(photography by Andri Raine)
"Representation of mental illness as an actual illness rather than a personality flaw is great progress, but it is not enough."
13 Reasons Why, Jessica Jones, Homeland, and Girls: what do these recent television shows have in common? All of them portray mental illness as key components of their main characters' lives. And all of those main characters are white.
These four shows, among many others, have been received with a range of reactions from praise of their representation to doubts of their accuracy. However, there is no doubt that they have brought mental illness into pop culture, with 13 Reasons Why in particular garnering polarizing reviews and media frenzy. Thousands of fans have praised the show for bringing attention to subjects such as teen suicide, sexual assault, and self harm, even as thousands of detractors have pointed out that the episodes clearly depicting this acts verge on carelessness and even exploitation. Even with mixed reviews, 13 Reasons Why took off last year as a pop culture phenomenon that brought unseen issues into the spotlight, and it wasn't alone. Dozens of other shows have also ventured into this arena, with varying degrees of success and accuracy, and have rightfully been praised for bringing attention to a subject that has too often been demonized.
Representation of mental illness as an actual illness rather than a personality flaw is great progress, but it is not enough. Looking at the four shows listed at the beginning of this article, some similarities are apparent. There is an overwhelming whiteness in the way media presents mental illness, especially when that mental illness is presented sympathetically rather than vilified. The roles of the most complex, nuanced, mentally ill heroes are only going to white actors, and people of color are suffering for it.
When movies and television shows only show white people suffering from mental illness, it affects perception. These shows can do an amazing job of giving mentally ill people someone to relate to, as well as showing neurotypical people someone they can sympathize with, but all too often people of color are left out of the narrative. They are not given someone to relate to, and the ways mental illness can coincide with and be exacerbated by racism are not paid attention to.
For example, Netflix's movie To the Bone, about a young white woman with an eating disorder, was met with criticism because it was yet another movie about a privileged white girl who struggled with anorexia. Of course, mental illness does not discriminate based on class or race or privilege; the problem is that whenever anorexia is portrayed in media, it is almost always a thin white girl, even though that is only one small demographic of the people it affects in real life. This invalidates men and women of color's experiences with eating disorders not only to themselves, but to the people around them. And this is the case with most other mental illnesses as well.
Unfortunately, this lack of representation has consequences in real life, as people of color have to deal with the intersections of racism and mental health. This means dealing with white therapists who can be well-meaning but oblivious, or outright dismissive of their suffering. It can mean dealing with friends and family who do not take their mental illness seriously. And it means that, if a mentally ill person of color exhibits symptoms, they are much more likely to be regarded as “violent” or “uncontrollable” by the police.
However bleak this lack of representation may seem, there have been some really great examples, especially recently, of movies and television exploring mental health issues people of color face in nuanced ways. One of the most prestigious examples is the Academy Award winning Moonlight, which shows the main character Chiron’s history of abuse. Chiron is often targeted because of his sexuality, and is belittled, yelled at, and bullied by both his peers and his family, and the movie does not shy away from how this devastates him emotionally. Although the ending is ambiguous, the audience is able to see Chiron grow as a person, and make strides towards healing from past trauma and repairing relationships, which is an important indication of light at the end of the tunnel. Certain television shows have also explored this: Black-ish delves into the issue of postpartum depression with the character of Bow in a recent episode, a topic that is rarely covered in half-hour comedies at all, but was also explored through Carla’s character on Scrubs. While these two examples break the trend of television, women of color seem to show up more as therapists, such as on the shows Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You’re the Worst, than they do as people suffering from mental illness.
Although television and movies may often be fictional mediums, they affect our lives every day by altering and expanding our perspectives. Television, as frivolous as it may seem, can be a great tool for empathy. Writers and producers need to start including non-white characters with mental illness so that their experiences are visible and people of color finally get to experience some of that empathy.