Screen Mental Illness

10 Comments on “Gorgeous, Sexy, “Crazy”: The Fetishization of On-Screen Mental Illness”

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  1. Avatar of BaseballChica03
    BaseballChica03

    In fairness to Sophia Coppola, Jeffrey Eugenides did a pretty substantial job of romanticizing mental illness in the original novel The Virgin Suicides. There was less depth to the movie than he brought out in the book (as there often is with film adaptations, given time limitations), but for the most part I remember it being relatively faithful at least as far as the big picture went. She was just working with her source material.

    1. Avatar of filmschooled
      filmschooled

      That’s a great point; it’s difficult to discuss a film text when it has an original source text. A lot of what I personally found ‘romanticizing’ about the film was visual – the costumes, the colour palate, the continuous use of out-of-focus close-ups – in other words, elements that are unique to the film text. I personally haven’t read Eugenides’ book, but very much want to now, if only to see whether these elements play a role.

      1. Avatar of [E] Slay Belle
        [E] Slay Belle

        I found the tone of the movie to be a pretty faithful adaptation of the tone in the book. I do recommend it as a read.

        I’m not sure that the sisters are mentally ill, exactly, except for the youngest one. It seemed to me that the family was just deeply dysfunctional, suffocating and controlling to the point where suicide seemed a reasonable way out of it. I know that’s not exactly a logical thought process, but teenagers don’t always view situations in the same way adults do, without mental illness coming into play.

  2. Avatar of MakerM
    MakerM

    I was just wondering, would anyone say the Maggie Gyllenhaal film Secretary plays into this at all? I mean, I definitely don’t consider being a sexual submissive to fall under the umbrella of mental illness, but the main character does have an issue with self-harm. And that apparently has ties to her sexual preferences? I don’t really know, but I’d like to get some opinions on it.

    1. Avatar of [E] Selena MacIntosh*
      [E] Selena MacIntosh*

      I really enjoyed Secretary, but I was bothered that it drew a parallel between self-harm and S&M. I’m not sure if that was to make a widespread audience who might not understand the latter more comfortable with the kinky, but it felt like a stereotype.

    2. Avatar of Professor S
      Professor S

      I loved the Secretary, and I ended up watching it not knowing at all what it was about. I think the director presented the issues in such a way that the audience could come up with their own ideas/thoughts, without pushing us in any one direction. That’s the kind of movies I like the best. We’re left wondering can Maggie’s character actually have a fulfilling relationship with her love interest? The movie makes a compelling argument.

  3. Avatar of Alice Nevada
    Alice Nevada

    These films play into the idea of the frail little innocent waifish girl who, once she has been brutalized and beaten down, suddenly realizes she has strength and uses her misfortune to grow that strength and fight back. I think this is a horrible representation of the strength of women. I do not mean to marginalize those who found their strength through pain or struggle, but these movies imply that women cannot become strong until they are victimized, and worse, that the strength they find after victimization is a sexually charged strength.

  4. Avatar of Amanda
    Amanda

    Not a movie, and a little more comedic, but I loved loved loved United States of Tara. I’m so sad that it was cancelled after just three seasons. It took a disorder that many don’t believe in and made it real. There was lots of sensitivity and Tara was a grown woman. Though, she’s never really confined in the series, you see how her disorder confines and sets free those with whom she shares her life.

    Not really in the mental illness trope, I also appreciate Nurse Jackie and the way her pill abuse is displayed.

    1. Avatar of filmschooled
      filmschooled

      I’ve only ever seen the pilot of United States of Tara, but I have heard wonderful things, particularly about this past season (sadly, its last). I’ll have to check out the rest!

  5. Avatar of scarletwine
    scarletwine

    Wow, that looks utterly horrifying on too many levels. As you pointed out, the focus on their bodies is really creepy. I know there has to be a certain type of physical danger present in horror films (a guy holding knife isn’t really scary unless he’s actually threatening to cut your body), but this takes the cake in terms of pretty blonde horror film victimization. The shot in the beginning of her bruised body in a bra was awful. Is it a part of the story that all the girls look very similar? And why does everyone have awesome sexy bedhead hair?

    Girl, Interrupted is a good comparison. I liked that Angelina’s character was very sexual in nature, but that her sensual power was linked to the persona she created. We learn eventually that the reality of her personality is far different.

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