This summer I’ve been posting a series of interviews from people who contributed essays to the anthology Invisible. This anthology, edited by Jim C. Hines, explores the importance of diverse representation in genre fiction. In the essay, “‘Crazy’ about Fiction”. We asked Gabriel why she thinks it’s so common in fiction for female characters to be ‘driven crazy’ by rape or loss of a child, and what the representation of mental illness in fiction means for people who struggle with mental illness in reality.
On common tropes about the causes of mental illness in characters:
As a culture, we tend to want women to represent as mothers and sexual objects. I believe that’s why the two most common tropes to “drive women crazy” are those rape and the loss of a child. We don’t like to see women as soldiers, so PTSD from wartime tends not to be the event that breaks a woman down. There’s been a plethora of “strong female characters” in the media as a specific reaction against those roles, but sadly those characters tend to be so completely masculinized that they seem to just be there as a flag to wave about how someone can be BETTER in the media. Personally, I feel that most of Joss Whedon’s “strong” female characters fall into this trope, over-sexualized, always needing a male romantic partner, easily backed into an emotional corner and often killed to advance the story. Bleh.
Note I am speaking in generalizations when I say that “most” of the characters in the media fall into this dichotomy. Lots of characters who are strong and not neutered exist. Karrin Murphy from the Dresden Files is a GREAT example of a strong female character who is not masculinized to the point of being neutered – she’s described as “cute” but tough as hell, takes no shit from anyone, has a sexual/romantic life that is pretty much not with the protagonist, is emotional without being seen as weak, and definitely has agency of her own.
The other problem with the rape/child loss madness scenario is that male characters usually don’t suffer from these. It’s a shame, because men do get raped, and men do lose their children, but when that happens to them, they’re pretty much culturally pressured to keep it secret and get over it. We want as a culture to see men suffer PTSD from war and watching their buddies get killed, or not at all.
And that rounds out PTSD being the primary role of mental illness in media. People “go crazy” because an event in their lives. If they don’t get over it, they become a recluse like Mrs. Haversham or a mother who steals or kills children, or a mass murderer who thinks he’s still in Nam. When they stop being crazy, it’s usually because they “faced their fear” and stopped being afraid. This is so immensely frustrating to those of us who suffer from mental illnesses, including PTSD, because of course there’s no magic moment where you just find your rapist, spit on him, and magically your life is better. There are actual, physical changes in the brains of people with PTSD. Like bipolar or depression or OCD, it is a legitimate medical condition.
On why these tropes are harmful to real people:
I think a lot of the time, women who are suffering from mental illness, especially if it is from an external event like the death of a child or a miscarriage, have no portrayals which address their real feelings and struggle. Miscarriage is a secondary form of the death of a child, but one where only the woman is expected to show any grief, and which a lot of other characters will side-eye because after all, there was no child. These events are deeply traumatic, and the media shows us that women can either wallow in this until they become an insane recluse carrying around a doll and snatching other peoples’ babies, become grossly over-involved mothers who never let a child out of their sight because of the loss of an older child, blame one child for the death of the other… they’re expected to become terrible mothers because they lost a baby. It’s grotesque, because it both implies they were bad mothers for letting it happen, and warns them to get over it (at least externally where others can see) as quickly as possible so they don’t become the destroyers of other children.
Rape victims are usually portrayed curled into a ball in the corner, afraid to let any man touch them, jerky and alarmed at everything around them, barely able to function. If they do get over it, it’s all at once. You never see the stages of recovery that most survivors have to go through. They go from completely traumatized to fine, usually because some male character (usually an outraged romantic partner) kills or in some other way dismisses the rapist from her life. Sometimes the woman has to kill the rapist herself – or even worse, confront him and torture him, then tell him it’s “not worth it” to kill him and walk away.
This is a terrible trope for women to internalize. It implies that it’s a good idea to see their rapist again, in a situation where violence is a given, or to simply tell a man about it and let him deal with it. But this trope tells a woman that the rapist must be dealt with in order for her to make her magical recovery. And that as soon as he is dealt with, she will be fine. In a country where police are more likely to interrogate the victim than the rapist, and convictions are infrequent compared to reports, making the rapist part of the recovery process is a terrible idea most of the time. At least one male character (a romantic lead who can save her or love the trauma out of her or the rapist himself) is required for her recovery. That is some deeply harmful stuff to absorb. Everyone’s process is different, and again we see our media telling women how to quickly get over it – and how they are weak and crazy if they don’t.
And now I’ve spent all this time on what bugs me the most – the trope that trauma “causes” mental illness. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve been with in various recovery groups who will say “I don’t know why I feel this way, it isn’t as if I’ve been (fill in the blank.)” Sexual abuse and rape are a huge issue in this country, but most mental illness isn’t caused by an external event. An external event can trigger it, or just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but people with medical depression, bipolar, OCD and many other illnesses are simply ill. Like having diabetes or a heart condition, these illnesses can be controlled with medication, and can’t be cured completely. We stigmatize mental illness to such a degree that if nothing traumatic happened to you, and if you have to be on medication for your lifetime, you’re simply weak. You can look forward to murderous rampages and living in a house with cardboard taped over the windows, collecting cats!
On what a positive or realistic portrayal of mental illness would look like:
I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of mental illness, sadly. Monk is played for laughs a lot of the time. As Good As It Gets was also played for laughs, and the guy is a giant jackass apparently because of his condition (because he becomes nicer over the course of the movie when he starts taking his meds.) You don’t have to be a jerk just because you’re ill. In one of Orson Scott Card’s books, mental illness is actually inflicted on a whole population of a planet to keep them under control, and the ones who don’t “get over it” by the end are portrayed as too weak to understand that what has happened to them isn’t “the voice of god,” even when proof is shown to them. Even if there’s a good portrayal of how the illness works, it’s hardly ever treated respectfully.
I would really love to see a character just take their meds in the morning and get on with their life as a productive member of society, without having to “get over it” or make it disappear as part of a plot. The problem is that mental illness is seen as part of a plotline. Character don’t just have it, interfering with their lives but not paralyzing them. Usually when mental illness is brought into a story, it’s either as a plot device (character is raped and has to get over it, mentally ill character shows up to menace the protagonists, crazy mother, etc) for either one of the protagonists or as a temporary set piece character who is there as an object lesson and then rolled offstage.
What do you wish people understood about mental illness?
I wish people understood – and wrote for – the fact that mental illness is like any other illness. It needs treatment, and that treatment doesn’t need to be stigmatized. People who’ve undergone trauma aren’t weak if they can’t get over it right away. People with schizophrenia aren’t dangerous maniacs whose dog tells them to kill people. People with bipolar don’t have to ruin their children’s lives. People with OCD don’t have to become hoarders or wash their hands every five seconds. There are firemen and police officers who may have mental illness that isn’t caused by having to shoot someone or failing to save someone. Rape survivors can go on to have functional lives without shooting their rapist and without a magical man to save her with his love.
We may stigmatize the causes of other illness (“you have heart disease because you’re obese, why don’t you take care of yourself!”) but we don’t stigmatize the heart disease itself. We might tell that person to exercise more and eat less, but we don’t tell him that he’s weak for taking the meds that allow him to live and function, and we’re generally not afraid that the heart condition will turn him into a murderer. I wish we could see more of that regarding mental illness in fiction… but I suppose someone who is sick and high-functioning ends up needing to be some sort of inspirational exemplar if they’re going to appear at all.