Disordered Cinema: The Distortion of Mental Health

Paper by Loren Davis.

Highly stigmatized, little-understood, and great assumptions hover over the words “mental disorders” in cinema. More times than not, characters struggle with a mental issue in a narrative. The depiction of mental health in films often functions as an exhibit of judgement, where the narrative utilizes the effects of a mental disorder to spiral into chaotic events. This captures the audience in an enticing way, exaggerating the character’s mental state in order to intensify the film’s narrative, amusing the audience. Focusing on the falsification of mental disorders in cinema, films such as ​Joker ​(​2019)​,​ ​Nightcrawler​ (2014), and ​Short Term 12​ (2013) emphasize the stigma, violence, and class issues regarding mental health, further enhancing the negative sense, and ultimately, strengthening a stereotypical ideology.

The embellishment of a mental illness produces an alluring effect, as mental illness is depicted as a mysterious feature within a character. The representation of these characters are often exaggerated, emphasizing the worst in people struggling with mental health issues. The messages expressed through films expose the most extreme cases, which incite a fear factor of an unknown mental state. Taking advantage of these unpredictable behaviors, several films include mental illnesses to instill fear, as they “continue to be staples of mystery and horror films” (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009, p. 363). To an audience who may not be familiar with mental illness or only has a surface level of understanding, films have an incredible duty to portray accurate information. Similar to race, class, and gender roles, the entertainment industry holds an extremely significant part in education, whether the film intends to or not. Movies such as ​Joker (2019) exhibit this well, as Arthur is displayed in an unstable state throughout the entirety of the film. His actions are spontaneous and mostly violent, which teach the audience that people with mental illness are considered dangerous (​Cooper, B., et. al., ​2019). The film ​Short Term 12 (2013) depicts an intense case of mental health, as children are housed in a facility that looks after them, instilling emotional care and protection over their health and wellbeing (Astrachan, et. al, 2013). These depictions are fabricated in order to create a compelling story, as the audience is captured by the impulsive nature of characters suffering with mental diseases.

Film criticism many times focuses on the obvious, where racism, class, and gender hold the spotlight. Struggles are seen throughout many aspects of life, even if it is not physically seen. Differences among us are prevalent in physical, emotional, and psychological ways. It is commonly understood that mental illnesses exist, yet the majority of audiences are unaware of the extent of these diseases. Due to this, it is permissive to misrepresent mental illnesses in films. However, this action instills unwanted knowledge within the audience. The lack of understanding regarding this manner does great damage to a film if depicted in an adverse fashion. As it is a heavy, yet relevant topic, cinema tends to focus on mental illness to make a more interesting storyline. Whether or not the illness is stated formally in the film, it is the audience’s job to assume the case. The ability for viewers to assume this knowledge is largely due to the entertainment industry teaching people that unstable and “deranged” minds are at fault for the lunacy in the character’s actions. ​Joker​ (2019) and ​Nightcrawler​ (2014) exhibit these factors well, as both Arthur and Louis take on a strange personality with little ability to socialize or to simply function in society. Without the ability to hold down a job, these characters suffer in their own manners and are then intensely affected by the disapproving society surrounding them. People are constantly being told that there is something “off” or “wrong” with them, and it is quickly assumed that the person is deranged. More importantly, it is not the fact that there is an assumption made about the mentally ill, but that there is an understanding that having a disorder simply creates a general negative feeling around the case. In addition to this, mental health is used in ways to promote other perspectives of what is wrong in the world. As in ​Nightcrawler (2014), “mental illness is (re)politicized in ways that emphasize not only deteriorating conditions of labor but also the flawed entrepreneurial attributes lauded by neolibera mantras of ‘success’” (Brayton, 2016, p. 79). These ideologies shape society’s view on the ability for people struggling with mental illnesses to successfully function in today’s society. In several films, it is common to portray people actively dealing with mental illness to be incapable of properly performing in society. In reality, “people living with mental illnesses are completely ordinary” (Kondo, 2008, p. 252). It is only when film is turning the direction away from violence and toward normalcy that it will “help facilitate a more sympathetic understanding of mental illness in the public at large” (Kondo, 2008, p. 252). Similar, yet not equating it to racism, classism, or sexism, mental illness is a little understood component in life that will hopefully evolve to become seen as a normal and accepting condition to live with.

The case of negativity is found in nearly every film, as someone is being oppressed in some manner. Mental health is displayed in a way where sufferers become uneasy about talking about it to others in fear of being judged. Similar to physical disabilities, there are several stereotypes surrounding these diseases, which play a major factor in the concern about speaking up about it. However, in contrast to physical disorders, mental illness is largely hidden, or has the ability to be concealed by the public eye. In ​Short Term 12​ (2013), several characters display this type of demeanor, as personal issues and trauma has essentially prohibited them from speaking up about disordered thoughts or behaviors. The issue arises when the depiction of these illnesses are exaggerated in films. It is not to say that these conditions are never severe to replicate behaviors in film. It is possible for many people to resemble characters in movies. However, the point of adding a character with a mental illness is mostly intended to add a component of intensity and emotion. Louis in ​Nightcrawler​ holds a similar situation to Arthur in​ Joker​ (2019), as the two struggle with day to day situations in terms of work and sense of purpose in life. Louis is denied a position at a company, as the employer expresses his distrust in him, telling Louis that he is simply “not fit” (​Nightcrawler,​ 2014). Displacement and loss of self worth plays a common theme within characters struggling with mental health. Arthur in ​Joker​ (2019) is unfailingly reminded of his differences and abnormal state compared to the rest of society. Putting up with a lifetime of being told he is inadequate, Arthur breaks down, physically and emotionally, as the criticism amplified and ballooned into combustion. Films tend to use mental illness and “symptoms of schizophrenia and psychopathy as a vernacular of critiquing conditions of late capitalism…[which portrays] nightmares of neoliberalism rehearsed through different tropes of psychoses and mental disorders” (Brayton, 2016, p. 79). In this way, mental health is depicted as a sense of wrongness in society, teaching people the adverse reality of how several people truly deal with these disorders. With this in mind, it tends to be a theme for films to include violence in the plot when the character is mentally unstable. The ideologies are present in several audiences, as film strengthens the fabricated reality of living with a mental illness. The ability for mental health to be abused into mere entertainment for the audience teaches the public that people struggling with these illnesses are unstable and therefore, dangerous.

On top of negative perspectives, it is commonly permissible for the industry to depict violence in characters with mental disorders. Seeing that many people are still unsure of the realities of the mentally ill, movies exacerbate the situation and instills fabricated knowledge that is then assumed for the entire population. Anyone in their lives with a mental disorder is perceived as unstable and violent due to films portraying them in this manner. It is unfortunate to realize that “Americans themselves identify mass media as a source from which they get most of their knowledge of mental illness…[and that] mentally ill persons presented in mass media are typically social and occupational failures” (Brayton, 2016, p. 70). This is seen in all three movies, ​Joker ​(2019), ​Short Term 12​ (2013), and ​Nightcrawler​ (2014). Most depictions include rash behavior and unstable actions, as a popular stereotype for a character fitting this role is known as the “homicidal maniac” (Brayton, 2016, p.70). With the understanding of Lou’s combination of violence and success in Nightcrawler, “mental illness in general and antisocial personality disorders in particular are able to flourish in the film” (Brayton, 2016, p. 77). Focusing on the unpredictable and unstable, mental disorders are able to shine throughout storylines, as they sometimes depict order in a chaotic world. Many times, the audience is able to watch films through the eyes of the narrator, and in the cases such as in ​Short Term 12​ (2013), Joker​ (2019), and ​Nightcrawler​ (2014), the view is through the perspective of someone with a mental disorder. This spins the understanding for the audience, as people perceive the character’s reality through the “unstable” eyes of disordered thinking. Arthur in ​Joker​ (2019) is characterized by “anomic violence and destructiveness” and accompanied by powerful soundtracks and cinematography that announces danger and lunacy (Camp & Webster, 2010, p.146). Components of film play a significant role in portraying the madness within characters and chaotic reality they live in. ​Joker​ (2019) uses powerful techniques such as camera angles and music to depict the disorganization in Arthur’s life. The classical music throughout the film instills a sense of calmness, yet massive disturbance in society.

On the other hand, mental illness is most definitely apparent in similar manners that films portray. It is as common for people to struggle with the severity of the disease in the film as it is to have a lesser condition. Despite this, the ability to place judgement around mental illness as a whole is simply inaccurate, as each person has an entirely different experience with it. Violence is not always a behavioral factor of someone with a mental disorder, yet films have strong attempts to maintain this standard. It is not to say that there are not people with dangerous behaviors. Many times, people struggling with mental illness are at fault of violent acts, such as mass shootings, rape, homocides, and various other crimes. The ability to carry out violence is as possible in people whether or not they have existing mental health issues. This is to say that all cases are not equivalent, as it is neither right nor wrong to assume violence in anyone.

Class issues remain to be an important factor in several characters struggling with mental illness. Wealthier communities tend to be portrayed in the manner that life is essentially pleasurable and due to the existing money families hold, happiness is a given. However, in many films, it is proven to be the opposite. ​Short Term 12​ (2013) is based around a foster care program where the children are separated from their previous household. In a low income community, it is difficult to offer the support and care children with mental health issues need. The poverty throughout the film provides a sense of understanding for the audience, as the class system serves as an explanation for the characters’ health. However, class cannot be regarded to be the assumption over mental health, as anyone can be affected, despite the amount of money people make. ​Nightcrawler​ (2014) is a film that speaks to this, as Lou is a character that combines issues of mental illness and poverty, giving to the idea that capitalism is at fault. In addition to Nightcrawler​ (2014), ​Joker​ (2019) is a film that highlights the effects of capitalism in America as well. The wealthy are being overly tormented by the distraught in society. Arthur is a figure of this change and in this manner, he uses his mentally disordered thoughts in order to create a state of order and control. Mentally ill characters lack the ability to control their lives and it is often blamed on the capitalist society in America. Poverty, as it is detached from the determinant cause of mental illness, is used to intensify the anger and disapproval of the government. Mental health is therefore used as supporting evidence to exhibit their suffering and hardship.

However, the reality of mental disorders in society today are more common than not. With the negative depiction of mental illness within the media, “public confusion and the fostering of false beliefs…can lead to stigma, described as a combination of ignorance, prejudices, and discrimination and a serious problem for those experiencing mental ill-health” (Goodwin & Tajjudin, 2016, p. 386). Mental illness has always been a fearful aspect of one’s life, concerned over exposing their hardships to anyone else. With the understanding that the general population gains its mental health education through an untrustworthy medium, the level of stigma surrounding mental disorders is exponentially increasing. With the help of the media and especially films, several “dehumanizing stereotypes referring to mental health problems were used to mock and isolate individuals with a mental illness [and] young children observing negative stereotypes and the dehumanization of those with mental illness and these depictions are reinforced throughout adolescence and by the popular media” (Perciful & Meyer, 2016, p. 493). Learning that mental disorders are a negative part of life and a laughable condition, any child struggling with one will be fearful of speaking up about it. Films especially have influenced society in a way that represents mental health as a negative aspect, emphasizing and expanding the overall stigmas.

Education regarding this topic is severely deficient due to the fact that films are often regarded as truth in terms of mental health disorders. The acts on the screen become the fabricated facts in the audience’s head. The film industry is aware that they are a key player in education, despite the truth of a film. The misrepresentation of mental health is a small case within the larger issue regarding the overall distortion of the truth. However, with modern society emphasizing self help, it is slowly stepping into the spotlight of understanding. Like other long misapprehensions, mental illness is a component of life that will not fade.

Works Cited

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