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, ingÃ©nues. 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.