The Romanticisation of Mental Illness in Cinema / by Rachel Carney

Cinema has long been criticised for its poor portrayal of mental health and illness. Films are rife with characters like Norman Bates, Hannibal Lector and Annie Wilkes. All of whom are violent with homicidal tendencies. There is no doubt that film portrayals of those with mental illnesses aren’t realistic. But in recent years romanticisation of mental illness is becoming more and more prevalent in the film industry.

I'm an eternal critic when it comes to film portrayal of mental illness. Sure, it's a source of entertainment so perhaps accuracy isn't the biggest concern, but couldn't we be getting a bit closer to the truth rather than glamorising a topic society needs a better education on?

When I first watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), I loved it. A depressed, shy teenager without any friends? Yep, that spoke to me. In terms of mental health portrayal, the film is reasonably accurate, but the idea that Charlie is liked because he is mysteriously quiet and aloof takes mental health disorders into the realm of being seen like a ‘quirk.’ Of course the idea of being a ‘wallflower’ is really celebrated in this film, but in reality, social anxiety or depression aren’t qualities that people are generally liked for, and looking back, the film leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

To take a really good look at fetishisation of mental illness let’s go back in time to the 90s. The Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides (1999) all experience depression, something the boys in their neighbourhood find mysterious and alluring. The hazy filters used over cuts of the boys watching the girls aren’t too far away from those found on many Instagram accounts today. So while the romanticisation of mental illness isn’t necessarily a new concern, it’s definitely a misrepresentation that makes mental illness look ‘sexy.’

Finally, we could hardly talk about romanticisation of mental illness without considering Girl, Interrupted (1999); a film that has been praised over the years for its realistic portrayal of mental illness. While its focus on a character who doesn’t look stereotypically ‘mentally ill’ is great for reducing stigma, and its graphic scenes of self injury aid the realities of dealing with borderline personality disorder, it can’t be ignored that the film glamorises mental illness.

Even though Girl, Interrupted steers clear of the trope of over-sexualising women with mental illnesses, it still portrays mental illness as something which adds to personality – a characteristic that makes a person more interesting, rather than an illness. Whilst this is arguably not as damaging as a character with a mental illness being portrayed as a villain, it’s still a worrying and stigmatising attitude towards mental health disorders.

Mental illness is not glamorous. Whether cinema should be portraying mental illness more accurately is a debate for another day. And maybe I’m a cynic who should be able to separate entertainment from reality, but for now Hollywood I’m waiting for some better representation.

This piece was written by A Film Club member and blogger, Rachel Carney. You can find out more about Rachel via their Twitter and blog!