Small Screen, Big Consequences

CW: discussion about mental health, references to suicide and eating disorders

It really is the golden age of TV. Whether you’re into Netflix, Hulu, Stan, Fetch or just good old-fashioned online streaming, everybody’s tuned into some guilty pleasure or another. The primary duty of any television series is to entertain. After all, why watch something you don’t derive any pleasure from? With such a range of shows available, however, networks are forced to resort to extremes to stand out, making everything bigger, bloodier and twice as intense.

Yet, this desire to shock can create real problems when it is prioritised over the accurate representation of mental health. Take, for instance, the conflation of autisms and savant-level intellect. This was made popular by the film Rain Man, and is kept alive through characters such as The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon or Brick from The Middle. In reality, the stereotype that savant level intellect and autism go hand-in-hand is woefully incorrect, as research shows that the average IQ is comparable across autistic and non-autistic groups. And while watching a genius fumble with social interactions may be hilarious, is it worth the misdiagnoses from parents who believe their children cannot be on the spectrum without knowing pi to the first 100 places? If you’re going to make light of a serious condition, at least portray the damn thing correctly.

If you’re going to make light of a serious condition, at least portray the damn thing correctly.

Yet, there are instances where accuracy is a curse in disguise. When sensitive content is glamourised, heightened and broadcast on the small screen, it can have a damaging impact on viewers. With a recent increase in ‘raw’ portrayals of mental health issues, the potential for inspiring a new generation of youths romanticising mental health is undeniable. Two examples instantly spring to mind, both featured on the Netflix menu: Thirteen Reasons Why and To The Bone. These two series have drawn attention for their graphic portrayal of suicide and eating disorders (primarily anorexia) respectively. Suicide and eating disorders are both horrific realities, and although on the one hand their inclusion in Netflix programs seems like a step forward, it may indeed be two steps back. First of all, both are portrayed incredibly simplistically at times, as caused by one clear ‘trigger’, with a logical justification and a linear progression. This implication borders on offensive. The truth is, mental illness is often sporadic, with peaks and valleys, and be caused by a variety of reasons – such as genetic predisposition, drug use, trauma, childhood events and troubled relationships.

In addition to the semi-accurate but overly-simplified depiction of mental health struggles, there is a small amount of content that is accurate but ludicrously insensitive. Thirteen Reasons Why features a realistic suicide scene that is excruciating to watch. The blatant fixation on ‘how’ is not only tasteless but also perverse, and wholly unnecessary to the overall plot. Yes, it might be ‘true to life’, but I would argue that some sights should be kept private. This twisted interest in watching characters, usually attractive white teenage girls, engage in taboo behaviour due to poor mental health is a kind of torture porn. Another example occurs in To The Bone, where the camera lingers on the extreme thinness of Lily Collins. (By the way, the weight she lost for this film was stupid and unnecessary – Lily Collins is already tiny and weight is not always an indication of severe eating issues, but I digress.) The extreme close-ups are a kind of pornography; they allow for the dehumanising of a woman until she is nothing more than the sum of her parts. The film is eerily similar to a pro-ana website, featuring a sickeningly thin artsy-type with heavy eyeliner and thriving Tumblr. Older films like Girl, Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides are just as eager to feed this triggering yet glamorous content to avid young watchers, particularly those who are female-identifying. Although it’s a difficult catch-22, ‘raising awareness’ often skirts dangerously close to advertising.

Television does have a responsibility to showcase accurate information about mental health conditions, if only to educate the masses and do right by the sufferers.

The sexualisation of madness is in no way new. After all, the Van Goghs and Caligulas of the world have been interesting to us for so long because of their struggles with mental health. But when this depraved interest in mental illness is coupled with inaccurate data and graphic imagery, it can spread harmful myths and deliver destructive morals.

So, what can we do about it? Well, certainly not return to a time when even talking about these sensitive subjects was unthinkable, unless it was to demonise the sufferers. Nor can we rest on our laurels due to the progress we’ve made. Television does have a responsibility to showcase accurate information about mental health conditions, if only to educate the masses and do right by the sufferers.

A more educated and realistic portrayal of mental illness on our small screens needs to be encouraged, and the only way viewers can have an impact in bringing this about is by ensuring their voices are heard by the filmmakers themselves.