I’m about halfway through catching up on a program, Homeland, that wrapped its first season some months ago. It could not be much better: a Federal agent (Claire Danes, as Carrie Mathison) tries to exorcise her guilt over the botched intelligence of 9/11 by preventing the next big instance of domestic terrorism from occurring. She becomes convinced that a former Iraq POW, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), now returned and trying to adjust to American life, is working on carrying out such an attack. Once convinced, Carrie is not the kind of person who’s likely to change her mind.
One of the best things about Homeland is Carrie herself: an intense workaholic who is both an asset and a liability at work. Early on, we see her struggling with a medical issue, then we learn that it’s a mental issue, next that it runs in the family. Throughout, this woman is persuasive. She has a knack for convincing her colleagues that the things she believes are really happening.
Hell, she convinces us.
But Carrie’s lows are dramatic. She cusses, rants. Has alcohol-fueled impulses, sleep disturbances, crying jags. Declares that I just can’t do this anymore (never mind this is her life, her passion, all she seems to want to do). Naturally she does these things. I’m not sure you can depict a mental patient in fiction without showing them.
That has never stopped anyone. What was Splendor In The Grass, Girl, Interrupted, or Basic Instinct, if not a walk on the supposedly exotic side of mental illness?
“You are a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy,” says a nurse to Susanna (the Girl of Girl, Interrupted). Asked if she likes playing games, the novelist-wacko of Basic Instinct replies, “I have a degree in psychology. It goes with the turf.”
“I haven’t any pride! I just want to die!” insists Deanie in Splendor In The Grass. A few years (years!) at a hospital that looks like a resort are all it takes to restore her pride … and send her home with a brand-new guy (a doctor!).
Is being a few aces short of a deck really a hot-chick affliction? Movies say yes; and that mental illness can be a helpful first step in meeting a guy (50 First Dates, Final Analysis, Fatal Attraction). Also, those it afflicts seem to be very good at whatever it is they do (A Beautiful Mind, The Hours, Black Swan).
Lies. All lies. Homeland knows this. Watching Carrie unravel is an unromantic, harrowing part of the story. It’s not the story itself, but it’s also not a quirk, not a “gift”, not in any way a personal advantage. Carrie’s illness is part of what happens to her — and to everyone in her life.
Which is why it all resonates with me. As those who have any personal acquaintance with mental illness know, being sick in this way is not exotic. It does not make the sufferer special. It is a family affair, and not a nice one: everyone is along for the ride. It deprives people of support, financial and social. It ends careers and relationships; it launches terrible habits. And yes, sometimes it kills people.
But we like watching pretty people in stories that end happily, so what we get onscreen is the attractive mental patient who meets the person (or the place, sometimes the thing) that will save her. Or him; more often, the mental patient is female.
Worse, we tend to get mental-patient-as-force-of-evil: a singular experience. In Hollywood, there is nothing scarier than a beautiful person who is just one pot and a rabbit away from wrecking your life.
On the other hand, what could be funnier than a girl with no life skills? Who bursts into song for no reason? Who does not know what “sexy” means?
I watched an episode of The New Girl (a big, if confusing, ratings hit) with my uncritical kid a few weeks ago, and that was actually the storyline. This (new? As in, on this planet?) girl had so little idea of how to get intimate with her new boyfriend that she asked her roommates (all male! none of them romantically involved with her! because that totally happens!) for some Sexy Tips.
The New York Times has called this program what it is: a throwback to an earlier time, when a pretty genie or a sexy witch needed the protection (and control) of at least one man. The show “seems quite old-school,” said the NYT, calling it the story of “an appealing, clueless heroine who bewitches male protectors.”
Bewitches: their word, not mine.
This implied witchcraft might be okay, if the heroine had any obvious talent or skill. Or some old-timey special powers. I just don’t see wearing glasses as evidence of talent, or random singing as a skill. But I don’t watch the show, so how would I know? That might be one gifted dingbat.
God bless the non-dingbats. The smart single women of TV may be flawed, but their flaws give them dimension. They may be the book-smart girl whose perfectionism is a problem, the anxious compulsive baker, the girl with no filter, the wily workaholic, the resentful workaholic, the polished workaholic, or Carrie, Homeland‘s workaholic-with-a-mood-disorder. But it’s okay, because these characters share DNA with the paranoid Federal agent, the OCD-afflicted workaholic, the rocket scientist, the bright guy with Asperger’s, the histrionic geek, the wildly successful narcissist, and the scientist who was always just a little bit off.
When it comes to fictional depictions of mental illness in media, Homeland is a real step forward. Crazy is not sexy, nor is it productive. And helpless isn’t cute. Real people, like me, have to deal with the former every day. More onscreen honesty about that kind of life makes living with it a little easier.