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Media and Mental Illness

Brian Sztukowski

            I recently read a blog post from the Huffington Post by a Ms. Natasha Tracy (1). Her post centered around a claim that portrayals of people with neurodiverse conditions in the media tends to focus on overly polarized characteristics which, she claims, have the effect of attributing a sort of “superpower” to the characters with these conditions. She makes note of several characters from popular television in series which I am not familiar with: “Black Box” and “Perception”.

            Here, I'd like to defend media portrayals of people with neurodiverse conditions in two ways. Firstly, the fact that these portrayals exist does not isolate individual characters with neurodiverse conditions in a way that reduces them to their condition. Secondly, stereotypes are all too common in television because it exists within a regressive cycle of character formulation that has its roots in commonly held biases (an art imitates life argument). It is not only neurodiverse individuals that suffer from popularized depiction in stereotype form, rather it is every group, so this is a problem that needs to be corrected more broadly or one that could benefit from education which seeks to explain the divorce between reality and the fictional realm of television.

            Firstly, I want to raise an objection to Tracy's claim by suggesting that the reason that these characters are portrayed in such a way that emphasizes their conditions is due to the circumstances of the dramatic series of events that occur throughout shows. Television shows are dramatized, therefore the events that occur would presumably be more dramatic than those that would occur in everyday life. No one wants to watch a show about everyday life, except perhaps a reality show, but such portrayals would presumably present a more accurate depiction of what life with a neurodiverse condition would actually resemble, as opposed to a fictionalized account of say a special agent as in the television series, “Homeland” (2). In this series, I am told, the main character is portrayed as having bipolar disorder. It shows considerable strength in this character, someone with a condition such as bipolar, to ascend the ranks of law enforcement to a position sufficiently high up to have such considerable executive authority as to be the protagonist in a popular television series.

            This would seem to suggest that a reasonable sample of individuals with neurodiverse conditions exist within popular television and media distributions. I would give merit then to a depiction that focuses not on the character as someone with bipolar, but rather someone who has achieved success despite her condition. This, in addition to other portrayals, could arguably be a boon to those who are fighting to strengthen awareness surrounding neurodiverse conditions merely by starting the conversation about the potential obstacles normal people with neurodiverse conditions face, rather than portraying successful neurodiverse people as exceptions to the norm.

            Secondly, I want to point out that marginalized groups are always portrayed in ways that do not do them justice as human beings. Let's take Ms. Tracy's argument at face value, that in fact, people with neurodiverse conditions are portrayed categorically as stereotypical “geniuses” or “deviants”. I would argue that this goes to show that there is certainly progress to be made in the field of advocating for neurodiverse conditions. This mirrors and tracks the portrayal of similarly historically marginalized groups throughout popular media over the years. Take the portrayal of any other minority group in society either in contemporary or historical contexts and you have the same problem. The problem is a cyclical one, stereotypes are portrayed and reinforced through acceptance of those stereotypes. I fail to see, though, how this complaint can do anything to correct this problem, as it merely points out discrepancies between popular media portrayals and the reality these projections affect. If the problem is that these portrayals exist, there is little to be done about it by complaining. Media is a form of expression, expression is protected by the first amendment. This is a commonly misguided interpretation of a “harm” argument for censorship, but art is and should be protected regardless of its contents, see any number of arguments for free speech starting with John Stuart Mill.

            Furthermore, I'd point out that many unrealistic portrayals are made in television and film which leave viewers the task of separating reality from fiction. Rather than put this onus on the production companies who engage in artistic expression (be it in a popular consumer format or not) rather than education for public benefit, this should be the responsibility of advocates and concerned citizens.

 In the same line of argument: no one suspects superheroes or outrageously cavalier cops are behaving as people do in real life. Tv's Jack Bauer and Don Draper may not have any special characteristics but their characters are exaggerated in order to garner a popular audience. They act irrationally for our viewing pleasure. Even reality television capitalizes on exaggerated characters to present a fictionalized portrayal of a lifestyle, rather than real life. 

            Fortunately, media outlets have the right to portray characters as popular media consumers demand. Consumers demand characters, who are by definition, exaggerated depictions of life. Take any famous character from any fictional work: they are based on exaggerated characteristics. No one wants to follow 'realistic' characters because they are boring. Unfortunately, this tracks common perception of people with neurodiverse conditions. They are perceived as being something that breaks norms. Rather than berate these depictions, I think people that are interested in advocating for those with neurodiverse conditions should harness the power positive depictions have.

            Finally, I'd like to suggest that in order to ensure that people know the difference between depictions that mirror reality and depictions that are fanciful exaggerations, education surrounding neurodiverse conditions, or in antiquated terms, mental illness, should be a priority. There are many facets of policy and public life that could be improved by advocating for more funding and support for people who identify as having a neurodiverse condition. I believe this is the way to affect the most positive change, rather than lodging complaints that center around the distribution of television shows which are merely stylized depictions of characters who are detached from reality.



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