Savants and Serial Killers: Mental Illness's Place in Pop Culture


[Content warning: eating disorders, ableism, violence]

          I remember when Emma Pillsbury washed her grapes. Each one individually, scrubbed until the green skin shone, or rather flaked off altogether. I remember, because I too was the kind of girl to care about unknown pathogens that lurked on produce peels. Though never one to announce it, I too, was the kind of person who, when caught, would give as my answer for my actions the long-named disorder I had only recently learned described me. Obsessive. Compulsive. When Emma revealed to future husband and all-round song and dance man, Will Schuster, on Gleethat she had OCD, I felt understood. For a little while. Then, honestly, a bit angry, and a bit sad. While I too, harbored the most well-known symptoms of OCD (repetitive handwashing, checking behaviors, wide-eyed rigidity and a penchant for tailored clothing?) I knew that these were all I would see on TV, and it wasn’t really me. Emma’s brain didn’t play her own personal horror movie, rehashing scene after scene of violence against friends and family, of individual responsibility for mass destruction, on an endless loop. Those things weren’t cute, and they don’t make for good TV, especially when the character in question is young, female, and pretty. Give her a disorder that makes her neat, with little lunchtime quirks, and forget the rest.

          The writers of Glee, while probably well-intentioned, ended up falling into the trap that so much media does regarding its portrayal of mental illness. It focuses on the most recognizable aspects of any disorder, for better or worse, and hammers home stereotypes that in the process, inform generations of opinion about mental illnesses and the people they affect. Whole character archetypes have been built from this method--the Idiot Savant, the Psycho Killer, the Mad Genius, the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. According to University of Melbourne lecturer Finica Hopgood, “These stock characters invite fear, laughter, pity, sometimes sympathy – but empathy is rarely felt. They are presented as spectacle for our entertainment or titillation, but they are not often relatable or accessible.” They are often side characters, whose illness is used as a quick way to explain away unconventional behavior. When they do take center stage, it is not often in a positive way (see: The Psycho Killer).  Such flattened portrayals of mental illness distance the audience enough from the realities of mental illness that they can forget, or otherwise ignore, that these disorders are an aspect of daily life for millions of people. Some of whom they probably know offscreen.

          Though explicit mention of particular disorders à la Glee might be becoming more popular, mental illness has been depicted in popular media for decades. There is a particularly long history of pinning character instability, unpredictability, or general unlikeability on an ambiguous “mental illness,” never disclosed save for a bevy of symptoms lifted from a game of DSM roulette. If a character commits a crime, acts irresponsibly, or behaves in any way outside of social norms, they’re “crazy.” Crime investigation shows (Criminal Minds, just look at the title!) are especially notorious for this, with perpetrators often being revealed as paranoid, hallucinating, or otherwise unhinged. Critically, these characters are the ones we never get to know in detail; more often, they are used as plot devices to further the development of neurotypical characters down the line. This reinforces the idea that the mentally ill exist on the fringes of society, and thus, are fundamentally unable to integrate into the wider world in any positive way.



Character tropes aren’t the only way to dissect the media’s treatment of mental illness. It is also important to take stock of who is mentally ill onscreen.

          Studies have been conducted on this topic for decades, and the results are striking. Women and characters of color are more likely to be written as mentally ill (though, notably, women of color are rarely portrayed as such), and this characterization often shows up in a negative way. According to researcher George Gerbner, a mentally ill female character has a 71% chance of being portrayed as violent, compared with just 24% of other female characters on primetime TV. This relationship also goes the other way--for every 10 “normal” female victims of violence on TV, there are 25 who are mentally ill. These instances ratchet up even further for trans characters, who are often depicted at the extreme poles of “Psycho Killer” (see the trans villain in The Silence of the Lambs who kills and skins cis women) or “Helpless Victim” (often, it should be noted, to further the development of a cis character). These characters are frequently portrayed as burdensome, broken, unstable, uncaring, vindictive, volatile, weak, weepy--the list goes on. Even more frightening, white male characters are rarely assigned these isolating traits, and in fact, are likely to, if given a mental illness, be granted some sort of superpower along with it. See Russell Crowe’s brilliant mathematician schizophrenic John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive crime solver in Monk. Writer S.E. Smith takes this further, arguing that white men’s mental illness can coincide with their likeability, as is the case with Dexter, “the humanized serial killer.” Of other mentally ill men, Smith says:

“Others may be creepy and scary, but it’s treated as specific to their characters, not intrinsic to all people like them. This contrasts markedly with the depiction of mental illness in other groups, whom we are supposed to find frightening, alienating, and scary both because of their illness and because of who they are.”

          Not even the most reclusive writer exists in a vacuum, so it is no secret that popular media reflects cultural biases. In fact, in the same article, Smith asserts that “there is a long history of pathologizing resistance to oppression that plays a key role in the depictions of mental illness in popular culture.” Women, gender nonconforming folks, and POC who defy social norms onscreen are much more likely to be called crazy, whereas white men may be lauded for their maverick spirit, or especially now, embody that awards show darling: The Antihero.

          Women occupy a particularly precarious position when it comes to mental illness in pop culture, because, when their conditions are not labeled negatively, they are quite often romanticized. Writer Elfy Scott calls this archetype “The Fucked Up Girl,” whose mental illness is intertwined with individuality, creativity, and above all, sex appeal. Scott cites the ethereal anorexic Cassie in British teen drama Skins and Angelina Jolie’s ambiguously sociopathic Lisa in Girl, Interrupted as examples. Both characters are always stunningly beautiful (the slightly mussed “crazy hair” only enhances the effect) and even seem to delight in their conditions at some points (see Cassie gleefully explaining her methods for avoiding eating in a scene that involves lots of hacked pieces of sausage and a cutesy ketchup art project.) Further, both encapsulate The Fucked Up Girl with their “uncaring, wild, and free personalities...all of which is super attractive.” Neither are allowed to just be sick, and most importantly, at the risk of losing the main source of their allure, neither are allowed to get better.

          The social impact of all of this is, understandably, immense. Gerbner, the researcher mentioned earlier, has been studying the effects of media portrayal on public perceptions of mental illness since 1967. He has found that 10 percent of primetime programs involve mental illness, and 2 percent of the major characters (4 percent in late evening) are identified as mentally ill. Forty percent of all primetime "normal" characters are violent, but 73 percent of the mentally ill characters are violent. In addition, almost twice as many of the mentally ill characters on TV are victims of violence. Gerbner has also concluded that vague character “instability” is often the most common marker for mental illness onscreen, which has profound social consequences. “If you cannot predict how people might behave, you cannot be expected to act considerately and rationally toward them,” he says. In short, Gerbner believes that the media, more than any other force, sets the standards for behavior in society, as well as the consequences for divergence. The mentally ill, according to Gerbner, are “a stigmatized group that serves as a lightning rod for [viewers'] pent-up insecurities and, at the same time, demonstrates the moral and physical price to be paid for deviance." When shown in a negative light, then, we become both the cause of and the unfortunate byproduct of a great societal sickness, and there is little we can do to counteract it.



I should mention here that I firmly believe mediocre representation is better than no representation at all.

          Let us at least attempt to recognize a group of people who have historically been so maligned, and let us try to do so in a nuanced, empathetic way. That said, I remain wary of the recent trend of “mental illness media,” specifically that aimed at teenage girls, that attempts to “stop stigma” and “raise awareness” about these important issues. I am speaking particularly about the Netflix projects 13 Reasons Why and To The Bone, both of which became available on the streaming platform this year. Neither, in my opinion, addresses these issues in a meaningful way. Why? I, a mentally ill person and an avid, eager consumer of popular media, could not engage with them. At all. I watched the trailer for To The Bone by accident, as a result of Facebook autoplay, and was immediately thrust back into the eating disordered headspace I have spent years emerging from. I watched Lily Collins’ gaunt, emaciated frame (which she lost weight for! As an anorexia survivor herself!), watched her count calories (with correct values given! In numbers!), and thought, “I’m a failure.” Because I was never that sick. Because, even when every other thought running through my head was about food or exercise, when my doctor sat me down and said if I continued I could die, when I spent months drinking bottle after bottle of Ensure to renourish my depleted body, I never looked like that. Because I was able to recover at home, with little disruption to my daily routine, I didn’t take it far enough. And because of all of this, upon viewing the trailer, my brain told me I wished I had.

          Needless to say, I haven’t watched To The Bone. Nor 13 Reasons Why. Both, to me, are prime examples of the dangers of depicting mental illness onscreen. Both, because of the inherently visual aspects of the issues they address (eating disorders and suicide respectively), are nearly impossible to depict without being triggering to survivors. One can choose not to engage with the full works, as I did, but even promotional material veers into dicey territory, depending upon how much it shows, and that in itself can be enough, for some people, to be harmful. Criticism of 13 Reasons Why has noted that the suicide scene is hard to watch for the neurotypical viewer, let alone someone who is a suicide attempt survivor or is otherwise touched by it. Ditto To The Bone. This is not to say that all media should shy away from depicting difficult material, but it is important to recognize when such scenes are truly necessary, or when they are gratuitous, or at worst, glamorized. Regarding To The Bone, writer and eating disorder activist Melissa Fabello sums it up best:

“Eating disorder movies are made to titillate the general public, ostensibly to rouse them to action but really to incite pity and fear, bringing on catharsis. To the Bone is ‘quirky’ cool with a heavy dose of sarcasm, and the portrayal of anorexia will likely feel authentic to some people’s experience. But we’re not here to be gawked at, to be inspiration porn. And while I appreciate [that] this movie aims to wake people up to the devastating reality of the most extreme eating disorders, I’m more worried about how it could hurt those of us who live with those stories in our bodies.”

          In other words, mental illness media is rarely made with the points of view of the mentally ill in mind. If we can’t even engage with it without serious consequences, how are we to lobby for more truthful, less harmful representation?

          All of that said, this age of “mental illness media” is far from hopeless. I can think of two TV shows in particular that are doing a stellar job with regard to characters’ mental health struggles: FXX’s You’re The Worst and Showtime’s Shameless. The main character on You’re the Worst, Gretchen, is clinically depressed and has a major depressive episode halfway through Season 2. And then, because depression doesn’t just go away the minute you can muster the energy to get up off the couch, she begins going to therapy in Season 3. Critically, when explaining her condition to her boyfriend, Jimmy, Gretchen emphasizes that depression is something she’s been dealing with for years, that she often can handle well enough to live life on her terms, but that sometimes pulls her under. “The only thing I need from you is to not make a big deal of it and be OK with how I am and the fact that you can’t fix me,” she tells him. To which I shout, hooray! Gretchen is not the only one on the show managing her mental illness. Jimmy’s best friend, Edgar, is an Iraq veteran with PTSD. The episode entitled “Twenty Two” follows Edgar through a particularly hard day (in the previous episode, which was told from Gretchen and Jimmy’s point of view, we will have seen him smiling throughout the whole thing.) Once the camera shifts, however, Edgar’s experience comes to light in one of the most moving pieces of television I’ve seen. Again, because mental illness isn’t over in 22 minutes, we see Edgar navigate the mental health system, with all of its bureaucracies and hypocrisies, over the course of the rest of the season. And the best part is, jokes abound throughout, because at its core, You’re the Worst is a comedy. A comedy that deals with mental illness, and yes, unflinchingly depicts those of us who have it, but as multidimensional people who can feel unbearably sad, but can also laugh. A lot.

          Shameless is another example of well-written, well-developed, just plain good TV, especially when it comes to mental illness. Of the six children in the Gallagher family, one, Ian, develops bipolar disorder midway through his adolescence. In an arc that spans several seasons, we see it emerge, and then, most importantly, see the full growth of Ian’s character as he deals with denial, internalized stigma, medication changes, job discrimination, his illnesses’ effects on personal relationships, and finally, its impact on his individual identity. The show is “shameless” in its portrayal, by which I mean it depicts mental illness as it really is. Hard as hell, but ultimately, nothing to be ashamed of. Shameless also deals with OCD and agoraphobia through the character of Sheila, and with addiction through the father-son duo of Frank and Lip, all of whom go through periods of recovery and relapse throughout the seven series run, but critically, are not defined solely by their struggle. Shameless depicts mental illness honestly, but also with humor and heart. Fundamentally, Shameless is a show about a family, about a city (which happens to be my home city of Chicago), about friendship, about love and loss and everything in between. Several characters are mentally ill, but they are also real people with diverse motivations, goals, and identities beyond being the token crazy person. In other words, they’re like me.

          So, when it comes to mental illness in the media, this is what I ask:

Let us be seen. Let us be heard. Let us in the writers’ room or in the director’s chair or in front of the camera. Let us tell our stories as they are. Let us have jobs and friends and pets and parents and partners and, above all, let us have each other. Let us be people trying to make it in the world. Let us have pride. Let us have power. Let us have agency. Let us be the way we are, every day. Here. Ready to watch some TV.




Stefanie Kaufman